Reclining: My Day Flying in Lie-Flat First Class on American Airlines

A couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted to check flying in first class off of my bucket list. Not that I thought that the service would be worth, say, three times the price of a standard economy ticket, but I’d always been curious about what it was like to sit in the front of the plane. As such, I flew in Seat 1A on a Delta Air Lines Boeing 717 from Boston Logan to New York JFK, returning home in coach.

While I certainly enjoyed that experience, I hadn’t gotten to experience two things. First, I hadn’t heard much (if any) of a buzzsaw effect, since the 717 is an aircraft with its engines mounted near the tail, rather than on each wing. Second, the first class seat that I flew in on Delta was nothing more than a bigger, more comfortable recliner seat, rather than the lie-flat seats – also called flat bed seats – that many airlines have in their international first class cabins. As I’ve come to know more and more about aviation, I’ve come to consider that a first class cabin is much more genuine if it has lie-flat seats.

A Distinctive Ambiance

Even so, my experience was not unique. In fact, most U.S. carriers only have two cabins on their domestic flights: business and coach, or first – without lie-flat seats, which I would essentially consider to be business class – and coach. As such, the first class product is usually average, in my opinion, and definitely not worth paying the extra money for.

Given that it’s likely that I’ll never be able to afford (or want to pay for) international first class, I looked to find a way to get a similar experience for much less money. Thankfully, Boston is one of the few U.S. cities that has domestic flights with lie-flat seats in first class. These can be found on jetBlue Mint flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as American Airlines Airbus A321-200s that fly to New York JFK. While American has a number of A321s in its fleet, only a select number of them are labeled A321Ts. A321Ts are configured with three cabins – first, business, and economy – to fly transcontinental and high-yield routes. Boston to New York obviously doesn’t fit into the category of transcons, but it is a high-yield route with plenty of business travelers, making it an ideal fit for that particular aircraft.

The Ultimate Birthday Present

Since going from Boston to New York is far cheaper than California, I decided to see what first class seats were going for between those two cities. They priced in at less than $300 round trip, so – for my birthday weekend – I decided it would be worth the investment.

In addition to these A321s having a first class cabin full of lie-flat seats, the plane also features a business class cabin, also with lie-flat seats. The main difference between the two is that first class features 10 seats in a 1-1 configuration, while business class contains 20 seats in a 2-2 configuration, as you can see in the diagrams below. Further back, the economy cabin has 72 seats – 36 of which are “main cabin extra” seats with additional leg room, and 36 of which are normal economy seats with standard legroom.

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AA A321 first class cabin. (SeatGuru)
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AA A321 business class cabin (SeatGuru).
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AA A321 economy cabin and main cabin extra seating. (SeatGuru)

BOS-JFK

I left my apartment at 8:26 a.m. – 51 minutes before my flight was scheduled to depart. Perhaps I’ve gotten complacent, as I’m less than 15 minutes away from Logan by Uber and have TSA Precheck, but I still try to get to the airport at least 90 minutes before my flight in most cases. For whatever reason, I was running late this particular morning. Regardless, I made it to the airport in 14 minutes, and still managed to get to my gate before the scheduled boarding time.

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Outbound aircraft N115NN.

Boarding seemed to be going relatively efficiently, which perhaps makes sense given that flights from Boston to New York seem to be full of regular travelers rather than oblivious passengers taking lots of time to put baggage in the overhead. Once on the plane, I quickly found seat 4A.

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Seat 4A – pretty snazzy in my book.
Takeoff

There was a slight delay between push-back and takeoff, as we had to get de-iced. All the while, I was growing more and more eager, as I wanted to film the takeoff. Eventually, almost an hour late, we rotated off of Runway 9, which you can view in the video below, and quickly into the clouds.

Just after takeoff, I made the seat go horizontal – into lie-flat mode – just to be able to say that I did it.

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Lying flat!

The in-flight service was quite good – I had a Heineken on the way down while watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on the TV, which swung out.

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Beer and TV. #America

It was a cloudy morning, so there wasn’t much to see out the window. However, I had a decent view of the left wing’s sharklet – a unique type of blended winglet – from my seat.

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There wasn’t much to see out the window – except for the sharklet.

Soon enough, we were flying over Long Island on our approach to JFK. It still amazes me how densely-populated the area around the airport is – I’d probably enjoy living there, but not sure how the rest of the general public feels about being subject to that much aircraft noise. Regardless, we touched down on Runway 22L just before 11 a.m., and were able to taxi to and park at the gate relatively quickly.

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N115NN parked at the gate, post-arrival.

JFK-BOS

After a quick visit to Manhattan and some excellent pizza, I returned to JFK to board my flight home. This time, I managed to arrive at the airport a full hour before my flight was scheduled to depart – still less time than advisable – but I was through security extremely quickly once again.

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Our return plane, N105NN, at JFK.

Being in the first class cabin, I was able to board pretty quickly. This time, I was seated in seat 1A.

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Seat 1A!

Before pushback, the captain asked the first class passengers if anyone wanted to check out the cockpit. Predictably, I opted in – while adding “if you have time,” as I am cognizant of the amount of preflight preparations that go on – but the captain indicated that it was fine.

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A look inside the cockpit of the A321.
Takeoff

After taking a quick picture, I headed back to my seat. A few minutes later, we pushed back and were taxiing to Runway 31L.

There was a bit of a takeoff queue for the runway, but we were on the runway soon enough. The takeoff was relatively exhilarating, and – without focusing on taking a video – I was able to enjoy it a bit more.

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Checking out the left wing’s sharklet shortly after takeoff.

Once again, I put the seat in lie-flat mode – and this time I had been given a blanket! Of course, it wasn’t necessary for a half-hour flight, but it was a nice touch nonetheless.

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Seat 1A in lie-flat mode.

Soon enough, we were served drinks and snacks. Perhaps predictably, I had another Heineken.

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Heineken on the table with Silicon Valley on the TV.

It wasn’t long before we started our descent – and just 35 minutes after takeoff, we had landed in snowy Boston on Runway 33L. Once again, our taxi to the gate was relatively quick, and I was able to deplane in little time.

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The nose of N105NN after arriving back in Boston.
Overall Impressions

I was genuinely impressed with my American first class experience. Obviously, both flights were short, so it wasn’t like I got to compare and contrast the quality of sleep in a lie-flat seat as opposed to an economy class seat. Moreover, it wasn’t like we were served exquisite dishes and given hot towels as might be the case on five-star Asia-based carriers. However, my main goal was to experience sitting in a flat bed first class seat with 180 degrees of recline, and I was able to do that. Ultimately, I found that to be a good enough birthday gift.