American Gets Competitive With Flat Beds in the Crowded Los Angeles to Boston Market

The news came as a surprise to me.  After many years of saying that it just didn’t have enough premium-configured A321T aircraft to fly beyond the traditional transcon routes of New York/JFK to both LA and San Francisco… American apparently found aircraft time.  Beginning April 2, you can expect to see flat beds up front on two of American’s six daily flights between LA and Boston.  This is all about LA, and I doubt it’s because American thinks this will work economically.  It’s just a competitive necessity in the flat bed arms race.

For years, the only domestic routes with any sort of true premium demand were LA and San Francisco to New York.  Fares were high and demand was strong, so airlines continually tried to get a bigger piece of that premium pie.  The first big move was United’s launch of p.s. in the early ’00s.  The idea at the time was that United didn’t care about coach travel.  Instead, it outfitted a fleet of 757s with a bunch of first and business class seats, and it slashed the number of coach seats onboard.  It succeeded at getting more of that high-dollar traffic.

American was flying around lumbering old 767-200s at the time.  It had a ton of coach seats and a tired premium offering, but it was a hugely important player.  So when the time came to replace the 767s, it went with a similar strategy as United did years before.  Its vehicle of choice was the A321, and it created the A321T product

American A321T Business Class

United had cast out its first class product in favor of more business class, but American would do no such thing.  It went forward with a three-cabin approach that mimicked United’s original plan (with a better onboard product), yet now American was the only airline with first class in the market.

American A321T First Class

I scoffed at this plan and thought American was making a mistake, but I was proven wrong, at least on LA flights where the rich and famous flocked to the first class offering.  (I’ve heard much more mixed reviews of how happy American is with it in San Francisco.)

It wasn’t long after this rolled out that JetBlue launched Mint, and things changed.  Fares had skyrocketed in the premium cabins, and JetBlue saw opportunity.  It took its new A321s and put flat beds of its own onboard, creating a premium experience that travelers instantly loved.  For JetBlue, this was a product that could make money at relatively low fares.  That wasn’t necessary in New York — JetBlue start raising fares there almost as soon as the product gained traction — but it gave JetBlue the ability to put this product in other, thinner markets where there wasn’t nearly as much demand.

This worked wonders in market after market, and the big guys were left wondering how to match, if at all.  I figured Delta would be most aggressive, and it did start moving its 757s around into secondary markets.  But no airline has matched the breadth of what JetBlue has done.

One of the markets where JetBlue showed promise was from Los Angeles to Boston.  JetBlue started off with a partial Mint schedule while other flights remained on aircraft with only the traditional “Core” JetBlue all-coach option.  That didn’t last.  Now JetBlue has four flights a day, all with Mint cabins.

Delta, meanwhile, has up to three flights a day, all on 757s with flat beds up front.  United has the same.  American has the best schedule in the market with six daily flights, but it now had an inferior premium offering in a market that probably can’t sustain all these premium seats.

Many times over the years I’ve spoken with the powers that be, and I’ve been told that American just didn’t have enough A321T aircraft time to be able to fly other markets.  Sure, there were the random positioning tag flights like JFK to Boston to help with aircraft logistics.  And sure, there were the one-offs, like the service from LA to Toronto for the stars to get to the Toronto Film Festival.  But American didn’t have the aircraft to expand into new longer markets on a regular basis.  Now it has apparently solved that problem.

Beginning April 2, .  You can see how this rotation will work.  From LA, an airplane will leave at 7:45am arriving Boston at 4:15pm.  It will then turn around at 5:45pm getting back to LA at 9:15pm.  It (or another airplane from New York) then turns around at 9:55pm and arrives Boston at 6:22am.  That airplane comes back to LA at 7:25am arriving 10:55am.

How did they find the aircraft time?  I had figured maybe the weaker San Francisco – New York flight frequencies were being trimmed, but I was wrong.  I was told this by spokesperson Michelle Mohr:

It hasn’t changed in the schedule yet, but the 6AM LAX-JFK is going to be retimed to a third red-eye, which is what gives us the time to add both trips.  That and some very minor adjustments in JFK schedule timing. 

Remember, out of LAX there’s already a 7am, 8am, and 9am, so moving the 6am may feel like a small price to pay to be able to add a new market.  But will this new market do well?

This feels like a sales-driven competitive move to me.  I have no doubt that the big accounts are banging on American’s door, telling them to get flat beds so they can fly American to Boston instead of flying the others.  This will allow that to happen.  But is there enough demand for all these premium seats?  That’s now over 200 flat beds per day flying each direction.  I will be amazed if these moves make sense for everyone.  But other than for JetBlue, this goes back to the fight for LA.

American wants to be the biggest in LA even if it will never truly “win” the market.  Like many of the moves the airline has made in LA, this may make sense from a strategic perspective, but I can’t say I expect it will necessarily pay off economically.  On the other hand, the A321T has proven me wrong before…

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