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Picture this: You’re in row 1A, sipping a glass of champagne as the masses file past. In a few short minutes, you’ll be reclining your seat, popping on a pair of headphones and enjoying a steak with pomme frites.
No, this isn’t some absurdly glamorous Middle Eastern airline. You’re in the U.S., flying a U.S. airline — and things are about to get luxurious. From lie-flat seats to enclosed suites, let’s find out which is the best first class airline in the U.S.
Factors we considered when picking the best first class airline in the U.S.
The U.S. has several major airlines, but we zeroed in on just three for our analysis: United, Delta and American Airlines. There are others, of course (including Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, Frontier, Spirit and Southwest). However, each of these excluded airlines suffer from serious limitations when it comes to deciding the best first class. For example:
Southwest doesn’t operate a business class or first class cabin.
JetBlue has only just started its transatlantic flights.
Alaska doesn’t offer any lie-flat seating.
Frontier and Spirit are both budget airlines that strip down their fares to the basics.
This leaves the “Big 3” as the major contenders when it comes to the best airline to fly first class.
So how do we decide which is best?
Amenities: Often called the soft product, amenities are things such as bedding, food, service and drinks on your flight.
Seats: Each airline uses a different configuration for its seating, with top contenders featuring lie-flat beds and suites with closing doors.
Ability to earn and use points: Unless you’ve got money to spare, the ability to redeem your points for first class seats is going to make a huge impact on your airline choice.
Route network: This is how many destinations each airline serves.
Lounges: Not all airline lounges are equal; each airline uses these differently to woo and delight their highest paying customers.
Airlines have upped their game in recent years as the fight for your loyalty rages on.
The experience varies depending on whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, but each airline offers its own premium option. Delta features Delta One, American Airlines has its Flagship First Class and United boasts the Polaris experience.
Each airline offers chef-curated food and luxurious bedding on board, as well as premium spirits. Both United and American Airlines offer pajamas on select international flights, while Delta doesn’t.
When it comes to customer service, however, Delta is a clear winner. According to the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report issued by the Department of Transportation, Delta had a total of 106 customer complaints across all categories during June 2021. Compare this to United’s 303 complaints and American’s 421 complaints, and Delta comes out miles ahead.
Each airline has a competitive soft product with high-end touches, but Delta far outstrips the rest when it comes to customer service, netting it a win for amenities.
First class airplane seats
Airlines often offer passengers different types of first class seats depending on where they're flying. Most domestic routes will feature wide seats that recline. These are comfortable, but nowhere near as nice as the seats on premium transcontinental routes and long-haul international flights. On these routes, you’ll find American Airlines, Delta and United have installed beds that lay-flat — so you can arrive to your destination well rested.
So, which airline has the best first class seats?
United has done away with its distinction between first and business class on long-haul international flights, and has instead launched its Polaris-branded product. Updated Polaris seats feature a 1 x 2 x 1 configuration, which offer excellent privacy in a pod formation. Be aware, however, that United also operates an older Polaris product in a 2 x 2 x 2 configuration. You’ll be able to see this on United’s seat map when you’re booking your flights.
American Airlines offers both Flagship First Class seats as well as Flagship Business Class seats. Its business class product is similar to United’s updated Polaris product, with a 1 x 2 x1 formation that offers excellent privacy. Its Flagship First Class seats, meanwhile, have a much smaller cabin with as few as eight seats — but they lack high wall dividers, which leaves you pretty open to other passengers.
Delta has also eliminated its first and business class distinctions on long-haul international flights in favor of its Delta One product. While not all of its planes feature these, all A350 and A339 planes operate Delta One suites. These suites have full-height walls and sliding doors for complete privacy.
Although both American Airlines and United offer excellent seats in their premium cabins, Delta’s suites outclass the others with ultimate privacy.
Ability to earn and use points
Most airlines offer a loyalty program, and the Big 3 are no exception. Depending on your airline, you’ve got Delta SkyMiles, American Airlines AAdvantage and United MileagePlus. If you’re looking to redeem rewards for a first class seat, you'll want to know which is the best option.
Each airline will award you with miles when you fly with them, though the amount of reward miles you earn for any given ticket is actually based on the cost of the fare rather than how far you fly. However, this isn’t the only way to earn miles.
Delta makes it easy to earn SkyMiles with several different co-branded credit cards. It’s also a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards at a 1:1 ratio. Combined, these methods make it very easy to earn SkyMiles for award flights. Redeeming them, however, is another story. Delta has no fixed award chart and tends to charge a lot when using miles for premium cabin rewards. This is one reason why we value Delta Skymiles at just 1.5 cents each when redeemed for a business or first class ticket.
» Learn more: Which Delta Air Lines credit card should you get?
American Airlines also has a number of co-branded credit cards with which you can earn AAdvantage miles. However, American doesn’t have a permanent partnership with a transferable points currency. Although you can currently transfer your Citi ThankYou Points to American Airlines at a 1:1 ratio, this partnership is set to expire on Nov. 13, 2021.
When it comes time to redeem your miles, you can find some pretty good deals using American’s web specials, which is one reason we’ve valued American Airlines AAdvantage miles at 2.5 cents each when redeemed for a business class or first class ticket.
Finally, United’s MileagePlus program also offers a handful of co-branded credit cards for different types of travelers. United is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards® at a 1:1 ratio, and the United MileagePlusX app offers an easy way to earn miles at hundreds of different retailers.
United, like American and Delta, offers no fixed award chart. However, its redemption rates are pretty reasonable, and it's part of the largest airline alliance — Star Alliance — giving you the most options when it comes time to redeem your points. This, combined with the ease of earning miles, makes United MileagePlus a compelling program and is one of the reasons why we value United miles at 2.4 cents each when used to book a business or first class ticket.
More ways to earn miles, reasonable redemption rates and more airline partners means United is the winner here.
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards right now
Winner: American Airlines
Let’s be honest, when it comes down to it, many of us are going to choose the most convenient airline. This can mean the one that is closest to us, one that has the fewest number of connections or one that serves the country to which we are traveling.
Delta and United are close in this regard; Delta serves “up to” 300 destinations worldwide, while United provides flights to “more than” 300 different cities. American Airlines has them beat with 350 destinations across 50 different countries.
Serving a further 50 cities than its competitors, American Airlines can’t be beat when it comes to route networks.
If you’ve already got a travel credit card, you may have experience with airport lounges. These spaces can offer a reprieve within the airport itself and also tend to offer complimentary food and drink. Certain business and first class passengers also have access to these lounges, depending on where they’re flying.
Each airline has their standard lounge products: the United Club, Delta Sky Club, and American Airlines Admirals Club all offer a dedicated space for customers. However, both United and American Airlines offer separate, higher-end lounges for those flying their premium Polaris and Flagship products, respectively.
Delta doesn't feature such a premium option. Plus, Delta’s partnership with American Express means that travelers with The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express can enter Delta lounges when they’re flying the airline, no matter which cabin they’re in. This can lead to overcrowding and an unpleasant experience.
United’s Polaris Club in San Francisco, meanwhile, was awarded the world’s best business class lounge by Skytrax in 2019. This is due in part to the quiet-room daybeds and the gourmet restaurant experience that the lounge offers, among other amenities.
More than 21 million customers voted, and the consensus is that United’s Polaris lounges are best-in-class.
» Learn more: Credit cards that come with airport lounge access
So, which airline has the best first class in America?
We’ve got two wins for Delta, two wins for United and one win for American Airlines. This looks a lot like a tie between United and Delta. However, not everyone has the same needs, which means that you’re going to have to decide your true first class winner for yourself.
» Learn more: Delta vs. United, which is best for you?
Do you like pleasant flight attendants and tons of privacy? Then Delta is your best first class airline. Do you want an easy way to redeem your points and a fabulous airport lounge? United might be more your speed. No matter which you choose, you’ll have excellent seats, premium food offerings and airport lounges for your journey at the pointy end of the plane.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card