Back in February 2016, we reported on American Airlines’ ambitious plans to renovate Admirals Clubs worldwide and roll out luxurious lounges for Business and First Class passengers. Fifteen months later, the airline’s premium passengers departing from New York JFK are finally able to sample the world’s largest airline’s new premium ground product.
Deciphering the Flagship Lounge branding
In the beginning, there were Flagship Lounges.
Located at major hubs such as Chicago O’Hare (ORD), London Heathrow (LHR), Los Angeles (LAX) and New York (JFK), Flagship Lounges welcomed American’s and partner top-tier elites and First Class customers traveling on international and transcontinental premium flights. The clubs offered comfortable seating, showers, a hot and cold buffet, complimentary alcoholic beverages, and personal travel assistance.
While a step above the busy and basic Admirals Clubs, the former Flagship Lounges left a lot to be desired and were becoming uncompetitive in a number of markets where partners and competitors alike offered superior facilities.
Thus, American announced a major lounge makeover, and a new generation of flagship lounges with significantly expanded amenities for international business and first class passengers alike, along with oneworld Emerald and Sapphire customers from foreign airlines.
The vision was ambitious, and the timeline fuzzy. In an effort to distinguish the old Flagship Lounges from future Flagship Lounges, American renamed the former “International First Class Lounges.”
Today, after over a year in the making, American Airlines unveiled their first new-generation Flagship Lounge at New York JFK. The lounge has technically been open for a while with limited services, but is now complete. And in the spirit of complex branding, Flagship Lounges include a Flagship Dining area exclusively for First Class passengers.
- Admirals Clubs function primarily on a membership basis, with annual memberships available at several price points. Business and First Class passengers are granted complimentary access to Admirals Clubs on the day of travel. Economy passengers can purchase one-time access.
- International First Class Lounges are American’s old Flagship Lounges, and welcome Executive Platinum (top-elite) customers traveling internationally, foreign carriers’ oneworld Emerald passengers traveling in any class of service, First Class passengers traveling on American and oneworld intercontinental First Class, and First Class customers on American’s transcontinental flights with three classes of service.
- Flagship Lounges are new lounges with enhanced dining and amenities, for Business and First Class passengers flying on three-class aircraft, AAdvantage Platinum customers traveling internationally on a oneworld member airline, and foreign carriers’ oneworld Emerald and Sapphire passengers traveling in any class of service
- Flagship Dining is a private dining area within Flagship Lounges, exclusively for American’s First Class customers traveling on three-class international and transcontinental flights.
- The Arrivals Lounge at London Heathrow is an exclusive amenity for premium class passengers arriving on American, British Airways and Cathay Pacific.
American’s new Flagship Lounge at New York JFK
Located in Terminal 8, after security on the mezzanine level, the vast Flagship Lounge boasts a new design which bridges tradition and modernity, with a conservative color palette and Earth tones, along with clean lines and efficient lighting.
Guests will find a choice of seats, all equipped with power and USB ports, including high-backed seats offering enhanced privacy, convivial traditional seating areas, communal tables, and recessed nooks embedded in the walls with a built-in table.
Large floor-to-ceiling windows reveal views of the tarmac and let plenty of natural light in. A separate quiet room offers a more secluded space outfitted with recliners.
The club is well appointed, but the layout is compact, with seating for 310 customers, and the space is bound to be busy at peak times.
At the center of the Flagship Lounge is a self-serve bar offering a selection of wines and Champagnes. There is also a large selection of liqueurs and spirits, as well as a “mix-your-own cocktail” station with rotating recipes on display. The bar is not staffed. Espresso, juices, and soft drinks are also available, with a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine which lets patrons choose from hundreds of drinks concoctions with a touch screen.
A large buffet features an impressive assortment of appetizers, hot entrees, and desserts, with highlights such as a shrimp cocktail shooters, chilled crab, chilled roasted tenderloin, and pan seared salmon. Patrons may also order a variety of cooked-to-order dishes from roaming servers, including American Airlines’ flagship burger and a wild mushroom flatbread. (See the full menu) The cooked-to-order service comes as a welcome surprise, as it was not included in American’s original announcement.
Eight modern shower suites are outfitted with a walk-in rain shower, a sink, and a toilet, and come with CO Bigelow bath amenities in wall-mounted dispensers.
American’s Flagship Dining, a full service restaurant for the lucky few
Within the new Flagship Lounge is a section exclusively for American Airlines’ international First Class customers and domestic First Class passengers traveling on three-cabin aircraft bound for San Francisco and Los Angeles. Dubbed Flagship Dining, the room is off-limits to passengers traveling on partner airlines and all elite members except those travelling in First Class.
The elegant and secluded space boasts floor-to-ceiling windows and features a staffed bar as well as a complimentary full-service restaurant. Patrons may choose between booths or dining tables for two overlooking the tarmac.
In the morning, American Airlines offers a full breakfast selection with staples such as omelets, eggs benedict, and frittata, along with fresh squeezed juices and expresso. Throughout the day, visitors will enjoy a complimentary three-course meal with delicacies such as duck breast, beef short ribs, and tart tatin, along with an expanded wine and cocktail selection. Dishes are crafted from locally-sourced ingredients, and menus will rotate seasonally and vary by location.
American’s strategy with Flagship Dining is difficult to interpret. While the move may resonate as a commitment to international First Class service, the airline is following the industry trend and cutting the number of seats. However, American Airlines gains the upper hand when it comes to ground services for premium transcontinental flights, as the only carrier to offer First Class passengers a restaurant-class dining experience. Yet, the typical domestic passenger is unlikely to show up at the airport early to enjoy a full meal on the ground, except before red-eye flights, when the Flagship Dining area is bound to be popular. Ultimately, the Flagship Dining product might stem from the American Airlines’ desire to create a very high-end product that creates a halo on their overall brand.
After months of construction and confusing branding changes, American Airlines’ first next-generation Flagship Lounge at New York JFK has finally arrived, and considerably elevates the premium passenger experience. With private seating, elegant shower suites, and attentive staff, the club has the hallmark of a world-class international lounge. But the surprise comes from the generous food and beverage selection, which is accompanied with an unexpected limited a-la-carte menu for business class passengers. First Class passengers are pampered with from the moment they check-in, with a private escort through security, and a complimentary full-service restaurant in a secluded space.
The new Flagship Lounge welcomes international Business and First Class passengers, AAdvantage Platinum customers on international itineraries, and oneworld premium, Sapphire, and Emerald passengers (holding status on foreign airlines.) The former—and much more basic—incarnation of Flagship Lounges was exclusively for international First Class and oneworld Sapphire customers, so Business Class passengers and oneworld Emerald customers gain the most from the new service.
Later this year, American Airlines will be opening additional Flagship Lounges at Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Los Angeles (LAX), and Miami (MIA) (First Class passengers traveling between Miami and Los Angeles will receive access to Flagship Lounges.) In 2018, the airline will unveil additional locations at Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), London Heathrow (LHR), and Philadelphia (PHL.) The current International First Class lounges will close as the new Flagship Lounges open.
American Airlines is entering a competitive landscape. In the fifteen months it took the carrier to deliver its first Flagship Lounge, United introduced a widely acclaimed Polaris Lounge at Chicago O’Hare airport for international Business and First Class customers, complete with luxuries such as productivity pods, a complimentary staffed bar, private rooms, and a full-service restaurant open to Business and First Class passengers alike, unlike American’s Flagship Dining.
While it’s too early for an in-depth comparison of American and United’s products—both airlines currently have a single high-end lounge in operation—United currently has an edge in terms of amenities, with a staffed bar and napping rooms. Ultimately, both carriers are likely to suffer from the same pitfalls: crowding, and possible service cuts down the road.
Delta, who used to operate the best lounges across US airlines, with a substantial food and beverage selection and spa-inspired shower suites, hasn’t responded yet.
Regardless of Delta’s move, it’s clear that the landscape is shifting in favor of premium passengers. The top carriers are cajoling their premium customers with an ever-expanding set of luxurious amenities, while paying club members and premium credit card holders will have to make do with cosmetic and functional upgrades to their lounge experience. All three major US carriers are renovating their lounges worldwide, but United is removing showers from United Clubs while American’s food selection at Admirals Clubs remains virtually non-existent. To experience the good life, ditch the credit card and buy premium fares.