Wow: United Adding 1,600 First & Business Class Seats To Fleet

Filed Under: United

I’ve been fascinated by what has been going on at United the past year or so. United’s stock is on fire (it has gone up about 50% over the past 12 months, in stark contrast to American’s stock), following what was no doubt a low point a couple of years ago.

I find it quite surprising how well United has been able to do, given what an odd couple Oscar Munoz and Scott Kirby are:

  • Oscar Munoz doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo that United isn’t an airline known for customer service; that seems to be his sole focus, which is great, but I question whether fundamentally changing the corporate culture at United is possible
  • Scott Kirby, at least until recently, still had an America West/US Airways attitude, so to see him focus at all on the premium product is shocking, to say the least; he really seems to be the one running the show at United

On one hand, United seems to be focused on the premium product. On the other hand, United has the most restrictive basic economy fares of the “big three,” and they’re not relenting. So their strategy is confusing, but seems to work.

With that in mind, United has just announced a huge push towards becoming a more premium airline, as they plan to install an additional 1,600 first and business class seats throughout their fleet.

Here are the changes we can expect, broken down by aircraft type:

United A319: four more first class seats

United’s fleet of 67 Airbus A319s will be reconfigured starting later this year, and all A319s should be reconfigured by the middle of 2020. With these changes, United is adding four first class seats. Here’s what this means for their overall seat count:

  • First class will go from 8 seats to 12 seats
  • Economy Plus will go from 42 seats to 36 seats
  • Economy will maintain 78 seats

So as you can see, they’re adding four first class seats and removing six Economy Plus seats, meaning there’s a net decrease of only two seats per plane.

United A320s: four more first class seats

United’s fleet of 99 Airbus A320s will be reconfigured starting in early 2020, and all A320s should be reconfigured by the middle of 2020 (that’s a quick project). With these changes, United is adding four first class seats. Here’s what this means for their overall seat count:

  • First class will go from 12 seats to 16 seats
  • Economy Plus will go from 42 seats to 39 seats
  • Economy will go from 96 seats to 95 seats

So as you can see they’re adding four first class seats and removing three Economy Plus seats and one regular economy seat, meaning the seat count remains unchanged.

United CRJ550: a very sparse configuration

United Airlines has 50 CRJ550s on order. If that aircraft type doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because it’s a new type of plane.

The CRJ550 is essentially based on the fuselage of the CRJ700, which is a plane that usually has about 76 seats. However, United is going for a really premium configuration on these planes.

The CRJ550s will feature 10 first class seats, 20 Economy Plus seats, and only 20 regular economy seats. Furthermore, there will allegedly be a snack bar in first class, whatever that means.

They’ll also have four closets on the plane, so many passengers will be able to bring their carry-on bags onboard.

Now, I suspect that part of the motivation here also involves United’s scope clause with pilots. United is limited in terms of the number of regional jets they can have with over 50 seats, so getting a 76 seat regional jet and only installing 50 seats on it is seems to me like a workaround. They’re intentionally not configuring these efficiently, it seems, but will make the most of them by using them in premium markets.

United 767-300s: lots more Polaris seats

United is in the process of installing Polaris seats throughout their longhaul fleet. When it comes to their 767-300s, they’ve been reconfiguring planes in two phases:

  • First they reconfigured their 17 three cabin 767-300s, which featured first, business, and economy; they’re almost done reconfiguring these planes
  • Then they’re reconfiguring their 21 two cabin 767-300s, which feature business and economy; they’re about to start the project of reconfiguring these planes

Those second set of planes are expected to debut shortly, and all 767s should be reconfigured by the end of 2020.

What’s surprising is how they’ll be reconfiguring these planes. Rather than choosing the same layout as the other 767-300s with Polaris seats (which feature 30 business class seats and 184 economy seats), they’re choosing a much more premium configuration.

United will reconfigure a subset of their 767-300s with 46 Polaris seats, 22 Premium Plus seats, 47 Economy Plus seats, and just 52 economy seats. Here’s how that represents a change over the old configuration:

  • Business class will go from 30 to 46 seats
  • Premium economy till go from 0 to 22 seats
  • Economy Plus will go from 49 to 47 seats
  • Economy will go from 135 to 52 seats

So net we’re seeing a capacity decrease of 47 seats, as they go from 214 seats to 167 seats. If these planes are used in the right markets, that could be pretty interesting.

My take on United’s premium direction

First let me say that I think it’s really exciting to see an airline with a strategy. United has a plan, whether good or bad, and they’re executing on it. That’s in stark contrast to American, which seems to have no strategy at all.

But beyond that, I actually think United’s strategy is really smart here:

  • On the A319/A320 they’re increasing first class capacity significantly with only slight overall decreases in capacity, so they can pull that off
  • The CRJ550 configuration should work well in certain markets, and it’s the best they could do given their pilot scope clause
  • A premium 767-300 makes a lot of sense in certain markets (like Newark to London), so if they deploy them correctly, that’s a really smart strategy

Some might say “well good luck to United during the next economic downturn.” While they’ll no doubt be in trouble with those 767s if/when there’s a major downturn, the reality is they would be in trouble no matter what.

Even when times are good, we are seeing roundtrip economy fares from the US to Europe for $500 or less. That’s no way to make money. So they’re in trouble no matter what if there’s a big downturn, regardless of whether they have a lot of premium capacity, or a lot of economy capacity.

Well done, United! It’s refreshing to see an airline other than Delta leading the way for something for once.

What do you make of United’s new premium direction?

Comments
  1. I actually kind of get their strategy. They want to be able to compete with both premium passengers and those looking for the cheapest tickets to fill their plane. Those are the 2 biggest markets right now and there trying to incorporate the two.

  2. Even with cheaper roundtrip fares to Europe nowadays I still feel United and other airlines make more money from change/cancellation/ancillary fees. I haven’t flown UA in a while but its change fees are at least $200 from what I recall (plus difference in airfare.)
    The David Dao incident is almost 2 years ago and I guess despite bad press back then it didn’t really hurt its stock price longterm.

  3. This is United actually leading. And it’s a strategy that will pay off. The goal is to increase the yield you get from passengers on the plane. American by reducing capacity think they can increase prices through scarcity. A fallacy because there are almost always competitors. With more business class seats United can serve different segments of premium class flyers. People who don’t want to sit in economy and are wiling to pay for premium economy or also a discounted business ticket as well as the business traveler that isn’t concerned about the cost of a $10,000+ ticket that books last minute. As a 1K Million Miler this is a change I actually like.

  4. Now let’s see if they actually make any domestic F award seats available to us on the A319s and 320s. It’s been months since I’ve seen any

  5. This is great news – some of the ORD – LHR routes could use a business class capacity upgrade as I usually can’t book United last minute because they’re sold out in business.

  6. Now it’s up to them to add seatback IFE to the domestic fleet. That would attract many more happy customers.

  7. This is absolutely brilliant. For what it is worth I have heard from many American Airline employees that Scott Kirby was not the problem at American but rather Doug Parker. So, perhaps Scott Kirby has always been flexible in his thought process as long as it is supported by a spreadsheet (which I know not everything shows up in a spreadsheet and you most definitely can make stupid decisions based on it) but Doug Parker wouldn’t sign off on the various initiatives.

    This change in strategy at United makes American look foolish for ripping out 4 first class seats on their USAirways A319s just a few year ago when they harmonized the product. It always makes American look foolish for ripping out 8 business class seats on their 787-800 planes. If you want a revenue premium it is likely never going to come primarily from your economy class passengers if as airline executives like to say, passengers choose an airline primarily on price. Plus, on many routes I fly with American there domestic first class (including Caribbean routes) and business class are often sold out 3 to 4 weeks prior to departure which makes it impossible to capture the high yield last minute business traveler unless you are planning to bump other paying business class passengers.

    Just goes to show how far American Airlines has fallen in the last 5 years since the merger with USAirways.

  8. Yep, I just changed my allegiance from AA to US for these and other reasons.

    At least for domestic flights – always use foreign airlines for international

  9. There are really two premium markets, domestic and international. UA seems to have decided that there is a not insignificant portion of the domestic market that is willing to pay a few hundred dollars more for an experience not to be terrible. I think they are right. There are a lot of us who have learned you need to be in the front of the plane to have a decent experience and it is affordable.

    But that is one pricepoint. In the international market, given the degradation in the Polaris experience since it was rolled out, they seem to be going for the discount business class/corporate contract market, which probably pays $2k-$3K RT, and is not that sensitive to the food and service quality, so long as the flight is on time and the seat is good. I’m in that camp – I will buy UA business class when it is the cheapest option. For full retail business class ($6K RT and up), I don’t think their product is competitive, and there are no particular benefits to loyalty. If that maximizes their revenue, then that is good for them. Does not enhance the brand, though. I mean, the whole Polaris campaign has been a joke.

  10. Wow, who’d a thought this would happen?

    I think we’re going to see reduced competition to Europe especially if Norwegian fails or is folded into another airline.

    They’ve segmented the market nicely with the 766 configuration which with 2-3-2 in economy being superior to the 3-3-3 in the 787 and 3-4-3 in 777 configurations.

    Are you cheap? Go to the back of the plane to the cheap seats.
    Want some space for yourself? Got you covered.
    Want a premium experience but can’t afford J? Here you go.
    Want a nice Biz seat? Plenty to go around.

  11. I give credit to UA for at least addressing the issue of too small of a First Class cabin for the A319 and A320. While they no doubt think they can get a higher yield of passengers willing to pay up for First Class with additional seats, the added benefit would be to UA Premier members potentially having a higher chance of getting upgraded (due to added FC seat) could theoretically encourage more loyalty.

    While its great they have identified and are trying to fix the premium quantity issue on the A319-320. The other main issue with UA’s A319 and A320 IMO is their quality of First Class. You aren’t getting much for either paying a premium or getting upgraded (through loyalty) in their First Class. Slightly larger seat (which personally I don’t even find that comfortable), no backseat IFE and a lack of meals for many flights.

  12. Definitely a way to gain market share and loyalty. I think this will bring back customers to them, who like I, gave up on UA despite being a Global Services member, on the minute chances for upgrades when not flying paid First through my business.

  13. What this also does – and what AA does not get – is make it easier for business class travelers to find last minute availability, both on the outbound and return portion of a trip. I rarely have more than a week notice before an international trip and almost never return home on the original day I booked. If American’s reduced number of J seats means no availability, then I have to book elsewhere.

  14. On the 319 and 320 conversions, it looks like they are in effect replacing one row of economy plus with a row of first. What does mean in terms of seat pitch in either section. Something is being squeezed somewhere.

  15. Given the lack of award availability in United premium cabins recently, I don’t think they’re having any problems filling them. I like the strategy to move against the grain and find a niche in a crowded US market. Now hopefully they open some additional award space.

  16. Those 767s should fly sfo to EWR where it’s impossible to get a red-eye saver award even in the 777 dorm room

  17. It is sort of weird the contrast between the comments in a post like this one of late, and comments in every post on United about a year ago when it seemed like everyone and their dogs were competing to see who would find the worst adjective or epithet with which to describe the airline.

    United’s basic economy is the most ‘restrictive’ on purpose: the aim is not to sell very many BE seats. Rather, the purpose it is sell many standard economy seats by offering a punitive basic economy that would make the point that ‘cheap is not necessarily better or desirable.’

    Lastly, these two statement are sort of weird too:

    — “Oscar Munoz doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo that United isn’t an airline known for customer service; that seems to be his sole focus, which is great, but I question whether fundamentally changing the corporate culture at United is possible.”

    That gets it exactly backwards. Munoz got the memo and decided to do something about it, which some of us who fly almost exclusively with United have noticed and greatly appreciate. Munoz has succeed in changing $mi$sek’s “corporate culture” at United, and, as a result, the company is enjoying a ‘financial renaissance’ of sort.

    — “Scott Kirby, at least until recently, still had an America West/US Airways attitude, so to see him focus at all on the premium product is shocking, to say the least; he really seems to be the one running the show at United.”

    No, Munoz is running the show at United — but behind the scene. He dad a vision for the company and brought someone on board with industry experience (which Munoz lacked) to help him realize that vision. Kirby is running things based on what Munoz wants to accomplish, although I am sure he has a lot of latitude on how to accomplish it.

  18. I guess this was announced now because of all the earnings calls going on, but it’s sort of funny that it coincides with yet another major cut to service in Polaris. They were already premium heavy compared to AA and Delta, and they just started operating with the lower FA count (matching AA) in Polaris and serving pre-plated meals. If you go to Flyer Talk and take a look, they look like something I would pull out of my microwave, or something I would get in international economy.
    They’ve also increased their fares over the past year and put more emphasis on corporate bookings. I think the strategy is not to capture the premium market, but to build a base of business flyers who are boxed in by their company’s travel policies, while filling the back with former Spirit customers. PE is for people who formerly would have bought discount business for leisure travel.

  19. @Tim – prices won’t rise very much in economy transatlantically if Norwegian fails; for two reasons –

    Norwegian will fail because of the next economic downturn, which will increase the current oversupply of economy seats on TATL routes. In the downturn airlines won’t be able to raise prices because the demand won’t be there.

    Second, their planes and slots will have to go somewhere. Even if they are used to speed up some retirements of older aircraft; at BA particularly, the net capacity decrease won’t make enough of a dent to shift the supply/demand balance in favour of higher prices

  20. @lucky
    Two things: On the line, “Premium economy till go from 0 to 22 seats,” I think you meant to say “will.” Sorry for being the spelling police.

    Another question, with the large increase of premium seats on the 767, my only concern is service. Will they be allocating additional FAs to Biz and Prem Economy? Otherwise, how will they maintain service standards?

  21. I have an airline credit for United from a cancelled trip last year. I don’t fly much, so when I try to go to look for flights, I was shocked to learn that the route I am looking at for NY-LAX did not offer Premium Economy. It was only BE or First Class. So, decided to do First Class even if it meant paying a little extra out of pocket and I went to look at FC and it looks like crap. People call this First Class? They shell out several hundred dollars and sit in the front looking down their noses at people who walk by and allow an airline to pass off subpar seats, and food as FC? I refused to pay anything out of pocket for such crappy FC (which really looks like PE) and am considering using my credit for a destination where I don’t have to come out of pocket at all. United sucks. Will not fly them again after this credit is used if I can help it. It’s the principle: you don’t force people to choose between BE and PE and then not offer PE and make people have to consider shelling out several hundred more to not hate their experience and to not have to check a bag. People need to wake up.

  22. How will deboarding work on the CRJ550 if the luggage is held in the center of the plane…?

    Everyone in First will have to remain seated while one or two people sort each suitcase from the mess in the closet? None of this makes sense.

  23. “Even when times are good, we are seeing roundtrip economy fares from the US to Europe for $500 or less. That’s no way to make money”

    Many will never understand just how important those $500 fares are! They add up to 100s of million of dollars in revenue.

  24. I seem to remember Delta has differently configured 767-300ERs with larger business class cabins for higher demand routes (36 seats). While United’s seat count in business is obviously higher, this isn’t exactly the first time an airline has done this.

  25. For all the crap heaped on UA, I have been using them for years, as they have the best choice of flights out of Tokyo to the US. Overall I find Polaris to be a big improvement, and generally the FAs on domestic flights are very friendly. As a 1K I frequently get upgraded on domestic flights as well as international flights. It’s great to see them add more premium seats. I have had nothing but mediocre experiences with American and Delta doesn’t fly where I need to go, so I will remain loyal to UA.

  26. So UA is finally catching up to DL on the 319/320 FC seating. Not exactly sure how United is “leading” in this department.

  27. My experience is obviously unique, but I don’t think I’ve had what I would describe as a “bad” customer service experience with United in my 15+ years flying them domestically. People’s preferences for customer engagement are different.

    As others have noted, I like what this expansion means for award availability and upgrades for premier elites. Anyone who has ever been 1-3 spots away from an upgrade knows that frustration. The fact that they are doing an exchange of one E+ row here or there will make this a smoother rollout. Since those are bulkhead rows…the pitch shouldn’t suffer too much. There should still be enough room left for long legged customers.

    Most United flights from DCA connect through ORD or EWR so I am looking forward to hopefully seeing one of these CRJ 550 aircraft on one of my trips. You usually can’t fit more that one roller (turned lengthwise) and a laptop bag in the overhead compartment of most of the regional jets they fly…and that’s just one side. The cabinets will free up space for at least first and most of the E+ seats. Folks in E will probably still have to gate check.

    As for premium economy, I haven’t actually looked at the price difference/offerings to see if it’s a good deal. My company is Team Economy only so any upgrades I get are through loyalty and personal sacrifice. I would definitely be interested in an economic compromise for either business or leisure travel.

  28. The CRJ550 is just some of their existing crj-7s being refitted with business, Econ +, and Econ then being recertified for a lower weight. This has to due with the weight in the UAL pilot scope contract. It isn’t a new design or airplane just moving seats and paperwork.
    Scott “RJ” Kirby is a known lover of rj outsourcing and wants just that. He could fly all the 76 seater jets he wants if he brings them in house all under United airlines and lets United pilots fly them. But he would rather try to tip-toe along the scope line and outsource to the cheapest regional (GoJet) for these aircraft substitution.

  29. @IPFreely – so do I. You mentioned “still only one lav” (on the CRJ550). i don’t even see one. What am I missing?

  30. I’ve been AA Exec Plat for the last 4 years and, before that, had just made UA 1K. I made the switch because I fly regularly in/out of Hong Kong and CX is great, but every year I’ve regretted the switch more and more. This is the year I switch back. Two reasons:

    (1) This. UA actually investing in premium cabins and upgrade availability. And they’ve never filled me with rage the way AA does.

    (2) AA treats premium customers like garbage. Just last month, I spent $6,000 *and* an upgrade to fly AA 3-class Flagship First from HKG to DFW – I need to lie flat on long flights for medical reasons. Result: stuck in a broken seat (wouldn’t go flat) and couldn’t downgrade to business or back-of-plane empty row because the flight was full. Got off the plane literally in pain.
    AA’s response? 15,000 miles and, after I complained loudly, a firmly worded customer service response stating “we have investigated and cannot offer you further compensation, but you can have a $300 voucher instead of the 15,000 miles if you prefer.”
    Then I asked (repeatedly) for the name and address of a person I could write to in customer service. I was just directed to the anonymous “Customer Service” address and was assured it would make no difference if I wrote instead of dealing with them online.

    I advised our corporate travel agent in Hong Kong to steer people away from AA for premium international travel in the future. They were surprised too by how badly AA handled this. Well done, AA.

  31. Oh and for the record, I suggested as “compensation” for the broken seat that I at least be given back the upgrade certificate I used to get into First, with extended expiry date and a guararanteed shot to actually use it (because we all know what AA upgrade availability is like). Seemed more than fair to me, even for a stingy airline like AA. Didn’t happen.

  32. I think the focus on premium will turn out to be a good thing. More premium seats (assuming of course they allow more availability to upgraders) means more chance to score an upgrade if you are a frequent flier of theirs. This, as opposed to AA, which is cutting capacity and has a decided LACK of award availability.

  33. Agree with Janet. Flying with United since the merger 11-12 times/year from LAX – HNL.
    Never a lost luggage or major issues that we can not live with. 1K flyers and do not plan on changing since United offers more to us than Hawaiian which we flew before. We all have different expectations. Most of our flights are on 777-200 or 757-200 with full flat seats.

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