United-Continental Will Keep Offering an International First Class

One of the last major questions remaining (ok, there are tons of minor questions) was whether the combined United-Continental would retain international first class. The answer is yes, as I’ve speculated in the past, although we don’t yet know which routes will have it or whether they’ll retain as many aircraft in that configuration as they do now. It’s certainly unlikely to spread.

United’s entire transatlantic and transpacific fleet offers three-cabin service, while Continental offers business and coach only. We know that they’re keeping United’s economy plus, although of course currently if you get a Continental aircraft you don’t have that benefit. Continental sees it as profitable, from the upsells, so they’re keeping it and they seem to discount the importance of the loyalty benefit that it offers. To me, it’s why United Mileage Plus is the best elite elite program below the top tier — because even though you’re not usually in first class, your seat is still better than it otherwise would be (as an aside, Delta’s got a really compelling offering in their complimentary international upgrades to premium economy seating for their top elite tiers).

They’ve got a real customer challenge in inconsistent product offerings, and differently configured fleets adds real operational complexibty.

But it certainly makes sense to continue to offer international first class on super-premium routes where customers will pay for it, and if they’d decide to invest in the soft product they would likely be able to get more customers to do so (customers do on other carirers, where despite a pricetag it’s hard to fathom, high-end bankers and lawyers doing multi-billion dollar deals and folks that would otherwise fly private do pay).

Certainly the Sydney flights are liekly to keep it, along with the Hong Kong flights, you’ll probably see San Francisco – Europe retain first class as well.

But there are no promises in this, the statement that they aren’t killing first class is a good first step, but it doesn’t mean that as many routes as have it today will continue to do so. Already Washington Dulles – Paris has gone two-cabin by sending down Continental aircraft to do the job, my guess is that a lot of the DC routes will lose first class. I doubt they’ll keep Dulles-Brussels or Dulles-Rome with three-cabin aircraft, for instance. San Francisco will see the most international first class, and Newark may wind up getting some where it hasn’t had it as part of the Continental portfolio.

So this one is still developing…

And still to come:

  • Though it’s hardly been a problem but for a couple of weeks out of the last year, there hasn’t been a public statement disavowing Starnet blocking (refusing to book available partner awards when they decide they’ve spent enough money for the quarter).
  • Million miler status benefits? (United offers lifetime mid-tier status after 1 million flown miles, Continental only bottom-tier, what will future million milers receive?)
  • Complimentary upgrades for elites to and from Hawaii? (United offers but flies domestic equipment to Hawaii, Continental has offered premium equipment and hasn’t upgraded on those flights)

And of course many more.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. What is Delta international upgrade policy for elites? Do they upgrade to Business class or only premium economy, and why do you find it so compelling? Thanks in advance.

  2. @chitownflyer complimentary upgrades for diamonds/platinums to economy comfort seating internationally. Upgrading to business clsss is quite a miserable proposition with Delta (M fare or better required, often about the same price as buying a Z fare outright).

  3. There is a big disparity in million miler benefit beyond status. CO matches your spouse to your current status in addition to promising lowest elite for life. UA not only provides middle status for life, but some SWUpgrades every year, I might prefer the latter (currently a CO Millionaire) but don’t tell my wife!

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