Comparing the players in the “Transcon Wars”


With all the moves recently (and there have been a lot, even before JetBlue‘s mini-suite unveiling yesterday) in the transcon premium cabin market I started thinking about just where the different airlines were in terms of competing with each other on various aspects of the service. The data I have here is compiled from a variety of sources and is based mostly on what the announced new products will offer on at least some planes in the fleet by mid-2014. The schedules are based on the current month because that was much easier to compile thanks to Vinay.

Flight Schedules

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American wins on the JFK-LAX route and that will only get better as they launch their “shuttle” service between LAX and JFK next year offering nearly hourly flights between the two cities. The planes are smaller so the overall capacity won’t change too much. No surprise that United is winning on the SFO route given their hub there and onward connections to Asia which it facilitates.

Premium Cabins

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American wins for First Class by virtue of being the only contestant still in the game. And the product does look pretty nice. Of course it remains to be seen if anyone actually pays for it, but that’s a different story. In business class JetBlue wins for the size of the beds and offering some with the solo seat and sliding door. No word yet on if those cost more so it will be interesting to see how that plays out. United has the most business class seats in the cabin though that’s far from guaranteeing that an upgrade will clear. Only American and Delta allow unlimited, space-available complimentary upgrades from coach to business (not shown on the chart) for their top elites. JetBlue and Virgin America are the most restrictive in that regard.

Economy Class

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Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select wins in terms of pitch and benefits, but it is only 12 seats (including exit row which excludes some customers) and the premium to buy up is usually quite a bit higher than the comparable offerings from the other four carriers. JetBlue fares well with their 37″ Even More Space option and United does well having 48 seats in the EconomyPlus section. For passengers looking to simply pay the lowest fare and take what they can get JetBlue offers the best option at 33″ pitch, plus a free checked bag (VX also offers one free for Main Cabin Select and all the airlines offer their elites at least one free).

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Details on American’s IFE are quite limited at this point so that’s a tough call to make. I personally happen to like the range of selections on United’s AVOD movie selection – a spread of classics, new classics and new releases – more than the others I’ve flown recently. Plus it is all included, unlike Delta which charges for some. Virgin America’s Red gets good reviews but I don’t have any personal experience recently; I don’t remember being all that impressed a few years back. And, given that Fly-Fi isn’t actually flying yet (but soon!) it is not possible to compare the performance of that versus the GoGo options.

Conclusions

There is no single winner across the board in every category (no surprise there) but there are some trends. If you travel enough to make top-tier elite and want the complimentary upgrade American is quite likely the best option, with a decent fall-back in Main Cabin Extra if the upgrade doesn’t clear. If you’re stuck in the back no matter what JetBlue is starting to look very nice on their new transcon configs, with the newer DirecTV setup and the best legroom. United sortof hangs out in the middle, with more EconomyPlus seats and more BusinessFirst seats, though you’ll need to redeem miles or an RPU to get that upgrade. Virgin America is solid if you can get in to their Main Cabin Select on the cheap; otherwise I’d look elsewhere. And I’m not really sure under which circumstances Delta is a smart play.

What do you think? Which is your preferred choice for transcon flying??

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

20 Comments

  1. How do you think JetBlue’s new seats will change how people fly transcon? Do you think many will opt for the lie down flat seats when fly across the country?

  2. It’s premature to declare B6’s business class the winner, especially as it’s not clear how the “suite” will be marketed (C or F?) and we have no idea what the catering will be. B6 doesn’t have lounges, which are included at least in UA and I think DL C fares. And no one has actually flown the B6 product yet… nor the AA or even the DL. VX doesn’t even seem to be in that contest at all with only a domestic-style eat and only 8 of them.

    On the whole, any traveler who is elite with any of the three network carriers is going to do best to stick with that carrier for access to the Y+ product, and the chance for an upgrade. And everyone else will probably buy by fare.

    1. I have no problem declaring JetBlue the winner in terms of the best bed option available, and that’s mostly what I care about on the longer flights. Catering is an issue yet to be resolved; given that they’ve stated they’re going to be making notable changes to the in-flight experience in addition to the seat I’m somewhat comfortable with the assumption that there will be food to eat.

      Yes, AA, DL & UA all include lounge access. None of the lounges are particularly special (DL wins with the new T4 lounge/Sky Deck at JFK) and for a premium traveler in the O/D markets there I’m guessing the plan is to spend as little time in the airport as possible, not to stretch out a trip into a lazy day of lounge hopping.

      True, no one has flown the AA or DL seat yet, but many thousands of people have flown it as installed on UA planes and CO planes before that. I think we know pretty darn well what that experience will be.

      1. What is about the B6 seat that makes you say it’s the clear winner? It didn’t look that different in the drawings, at least for the 2×2 seat, which is the one you have to compare unless you know that the 1×1 seats are going to be considered the same fare. If this is the LX-style biz seating, then all the seats need to be somewhat narrow to allow for the 1-seats leg room to go under the console between the 2 seats

      2. I think they win for being longer. Even if a bit narrow at the end – and the stagger helps with that – the longer seat makes it better overall as the taper happens further away. The UA/AA/DL seats all have the small foot-well, too, so they’re not really much different other than being 4-6″ shorter.

  3. @AirLandandSea In the JFK-LAX/SFO markets, there is an increased demand for premium seating when compared to other transcon markets (or even the overall domestic market).

    JetBlue’s new premium offerings are a new addition to their cabins, but other airlines (American and United come to mind) have offered premium service long before this announcement. Both American and United have already announced plans to upgrade their amenities on these routes, and JetBlue is now joining the party. Delta just announced plans to improve their offerings as well. Once all these improvements are complete, all four airlines will offer lie-flat business on this route.

    In my opinion, an offering like this is a departure from the norm on JetBlue, but the market has had their pick of “better-than-domestic-first” premium seating from the legacy carriers for some years now, and this is just an improvement.

  4. I actually prefer UA’s policy of requiring instrument to upgrade for this route. I agree it may be hurting them though.

  5. I think you left off an important intangible here and that is the overall seat density on the plane. Why does this matter? When the density is low boarding is quick, there is no cut-throat competition for overhead space, no need to gate-check if you are at the end of boarding and, thus, no need to board early. Right now the old-config UA flights win this. Soon, though, AA will win with their 102 seat A321.

    1. Overall seat density does come in to play a bit, I suppose, but there’s more to it than just that. JetBlue has a somewhat higher density but also allows first checked bag free for all customers. Does that offset the higher number of passengers on board?

  6. Interesting that for all of this, unless AA increases frequency materially, the number of premium seats in this market remains about flat next year, even with JetBlue adding 230 seats per day. Thanks to losing 10 premium seats from the AA 762s and UA old PS.

    Thank goodness JetBlue is coming in to sop up some of the full fare demand or upgrading / using miles would be more even challenging…

  7. Will also add Virgin says Newark is doing fine for them. Which makes some sense since when you look at fares, it doesn’t feel like a fare war. For now at least…

    Here’s what Cush said

    “He said Virgin America’s flights to Newark are already profitable. But how long can they last against United?

    “We can sustain it forever. We think it’ll be profitable at current fare levels,” he said. “All it did was reduce Newark fares to the same level as JFK fares.”

    1. Given that they are nowhere close to being consistently profitable I’m not sure how saying that the fares are the same as at JFK is a profitable level. Losing money but making it up in volume rarely works out in the long term.

  8. You made a slight typo. Jetblue’s even more space seats on the a321 are gonna have 37-41″ of legroom according to both their website and seatguru. That’s gonna be a 1st for any US airline because no US airline has ever offered 40″ or more in premium coach. Even more space passengers also get priority screening. American now has choice essential and choice plus fares for coach. Both get you a free checked bag and priority boarding but choice plus also gets you a free premium drink and a 50% AAdvantage mile bonus, the same mileage bonus you get in 1st class.

    1. SeatGuru is going to have copied the JetBlue website for the data so I don’t really put much faith in their info. If there are seats with more than 37″ pitch they are not going to be common. I had a chance to try the new seats and they’re nice, but definitely looking at a 37″ pitch setup.

      Good point on the priority screening. That’s something JetBlue offers which their competition doesn’t.

      And I’m quite familiar with the AA fare options products but those aren’t about space on board.

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