How United Squeezes More Seats into its All Aisle Access Business Class Than Anyone Else

Brian Sumers has a good piece on the development of the new United Polaris business class seat.

The idea is to make the seat seem like four-across on a Boeing 777 — which gives you fully flat with all aisle access — while actually being configured eight-across to give the airline density. More seats, without sacrificing passenger comfort, means more revenue. They can attract high yield business travelers without increasing their cost (aircraft real estate) in order to do so.

Acumen’s designers figured out how to replace United’s two current business class configurations, which require many passengers to step over seat-mates to reach the aisle – with one that allows easy aisle access for all, and they did so without requiring the airline to remove any seats. According to Acumen, after retrofits, United’s Boeing 777s and Boeing 787s will have exactly as many premium seats as today – in the same space.

While it’s new CEO Oscar Munoz announcing the product improvement, he says he “challenged the team to be defiantly innovative,” the seat was approved by ousted CEO Jeff Smisek famous for a penny wise, pound foolish approach to the airline’s customers.

Here’s a sample of the dense layout:

United believes this is the perfect approach, getting a product just as good as competitors without requiring more space on the plane for each seat to do it.

The designers say customers will not notice that United’s configuration is more dense than what many other airlines offer. This is important, because savvy travelers paying thousands of dollars on airfare tend to prefer roomier cabins.

United’s seat will be as long as 6-feet-6 inches and as wide as 23 inches, though it could be tighter on some aircraft due to space limitations.

In many ways I like the new dense layout. The seat is a huge improvement over United’s current offering. It isn’t as good as American’s Boeing 777-300ER seat, but it’s fully flat with all aisle access. And they do it without sacrificing seats. More seats mean better chances of an upgrade or award.

Having sat in the seat, though, I can tell you that it isn’t true that customers ‘will not notice’ the dense configuration. The seat feels tighter than American’s. It’s tighter than Singapore’s. The seat is an improvement for United over the status quo but it isn’t getting them as good a product as what’s best in the market. The tradeoff for United may be worth it. But it shouldn’t be oversold.

Sumers notes that no other North American airline will be able to buy the exact same design for five years because of United’s exclusivity deal. That’s how long it will take United to roll out the product across most of its fleet. And since it isn’t offering industry-leading comfort now, it’s likely to feel even more dated five years into the future.

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, 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. Agree. By the time they refit all their planes with this new C class, it’s going to be dated. Airlines these days are refreshing their cabins EVERY 4 years.

  2. By the time the refit is completed it will need to be replaced again to be competitive.

  3. Good article. United will never have a word class hard product but it’ll offer an accessible business product. I agree with your assessment Gary.. can’t believe that they are going to put it on the 767 (or rather keep the 767 in service).. they are getting awfully long in the tooth…

  4. How is this product substantially different than the one offered by Emirates(380)/Etihad/Airberlin/etc? That’s also pseudo 4-across/really 8-across and has been around for a long time…

  5. @Tony lol, in what universe. US airlines are retrofitting their cabins once every 15+ years.

    as to the seat- i just hope someone 6’3″ can stretch out. personally, i love the AA 777-300ER, but it is a waste of space to only have 4 across. given how hard it can be to use SWU’s DFW-HKG, i WISH it were 5 or 6 across. 8, not so much. but since i’ll be going back to UA after i use up my 2017 SWU’s, so having a worthwhile UA intl business class for redemptions will be nice. of course, WORTHLESS for GPU’s given the need to buy overpriced W fares *HOPING* to get upgraded- a f-ing ridiculous policy 1K’s put up with (and the reason i defected to AA a couple years ago.

  6. “The designers say customers will not notice that United’s configuration is more dense than what many other airlines offer. This is important, because savvy travelers paying thousands of dollars on airfare tend to prefer roomier cabins.”

    << Savvy travelers who don't notice are not that savvy, IMO.

  7. ‘The rubes will never even notice’. I guess everyone is too media savvy to say ‘let them eat cake’ these days. 🙂

    As for how this is different from Emirates, I looked up their 777 charts on Seat Guru and it’s true they are all 7 across instead of 8. But most of them are a mere 20.5 wide, and the 2 class plane is a mere 18 inches in J. AA’s 777-30ER is 30 inches in J.

    Even the old configuration of UA 777 is 22/23. And according this this post, most of the new cabins will be 23, whatever ‘when possible’ means. I’m guessing it means “don’t fly their 767s”, but then no one had to tell me that. 😉

  8. I noticed this as 2-4-2 when I first saw it. Basically, push back the 4 aisle seats and then angle them. It requires a total of a half of row extra in a consecutive seat section, but they probably rearrange closets, etc, and likely not impacted by a full 1/2 row.

    I am not sure if it is better than the CO second generation BF which was 2-2-2. It just isn’t competitive with AA’s new offerings.

  9. I agree the product is a big improvement over the current one, but as others have pointed out it’s not even close to being class-leading today and will be even further behind the best in five years. Thing is, even the density doesn’t appear to be as exceptional as suggested by the title of this post and the original article. For example, Cathay Pacific fits 26 reverse-herringbone seats into the space between the two front doors of a 77W (without first class), while Etihad has 28 of their Solstys-type seats (also fully flat and with direct aisle access for all), the same as the 28 shown on the 77W seatmaps for United’s Polaris. (Granted, there are some differences in toilets/galleys, but it’s pretty much the same amount of space.) Between the three Cathay’s design seems much more spacious, with a near-ideal balance between space and privacy.

  10. I wonder why you would mention Singapore.
    ” The seat feels tighter than American’s. It’s tighter than Singapore’s.”

    Singapore’s has among the, if not the, widest J-class around. And it is a grave injustice if you compared United or American to it in the same breath.

  11. It’s a nice effort but when all the alliances put on a business class fare war for $2,000 to cross an ocean… This isn’t the cabin I’m choosing

  12. It does look like the BA 777 “flying dormitory” will be a valid comparison. Nothing like landing at LHR and seeing 20+ of your closest friends getting out of bed.

  13. I am platinum status this year and just 1600 PQM from getting 1K.

    How can I get offers to upgrade for a discounted price?

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