There Are Two Reasons American Airlines Decided To Drop Flagship First Class

When American Airlines introduces new business class suites with doors in 2024, alongside taking on new Boeing 787-9 aircraft, they’re going to reconfigure their Boeing 777-300ERs to have these seats as well. In the process they will eliminate ‘Flagship First Class’ and business will be the top cabin on the aircraft.

Credit: American Airlines

Credit: American Airlines

At an internal meeting this morning, a recording of which was reviewed by View From The Wing, senior executives at the airline laid out the two basic reasons they made the decision to drop Flagship First Class.

  • Customers changed. Chief Commercial Officer Vasu Raja suggested that corporate clients had been the most likely to book the product, but companies weren’t doing so any longer. Indeed, he offered that corporate booking tools usually don’t even show first class as an option anymore.

    Vice President of Network Planning Brian Znotins suggested that even “having a product named first class” was a problem for sales – that “businesses won’t generally pay” for it. So they need to offer their best product under a different branding. Indeed, people weren’t buying first class from American. He explains,

    [W]henever you get on an airplane and you get on the 777-300 and you see first class is generally full, most of the time it’s probably upgrades, it’s air marshals, it’s employees.

  • Product was no longer competitive. Massimo Mancini, Vice President of Commercial Planning and Analysis, argued that American’s first class had simply become dated.

    [The] first class product, which was really great product when we launched it 20 year old plus, was no longer up to par with what our customers were expecting for that type of ticket price that we charge..not many were actually purchasing the first class especially on long haul, and to an extent on transcon.

    That was one of the things were were observing, the product started to get obsolete, we needed to change it.

    Mancini also described Boeing 777-300ER first class as “long in the tooth” and also noted that cabin crew had challenges providing the service.

  • People weren’t buying Flagship first class. From a business standpoint the question is whether that’s purely a function of the product, or about the customer. There still is a market for international first class, especially as airlines abandon the product or scale it back.

    Wealthy customers are more likely to fly private for short haul, and trade down to first class for long haul, and top-level attorneys and bankers flying between financial centers while putting together multi-billion dollar deals do fly first when dropping in on another continent for a meeting. That market isn’t a huge one, but American could have competed: they’d have needed better service standards, better inflight food and beverage offerings, and to include Five Star ground service into the ticket.

    Ultimately, while American could have improved the product, they think their new business class – suites with doors – will be like first class. That was the Continental Airlines idea. However passengers won’t have as much space. They won’t have the same tailored service that a low passenger to flight attendant ratio provides. And no one expects American Airlines to offer service levels like Singapore Airlines or ANA, or to offer onboard dining akin to Emirates, ANA or Qatar.

    However Mancini compared it to Qatar QSuites, and noted that “what if we take the business class, and we actually elevate it and we make it almost like first class quality” describing first class as “an obsolete concept at this point.”

    He noted that Qatar has “chosen the same seat” although that’s a little bit misleading. Qatar does use the same Adient Ascent seat on its Boeing 787-9, and it’s a great seat with traditional exceptional attention to detail that the airline provides. However it’s not quite as good a seat as the original QSuite. Qatar uses a different seat due to the narrower fuselage of the 787 compared to the Boeing 777 and Airbus A350. And seating configurations aren’t as customizable by passengers, and it doesn’t provide quite as much privacy as original QSuites.

    Still, the elimination of Flagship First Class shouldn’t be surprising to anyone watching American Airlines. An American Vice President told me – immediately after US Airways management took over – that the new leadership was skeptical of it, and didn’t expect the offering to last.

    Two and a half years ago I wrote to expect American Airlines to eliminate first class after its new Boeing 787-9s with business class suites began coming into the fleet. Over the summer I wrote that this was assured. And just before the airline announced it in September I flagged a government filing from American confirming it.

    It’s both sad to see first class go and exciting to see the new business product they’ll be introducing. I suspect how I’ll feel about the tradeoff overall depends on whether or not they find a way to keep Flagship First Dining in some form, since American’s sit down lounge dining concept is outstanding – and, in my opinion, currently unmatched in the United States (I happen to prefer it over the Qantas first class lounge at LAX).

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