United has been moving towards a premium-heavy strategy. The offer more international business class seats than peers using similar aircraft, and they’ve invested in really nice international business class lounges.
Their Polaris business class seat allows them to do this because it gives them a fully flat product with direct aisle access without taking up more space in the cabin than their old six-abreast seats. It’s a “good enough” seat that isn’t quite as nice as American’s B/E Aerospace Super Diamond or Delta’s new Suites, but that doesn’t require actively avoiding flying business class on United.
United has announced a doubling down on the premium heavy approach adding even more business class seats to a subfleet of 767-300s, as well as adding first class seats to Airbus A319 and A320s where they’ve had fewer seats up front than competitors. And they’re introducing an all-new regional jet configuration with just 50 seats in an aircraft normally outfitted with 70.
More First Class Seats on Airbus Narrowbodies
United will add four first class seats to each of their Airbus A319s and Airbus A320s.
- A319s go from 8 first class seats to 12. They’re effectively replacing a row of Economy Plus (6 seats) with a row of First (4 seats), so the aircraft will have two fewer seats. Still those inches have to come from somewhere for instance we’ll see whether first is losing an inch of legroom.
- A320s go from 12 first class seats to 16. The aircraft will have the same total number of seats, with Economy Plus losing 3 and coach losing 1. It will be interesting to see whether the extra inches in first are noticeably lost elsewhere.
More Business Class Seats on Some Boeing 767s
United is expanding business class on 21 of its Boeing 767-300ERs from 30 to 46 seats, along with 21 premium economy seats.
New Premium Regional Jets – “CRJ 550”
United is introducing a new configuration of the Bombardier CRJ-700 (CR7) with just 50 seats (instead of 70). It’ll be called the CRJ-550 and feature 10 first class, 20 economy plus, and 20 economy seats and will be operated by GoJet before the end of the year.
There will be four closets for storage, helping avoid gate checking of carry on bags.
There will also be a “self-serve beverage and snack station” for first class passengers. Under 14 CFR § 121.391 flight attendant staffing is required at 1 per 50 passengers, though readers more familiar with the requirements can speak to whether the gross payload of the aircraft will make it eligible to staff with just one cabin crew.
The first announced route for this new configuration is Chicago – Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (Walmart is headquartered in Bentonville). After building up Chicago routes we’ll likely see it operating from Newark. United plans to operate the aircraft on certain premium-heavy routes under 900 miles, suggestive of the lack of need for a meal and perhaps underscoring a self-serve model. The airline has also just removed one flight attendant from international business class.
This week Jason Rabinowitz wrote at Runway Girl that United had made its regional passenger experience mirror mainline. My takeaway from the piece was just that United wifi didn’t work on United’s regional jets, either (which has been my experience). Ultimately however the regional moves here, while incurring tradeoffs and likely not driven by passenger experience goals, may be positive customers overall.
What is United Trying to Be?
United cuts flight attendant staffing in premium cabins, cuts meal service on many domestic flights in first class only to bring it back somewhat amidst complaints, while adding premium seats. United’s Polaris lounges are nicer than anything I ever thought possible from the airline while their premium seats aren’t as good as those offered by competitors.
They’re going premium heavy while squeezing inches elsewhere, and they were one of the first to adopt uncomfortable slimline seats in back and have gone 10-abreast on Boeing 777s and 9-abreast on 787s in coach.
The inflight has been inconsistent as well, with little move to change that. Even their announcement of free live TV refers only to legacy Continental 737s — rather than a plan to roll out live TV across the rest of their fleet.
United’s strategy has been to grow the airline, reversing cuts to the domestic network from the Smisek era, and to take advantage of premium demand in well-performing hub cities like San Francisco and New York (Newark), while shaving cost wherever they can. This move seems consistent with that framework.