Thinking About United Airlines’ New Airplane

United Airlines made a bit of a splash with a combination of new and old news last week.  It’s all very good for customers.  Let’s walk through each of the upcoming changes.

United Announces The CRJ-550

On an upcoming podcast episode, I nicknamed this plane the “Scope 550” as it seems to exist mostly because of issues United Airlines has with their pilot scope clause.  These contract clauses dictate what type of airplanes the airlines can add to their regional jet fleet (planes the mainline pilots don’t get to operate). United got creative here and announced a 50-seat plane that’s significantly better than what exists today.  On certain routes nowadays, you’ll find 50-seat planes that look like this:

I’ve flown on worse planes, but this definitely isn’t an aircraft that business travelers seek out.  2 seats on each side of the aisle, essentially one row of Economy Plus and not much else.  Low ceilings and not much in the way of storage for bags in the overhead bins.  The CRJ-550 solves many of those issues.

10 first class seats on a 50-seat plane is a great ratio.  The only reason these won’t be easy to get is that the 50-seat aircraft normally fly pretty full on routes popular with business travelers.  United cited Chicago to Northwest Arkansas (for Walmart) as a route that will see these planes in 2019.  Any way you go, this plane will be a lot more pleasant to fly than the CRJ-200.  Closets for baggage will mean less time wasted gate-checking your bag.  And, with 60% of the plane featuring extra legroom seats, business travelers will find this to be a gem.

All of that is possible because the CRJ-550 is really built off the frame of the larger CRJ-700, which usually features 20-25 more seats.  It’s a bit of a daring move for United to strip that many seats off an airplane.  But, if they’re targeting short-haul business routes, they might actually have something here.

I end up on a number of routes to small cities where I have to connect.  Assuming United can solve their Wi-Fi issues, I would be more likely to book these sorts of flights with United as opposed to American or Delta.  Hopefully, more 50-seat planes might mean an increase in frequency if demand is there.  That one might be a pipe dream, but I’ll click my heels and cross my fingers for the moment.  Expect to see some of these planes popping up in the summer or fall of 2019.

Airbus Fleet Getting More First Class

United Airlines has had fewer first class seats on their Airbus 319 and 320 planes than many planes of similar sizes at their competition.  This can make getting upgrades as a business traveler very difficult.  Heck, on some routes I fly the first class cabin sells out even before the upgrade window for 1K members opens.  United is predicting this will happen very quickly.  Here’s what you should see in the Airbus 319 and 320 fleet later this year, with completion reportedly in 2020:

4 more seats on both of these planes should make a huge difference for elite members, especially if the economy cools off a touch.  Nothing like a recession to open up seats on airplanes.  The new seats they installed aren’t really the greatest from a function standpoint, but they beat the old ones.  Adding more to both the 319 and 320 is awesome.

767 Sub-Fleet Gets Lots More Business Class

This isn’t “news”, per se.  It was announced last year, but we’re getting more information about layout now.

The 767-300ERs get more business class and Premium Plus (premium economy).  That’s a solid improvement for travelers on these routes.  United cites Newark to London, a popular route for business customers.  That’s about a 6-hour flight in the air.  For an old man like me, having a lie-flat seat to be able to sleep is critical on a flight that short.  Alternatively, you can opt for the daytime flight to London that leaves around 9am and gets into London just after 8pm.  I’m keenly interested to try that flight in the future.

The Final Two Pennies

Seth from PaxEx.Aero has even more detail on the changes.  He also joins me on Wednesday to discuss the changes on my podcast, Miles To Go.  I always enjoy hearing his opinion on announcements like this, given the amount of time he spends studying the passenger experience.

Frankly, color me a bit surprised that United is making these moves.  The CRJ-550 looks like a joy for a business traveler.  I really enjoy the planes that have a 1-2 configuration for first class, since that gives me a window seat and full control to get up whenever I want.  More of those planes in the fleet is a definite plus in my book.  I’m also surprised at how quickly United says this will roll out, especially given how long it’s taken to get a decent amount of planes flying with their new Polaris business class seats.  I’ll be eager to watch these developments in 2019.

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  1. One other factor in this move, and likely a reason United is retrofitting so quickly, is that removing the CR7s from the pool of 70-seat planes in the fleet opens up slots for ERJ-175s to be added.

    Scope clause covers not only what types of planes can be operated by non-mainline pilots but also how many can. UA is limited on 70 seaters but not 50 seaters.

  2. Nice post, Ed. One big question for me is whether United will release more award saver space in premium cabins domestically, since there are more premium seats in the pipeline. Just in my personal experience, finding space can be tough, even as a silver with a United credit card. How have your experiences been?

    1. Christian, domestic saver award space on UA is pretty poor in general right now. There might be an initial bubble of availability. But, I expect United to quickly adjust the pricing to match demand and fill those F seats, even if it means taking $50 less a seat. They’ve gotten way better at yield management than I want them to.

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