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A review of American Airlines in first class on the Airbus A321neo from Philadelphia to San Francisco

Oct. 11, 2023
12 min read
American Airlines A321neo row 3 first class
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Quick take: American Airlines' A321neo first class started with a stressful boarding experience and meager amenities but made up for it with impressive aircraft features and a surprisingly good meal.


  • Enormous overhead bins are capable of accommodating every passenger's carry-on bags.
  • Seatback USB ports next to personal device holders make it easy to charge while watching entertainment.
  • Meal service is above average, with custom sundaes.


  • Even on a new aircraft, American has forgone seatback entertainment and headphones.
  • No food or drink menus or pillows and blankets are provided.
  • The first-class seats recline relatively deeply but still feel constricted.

It's been almost five years since American Airlines' A321neo first entered service with new traveler-friendly features like bigger overhead bins, faster Wi-Fi, more widely available in-seat power and more first-class seats. Nowadays, American operates 70 of these planes, which you'll often find on some of the airline's transcontinental and West Coast to Hawaii flights.

On a recent trip from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO), I came across a reasonably priced first-class flight for just 24,000 AAdvantage miles (worth $360 at TPG's valuations) plus $5.60 via Philadelphia International Airport (PHL).

Here's what it's like to fly American Airlines' Airbus A321neo from Philadelphia to San Francisco.

How much does first class cost to book on American Airlines?


American generally operates two to three daily flights from Philadelphia to San Francisco, most of which are on the Airbus A321neo. The airline sells basic economy fares, standard economy fares, Main Cabin Extra seats with more legroom and first-class seats. American uses dynamic award pricing, so award rates vary and correspond somewhat to cash fares — meaning if airfares are high, you can expect to redeem more miles for a ticket.

Here's what you can expect to spend for a nonstop itinerary between Philadelphia and San Francisco over the next year at current prices.

ClassEconomyFirst class
Cash price (round trip)$208 to $1,190$1,170 to $4,790
Miles (round trip)21,000 to 103,000 (plus $11.20 in taxes and fees)53,000 to 200,000 (plus $11.20 in taxes and fees)

All passengers can bring a personal item and a full-size cabin bag onboard. Here's what else is included (or not) with economy versus first-class on this specific route.

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ClassChange feesChecked bag feesSeat selectionBoarding group
Economy$0 (no changes for basic economy)$30 for the first checked bag, $40 for the second checked bag$34 to $41 for a preferred location like a window or aisle near the front of the cabin, $0 for all other seats, $67 to $77 for Main Cabin Extra (extra legroom, complimentary beer, wine and spirits and preferred boarding)Main cabin boarding (Group 4 to 9)
First class$0Two free bags$0First-class boarding (Group 1)

American Airlines offers complimentary upgrades for its AAdvantage elite members on this route. I was surprised to see that all but four customers on the upgrade list cleared into first class.

As mentioned, my one-way ticket from DCA to SFO via PHL cost 24,000 miles plus $5.60. If you also find a discounted first-class deal on miles, you're best off booking with AAdvantage. When partner first-class award space is available, Alaska Mileage Plan offers seats on this route for 25,000 miles plus $18.10. If you want to use American Express, Capital One or Chase transferable points, British Airways Executive Club is probably your best option, and charges 38,750 Avios plus $5.60.

Some of the best credit cards for booking airfare include:


Checking in to and boarding first class on American Airlines

You can check in for your flight 24 hours before departure on the American Airlines app to skip the airport check-in lines. As with the Delta and United apps, you can track the status of your inbound flight to stay apprised of potential delays.

American operates out of Terminal 2 at Washington's National Airport. There's a designated priority check-in area. Lines for the self-service kiosks and customer service were short. With TSA PreCheck and Clear, it took a few minutes to get through security.

Having a two-hour connection made the 15- to 20-minute walk from my arrival in the F concourse to my B departure gate more manageable, but leave plenty of time between flights if you have a connection in Philadelphia.

The gate area for the San Francisco flight felt cramped and was air-conditioned to an arctic degree, but since the plane was only about two-thirds full, plenty of seats with power outlets were available.

Boarding began on time at 7:30 p.m., and I was among one of the first passengers to board with Group 1. As I scanned my boarding pass, the gate agent told me I had too many items to be allowed to board and halted the entire boarding process. Lacking clear instructions, I interpreted this interaction as a request to place my laptop inside my backpack, which I promptly did. Eventually, I was allowed to board, but the experience was stressful due to the lack of clear instructions and the attention of other passengers and airline staff as I hurriedly loaded my laptop into my backpack.

The Airbus A321neo features spacious overhead bins similar to what you expect on wide-body aircraft. This meant you could place a typical roller bag on its side so more passengers can fit theirs in. We pushed back on time, partly because no bags needed to be gate-checked due to full overhead bins.

Getting settled, first-class passengers were offered a predeparture beverage choice of water, orange juice or sparkling wine in plastic cups. The flight attendant also offered to store passengers' coats in the closet.


We pushed back from the gate at 8 p.m., about five minutes early.

How comfortable was American Airlines first class?

The aircraft for my six-hour flight to San Francisco was a brand-new, 2023-delivered Airbus A321neo with the following seat count and layout in first class.

Number of seats20
Cabin layoutFive rows of seats in 2-2 configuration
Seat pitch and recline37 inches, 5 inches
Seat width21 inches

After turning right at the boarding door, all passengers pass through this single-aisle aircraft's five rows of first class. Enhanced by the soothing blue mood lighting, the dark gray leather recliner seats have a sophisticated, if spartan, look. The last row of first class showcases the distinctive American Airlines logo on the divider, serving as a visual marker before transitioning into the economy class section of the aircraft.

Although this was a nighttime flight, the windows felt a bit small. The Boeing 737 MAX, which American also flies, has slightly larger windows.

While these seats do not have built-in seatback entertainment, they provide an expandable personal device holder that can conveniently accommodate a tablet or phone. Additionally, a seatback USB port is positioned next to the personal device holder, allowing you to avoid any hassle with tangled cords when you need to step out.

Speaking of inflight charging, each seat has a universal AC power outlet in the center armrest, which opens for easy access.

Additionally, along the center armrest, you'll find the seat control, which consists of a single metal button to recline your seat. Although you can recline your seat and adjust the headrest for added comfort, the seats do not have a forward-cradling feature. This limitation may restrict your space when the passenger in front of you decides to recline their seat.

A foldable metal tray table expands from each seat's other armrest. It also has a personal device stand you can pop up when the table is partially unfolded. When fully unfolded, the table provides ample space to work on, accommodating even larger devices such as my 16-inch MacBook Pro.

There's also a beverage tray between seats that folds down, from the preceding console which I found useful for keeping my drink handy but away from my laptop.


First-class passengers and pilots use the lavatory just behind the cockpit. American stocks liquid D.S. & Durga soap., which feels like a high-end touch. I captured these photos shortly after boarding, but around halfway through the flight, the lavatory clearly required servicing, which the flight attendants did not see to for the duration.

American Airlines first-class amenities

With no headphones, pillows, blankets, amenity kits or menus supplied, American's amenities were scant, especially for a six-hour first-class flight — particularly when you compare it to what's provided in first or business class on the airline's transcontinental flights, which proffer bedding, noise-canceling headphones, printed menus and amenity kits.

There was, however, an ample selection of inflight entertainment on the AA Inflight portal with 12 stations of live TV, hundreds of TV shows and movies (including hits like "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Carmen"), Apple Music, Apple TV+ and Rosetta Stone language classes.

I also purchased full-flight Wi-Fi for $29. While speeds weren't sufficient for uploading photos, I could send emails and Slack messages throughout the flight.

How was the food in American Airlines first class?

On eligible routes, which my flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco was, American Airlines allows you to reserve a meal beginning 30 days (and up to 24 hours) before your flight.

The pre-order main course choices on my flight included:

  • Golden roasted chicken with roasted tomato chutney, salted smashed potatoes, haricot verts. Created and inspired, according to the airline, with wellness in mind by James Beard Award-winning author and nutritionist Ellie Krieger
  • Gemelli cacio e pepe (vegetarian) pasta with cheese and black pepper served with smoky tomato sauce, zucchini and tomatoes
  • Harvest vegetable and grain bowl with roasted garlic dressing, roasted vegetables, pickled onions, lentil salad, green beans, roasted shiitake mushrooms and grilled salmon available upon request (another Ellie Krieger collaboration)

You can also pre-order special meals if you have a dietary preference or restriction. I ordered the chicken, and the flight attendant confirmed my entree and asked for my preferred beverage shortly after boarding.

About 20 minutes after takeoff, the dinner service began with a hot towel. a beverage and mixed nuts.

About 10 minutes later, dinner was served.

The chicken dish exceeded my expectations and was a step up from United's domestic first-class meals, which I'm more accustomed to. It had a delightful citrusy flavor, and the portion size was satisfactory. On the other hand, the shrimp appetizer fell short. It tasted more like mayonnaise than seafood, leaving room for improvement.

Complimentary beverages, including beer, wine, spirits and soft drinks, were available, but unfortunately, there was no menu provided, making it challenging to know the full selection of options.

About an hour after the dinner trays were collected, the flight attendants offered a choice of a hot fudge sundae, a lava cake or a fruit and cheese plate.

I went with the sundae, which could be customized with hot fudge, caramel, nuts, fruit and whipped cream, then served in a glass.


The hot fudge on the cold ice cream with the crunch of the nuts hit the spot.

While the flight attendants left the passengers to themselves after the dessert service, they remained available for drink requests. About an hour before landing, a snack service was offered.


The choices including kettle potato chips, honey-roasted pistachios, mini pretzels and sea salt corn nuts.

Would you recommend American first class?

Despite American Airlines lacking features like built-in seatback entertainment, headphones and high-end first-class amenities such as blankets, the upgraded meal and spacious 2-2 seating arrangement made my journey across the U.S. comfortable and relaxing. However, in the future, I would aim to avoid connecting in Philadelphia due to the significant distance between the inbound and outbound gates.

Although these aren't the same updated seats Delta offers in first class on the same aircraft, with more comprehensive privacy dividers and crisp entertainment screens, the cabin still felt fresh. To enhance the experience, American Airlines could consider providing built-in seatback entertainment, menus and cradling recliner seats with wings on each side of the headrest to offer a slightly improved feeling of privacy.

If you're flying from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) or Boston Logan International Airport (BOS) to San Francisco, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) or John Wayne Airport (SNA), try to work out a connection to get on a nonstop flight between these airports to experience the airline's Flagship Business or Flagship First. On these routes, American offers lie-flat seats, menus, upgraded multi-course meals, lounge access and built-in seatback entertainment in both business and first class, which would put this particular flight to shame.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.