Looking for an upgrade? Tired of cramped regional jets? United wants to be your airline.
United says it’s adding more than 1,600 premium seats to about 250 of its aircraft, part of an effort to compete against rivals for high-spending road warriors.
The carrier is even planning to introduce a new type of 50-seat regional jet. Complete with first-class seats and a self-serve beverage and snack area, United believes the new Bombardier CRJ 550s will help it attract business travelers flying from small markets to its hubs or connecting to international markets.
“We felt like we were at a competitive disadvantage in certain markets,” Andrew Nocella, United’s chief commercial officer, said in an interview with reporters.
“Today we hear all too often that passengers come in from a smaller market trying to access United’s global network, (but) can’t find a premium seat on the short-haul segment,” he said.
He pointed to Bentonville, Arkansas – home to Walmart’s corporate headquarters – as an example of a market where United has been at a disadvantage.
“Our competitors offer premium seats for the entire journey. United does not. As a result, we have a low share of premium Bentonville passengers to the world,” Nocella said.
In an example United hopes to replicate in similar markets across its network, Nocella said the carrier’s CRJ 550s will be added to its service from Bentonville to Chicago, “connecting to our flights to China and the rest of our … global network.”
“We’ll attract more premium passengers to our network as a result,” he said.
United will deploy its first CRJ 550s at its Chicago hub, adding them on routes of less than 900 miles with high premium demand. Next, they’ll be added to the schedules at United’s hub in Newark, New Jersey.
Nocella declined to identify other United markets that might be a good fit for the CRJ 550 beyond Bentonville, saying only that they’d be announced at a later date.
As another piece of the initiative, United also will increase the number of first- and business-class seats on some of its Boeing 767 widebody jets and on all of its single-aisle Airbus A319 and A320 jets.
On 21 of its Boeing 767-300ERs that typically fly medium-distance international routes, United says it will grow its “Polaris” business-class cabin to 46 lie-flat seats, up from 30. United will reconfigure the planes with 22 of its new “Premium Plus” international-style recliner seats that split the difference between business class and economy. It will be the first time that United’s Boeing 767s get the Premium Plus seats, which were first introduced last year on the airline’s Boeing 787-10 Dreamliners.
IN PICTURES: United Airlines’ new international-style ‘Premium Plus’ seats (story continues below)
United’s new international-style “Premium Plus” premium economy seats were seen on its first Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner at Washington Dulles on Nov. 16, 2018.
With the overhaul, the seating capacity on the 21 reconfigured Boeing 767s will drop to 167 from the current 214.
United initially plans to fly the reconfigured 767s between its hub in Newark to London Heathrow “as our primary focus and later on other premium markets.”
The first reconfigured 767 will begin flying for United this month, with the effort continuing into 2020.
United will continue to fly some Boeing 767s with their current seating arrangements, with Nocella saying those will operate “to Europe and South American destinations with lower levels of premium demand.”
“By operating two distinct 767-300 interior configurations, we can meet demand profiles across many routes while satisfying more premium demand on high-frequency routes to a destination like London Heathrow,” Nocella said.
On its single-aisle Airbus jets, United’s first-class cabin on the A319 will grow to 12 seats from eight, while the A320’s will go to 16, up from 12.
Nocella said upgrades were a consideration in making the change. United’s A319s and A320s are similarly sized to its Boeing 737s, most of which have 16 to 20 seats in the first-class cabin.
“We noticed the chance of our most loyal customers getting an upgrade on United’s A319s were the lowest in the fleet, half that of a 737,” he said. “We wanted to rectify that and make sure the ability to upgrade was consistent across the Airbus and 737 fleet. This change will do that.”
United will begin retrofitting the first of its A319s this fall, while the A320 updates will start in early 2020. The new seating layouts eventually will be spread across the more than 150 models of the planes in United’s fleet.
“Along with much improved upgrade availability, we also expect to sell many of these new first-class seats to meet customer demand,” Nocella said.
The overall seating capacity on United’s A319s will drop to 126 from 128 once the extra premium seats are added. United’s A320s will stay at 150 seats, with a layout change in coach enough to offset the addition of first-class seats. United says it is not shrinking seats to accommodate the change.
Meanwhile, United is turning to the new Bombardier CRJ 550 to shake up its United Express regional fleet.
Technically a new aircraft, the CRJ 550 is being created from the frames of Bombardier’s existing CRJ 700 model, which typically seats between 65 and 70 passengers.
The CRJ 550, which still must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and Transport Canada, was developed specifically for United. It is expected to join the fleet of United Express affiliate GoJet by year’s end. United would be the launch customer of the aircraft.
United’s CRJ 550s will include 10 first-class seats and 40 in economy. Of those coach-class seats, 20 will be United’s extra-legroom “Economy Plus” seats.
United said the “first-of-its-kind” CRJ 550s will feature perks not often associated with 50-seat regional jets, almost universally disliked by frequent-fliers.
The CRJ 550 will have a “self-serve beverage and snack station” for customers in first class and will be equipped for in-flight Wi-Fi. They’ll also feature four storage closets to help accommodate flyers’ roll-aboard bags, “virtually eliminating the need to gate-check luggage,” Nocella predicted.
“Our industry, including United, has operated 50-seaters in a single-class layout without Wi-Fi connectivity and generally limited storage space. We’ve heard from our customers they want a change,” he added. “We expect this plane will quickly became a favorite with passengers traveling on short-haul domestic routes.”
TODAY IN THE SKY: First look: United shows off its first Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner