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United Goes Fully Flat… in Business Class… On Long Haul… From North American Hubs

I never thought I’d see the day, but United has finally finished outfitting its international fleet with flat beds in business class. This is a truly momentous milestone considering that the process started when I still worked at United and that was more than 8 years ago. But there are still some tricks to what you’ll get when you fly, so let’s go over all those quirks.

Fully Flat in Business Class
This doesn’t really need to be said, but while this announcement is just about Business Class, if you’re flying in First Class internationally, you will also have a flat bed. Anything that’s sold as First Class outside the US will be flat no matter what unless there is some kind of last second aircraft substitution. In that case, you’d be downgraded to business class and have to be unlucky enough to be put on one of the few non-flat beds that aren’t supposed to fly long haul. I’ll just say the chances of that are approaching zero. It’s only First Class seats sold domestically that won’t be flat. Every so often, however, you might get lucky to get a domestic flat bed, especially between the hubs. (And if you’re on JFK to LA or San Francisco, that will be flat.)

Fully Flat Seats
Let’s get to the meat, the seats themselves United has now gone fully flat, but there are two separate types of beds being used depending upon whether it was a pre-merger United seat or a pre-merger Continental seat.

Two United Business Class Seats

The easiest ones to figure out are the 747, 767-400, and 787 fleets. If you’re flying the 747, you get the pre-merger United seat no matter what. Those are a bit narrower than the Continental seats and have less storage. They also alternate facing forwards and backwards. The 767-400 and the 787 have the pre-merger Continental seats. Easy. Done.

The 757-200 is a little tougher but not much. If you’re flying a 757 to Europe or Latin America, then it has the Continental seats. Otherwise, you’re probably flying it domestically and it will usually have domestic-style seats. If you want to be sure, look at the seat map online and see how many rows of business class there are. If there are 6, that’s domestic-style. Otherwise, you’ll have a flat bed.

The 767-300 fleet gets a bit more complex. (The 767-200 is now gone, so I’m ignoring those.) You will have some kind of flat bed no matter what. If the airplane has 2-2-2 across, it’s the old United seat. If it has 2-1-2 across, then it’s the Continental seat.

Then there’s the 777 fleet, the most complex of them all. If you see a configuration of 2-4-2 across, that’s the very narrow pre-merger United flat bed seat. If it’s 2-2-2 across and goes to row 11, it’s the more comfortable Continental seat. But beware. There are 777s out there that still have domestic-style seats. Those are now confined to Hawai’i and Micronesia, but I would think that if an airplane goes mechanical, they could always sub one of those if needed on shorter international flights. (Those airplanes have limited range.) If you have just 6 rows of 2-2-2, that’s the domestic-style seat. By the way, they say the old cradle seats are gone (2-3-2 configuration), but I see them in service flying SFO to Honolulu today and on to Narita tomorrow. So they’re still out there for now, though the intention must be to keep them on shorter intra-Pacific flights until they’re gone. That doesn’t mean they can’t end up being subbed.

Fully Flat on Long Haul
Of course, we have to differentiate here because only long haul flights are getting the flat bed, but what constitutes long haul? First off, flights within North America and the Caribbean do not count as long haul. Those will mostly be regular domestic-style seats. That even stretches into northern South America as well. If you’re flying from Houston to Bogota or Quito, that’s a domestic seat. Lima, however, is a flat bed. Any flight to Europe or Asia from the continental US will have flat beds. But there are some longer flights within Asia, like Narita to Hong Kong, that are domestic-style. These are easy to find because they are operated primarily by 737-800s. As a general guide, if you are flying internationally and the flight is scheduled to be over 6 hours long, that means you’ll get a flat bed. But there are some exceptions…

Fully Flat from North American Hubs
United was clear to say that flat beds will only be offered from North American hubs and on the outlier Seattle to Narita route. But what else is there in the United system? This one is all about Asia. As mentioned, there are flights from Honolulu to Narita without flat beds. That’s an 8+ hour flight. There are also plenty of flights going to and from Guam on the old Continental Micronesia system. Those won’t have flat beds. Why not? Because those are huge tourist routes that either don’t cater to the business traveler (Honolulu-Narita) or just don’t have enough demand to justify it (Guam routes). That doesn’t mean you won’t get a flat bed at all, so make sure to check out the seat maps using the guidelines above just in case. But the chances of a flat bed on that intra-Pacific flying are pretty slim.

Did I confuse you enough? The reality is that the basic premise of having a flat bed is pretty straightforward. But now you have a little more info to figure out which flat bed you’ll have.

[Original Continental seat photo via United]
[Original United seat photo via Flickr user Alan Light/CC 2.0]

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