Why I Don’t Think American’s Flagship Dining Will Last In Its Current Form

Filed Under: American

American has hit a home run with their new Flagship First Dining concept. They’ve opened these so far in New York and Miami, and both are gorgeous and tranquil spaces that offer a restaurant style dining experience. I just can’t wrap my head around how these are being offered by American while the airline is being run by the former US Airways management team. It’s remarkable, really.

American’s Flagship First Dining JFK

However, I’d be shocked if these lounges last in their current form, or if we don’t at least see a change in direction.

American’s Flagship First Dining access requirements

While American’s Flagship Lounges are open to both first and business class passengers and elite members, Flagship First Dining is open exclusively to those traveling in three cabin first class. It used to be that American’s entire fleet of 47 777-200s featured 16 first class seats each, meaning that there were 752 first class seats available at any given point. That doesn’t even account for the 767-200s that they flew.

However, in the meantime American has reconfigured their 777-200s, and none of them have first class anymore.

At this point American’s only planes with three cabin first class include:

American’s 777-300ER first class

So at most there are 160 777-300ER first class seats, and 170 A321 first class seats. In reality it’s much less than that given how much time many of the 777s spend on the ground (they sit all day in Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, etc.), the fact that there are some extra due to maintenance, etc.

American’s A321T first class

Let’s look at American’s Flagship First Dining Miami

Let’s use the Miami lounge as an example. American’s only 777-300ER flights are to Buenos Aires, London, and Sao Paulo. At most 24 passengers are traveling in first class nonstop out of Miami. What this doesn’t account for is that:

  • Typically not all seats are filled with “revenue” passengers (excluding non-revs); for example, on tomorrow’s flight 13 of the 24 first class seats are occupied as of now, and I’m betting a majority of those passengers upgraded or redeemed miles
  • Many people won’t have time to have a full meal, either because they’re connecting, or because they’re originating in Miami and not arriving at the airport that early; you’d have to arrive well over two hours before departure to have a non-rushed meal

American’s Flagship First Dining MIA

Sure, there are also some passengers connecting to other American flights in three cabin first class, though the connection opportunities are somewhat limited, since the lounge only opens at 2PM. Furthermore, inbound passengers can use the lounge, though only the London flight arrives in the afternoon.

I don’t have any data, but I’d be shocked — shocked — if more than 20 eligible guests per day actually used the lounge.

This lounge must be really expensive to operate

I of course don’t have numbers, but anything involving airports is outrageously expensive. I’d guess the lounge is 1,500-2,000 square feet, they have at least six full time employees dedicated to it, the finishes are much more expensive than the rest of the lounge, there’s the cost of the actual food, etc.

I have no clue how much all of that costs. I’d have a hard time even guessing. But I have to imagine that the cost to the airline per passenger that uses the facility is at least $100 (in other words, they have to allocate a cost of at least $2,000 per day to having the facility running). I actually think it’s much higher than that, but since I really don’t know I’m going low here.

To present a slightly different viewpoint, I had this discussion with View from the Wing and Pizza in Motion yesterday, and Ed took a different approach. He said that they’d be renting the space anyway, that they can send the employees to the other part of the lounge if they’re not busy, etc. Fair enough, though in reality I think these employees are fully dedicated to Flagship First Dining regardless of whether it’s empty or full, though I could be wrong.

But even if they’d be renting that space anyway, airlines are full of bean counters, and presumably someone is allocating that cost to each passenger. With airlines accounting for the cost of every olive on a first class salad, you can bet they’re also accounting for the cost of the space the facility takes up.

The reason the current model doesn’t make sense to me

This is such a cool facility and American has really invested quite a bit in it, though at the same time onboard their first class seat is only marginally better than their business class seat on the 777-300ER. As far as the meal service goes, on the A321 the food is almost identical in first & business class.

In other words, they’re investing almost nothing in differentiating first class from business class onboard. Yet at the same time they’re investing a huge amount in a ground experience that not all first class passengers will even use. Could you imagine how much the onboard soft product could be improved if the per person cost of operating the Flagship First Dining were instead put into the onboard product?

The other question is how much this really changes consumer behavior. Between New York and Los Angeles American is the only airline with three cabin first class, so they get the entertainment contracts by default. For the entertainment folks I’ve flown with, a vast majority of them just want to sleep and aren’t interested in eating, even on a daytime flight.

On other routes, how many people are actually paying for a first class ticket outright? Upgrades from business class are really easy, and I imagine many others flying first class are doing so with corporate contracts, and getting a steep discount, where they’re not going to choose another airline.

American’s Flagship First Dining dessert

My prediction

As much as I love the current setup, I think American will eventually either abolish the Flagship First Dining concept, or expand it. Both of the times I’ve visited the lounge they’ve been mostly empty, and based on what I’ve heard that’s the norm. While I love how tranquil the lounges are, it must be tough to justify the cost of operating them when so few people get access to them.

So I’m not sure which direction American will go, but my guess is that they’ll eventually either get rid of Flagship Dining and fold it into the rest of the club, or otherwise expand entry requirements. I’m not sure what that would look like, though. There are too many Executive Platinum members to give them access, so maybe only Concierge Key members in business class? Or maybe they could sell it as an add-on? Who knows…

With American’s current management team, and with their lack of commitment to first class otherwise, this concept just doesn’t make sense to me.

What do you think — will American eventually make changes to their Flagship First Dining concept?

  1. Hey Ben don’t people flying other oneworld carriers in F get access? Like the 4 CX flights from JFK daily… so that is another 24 people. Still not much.

  2. @ Ali — As a policy non-American first class passengers don’t get access, though American and Cathay Pacific do have a special agreement at JFK for their passengers.

  3. I visited JFK’s First Dining about a month ago prior to a CX F flight. There were a few from my flight plus one or two others. Very quiet for breakfast, that’s for sure. I’m curious to see if they’ll start allowing F passengers from BA, JL, and QF.

  4. it’s weird they don’t offer access to Concierge Key elites. That’ll nearly cost them nothing but sure would increase the allure of the CK program.

    but then again, i still don’t understand how useful are these when they constantly feed you on the flights already. Full fledged pre-flight dining concept works for things like eastbound JFK-LHR because on how painfully short those flights are for proper sleep and many business travelers have to head straight to meetings upon arrival in London.

  5. @Spencer Howard : they can allow all they want but BA QF are T7 and JL is T1 while AA CX are T8, so it won’t help much either.

    FWIW, BA refused granting CX F access to Concorde Room when CX was still in T7 back then.

  6. “But I have to imagine that the cost to the airline per passenger that uses the facility is at least $100 (in other words, they have to allocate a cost of at least $2,000 per day to having the facility running).” And do you think that $2k/day is too much money for an airline to operate a lounge? I don’t fly AA but Delta charges my company $9k for a round trip ticket to Europe on Delta One. I would imagine they can spare enough cash to pay $2k/day for a lounge.

  7. @henry LAX: I agree. Mostly just curious if they’ll start giving other OW members the option… even if it is a train ride away.

  8. The problem with JFK-LHR is that their one flight with F is the earliest (6 pm) flight, which is the hardest on which to get sleep. I wish they could move the 773ER to the last of the three AA night flights.

  9. Miami has a 777-300er to LHR. It may operate seasonally but I have flown it many..many…many times ( over 50 round trips on that bird) MCE on the 77W is the best coach seat over the Atlantic aside from some odd ball crew rests out there.

    So add 8 F class seats form MIA.

    I agree.. this doesn’t have USairways written on it. the food I get on the planes is swill half the time so its a shocker.

  10. I just double checked 77W runs daily on the MIA-LHR route.

    Maybe American will open this up to code-shares. If you book F on an AA flight number but partner carrier you should get access.

    I hears a rumor that American allows access to CX/JL F passengers at JFK . Can anyone confirm?

  11. @ Ryan — Only to Cathay passengers through a special arrangement, and not to JAL passengers, as they depart from a different terminal anyway.

  12. @henry LAX

    Interestingly, I’ve heard ORD is offering some CK elites access to the Flagship Lounge at ORD on domestic economy tickets during non-peak hours.

  13. While it may be easy to upgrade from business to first on the 321 Transcon, the price of business class is quite expensive. And, upgrades from economy to business are sometimes impossible to obtain.

    American makes bank on those who choose to pay for a business-class seat. Since the experience in First is truly not much different or superior to Business, the incremental cost for the First-Class passenger is negligible.

    And for the record, the vast majority of passengers in First don’t eat and choose to sleep because the food quality on board is shameful.

  14. Just two weeks ago I got access after flying inbound F in JAL from HND to JFK and then connecting to AA JFK-DCA. The agent initially didn’t give be access to Flagship First dining but when I said I just flew in on JL in F, she looked it up and said yes, I am indeed entitled to the F dining. So maybe this has expanded beyond just CX.

  15. One other point to consider is that CKs have access to the Flagship Dining, and it seems that there are more and more CKs.

  16. Lucky, your microagression against ACCOUNTANTS is not funny. Not funny at all.
    Some of use dedicated 4-5 years of our lives to the study of this noble profession , which often combines both law and cooking.

  17. Ben, I actually disagree that there is little onboard differentiation between J and F on AA. AA has been making vast soft product improvements and their wine list in F is now one of the best in the skies. Truly, it can compete with any airlines offering. Currently Philipponat Clos de Goisses 2006 is the Champagne, before that was Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle. And their still wines are great, too.

  18. @ BrooklynBoy — That’s a great point, and you’re absolutely right. American has done a lot to improve their first class wines. It’s just unfortunate that they don’t have the food to match.

  19. 1) Several posters seem to be confused about access to the Flagship Lounge and access to the Flagship Dining. Many more people have access to the Lounge than have access to the Dining.

    2) Lucky: several places in your article you seem to suggest that folks the have upgraded or used miles to get into F don’t have access to the dining facility. I don’t think that’s true. There’s certainly nothing in the wording on AA’s website that would suggest it.

  20. I was booked in F on miles on CX to HKG a few weeks ago for their 3:15 pm flight. I was one of two or three people in the Dining Room taking advantage of the food. I have to say, what they served was delicious. It was a beautiful day and I saw all the way to Manhattan and One World Trade Center from my table and of course the jets on the tarmac. The service was good, but I saw the few staff members congregating around the entrance because they had nothing to do. If AA is going to make it that exclusive, the staffing should reflect that and be out of sight, at least when they are standing around doing nothing.
    But I think you are right, it will probably open up to a few others after a while and AA reviews it’s business model there. I have to say, though the Flagship Lounge also offered some high quality food items on their buffet. Better quality that Delta’s best SkyClubs.

  21. ” For the entertainment folks I’ve flown with, a vast majority of them just want to sleep and aren’t interested in eating, even on a daytime flight.”

    Bingo. the only people who care about airline food are the upgraders and bloggers and frequent fliers who dont pay for F but are super demanding.

  22. @lucky Thanks for the detailed and interesting post. Since you’ve left AA EXP and become pro-Delta, most of your posts about AA were negative while almost everything about Delta were praises. I will continue to follow your blog because it’s always been a great read, but I hope you are not holding your personal bias because of certain benefits lost or perks gained.

    I, for one, am one of those who had the chance to use Flagship dining because I was booked on CX F. I was a revenue passenger, though on the cheaper A fare, and I have to say that the Flagship dining is impressive, and whether we will enjoy the food or not, I think this is certainly a plus to set the tone for US-based F international travel.

    If you have to analyze cost in terms of human resources vs. square footage vs. number of usage, wouldn’t the budget issue be more serious when you scaled up to a LH F terminal at FRA? At least AA only need to pay the extra staff and the real estate for FlagshipDining, all else it’s shared amongst the FlagshipLounge. And, AA will at least get compensated from CX for the 24 F seats that’re entitled to this service.

  23. @Jacob McCarthy, the published access rules for Flagship Lounges explicitly says CKs flying on any AA or OneWorld operated flight, regardless of destination, have access.

    @David CKs have unfettered access to Flagship Lounges on any AA or OneWorld boarding pass, even domestic, but that does NOT include Flagship First Dining. FFD is still reserved exclusively for passengers traveling in 3-class first on AA and, at JFK only, CX.

    Any other access passengers have gotten (connecting from JL F, or as an Executive Platinum on a non-3 class F itinerary) is a mistake and misunderstanding of the rules on the agent’s part.

  24. Might they be happy to run it at a loss knowing the halo effect it will give to AA? Even though so few use it, some might choose AA F class knowing they could use the dining if they wanted. It’s a bit like why people like living near the beach but only a small fraction go to the beach — it’s nice to know you “could” go to the beach if you wanted, even though you never do.

  25. Earlier this week arrived in MIA from LHR in First, connecting to a domestic in First. I asked if I had access to the FF dining, and there was a lot of confusion by the new staff, but the final answer was ‘no’. The website doesn’t explicitly say the flight needs to depart from that airport to be eligible, rather it says flights ‘between the USA’ and the eligible markets on 3 class flights. AA need to be more clear on that.

  26. @Michael, I think the agents were incorrect. Even on arrival on JFK-LAX/LAX-JFK transcons, F passengers are entitled to Flagship First Dining access.

  27. Similar data point as Scott – flew JAL F HND-JFK and then AA connection JFK-DCA. Was let in without a problem. Agent asked if I was connecting internationally and I told her we were coming in from a JAL flight in F. Our connecting flight to DCA was in Y, but on same itinerary, and after verifying the JAL flight we were let in without issue.

  28. Nope. I definitely was given a card to access the Flagship dining last month flying as an EXP in economy!

    There were only four other people in the whole area. I ordered the chicken caesar salad – which was excellent by the way.

    I was surprised. I figured they gave me the invitation by accident, but I accepted it anyways.

    It was a late flight (last JFK-LHR of the evening) so maybe that factored in to their decision?

    I’m flying again tomorrow in J on AA66. Will see if I am given an invitation again.

  29. Lucky perhaps you can post about this but on my visit last week the Thank You card included a link to provide feedback (aa.com/diningfeedback), which took me to a survey about the experience. I left high marks and comments; figure it can’t hurt for others to do the same if they are trying to assess the value of keeping it around.

  30. The meal are outstanding and there is usually 1 or 2 other people there with me.
    They still manage to run out of entrees.
    I think it is a great perk as the meals on board are a disaster and they should put the revenue into first or even business meals.
    I never eat on board as the meals are so inferior i wait for the cx club in hong kong to eat and now i eat at JFK or LAX in the first class lounge.
    Maybe they could let the executive platinum people in as they keep the airline alive…that would be a welcome addition to the EP benefits.

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