What’s in the water at Dallas-Fort Worth?

American Airlines has been offering significantly discounted first class fares lately.  Last month, The Points Guy advertised this as a great deal that had all the appearances of ending quickly. To put this into perspective, consider flying from JFK to SFO on January 18th.

The “First Special” fare on AA85 (operated by a two-cabin 767-300 with international business class seats) is being sold for $442 one-way, a premium of $274 over the cheapest available coach fare.  ITA offers us a glimpse into where AA stands amongst other carriers:

Jetblue does not offer a first class cabin and Alaska’s nonstops on this route are coach codeshares operated by American and Delta.

Excluding American from the picture, the closest we come is Delta with a connection.  For a nonstop, this is an outlandishly low fare.  ITA indicates that the $442 price is based on the SA14ERP1 fare code.  ExpertFlyer gets confused by this code, but ITA exposes the full (and correct) fare rules:

Flight Restrictions:
AND - FOR TRAVEL ON/AFTER 08JAN 13 AND ON/BEFORE 01APR 13
  THE FARE COMPONENT MUST NOT BE ON
      ONE OR MORE OF THE FOLLOWING
        AA FLIGHTS 1 THROUGH 4
        AA FLIGHT 10
        AA FLIGHT 12
        AA FLIGHTS 15 THROUGH 17
        AA FLIGHT 18
        AA FLIGHT 19
        AA FLIGHT 21
        AA FLIGHT 22
        AA FLIGHT 30
        AA FLIGHT 32
        AA FLIGHTS 33 THROUGH 34
        AA FLIGHT 40
        AA FLIGHT 59
        AA FLIGHTS 117 THROUGH 118
        AA FLIGHT 133
        AA FLIGHT 177
        AA FLIGHT 178
        AA FLIGHT 180
        AA FLIGHT 181
        AA FLIGHT 185
        AA FLIGHT 201
        AA FLIGHT 252
        AA FLIGHT 277
        AA FLIGHT 299
        AA FLIGHT 1520.

Application:

ECONOMY FARE WITH AN INSTANT ONE-CLASS UPGRADE
AT THE TIME OF PURCHASE TO FIRST/BUSINESS.
 APPLICATION
   CLASS OF SERVICE
     THESE FARES APPLY FOR ECONOMY CLASS SERVICE.
 CAPACITY LIMITATIONS
   SEATS ARE LIMITED
   BOTH ECONOMY AND FIRST CLASS BOOKING INVENTORIES
   MUST BE AVAILABLE AT TIME OF BOOKING. THESE FARES
   PERMIT A ONE-CLASS UPGRADE AT THE TIME OF BOOKING.

The excluded flight numbers involve domestically-operated, three-cabin aircraft.   Further, this leads to some odd quirks for last minute bookings.  If I wanted to get on an AA plane bound for SFO in 14 hours, the price gap narrows:

Discount first class is a mere $159 above discount coach.  Without Executive Platinum status (or with a companion), I would need to spend six 500 mile stickers (at a cost of $30/each if bought outright) and still gamble on the upgrade.  FlyerTalk is in an uproar, but the whole situation feels reminiscent of Alaska Airlines’ approach to pricing first class:  Sell it at a sane price and wind up with more revenues.

This year, I’m going to spend roughly $4k to earn about 110k EQMs on American (~3.63cpm).  If I were simply out to requalify for Executive Platinum (since the EXP desk adds considerable value above and beyond upgrades) with minimal flying, I could book these fares and qualify on EQP (at 1.5x the flight distance) by flying about 67k miles at a cost of $11.4k or so.  It’s not a bargain, but it’s a far lower price premium than normally exists for purchased first class.

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