United Looks to Improve the International Travel Experience . . . in Coach

One of the things that bothers me the most about United is its widely varying international travel experience in coach depending upon the airplane. The ultimate insult is coach on the 747, and new CEO Jeff Smisek knows it. He is apparently committing to fixing the product and bringing it up to this century’s standards.

The best international experience you can have in coach on United is if you get on one of the handful of 777s that have been reconfigured. These airplanes have brand new seats with full audio/video on demand for each person. It’s probably not much different than what you would expect on most airlines today. The old 777s and the 767s are a step down. The older seats do have personal screens but the movies are just looping and not on-demand. That’s not great and certainly not up to current standards, but it’s not awful either.

Then there’s the 747.

United 747 Economy

It’s probably not fair to use this picture from my 747 flight a couple weeks ago because even that old interior is outdated compared to what United has done on all its other 747s. (This particular airplane just made its last flight for United back to the desert.) But things aren’t that much better. United still only has overhead screens on this airplane, which it uses on some of the longest routes in its network. Want to fly for 14 hours to Sydney from LA? This is what you’ll get. It’s barebones, and it’s really the kind of product you would expect on a third world airline and nobody else these days. So how is it still flying?

United likes to put the 747 on its longest routes that have a lot of low fare demand. If you’re flying in a premium cabin, you’ll get a nice new flat bed, but it’s the back of the bus where United packs people in for cheap. The result is that coach passengers are rarely pleased with the product and it makes the airline a choice of last resort for people flying somewhere United uses a 747, if they know better.

Fortunately, Smisek knows this is true and he’s going to fix it. He told Australian Business Traveller that United would upgrade its 747s one way or another.

The back of the product on the 747 that United flies to Australia is not an acceptable level of product. And I know that, I recognise that. But United on its own didn’t have the money to invest in that product. Now (with the United-Continental merger) it does, and we will.

Oh man, that’s good to hear. Maybe we’ll finally get a consistently good hard product in the back of the bus on United’s international flights. That would be excellent, though I guess I should wait until I actually see it before giving too much praise. At least they’re talking the talk finally. It’s good to see that someone understands the importance of consistency over there. (And not consistently bad.)

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