US Domestic “First Class” is Anything But!

The First Class "meal" on a United flight
The First Class “meal” on a United flight

In the United States, most airlines market their premium cabins as First on domestic flights. But US domestic “First Class” is far from a first-class experience for passengers!

When flying Business Class in Australia, you can generally expect to receive lounge access, a hot meal on board and excellent service. Yet, none of this is standard when flying First Class on American Airlines, United Airlines or Delta.

In a way, US domestic First Class is the opposite of European Business Class. In the United States you can at least expect to receive a comfortable, wide seat with more legroom when flying First Class. But the soft product is not great.

Flying First Class does entitle you to priority check-in, free checked baggage (this normally costs extra if you’re flying Economy) and priority boarding. Priority boarding is actually a valuable benefit because Americans often bring large amounts of carry-on baggage onto the plane. This typically results in a boarding scrum as there isn’t any room in the overhead lockers for those who board last. At some airports, First Class passengers also have access to a priority queue for the security checkpoint; this can also be a useful benefit as queues for the TSA security checkpoints can be over an hour long.

But paying for First Class does not entitle you to lounge access when flying within the United States. In fact, lounge access is not even offered when flying Business Class from the USA to Canada, Mexico (except Mexico City) or the Caribbean on a US-based airline!

Once on board, the service can be hit and miss. Some flight attendants will provide great service, but this is not at all consistent. This was an AFF member’s recent experience in United First Class:

There was no greeting, either during boarding or during the service. Eventually the surly flight attendant came to my seat and half-heartedly uttered “beverage?”

No meals were served. Instead, the flight attendant handed around a basket containing chips, pretzels and oreos. There was no “would you like a snack, sir”… in fact, the flight attendant didn’t say anything during the service. She just placed the basket in front of me and stared. I didn’t see her smile once.

Meals are not generally served on shorter US domestic flights. Instead, First Class passengers can choose from a snack basket. But hot meals are usually served on flights over 3 hours. Complimentary drinks are generally available on all flights, including alcoholic beverages.

The service is much better on “premium” transcontinental routes, such as Los Angeles-New York. The big 3 US airlines use aircraft with lie-flat Business and First Class seats on these routes, and lounge access is offered. But the improved service comes at a price, as transcontinental fares are much higher.

One reason that the service standards in US domestic First Class are so poor is that few passengers actually pay to sit there. First Class is often filled with frequent flyers that have received a complimentary upgrade due to their status with the airline. Premium US domestic airfares are also somewhat cheaper than equivalent Australian domestic Business tickets. This is why there are so many good value status runs in the USA!

Domestic airfares in Australia may be expensive, but we’re lucky in Australia to get such good service from both of our major airlines.

Join the discussion on the Australian Frequent Flyer forum: US Domestic First Class: Is this as good as it gets?

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Matt Graham
The editor of Australian Frequent Flyer, Matt's passion for travel has taken him to over 60 countries… with the help of frequent flyer points, of course!
Matt's favourite destinations (so far) are Germany, Brazil, New Zealand & Kazakhstan. His interests include economics, aviation & foreign languages, and he has a soft spot for good food and red wine.

You can contact Matt at [email protected]