Why American Airlines sticks with first class on key transcontinental routes

American's first class on the A321T takes up a lot of space. Photo: American.

American's first class on the A321T takes up a lot of space. Photo: American.

American Airlines is the only carrier still flying a three-cabin plane - that's an aircraft with first class, business class and economy class - on flights from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco. But will that last forever?

Delta removed first class years ago on all planes, while United dropped it from transcontinental routes in 2013, though sometimes United rotates in a three-class plane temporarily. Cross country fares for first class can be high - often $4,500 or more, roundtrip, at the last minute - but not that many travelers buy seats in the cabin, because it's not that much better than business class, which you can usually buy for a lot less money.

American's top management has changed since the airline anounced in 2012 that it would keep a true first class between L.A. and San Francisco and New York. The new executives, most of whom came from US Airways, probably had a short window in late 2013 when they could have ripped first class from the planes, but they didn't do it.

I recently asked American's chief marketing officer, a former US Airways executive, why American decided to keep its first class. He said new American executives studied it and decided to stick with it. 

"The use of the first class product is waning industrywide, globally," Andrew Nocella told me last month. "This is something that we wanted to study to make sure it makes financial sense. Given that we were about to fly the airplanes at the time, this is something we wanted to test and make sure it worked."

Nocella said the 10-seat cabin performs well. Financiers and Hollywood types like the privacy of the suites. Unlike in business class, which is a classic 2-by-2 configuration, first class has only one seat on either side of the aisle.

"This is something that will evolve over time, but I think so far, so good," he said. "The economic experience for us on the plane has been excellent, and it's something our customers want and are willing to pay for."

What do you think of American's decision to keep first class on these key routes?