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American Transcon Flagship First: Service Makes All the Difference

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I traveled from JFK to LAX and back last weekend for a good friend's wedding in Pasadena, California. I flew American Airlines transcon Flagship First in both directions. In my view, Flagship First is the best way to get across the country given the relative wealth of ground services compared to JetBlue's Mint, which has some comparable seats and arguably better in-flight food and service. 

I booked discounted business class tickets (which were going for around $649 one-way) both ways: the outbound using cash, and the return using around 41,000 Citi ThankYou points (pre-devaluation). Then I upgraded by outbound using 650 Business Extra points, and my return using 15,000 AAdvantage miles and a $175 co-pay. (As I described in my prior post, you can't upgrade a bulk ticket - like those booked using Citi ThankYou points - using Business Extra points.)

The experience on each flight could not have been more different. The outbound was one of the best flights I've ever taken, anywhere, thanks in large part to our purser, Karen. Karen was fantastic, professional, and made everyone feel like they were a guest in her home. I ended up giving her one of my Executive Platinum certificates for recognition of outstanding service. 

The return, however, was one of the worst. And like the outbound, the experience was due to the crew.  But my return crew was apathetic, disorganized, and downright unfriendly. 

The Outbound 

For my 10am outbound on Friday, I got to the airport around 8am. I used Flagship First Check-in at JFK, where they took my paper Business Extra upgrade certificate (yes, you are required to bring the physical certificate to the airport -- don't forget!) and formally applied my upgrade. Note that if you upgrade with a Business Extra certificate, you may not be able to check in online -- I wasn't, at least. 

After a quick hop through security, I made my way upstairs to the new Flagship Lounge at JFK. As I walked down the long hallway, I realized that the right-hand wall was lit up with artwork of the New York skyline with the Brooklyn Bridge; the last time I was there, this artwork was apparently there, but I didn't realize it was backlit. 

  Wall during my prior visit in June 2017  

Wall during my prior visit in June 2017 

  Now that looks cool!  

Now that looks cool! 

At the front desk, the attendant gave me a white card on which he handwrote my name and flight number; this card gave me access to Flagship First Dining, which is only available to passengers traveling in Flagship First.  (Apparently, it is now also available to those traveling in Cathay Pacific First, as Cathay flights also leave from Terminal 8 at JFK.)

  Entrance to Flagship First Dining  

Entrance to Flagship First Dining 

After going through the sliding glass door and handing the card to the attendant, I was escorted to a table overlooking the tarmac. My favorite! They also offered to keep an eye on my rolling carry-on bag. 

  Iced coffee in Flagship First Dining  

Iced coffee in Flagship First Dining 

The views are pretty tough to beat, and there's nothing like being able to hear the engines on a 777-200 warm up over breakfast. 

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Here's the menu for breakfast: 

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I asked for the eggs Benedict, and also asked if I could have one of the signature bacon cheddar biscuits from the pastry basket on the top half of the menu. My server happily obliged.

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While the biscuits were a little rubbery and disappointing, the eggs Benedict were terrific. The thick-cut bacon they use under the eggs was really flavorful, and the eggs were perfect.

After I finished breakfast, I walked over to what's being called the "Flagship Terrace," which the desk agent said didn't open until 2pm. This is the part of the former Admirals Club that extended over the concourse where people walk from the B Concourse to the C Concourse. It looks like a really cool space. The agent said it often acts as sort of an overflow space when the Flagship Lounge gets busy, and noted that passengers can order a la carte items off a limited menu and have them delivered over here to the terrace. I want to check it out next time! 

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The outbound flight was lovely. I received the always-appreciated, but sometimes-elusive, predeparture beverage ("PDB" in AAdvantage lingo) -- here, a glass of Lanson Black Label Brut Champagne. A new transcon Flagship First amenity kit was also waiting at my seat. 

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My first dish was a small plate: spicy crab with sushi rice, avocado, and wasabi aioli. 

  Spicy Crab  

Spicy Crab 

I then had a spring mix salad with watermelon radish, beet spaghetti, and vegetable ribbons.  It tasted very fresh, and I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

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For my main, I had the sweet chili seared red snapper with shishito pepper pesto, Thai fried rice, and mixed vegetables. Unfortunately, this dish let me down -- fish is understandably tricky to do well in the air, but American has done it well in Flagship First before. So I gave it a try, but it didn't pan out. The fish was a bit bland (despite apparently being sweet chili seared) and rubbery.  That said, the crew certainly earns points for presentation:

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I opted to be "good" and not have dessert -- even though sweet Karen kept asking! She ultimately suggested I had two warm cookies before landing. American now offers a very gooey chocolate chip or a snickerdoodle, and both were delicious.  I finished those off with a cappuccino -- American's A321Ts have an espresso machine up in Flagship First, and Karen was eager to use it (she made me two).

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  Somewhere near Arches National Park  

Somewhere near Arches National Park 

I really can't say enough good things about Karen. She was so eager to help and was so friendly, I completely forgot about how disappointing the fish was! 😉 

The Return 

For the return, I did not take many pictures -- but I felt it was important to talk about because the service was awful

Let me add that there was an extra sour taste in my mouth because of the terrible service: While I upgraded my ticket using miles and a cash co-pay, I really wanted my wife to sit in Flagship First with me on this flight. (She traveled Delta on the outbound.) For weeks, I monitored saver award availability using Expert Flyer, but nothing opened up. So about six hours prior to departure, I bit the bullet, and paid 95,000 AAdvantage miles so that my wife could sit up in Flagship First with me. The things you do for love, right? 

But right away, we could tell that this crew was not warm, inviting, or particularly friendly. For starters, there were no predparture beverages. Now, I realize that's a first world problem, and flight attendants do their best to make sure we push back on time. But the flight pushed back more than ten minutes early -- and the Flagship First cabin only had eight passengers, so it was only 80% full. Could the flight attendants not accommodate PDBs for eight people prior to pushback? My wife's very first reaction, before we even pushed back, was: "The flight attendant doesn't seem very friendly, does she?"

The meal service is where things really went south. The flight attendant (she did not introduce herself by name and did not wear a name tag, and I ultimately did not feel comfortable asking for her name, so she'll remain nameless) came by to confirm my entree order, which was the pork osso buco. She came by, set my table, brought me a dish of butter for bread, and then I waited. For a while. About ten minutes later, she brought me...my entree. 

"Excuse me," I said. "Could I get my starter and salad?" 

Her brusque response: "What do you want?" 

Um, the stuff that's on the menu,  I thought. She didn't apologize. She brought me the salad, and then after I reminded her, she brought me my starter (a decent burrata) and some bread.

Here's what's strange: The passenger in front of me had the same experience. He didn't get his starter or salad, either. And when he heard I was experiencing the same thing, he turned around, looked at me over the back of his seat, and gave me a look as if to say, "What the hell is going on here?" 

And of course, the same thing happened to my wife, who was sitting across the aisle from me. She had to ask for her starter and salad, but they never came. And when it came time for dessert, she asked for a cheese plate, and THAT never came, either. And by the way, while the menu indicated that a chocolate mousse was available on this flight, catering hadn't loaded it (or so the flight attendant said).

That means you had three passengers -- out of only eight in the entire Flagship First cabin -- who really didn't get what was advertised.  

Look: It's one thing to make mistakes, then apologize for them. I understand that, and that happens all the time. But when a flight attendant is so out to lunch that she's making mistakes and isn't even friendly about it, it really leaves a bad taste in your mouth. 

I wish I could say 95,000 AAdvantage miles were worth it, but they weren't. Well, lesson learned: Don't ever shell out for AAnytime Awards, and stick to saver award availability! 

JFK Emirates Lounge Closing Until Early 2018

PSA: AA Business Extra Upgrades Only Work on Published Fares