Rating the domestic premium cabins

Domestic first class is just about a (somewhat marginally) bigger seat. Once upon a time there was a nice meal, probably a steak option and maybe a shrimp appetizer, and a made-to-order ice cream sundae to look forward to. Now you’re lucky if the food resembles the worst of what used to be served in coach.

But not all domestic premium products are equal.

I’d give Continental the nod for domestic food service, with United still occasionally doing a decent job under admittedly difficult financial circumstances (and additional kudos for their transcon p.s. service between JFK and both San Francisco and Los Angeles).

United gets my overall nod for domestic premium offerings simply because of the amount of widebodies flying within the United States. And with the exception of the domestic configured 767-300s and a handful of domestic 777s, those widebodies come configured with international three-class cabins. So a nice business class seat comes with the upgrade. The domestic widebodies are a shadow of their former offerings, to be sure. You won’t see 747s flying out of Dulles out to California anymore. Once upon a time there was even a 747 doing a Saturday repositioning run between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But that’s probably it for the positives.

Northwest is dreadful. In general that bigger seat yields the tightest pitch in the industry. Northwest’s first class often offers no more than United’s economy plus product. Expect 38 to 40 inches from seat back to seat back? Try 35. Something akin to Mexicana’s domestic A320s, which I’d never thought could be equaled outside of intra-European business class.

Their food is basic but truly not terrible. Especially compared to American. In addition to ratty planes with scratches on the seatbacks and armrests (gotta love those MD80s) you can expect pizzas like the Schwann truck used to deliver to be reheated in a microwave.

I’m sitting in 3F on an Alaska Airlines flight between Los Angeles and Washington-Reagan as I write this. Why row 3? Because I’ve gotten tired of air marshalls bumping me out of my row 2 aisle seat that I might as well do the favor for them, and at least this way I’m ensured of an aisle that isn’t the bulkhead.

There’s nothing wrong with the airline for short hops up and down the West Coast, though their on-time and baggage success rates have been problematic on the flights I’ve been on with them over the past year. But 737s really are a bit rough for transcon flying, especially in relatively uncomfortable seats.

It’s the luck of the draw, but I had one of the worst flight attendants I’ve experienced on my outbound flight. I couldn’t get a glass of water no matter how hard I tried (and I’m very friendly and polite – honest). This time it’s better.

Meal service also seemed improved (and served in courses!) over the several Alaska transcons I flew last year. It’s still a shadow of what one used to expect, but I could deal with it.

Dig-E-Players are not a replacement for a real inflight entertainment system. Sure they’re video on demand but they’re also bulky… And the video selections are the same for each direction across the country (unless your flights happen to straddle the dates for a changeover). Oh well, at least they offer inflight entertainment. Try to get that on Northwest…

A long-time issue for Alaska frequent flyers has been that the culture allows people in coach to use the first class lavatory. Alaska seemed to recognize this as a problem, and I’m sure the see-through screens between first and coach help, but they don’t help very much — and are undermined by the flight attendants. On my outbound flight an announcement was made to only use the restrooms in your ticketed cabin, and not to queue up for the first class lavatory in the galley — instead to wait in your seat or at row six until it’s free.

Finally, there just aren’t enough first class seats to go around. I’m thankful that they offer any, a couple of years ago the carrier considered doing away with first class. But until they introduce a frequent flyer level above “MVP Gold” (which is just too easy to obtain for a top tier on an airline with partnerships and flying transcons) there will be too much competition for too few premium seats.

To the best of my recollection I haven’t ever set foot on America West metal, but stories like this one make me dread the prospect.

Finally, it’s been two years since I’ve flown USAirways on two cabin equipment. My general impression was of dirty planes (the video monitor at my seat in the international-configured Airbus I flew back from San Juan in got grease all over my pants) and very basic meals. I know that the poor quality of the food — sometimes worse than what was offered for sale in back — and the use of plasticware has been a source of contention over at Flyertalk.

United still wins in my book, offering the best seats on their widebodies and a reasonable number of premium seats as well as the occasionally decent meal. The p.s. flights and regional jets with first class and economy-plus seats are also moving them in the right direction.

And while I abhor Continental’s miserly frequent flyer program, their in-flight experience is a notch above most of their competitors.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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