Sampling American’s Completely Unnecessary Yet Oddly Appealing Flagship Dining Experience

I really don’t care about airline lounges. Sure, I’ll gladly check one out when given the opportunity just out of curiosity, but as long as there’s wifi and a power outlet, I’m generally more comfortable just sitting with the masses and enjoying the people-watching in the terminal. So when American invited me to check out the airline’s new lounge complex in Terminal 4 at LAX, I punted until I knew I would be in the airport anyway. Recently, I found myself at LAX to watch that biometric boarding test with British Airways, and I figured that was as good a time as any. What I found was a three-tier space that was certainly pleasant. But the top tier, Flagship Dining, is really what grabbed me. I still can’t figure out why.

Previously, the area above the concourse in Terminal 4 was split into two areas. The western half and part of the eastern side (about 65 percent of total space) was the Admirals Club. That’s where the bulk of passengers went and it was for paid members, business class passengers, and some American/oneworld elites. The other 35 percent, the southeastern area, was the Flagship Lounge meant for first class passengers on three-cabin airplanes and only top elites. But American decided to change its policies, and with that change, it had to redo its lounge situation.

The big change was that international business class passengers as well as more elite members would be allowed into the Flagship Lounge. That left the Admirals Club mostly for members and not much else. So, American essentially flipped its lounges at LAX. Now, the Admirals Club is for the riff-raff.

It sits mostly in the southeastern part of the space, but it also bleeds over a bit into the southwest corner. While there used to be plenty of small nooks to find privacy, it’s now generally crowded. You can find a seat, but you won’t have a room to yourself.

Meanwhile, the Flagship Lounge took over the rest of the footprint. The food offerings were spiffed up, and the place looks great.

There’s a TV area, a quiet room, and a conference room or two.

Even though it’s much bigger now, it’s also much more crowded thanks to all the additional travelers gaining access. When I was there, it was mid-afternoon, and there were a lot of people around. That being said, it never felt overly crowded, and there was plenty of space to stretch out.

Like I said, most of this is lost on me. Sure, it looked nice.

It had nice bathrooms, great old American Airlines photos lining the walls, and oh yes, showers. (The Admirals Club has some too, by the way.)

But way back in the northeast corner was something different: Flagship First Dining.

Flagship Dining is essentially the last bastion for the fanciest of fancy pants. Those flying in three-cabin first class only (which from LA means you’re going to New York, London, or Hong Kong) are given an invitation upon arrival at the Flagship Lounge to go have a bite to eat before getting on the airplane.

This, of course, seems completely mad. Flying in First Class means you get wined and dined for hours upon end to help pass the time in the air. Why would you want to eat before you get on the airplane? It turns out there are some good reasons. Particularly for those going to New York, it’s such a short flight that there’s real value in eating before your redeye and then going to sleep. Travelers can also come in and eat AFTER their flights if they prefer. So someone who took the 2:30pm flight from JFK might arrive at 6, hated the inflight meal, and be starving. That’s all well and good, but still, it seems excessive.

American invited me to come on in and test it out (no charge), so I did. When I walked in, it had the look and feel of a nice restaurant. It was also completely empty.

I was naturally given the best seat in the house, a window seat with a view of the alley between Terminals 4 and 5.

The staff was fantastic. I must have dealt with at least 4 or 5 different people during my time there, and they never missed a beat.

I was handed the menu along with the drink list when I sat down.

After a minute, I decided to try the Oaxacan Old Fashioned, a signature cocktail. It was ok, though using tequila and mezcal means it’s not really an old fashioned.

I was brought some bread and salted butter when I decided to try the Soba Noodle Soup as my starter. It was brought out in a rather fancy bowl, and the broth was poured in at the table. It was delicious.

At this point, more people began filtering in (including, I think, Laurence Fishburne though I’m admittedly terrible at actually identifying celebrities). I can only assume that they were all traveling to New York considering the time of day, though it’s possible a couple of earlybirds going to London were there too. The woman across from me was on her phone a fair bit of the time, and I couldn’t help but overhear her raving about the Flagship Dining experience to the person on the other end of the line.

For the main course, I had been told the pasta was fantastic, but many others suggested that I had to try the burger. So I did, and I had a Malbec to go with it.

Sure enough, it was really tasty, and I was getting full. But wait, there’s dessert. I had a sundae.

Finally, it was time for me to head over to the Bradley Terminal, so I was brought what looks like a bill along with an airplane chocolate.

The “bill” is odd and seemingly unnecessary since it’s really just there to say “thanks for visiting.” I had read elsewhere that tipping wasn’t allowed, so I wasn’t quite sure why they bothered.

All I know is that it was a thoroughly enjoyable dining experience, and it’s not one I’d expect to get at an airport. I kept thinking that I should buy a couple First Class tickets so my wife so I could eat there for a special night out… and then refund the tickets after. But I still couldn’t shake this idea that it was just silly and unnecessary.

Thanks to American for letting me take it for a swing, though I’m fairly certain it’s not something I’ll have the chance to do again when I’m actually flying. I’m curious to hear everyone else’s thoughts on this trend of having elegant dining options before (or after) your flight.

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29 Responses to Sampling American’s Completely Unnecessary Yet Oddly Appealing Flagship Dining Experience

  1. Bobber says:

    Meh. I also don’t really see the point (or need) to all this; a free beer and a chance to shower is all I’m after from a lounge – this seems excessive opulence (possibly to detract from on-board experience……..or am I being too cynical?).

    Still, Brett, you’re a classy man, thinking of taking your missus to the airport for a slap-up meal :)

  2. AJ says:

    Having only sampled Qantas’ First Lounge the one time, the elegant dining option was a nice touch before a flight to LAX. Nice to look at a menu without any prices on it, for instance. Would it affect my flight choice? If I was buying J or F then the lounge is a big part of my decision, so yes.

  3. Kilroy says:

    This is well outside my budget or lifestyle, but it sure looks nice.

    I think this is good marketing, even if the restaurant sits 90% empty most of the time, as long as AA doesn’t dilute this and allow the hoi polloi to try it. It gives the high-end pax something to make them feel super special,a nd with luck (as you heard) they will brag and talk about to their friends, and their friends may be tempted to try it. It gives the slightly less rich pax something to aspire to. It’s a benefit that has the feel of eliteness yet is also nominally practical. AA’s PR people will certainly (and probably already have) invited many journalists and well-known chefs to experience their restaurant, and some positive press will (hopefully) result and (hopefully) rub off on people when they think of the lower classes of service.

    Again, this isn’t the most useful thing, but I don’t think that’s the point. This reminds me of the story of the wine store owner who prominently displayed a $500 bottle of champagne in his store. “How many bottles of THAT have you sold?” a customer asked him. “None,” the wine merchant said, “but I’ve sold dozens of cases of the $99 bottle of champagne right below that.”

  4. cturner says:

    Nice report, and I hope you were able to waddle out safely after that little repast! :-)

  5. anon says:

    To me it’s clear! AA is attempting to provide a different level of club / lounge access for their most valued and reducing the value of the area where access can be bought. Just like the introduction of business class some years ago.
    We’ll see where it goes!

  6. danwriter1 says:

    American is so confused these days. It seems whatever it wants to be is whatever the other two legacies became the year before.

  7. Tim Dunn says:

    The concept makes sense – if the finances justify it – and you and I will never know that. Business travelers often want to just get on the plane and sleep or work, esp. if the flight is at a time when eating is not the primary activity one would do if they were on the ground. I would bet that you were served far faster in the lounge than you could have been in the air for the same number of courses. Also, it is far easier to control food quality on the ground than in the air.
    If the economics work for American to do this service, let them go for it. If other carriers don’t offer it, they might have an advantage for some customers. We won’t know if they will get better fares because of the service which is clearly an additional expense because they are going to have to cater for a customer on the plane whether they eat on the ground or not.

  8. Mike says:

    I wonder if the “check” at the end is intended to give the customer an official acknowledgement that they can take off. Even without prices (or maybe especially without prices!) some people may still be expecting to pay.

  9. Southeastern says:

    Wow. Was that an 8,000+ calorie meal? Hopefully they will also cover the cost of your upcoming heart bypass surgery.

    • Kilroy says:

      Eh, no one is forcing pax to eat all of that. Besides, the FAA requires passenger airline planes of any significant size to have automatic external defibrillators on them, so those are in the plane in the event of a heart attack.

  10. Michael Jones says:

    Brett,

    You sound ungrateful, altho you did say thank you many times. For people you can afford it, this is great! AA’s overall product has suffered since the take over by Parker & Company but this is encouraging news. Now if they will just do something about the in flight product especially the catering.

  11. ORDflyer79 says:

    Having just flown in an AA premium cabin, this is a cruel joke. They continue to downgrade premium cabin food to the point that it is marginally warmed slop served with wilted lettuce greens and wine that Trader Joe’s would be ashamed to sell. What better way to compensate for the pAAthetic food than to feed people while they are on the ground so they won’t complain about the crap served at 35,000 feet! Having flown Lufthansa, United, and KLM transatlanic flights in the past 6 months, I’d rather eat their economy cabin food than what was served on my recent flight to South America. Oh yeah – KLM’s economy South African wine was better, too. I find it curious that it a time of historic airline profits, AA continues to find ways to needlessly spend money in some places while cutting to the bone in others. Living in Chicago, I’m lucky to have domestic hubs for United and Southwest and no fewer than 10 European carriers that take me across the Atlantic. AA can try to dress up its lounges as much as it wants, the overall premium experience sucks. Same with a flight to London last year – beautiful new 777-W with fantastic hard product. But awful food, indifferent flight attendants, and a worthless mileage program. No thanks.

  12. hwong says:

    You may not care for airport lounges, but for us on business and have our wives with us they are a God-send to do business, rest, snack, and get away from the crowds at the gate areas. The Flagship Lounge at JFK is phenomenal and even better than what you snidely describe.

  13. hwong says:

    PS: There is another valuable reason we use airport lounges. Terrorists look for crowds to do their shooting and we have learned to avoid crowds. The horrific killings that just happened at the high school in Florida is a reason we avoid crowds.

    • flightwonk says:

      Seems like a strange reason to use the lounge; in any event, the most dangerous part of the airport from a counter-terrorism perspective is curbside/check-in, not beyond the secure area.

  14. hwong says:

    PPS: And here is the major advantage of an airport lounge. The kind people in the lounge have made flight changes, seat changes, and gotten upgrades for me that could never be done at a terminal counter.

  15. The price of running this at LAX might be worth it just to differentiate their product to NYC and LHR from similarly or identically priced F class offerings from UA, B6, DL, BA, VS, etc.

  16. A says:

    I’ve been in a number of Delta Sky Clubs and always found them to be a nice respite from the usual waiting at the gate but if I’m truly looking for a meal I’m finding that airports are offering better and better dining all the time. Not a chance this would ever be a decider for me on booking a ridiculously expensive cabin class, but I’m also someone who likes sitting an airport bar and mingling with other commoners from all over.

    An uber-elite lounge that can cater to Hollywood types that don’t even want to mingle with the executive lounge group makes sense for LAX and a nice meal to go along seems an appropriate amenity. I’m sure the fares will cover the costs (I hope) but in the grand scheme of things my gut tells me AA has better things to spend money on.

  17. James S says:

    It’s a neat concept, but I guarantee it’ll be gone or dramatically scaled down in a few years. Both the Flagship Lounge and “new” Admirals Club at LAX are shockingly crowded for much of the day. You’ve got staff apologizing to paying club members who can’t find anywhere to sit while the cavernous Flagship First Dining is empty and unused. AA has limited real estate at LAX and they can’t continue to give such a big chunk of their lounge footprint over to something that’s so lightly patronized, even if it’s by their highest-paying customers.

  18. Davey says:

    Crankster, United has a similar arrangement at Heathrow in London for International First Class Passengers.Wonderful place to wine and dine before headed home. Staff was incredible.

  19. flightwonk says:

    I often don’t have much time to enjoy a lounge, but for the times that I do, something like this is terrific. In particular on AA, as an NYC-based traveler, I often fly in J for either transcons or flights to EZE or GRU for work. Beyond having a slightly better seat, if I know I’ll have time to enjoy Flagship First Dining, I’ll be more likely to upgrade myself with an SWU or some other instrument. I’ve tried the JFK Flagship First Dining maybe three times (all for breakfast) and the MIA once (for dinner), and I’ve been blown away every time.

  20. PF says:

    Unfortunate but true, in any restaurant “the woman across from me was on her phone . . .” At least it wasn’t in flight.

  21. Re: “I kept thinking that I should buy a couple First Class tickets so my wife so I could eat there for a special night out… and then refund the tickets after. ”

    Umm that’s a page from my playbook. No fair stealing!

  22. Nicc says:

    Even as an economy passenger flying internationally as an EXP i have had access to Flagship Lounges they are very nice. The JFK T8 crew are particularly good, and even remember me in the quiet bit.

    There are some excellent lounges around where I go to eat rather than eat outside and definitely not on the plane.

    Just try Qantas First in Sydney. Neil Perry Menu with Salt & Pepper Calamari to die for plus a view back at the Sydney skyline.
    Cathay Hong Kong First Pier. Like being in a real club, massage, quiet rooms, lovely staff as well.
    Qantas First at LAX TBIT is also great for the Hamburgers, better than most restaurants, though hate the beetroot (weird Aussie thing), also pretty good calamari as well. Plus a couple weeks ago overheard the manager giving a motivational speech to staff.First class in many ways.
    Flagship Lounge LAX. There 2 days ago, sorry more interested in the lady I met, but really is good.
    All AA lounges, just love the brownies…………………………………..

    There are few good lounges around the world, but some are really worth going to before boarding yet another plane, and I have done 16 since 1 January.

    Also big thank you to all the staff at the lounges above.

    As Chinese New Year.

    KUNG HEI FAT CHOY!

  23. MeanMeosh says:

    “This, of course, seems completely mad. Flying in First Class means you get wined and dined for hours upon end to help pass the time in the air. Why would you want to eat before you get on the airplane?”

    In AA’s case at least, the quality of in-flight catering in the premium cabins has deteriorated to the point that it’s borderline inedible. Or as on my last flight, ok but not nearly enough to make a proper meal. At this point I’d actually prefer to have a good meal on the ground. All the better if it’s free.

    My main concern is what James S says. The number of eligible passengers is so low, I’d bet good money that the concept gets “enhanced” at some point. When you have overcrowded lounge areas but a 2/3 empty restaurant, something’s gotta give.

  24. How about folks on business trips that are focused on sleep and don’t have time eat onboard, so they have their dinner on the ground prior to departure?

    There is a practical purpose for these lounges as well, so not really “oddly unnecessary”.

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