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First Class Face-Off: The Hollywood Reporter Flies the L.A.-NYC Corridor Four Times for 36 Hours Straight

Pass the organic ice cream and Baileys! An intrepid THR editor tests the ultra-luxe services of American, Delta, JetBlue and United, breezing through security, munching on parsnip mousse and cocooning in a pod at 30,000 feet.

It was 9 a.m., and I was barely functioning on three hours of sleep, having just flown coast-to-coast-to-coast. Fidgeting in my lie-flat leather-trimmed lounger, I just couldn’t fathom yet another glass of champagne. So I asked my preternaturally cheery Delta flight attendant if she could make me a mimosa. “Of course I can do that,” she said, smiling as she handed me a hot hand towel with tongs. “That’s what I’m here for.”

In that moment, feeling like I’d woken up on the floor somewhere in Vegas, I knew I had underestimated this seemingly cushy assignment: to compare the top premium flights between Los Angeles and New York City. Between noon on a Tuesday and midnight the following day, I jetted back and forth between the two cities on the carriers that offer lay-flat seating — American, JetBlue, Delta and United. (This trip took place in late March — a simpler time before the term “re-accommodate” had become a viral addition to the air-travel lexicon.) It was a 36-hour vision quest that spanned 10,000 miles and forced me to confront hard choices (lobster roll or lamb shank?). My only job during this mission was to assume a reclined position and weather a perfect storm of luxury and privilege befitting a bicoastal mogul. But up there, sipping a mimosa, I felt unexpected pressure. Fortunately, it subsided as soon as I unfastened the top snap of my jeans.


American First Class: Luxurious Solitude

On Tuesday morning, I was greeted curbside at LAX by a rep with American’s Five Star Service who led me into the Flagship First Class entrance. This check-in area is unassuming but a world away from the normal airport chaos just a few yards away. The room was hushed and spare and everyone greeted me by name. The efficiency actually was staggering — within five minutes of stepping out of my Lyft ride, I had checked in, taken an elevator and a series of secret passageways, been escorted to the front of a long security line, put my laptop in a bin and was on my way to the lounge.

The appeal for high-profile Hollywood actors and other power players is obvious — no paparazzi or phone-wielding fans snapping photos, no plebeian security lines, no earthly hassles. For true A-list talent — the morning I was traveling Julie Andrews also was flying to New York, and Julia Roberts and her kids had been there the day before — American and TSA collaborate to empty the queue so no other travelers are in the room when they pass through security. And there’s a back entrance to the Admiral’s Club so heavy hitters can be escorted into the First Class Lounge without strolling through the main entrance.

The Flagship Lounge at LAX is due for an update in late 2017 that will bring a larger space with sleek, modern furnishing and high-end a la carte dining options. For now, I was forced to make do with a sprawling breakfast buffet (I had a bagel loaded with lox and an assortment of dim sum) and the nicest unattended open bar I’ve ever set eyes upon. As I prudently drained a couple big bottles of Pellegrino, I enviously watched a trio of finely dressed Japanese businessmen sample the assemblage of single malts, top-shelf vodkas and small-batch tequilas, the unending supply of Taittinger Brut and well-curated California craft beer. Not hitting that bar was both the smartest and the dumbest thing I would do all day.

When it was time to board, someone tapped me on the shoulder and led me to my flight. I never once looked at a screen or a boarding pass or even paused to consider what gate was mine; I just followed my Five Star guardian angel. There was a small crowd queued up to board, but I was led to a separate entrance just for the 10 first-class passengers. While other airlines of course have premium transcontinental offerings, American is the only one with three-class seating and a branded first-class product. The smell of the cabin was of fresh leather and old money. The seating is arranged in a reverse herringbone design with one seat on either side of the aisle, so even if I was sharing space with, say, some well-known movie producers and an Oscar-winning actress, we all were alone — our comfy Bose noise-cancelling headphones and padded ottomans mere symbols of our glorious solitude. No other carrier could match the refinement and peacefulness of the next six hours, and I would highly recommend this product to anyone who would like to travel with a spouse or coworker without actually talking to them.

A parade of food and wine helped stave off loneliness. The highlight of my four-course meal surely was the roasted beet and goat cheese timbale, which paired beautifully with a sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley. I watched Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and contemplated the dark side of American excess until my flight attendant asked if I’d like a freshly baked snickerdoodle, which hit the spot almost as much as the Ben & Jerry’s hot fudge sundae. I turned down a glass of port, pulled out the Cole Haan eye mask and lowered my seat to bed mode. The hour that followed was as quiet and uninterrupted as modern life gets, until it was interrupted by a few semi-important work emails.

After I landed, I took a brief tour of American’s Flagship check-in and lounge at JFK, where I had just enough time to contemplate a shower (with intricate mosaic tile and C.O. Bigelow product), eyeball another champagne spread and interrupt James Taylor having a business meeting. It was roughly 9 p.m., and while most of my fellow first-class travelers were ensconced in the back seats of their black Escalades on the Belt Parkway, I immediately headed to Terminal 5 so I could fly back to Los Angeles. I only had 7,500 miles to go.


JetBlue Mint: Surprising Luxury — Once You Take Off

Thanks to violent thunderstorms earlier in the day, flights in and out of JFK that evening on all airlines were delayed. So I wound up having an extra hour to kill before boarding my flight back to L.A. After being coddled by American, the in-terminal experience with JetBlue was decidedly more unvarnished. There was a dedicated security line for Mint travelers, but it was as long as all the other lines. There was no lounge offering fine spirits and amuse-bouches, or any ego-boosting perks for Hollywood aspirants. I shuffled around the terminal (which had far better than average restaurant options), studied the departures screens dutifully and perused the magazine rack at Hudson News like a normal weary traveler.

But when I stepped onto that A321 and settled into seat 2A, I was back in the lap of luxury. JetBlue has an unusual configuration of seats in its five-row front cabin — alternating rows of two seats with stand-alone mini-suites in rows 2 and 4. While everyone in American first class had looked ready for lunch at the Polo Lounge, my cabinmates here looked like Venice Beach creatives (excluding the guy in the track suit who was shouting Russian into his iPhone before takeoff). JetBlue was the only airline to offer free Wi-Fi — someone at the legacy carriers needs to figure out how to seamlessly give free internet to travelers who spend thousands on a flight.

Mint was the least costly of the products I flew, but the quality of the service was outstanding. Soon after takeoff I was noshing on a curiously tasty parsnip mousse with taro chips and sipping a slightly citrusy sparkling wine from Mendocino. The meal service — a small-plate selection designed with inspiration from Saxon + Parole, the decidedly downtown grill on The Bowery — was the best I’d experience in my whole journey. I kicked my legs up and enjoyed a flavorful carrot-ginger soup, a super-fresh kale Cobb salad and a restaurant quality sea bass-risotto combo. I drank a California craft beer and cleaned my plate as I pondered my present-tense experiences with time dilation while watching Arrival on my entertainment system. (I found that all the airlines’ hardware and programming options were more similar than different, and noted that La La Land and Manchester by the Sea were available across the board while no one offered Moonlight.).

By then it was late, and I had been flying for 10 hours, and Amy Adams’ brooding stares were in my head, and my flight attendant smartly suggested I pair my organic Blue Marble ice cream with a glass of Baileys. In reclining mode, the seat is as long as American’s first class product, and it even has a bit more legroom and a nifty lumbar-massage feature. My real-time map indicated I was somewhere over New Mexico but I was feeling more drained than enchanted. So I closed the door to my little airborne suite and hugged my comforter and slipped into a state just short of sleep. Around 2:30 a.m. we landed at LAX — I had been on the move for about 15 hours and was right back where I started.


Delta One: Friendly Sizzle

After three hours of glorious shut-eye at the Sheraton Gateway, I headed back to LAX. It was a 15-minute walk — my workout for the day — to meet my Delta One rep. The Delta One check in area in Terminal 5 was an actual oasis with modern furniture and an automated espresso machine and a vague smell of lavender. You could actually sit there for a moment and pretend that the TSA did not exist. But alas, it was time to go. My friendly Delta One rep guided me to the front of the security line and it wasn’t long before I was in a large and well-appointed club. Like United, Delta does not have a VIP club within a club, but it does have some special nooks where a high-profile movie star can recuse themselves from the business-class hordes. Still, the club had an airy and contemporary feel, and attendants pushed carts around the room so you didn’t even have to get out of your plush chair to get fresh orange juice or a pastry.

I think I had about 45 minutes until my flight would depart so of course someone asked me if I wanted a ride in a Porsche. Delta has a program for elite fliers that unapologetically is called Surprise and Delight, where travelers are offered special perks without notice. So that’s why I suddenly was on the tarmac, climbing into a metallic blue Cayenne piloted by a sweet woman who called herself Miss Jackie. For 15 minutes, Miss Jackie jockeyed with jumbo jets as I toured the underbelly of two terminals and learned that Delta has a little-known program for affluent and high-profile passengers landing at LAX — in which you and your bags get off the plane, and into a Porsche that immediately whisks you out a side exit and deposits you at a back entrance of a nearby luxury-hotel partner. (Delta representatives were reluctant to discuss their celebrity passengers, but I relentlessly asked everyone I met and learned that John Legend, Alicia Keys, Derek Jeter and Rihanna are die-hard Delta fliers. One airport staffer who deals with VIPs told me “all the Hollywood celebrities are surprisingly nice. But the Middle Eastern princes — they’re a different story.”)

As our tour concluded, I asked Miss Jackie if she enjoyed driving the Cayenne. “Yes I do,” she said. “But our red Panamera is more my style.” Miss Jackie and her second-choice chariot dropped me right at my gate and a Delta One rep walked me to my seat. Then I was greeted at length by the head flight attendant serving the front cabin of my flight. Throughout the course of the day I came to believe that all of the positive clichés about Southern hospitality were evinced by the Delta employees I met. So goddamned friendly!

The front cabin on Delta One flights is marketed as a business-class product — I flew a Boeing B757-200 with two-by-two seating. (Some Delta flights between L.A. and New York are on wide-body aircraft set up with a 1-2-1 seating arrangement in business class, meaning everyone has direct aisle access.) I sat next to a CBS executive and long before our cheery pilot announced our passage over the Grand Canyon I partook in more conversation than I had in the first 5,000 miles the day before.

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Breakfast service was delightful — a fruit and cheese plate, an assortment of warmed breads, good coffee and the best airline omelet I’ve ever had (narrowly topping one I had years ago in Swissair business class that was cooked in the aisle). Other than a regrettable glass of California Merlot — honestly, what was I thinking? — the food and drink were very good, not as inventive as JetBlue but executed as well.

I kicked back my seat and watched Jackie, which offered a deeply personal reminder that you can live like royalty and still suffer. At this point, I had been in the air for more than 15 hours and was not exactly feeling right. After downing a crisp glass of Italian Brut and a gooey chocolate chip cookie, I decided to pull an eye mask out of my Tumi amenity kit and attempt a nap, but it just wasn’t happening. In the fully reclining position the seat was comfortable (though a bit narrower than the competition) and the Westin-branded comforter was the best I’d snuggle with on my entire journey, but sleep never came.

My flight landed at JFK, and my final return to LAX was departing from Newark in a few hours, so I was able to take advantage of a new partnership with a helicopter operator called Blade that is being announced by Delta this month. When I walked off the plane, I was greeted by another rep, who immediately led me down a staircase to the tarmac and into another Cayenne. This gentleman regaled me with stories of driving Lionel Richie and Joan Rivers (“The funniest person I’ve ever met, period”) around JFK as he zipped me to a helipad. There, a matte black helicopter waited — for me. From the moment we touched down at JFK to the time I was on terra firma on the West Side was 29 minutes. I got to stare down at traffic on the Belt and see early-evening light reflect off the Freedom Tower and take selfies as I wore a cool headset.

As I waited in the Blade lounge for my Lyft ride to Newark Airport for my final flight, the lovely hostess asked if I wanted to sample a super-premium vodka from the bar. I felt like Mad Max near the crux of The Road Warrior at that point, and I think I had the hair to match. I asked for a Perrier and tried to synopsize how I spent the past 28 hours. She looked at me blankly. “So now you’re going to fly back to LAX?” she asked. “You’ve got to be kidding.”


United Premium Service — Right Up the Middle

All I remember about the drive to Newark was the happy realization that I had one more clean T-shirt in my messenger bag, so I did a quick backseat costume change as we went over the Pulaski Skyway. So when I was met curbside by my concierge for United’s Signature Service, I was as crisp as I was going to get. In a way that was becoming commonplace, I blew through security in two minutes. (At United, anyone can purchase concierge service, even if they fly coach with grandma.)

I haven’t been inside Newark’s Terminal C in years and don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it now has the best airport dining options in the United States. Many millions have been spent and many hundreds of iPads have been installed and the options are staggering — hand-pulled ramen noodles at Kaedama; Alain Ducasse’s bistro, Saison; a selection of 200-plus tequilas at Tacquilla; and a curious reimagining of the CBGB brand, where you can honor punk history with a wedge salad or a Kobe chili dog. I had a perfectly prepared grilled scallop dish at Daily, a farm-to-table restaurant that changes its menu every day.

Yes, I ate a multicourse meal right before I boarded a dinnertime transcontinental business-class flight. I did a quick tour of a large and well-appointed club, and one employee showed me the exact couch where Britney Spears passed out. (The United Club at LAX was even nicer, with a chandeliered centerpiece bar and an outdoor patio with a clear-if-distant view of the Hollywood sign, and two United staffers confirmed that Sigourney Weaver is extremely kind.)

In my altered state, all I could do was settle into yet another lie-flat seat and linger over my final glass of champagne. It was bubbly. I studied my amenity kit and paid for GoGo internet for the third time in two days. My seat on this B757 was a little bit shorter and a little bit wider than Delta’s. I was not exactly hungry, but I didn’t let that stop me from enjoying a sriracha-glazed shrimp app with a Goose Island IPA. My portobello and kale lasagna was just fine but I spent 15 minutes wistfully eyeing the lamb shoulder with gnocchi and eggplant confit that my neighbor, a spunky UTA agent, ordered for dinner. The agents always win!

Eager to turn things around, I ordered a full-bodied American cabernet and kicked up my feet and dug into The Accountant, which offered high-octane proof that my journey could go south and west at the same time. But just when things seemed pointless, a small crew of flight attendants wheeled an actual ice-cream cart down the aisle — with freshly crumbled cookies and toasted nuts — and made me a sundae that restored my senses.

I don’t remember the end of the sundae. I just remember the cabin lights snapping on and looking down to see DTLA glittering as I was handed one final hot washcloth. I stumbled out to the curb at LAX around midnight, a beleaguered but changed man. After all, I was at least five pounds heavier than when I started.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.