For passengers flying between New York’s JFK airport and San Francisco or Los Angeles the inflight offerings today are at a premium level previously unseen. Lie-flat beds are the standard by which airlines are judged in the premium cabin, not to mention AVOD, catering, Wi-Fi and other options. As The Wall Street Journal notes, airlines are aiming to provide these services to passengers paying around $1,000 each way for the flights, a rate which arguably justifies some of the amenities. But what about those on lower budgets looking to still get the premium experience? Can loyalty programs make getting there viable? And which programs make it easiest to access those premium seats as a frequent flyer?
Currently there are two programs that offer their top elites complimentary upgrades into the premium seats on transcon routes, American Airlines AAdvantage and Delta SkyMiles. American has a slight edge in this regard with its larger premium cabins, an advantage which will become even greater as the carrier’s new Airbus A321 transcon fleet comes on line with nearly 30% of the seats in business or first class, all with flat beds. American will be the only airline with true three-cabin service on the route by the end of 2013.
Delta offers unlimited complimentary upgrades for all elites, not just the top tier, but its premium cabin on transcon routes is quite a bit smaller than what American offers meaning more competition for fewer seats. Only 10% of the seats on board are in the premium cabin; this means top elites may be able to get into the big seats but it is much more challenging.
United Airlines is currently retrofitting its p.s. fleet, which serves these routes. The carrier is equipping the aircraft with 28 flat bed seats in business class while removing the first class cabin. The premium cabin will be nearly 20% of the seats on board, in between American and Delta, but United does not permit complimentary upgrades into the cabin for its elites. Top members in the MIleagePlus program do receive a limited number of certificates which can be used to upgrade into the business class cabin. Limited access makes clearing upgrades a bit easier, but it is hard to request the upgrades every time if flying the route frequently.
Virgin America has a prior generation seat on its planes – lots of space but not a lie-flat option – and also does not provide complimentary upgrades to any of its passengers. The airline does offer a discounted upgrade option on the day of travel and top members of the Elevate loyalty program get early access to those offers, but it is always a last-minute option.
And, finally, JetBlue has acknowledged plans for arguably the most exclusive premium product – suites with sliding doors – in the transcon market. Details on that offering are scarce, however, as the company has not released the full product specifications yet. Based on JetBlue’s existing offerings for TrueBlue Mosaic members it seems unlikely that there will be a complimentary upgrade option in to these suites.
And what if the upgrade doesn’t come through? All five airlines have personal entertainment available (American and United only on the new configurations). JetBlue offers the most seat pitch and slightly wider seats than average on the route while United offers the next most number of seats with more legroom, though it comes at a premium price if you don’t have elite status in the carrier’s program. American and Delta have smaller cabins with extra legroom while Virgin America has the smallest. And if inflight Wi-Fi is a must there are four options available; only JetBlue is lacking in that area today.
The premium cabins on transcon flights are arguably better than ever, offering an inflight experience comparable to many long-haul international routes. And with a bit of loyalty it just might be possible to fly in style without paying the airlines’ high asking price.
- What price, loyalty?
- Passenger education becomes paramount as airline business models change rapidly
- JetBlue looks to grow its TrueBlue loyalty programme with new badges effort
- United steps up incentives to improve customer service; CEO says inflight Wi-Fi will ease stress of irregular operations
- JetBlue to offer mini-suites and class divider on Airbus A321s
(Photo above taken from American Airlines’ video about first class on its new Airbus A321s)