Airline Wars: Who Does LAX to JFK Best?
"Top Chef" cuisine? Massage chairs? Onboard espresso machine? It's all there as new high-end amenities reveal the escalating battle for the bicoastal business traveler, and the airlines (including JetBlue?!) up their game on the most lucrative route in America.
Lie-flat seat with hypoallergenic pillows or a retro white leather lounger? Gruyere and fontina omelet or seared cauliflower with Himalayan red rice? Decisions, decisions. Turns out there are hundreds of them when jetting between Los Angeles and New York, the single most fiercely competitive airline route in the entire country, if not the world. And with recent improvements in both in-flight and on-the-ground premium services between LAX and JFK (sorry, Newark, you're out of luck), flying in the pointy end of the plane is getting more complicated -- and cushy -- every day.
To help make the transcontinental commute as manageable as possible, THR provides the following guide to flying from coast to coast, with everything the well-heeled traveler needs to know, from airport eateries to the pitch of the seat backs.
THE SEATS: Bucking the trend toward business-class only, American offers the last three-class cabin on the LAX-JFK route. In first, the airline's Airbus A321Ts have 10 lie-flat suites, with just one on each side of the aisle, giving every passenger easy access to bathrooms. The 62-inch pitch (the distance between seats) allows them to convert into super-long 82-inch beds.
THE SERVICE: An espresso/cappuccino machine is available for first-class customers aboard the A321T. For dining, specialties include a gruyere and fontina omelet with mushrooms, accompanied by roasted red pepper potatoes.
INFOTAINMENT: A tilting 15.4-inch HD-capable touch-screen monitor offers access to nearly 200 feature films and about as many TV programs. Song selection tops 350, and for game geeks, up to 20 are available for on-demand play. Also offers Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headsets, Wi-Fi, 110-volt universal power outlets and USB connectivity.
GOODIES: For an extra $250, American will walk first and business ticketholders through security to their gate. Premium passengers get an amenity kit featuring an Eames bag that doubles as an iPad case.
STAR FLYERS: Ray Liotta, Liv Tyler, Amy Poehler, Ringo Starr, Venus Williams, Matt Lauer. Says Mad Men actor Ben Feldman, "I'm a loyal American person, although I did fly Virgin last weekend, and that was cool."
PRICE, FREQUENCY AND ON-TIME RECORD: Round-trip from $4,022 (six daily flights) On-time arrival: JFK 72.83 percent, LAX 73.54 percent. American has the single most popular flight with Hollywood, according to Melissa Schwartz of VIP travel agency Destination Happiness: AA No. 4, departing at noon, when there's less traffic at LAX.
THE SEATS: Delta's revamped business-class cabin, being phased in on its JFK-LAX Boeing 757-200s, upgrades the plane with 76-inch lie-flat suites configured 1-2-1 (everybody gets an aisle) and angled slightly toward the windows. Westin Heavenly in-flight bedding includes a plush white comforter and a hypoallergenic down-alternative pillow.
THE SERVICE: Food Network celebrity chef Michael Chiarello (Napa's Bottega Ristorante) cooks up a three-course Northern Cali-influenced Italian menu, from antipasti to gelato, paired with wines chosen by James Beard Award-winning master sommelier Andrea Robinson.
INFOTAINMENT: A 16-inch touch-screen digital entertainment system offers a choice of 350 movies, with 18 channels of live satellite TV on select flights. Flyers also can access TED Talks, games and in-flight trivia. The extensive song selection exceeds 4,500. Other amenities include 110-volt outlets, USB ports and Wi-Fi.
GOODIES: If you're a Diamond-level frequent flyer with connecting flights, Delta will whisk you between gates in a Porsche hybrid (for free!). All business passengers get Malin + Goetz toiletries, including unisex neroli hand and body lotion, a Tumi eye mask, socks, shoe polish and a shoehorn in a Tumi bag.
STAR FLYERS: Nicole Kidman, Joan Rivers, Anna Wintour. Says Breaking Bad's Betsy Brandt, "We've just always flown Delta. We go back and forth between New York and L.A. a lot."
PRICE, FREQUENCY AND ON-TIME RECORD: From $3,597 (eight daily flights) On-time arrival: JFK 74.48 percent, LAX 75.62 percent.
THE SEATS: JetBlue's entrance into the premium JFK-LAX market, arriving in June (but booking now), will be a departure for the one-class-fits-all airline. Dubbed Mint, the specially configured Airbus A320s will feature 16 seats arranged 2-2 (two rows will be 1-1 and have sliding privacy doors). The beds are 80 inches long and the seats will massage.
THE SERVICE: JetBlue's menu takes a page from the airline's overall less-is-more approach to cabin service. It will offer a selection of small plates conceived in conjunction with New York's Saxon + Parole restaurant.
INFOTAINMENT: A 15-inch HD flat screen will offer up to 100 channels of DirecTV programming and more than 100 channels of SiriusXM radio. Unique content comes by way of the airline's Plus-TV infotainment system. JetBlue's branded FlyFi provides connectivity (without having to subscribe to GoGo). Two 110-volt outlets and USB ports per seat.
GOODIES: Men's or women's amenities from Birchbox, including cosmetics and moisturizers from Kiehl's, Balla and other prestige brands. The kits' contents are changed several times throughout the year.
STAR FLYERS: Alec Baldwin, Train, Meryl Streep, Cyndi Lauper, Judge Judy (yes, some celebs liked JetBlue even before it announced its luxury Mint Class).
PRICE, FREQUENCY AND ON-TIME RECORD: From $1,600 (two daily flights) On-time arrival: JFK 67.02 percent, LAX 50.93 percent.
THE SEATS: United's dedicated fleet of P.S. (Premium Service) 757-200s have been upgraded with the same BusinessFirst suites used on international flights (and economy plus, with extra legroom, in case business is sold out). The cabin's 28 suites are configured 2-2 and angled for privacy; the lie-flat beds are 76 inches long and the seats 28 inches wide.
THE SERVICE: A traditional five-course service, starting with a cheese plate and ending with old-fashioned handmade sundaes. Wine selections are by master sommelier Doug Frost, author of The Oxford Companion to Wine.
INFOTAINMENT: On a 15.4-inch monitor, a newly designed system includes DirecTV live television and 150 hours of programming. Also offers Wi-Fi, 110-volt outlets and USB port.
GOODIES: Philosophy skin-care products, eye shade and earplugs. A recent promotion sent flyers home with a souvenir metal case printed with photographs of United's North American hubs.
STAR FLYERS: Bono, Penn Jillette, Liam Neeson, John Boehner, Nicolas Cage, Alan Alda, John McEnroe, Ron Perlman, Nancy Pelosi, Seth Meyers.
PRICE, FREQUENCY AND ON-TIME RECORD: From $3,582 (six daily flights) On-time arrival: JFK 70.97 percent, LAX 64.93 percent.
THE SEATS: Alone among the LAX-JFK competition, Virgin America's Airbus A320 premium cabin keeps your body semi-upright with eight old-fashioned lounger-style seats, in white leather, with 165 degrees of recline and 55 inches of pitch. With flatbeds and semiprivate suites becoming the norm, the seating increasingly seems retro.
THE SERVICE: Health-focused Cali cuisine with high-end vegan options. Think seared cauliflower with Himalayan red rice and a truffled asparagus omelet made with cage-free eggs. Artisanal cocktails -- mojitos, anyone? -- mixed on demand. Plus VA's own ice cream flavor, Butter by Moonlight.
INFOTAINMENT: Virgin America's Red interactive entertainment platform boasts a 4,000-plus song library accessible on a seat-back touch screen, real-time television programming and a choice of 25 films. Also has Wi-Fi, 110-volt outlets and USB.
GOODIES: Virgin doesn't offer amenity kits, but if you're traveling near the nose of the plane, you do get to take home the blanket and earphones.
STAR FLYERS: Vanessa Hudgens, Salma Hayek, and Sofia Coppola (spotted in row three in the much-cheaper Main Cabin Select). Says Christy Turlington, "I feel like they put a little fun into it."
PRICE, FREQUENCY AND ON-TIME RECORD: From $3,600 (five daily flights) On-time arrival: JFK 76.49 percent, LAX 77.08 percent.
This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.