Comparing First Class Flights on Three Airlines

Updated: May 10, 2018

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Comparing First Class Flights on Three Airlines in Three Weeks

May 3, 2018 by Mommy Points

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The last few weeks I have been up in the air much more than my normal travel pace. For work-related reasons, I’ve flown to a different state each of the last three weeks, and sometimes have been in more than one state on those trips. I don’t like being away from home quite this much, but the trips happened to fall this way and we made it work. Due to a variety of factors ranging from using upgrades certificates, to a surprise airline elite status trial, complimentary upgrades clearing even as a low level United Silver, and buying up to first class when the price made sense, most of my seats in the last few weeks landed at the front end of the plane. Again, this is not my normal style of travel, but it gave me the chance to compare three different domestic first-class products within a very short period of time.

I’ve flown in domestic first class with all of these airlines before, but never in such quick succession. Based on my most recent flights, here is what stood about the first class products and service for American, United, and Alaska Airlines.

American Airlines Domestic First Class

I flew on two American Airlines domestic first class segments, one during the mid-afternoon that resulted in an onboard snack service and one at dinner that came with a full meal service.

The food on the American flights was my second favorite of the three airlines, meaning it wasn’t award winning but it was plenty good. The snack plate of grapes and cheese was totally adequate for a middle of the afternoon flight as it came with three types of cheese, two servings of grapes, warm mixed nuts, crackers, and a chocolate bite.

On the evening flight, there was a choice of either their version of steak and potato or a mushroom pasta that ended up being my selection. Both came with a salad as shown below, as well as a bread basket and a warm dessert of some sort though I can’t remember if it was a cookie or brownie since I declined before getting tempted. I also passed on the bread basket, so I can’t speak to what was inside. The pasta was a richer choice than I would normally make, but it sure did taste good after a long day. My neighbor had the steak and potato option and said it was ‘fine for airplane food’.

The seats were plenty large and comfortable for a few hours of flying, but the entertainment options were much better on the outbound flight with an aircraft that featured individual seatback TVs with complimentary movies and shows. The return flight was operated by an aircraft with no TVs, so don’t count on it always being there for your in-flight entertainment. The GoGo WiFi wasn’t perfect on these American flights, but it was functioning, so I worked for almost the whole time.

The highlight of both American flights was the high level of attentive service from the American Airlines flight attendants. They were consistently coming by every few minutes to check if anyone needed drink refills. They were also very prompt with taking away the service trays when the meals were complete.

I’m not a fan of the lack of an American Airlines formal early boarding process for young families, but on my recent flights at the front of the plane without kids, I had zero complaints as the service was swift, the food was decent, and the flights were early.

United Airlines Domestic First Class

My United domestic first class flights were uneventful and comfortable in terms of space with no problems with the service, but the United first class flights were the least memorable of the three. That isn’t really a complaint, because I was more than happy sitting comfortably upfront, but it is simply an observation when comparing the three.

One of my United first class flights was on a 4.5-hour route, and this cold Asian chicken salad was the lunch meal service. There was no bread basket available on either United flight, but there was dessert served with the lunch meal on the longer route. The food was fine, but as you can probably surmise from the photo, it was my least favorite of the three. The chicken salad noodle meal just isn’t something you can get super excited about.

The dessert, however, was solid.

The lunch service on a roughly two-hour United first class flight was even smaller with some cold chicken, hummus, and quinoa. It was better than nothing, but it wasn’t great. I was flying solo, but I’m pretty sure no one else in my family would have had any interest in eating that meal.

The most memorable part of the United flights was the people watching. I’m not sure what it is about the first row of first class that makes people think it is okay to put their bare feet on the bulkhead, but please don’t do that…even if your pedicure is on point. The WiFi was totally non-functional on my 4.5 hour United flight, which did not make me happy, and led to the excess people watching time.

On a different note, while it doesn’t really matter if you are seated in first class since you board very early in the process, United has a very good family early boarding process as they let families with children two and under on board even before first class and Group 1.

Alaska Airlines First Class

While the service on the American Airlines first class flights would be hard to beat, my favorite experience in the three different first class cabins was on Alaska, in part because of the food and wine, and in part because of just how charming the airline can be…even with the retro carpet on the bulkhead.

Alaska was the only airline of the three to offer printed menus in first class, which is really appreciated because the expectation without menus is often that you overhear the options from the row in front of you and make a selection in advance of the flight attendant having to go give the ‘specials of the day’ again. In other words, menus make things better for everyone.

The only downside is that Alaska was out of my first choice, the vegetarian option, so I had to go with the beef. My seatmate doesn’t eat red meat, so they made his plate without the meat by ‘beefing’ up the salad and vegetables with incorporated fruit and cheese plate which was a nice touch.

As opposed to one of my American Airlines flight that just had ‘red wine’, the Alaska flight had a variety of wine choices from West Coast vineyards, and they were happy to talk about them and describe the favorites.

Alaska doesn’t have built-in TVs, but what they lack in built-in entertainment, they make up for with consistency via their loaded tablets that are available for rent on longer flights. In fact, those in first class or even top elite members not seated in first class get the use of a loaded tablet for free.

The Alaska Airlines first class seat itself, just like the others, was plenty roomy and comfortable for a few hours of flying.

For what it is worth, Alaska has a very similar process for boarding families with small children under two before general boarding and even before first class customers.

Impressions when flying first class on three airlines in three weeks

My first thought after flying first class on three airlines in three weeks is that I am very thankful to have landed up front as often as I did. Where I sit doesn’t really matter as much on a shorter leisure flight or when I’m not flying as regularly, but it matters more when flying frequently with a need to be productive while onboard. I was also grateful for the food, even when it wasn’t great, as it meant more minutes saved on the ground not having to seek out a meal.

When you sit upfront it is easy to forget the plight of those squished together in the back as your onboard world is much smaller and largely surrounded by just businessmen. And yes the mendesignation in businessmen was intentional. On several of these flights, I was the only female in first class, or at least one of very few on the others. The front of the plane is still largely a man’s world, even in 2018.

It is also a place where a good number of people drink quite a bit no matter what time of day or day of the week. It was not uncommon on any of these flights for several people in the first class cabin to have two, three, or four refills on their wine or cocktails. I’m not a teetotaler, but I did wonder what happens when these folks land after having four gin and tonics, or what happens in the case of an emergency when half the first class cabin is several drinks in and all of the sudden they need to make life or death decisions. While travelers in economy certainly order drinks on occasion, the level of drinking upfront where alcohol is included and the attentive service frequently refills the drinks, likely means the travelers upfront have a higher average BAC than those in the back.

While Alaska was my favorite domestic first class experience of the bunch, followed closely by American, they were  all very similar and all afforded a very comfortable way to get from Point A to Point B. These flights were all picked because of schedule and price, not because of the operating carrier, and I would continue to make decisions in the same way going forward based on these experiences. None of these domestic first class flights were so much better or worse than another option to warrant changing booking patterns.

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