I flew domestic first class on American Airlines to see how it compares with coach — here’s what I discovered

Big seat!

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Big seat!
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Matthew DeBord/BI

  • I got a deal on a first-class one-way ticket because I was breaking up my transcontinental flight.
  • American Airlines was the carrier.
  • There were pluses and minuses, but I’d do it again.

When I travel on my own dime, I sometimes bump myself up to business class, but rarely first class.

At Business Insider, we typically fly coach, but I recently had a chance to add a first-class ticket to a return trip from Los Angeles, so I thought I’d flip for the seat and pay the extra $250.

The reason I got a good deal was that I flew back to the New York area on two planes. I don’t mind breaking up my flights for a cheaper ticket, but I do have to add in some margin for error if I miss a connection or experience a delay.

I haven’t flown domestic first class in a long time, mainly because I don’t really think it’s worth it. Transatlantic flights are a different story, but even then I think business class is a better deal. These days, although coach is cheap, it can be an unpleasant experience, so more travelers are thinking about business and even first class.

So how was domestic first class this time around, on American Airlines? Read on.


For comparison’s sake, let’s start with my coach flight out. It was on an Airbus A321.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

I’m not a big guy (5-foot-7) so tight seating usually doesn’t bother me unless it’s ridiculously tight. My window seat on this American flight wasn’t too bad.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

And the plane wasn’t packed, so I had the whole row to myself.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

I do everything I can to skip using a screen or in-flight entertainment when I fly. So I kept myself entertained by reading about Aquaman.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

I also broke out my Moleskines and did some drawings. This is the late, great Leonard Cohen from my Newark to Charlotte leg.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

And here’s Bob Dylan from the Charlotte-to-LA leg.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

A few days later I returned as a first-class passenger. This, of course, meant that I was in boarding group No. 1 for American. Our ship for the ride from LAX to Dallas was a Boeing 777-200 — a nice widebody aircraft.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

Seat 4A. Yep, much nicer than what I had for the ride out. That said, first class for this flight was objectively more like what I’ve enjoyed in business class on other occasions. My total ticket price for the round-tripper was only about $750, so why complain?

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Matthew DeBord/BI

Plentiful stowage.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

A padded seat belt.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

A very nice entertainment system with movies, games, and TV shows. I skipped them all and read an actual book. But my fellow passengers were enjoying the offerings.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

The book was Ian McEwan’s “Sweet Tooth.” A great read, seen here on my seat’s large folding tray table.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

A stupid amount of legroom.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

And a lay-flat seat! But also with plenty of other reclining options. I did lay flat and sack out at one point during my approximately three-hour jaunt to Texas.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

A blanket … but oddly no pillow.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

Not one but two personal window shades.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

What a view of the jetway!

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Matthew DeBord/BI

And my personal reading light.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

So how was it?

Big seat!

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Matthew DeBord/BI

It was relaxing. However, we were 30 minutes into the flight before the attendant took my drink order. I’m used to having a beverage before takeoff when I’ve flown in the front of the plane in the past. My drink was, of course, gratis, but it was served in a plastic cup.

Otherwise, the whole American first-class experience on this short-ish flight was dandy. The seat was quite comfortable, I enjoyed putting up my feet with a book and drink, and I had no trouble dozing off.

BUT …


The meal was a disappointment. There’s an explanation.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

Because of a problem with its LAX caterer, American isn’t able to serve hot food to its first-class customers going out of that airport.

To its credit, American gave me a heads-up about this and apologized.

Instead of the vegetarian meal I normally order if I can ahead of time (I like to go veg when I travel), I was given a turkey wrap with a small amount of pasta and some tomatoes. It got the job done, and, in truth, I was able to get back to my book faster.


After a brief wait in Dallas, I was again boarded first, but this time to the sort-of-roomy seat of a Boeing 737. Again, a blanket but no pillow.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

For a flight like this, you really are getting the bare-bones upscale experience. The biggest pluses are getting on and off the plane first, free drinks and snacks, and a bit more more space.

I shared my two-seat row on this narrow-body aircraft; my one-seat window throne on the 777 was a fading memory.


But here’s the thing. I got my drink faster — not before takeoff, but soon after we leveled off. It arrived in a real glass and came with warmed nuts. Later, I had a glass of wine with a small snack. And I almost finished the book.

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Matthew DeBord/BI

There wasn’t any fancy in-flight entertainment in the 737. But most passengers were either sleeping (the flight got in at midnight) or using their own devices and the in-flight WiFi.


So, was first class on American worth it?

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Out cold.
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Matthew DeBord BI

For $750, heck yes! Air travel is a hellish nightmare. Anything you can do to simply get on the plane and off the plane first is worth it.

But would I have paid a full first-class fare, undiscounted because of the odd nature of my trip? Nope. Not worth it. As is always the case when I fly, I mostly slept and drank scotch while reading. I could have done that in coach. And it only would have cost me about $20 for the scotch.

The first-class (really more like upscaled business class) on the 777 from LAX was deeply pleasant, thanks mainly to the seat. I discussed this with my frequent-flying colleague Ben Zhang when I returned to the office, and we agreed that nothing more extravagant that a larger, nicer seat makes all the difference. Hello, JetBlue!

The first class on my 737 from Dallas to Newark was less comfy, but I still got on and off first, and cocktail service was actually a bit more chic. So the whole thing kind of balanced out.

The bottom line here is that if you get a deal from American on a first-class ticket, it’s worth checking out to see what you think. I’d probably do it again (mainly because my miles account is with AA). But I wouldn’t have outlandish expectations about how good it could be.