United 777 Premium Reconfiguration Requiring Changes in Coach?

777, Inflight Entertainment, United

Ever wonder why United is (finally) working hard to upgrade the 767 and 747 aircraft with the new premium cabin seats, but the 777 is left behind? It appears, that of all things, it’s a problem in coach that’s keeping them from getting it done. The fix is going to end up changing the coach configuration on the airplane, and while it will cost the airline a fair chunk of change, it won’t really benefit coach passengers much at all.

According to sources, the new inflight entertainment system that’s being installed as part of the premium cabin makeover is incompatible with the old screens in coach. This obviously wouldn’t impact the 747 since it has no screens in coach, but it apparently doesn’t impact the 767 either. So, United now needs to fix the coach screens on the 777, and that apparently requires new seats. That obviously means it will cost money, so it’s no surprise that United is de-emphasizing the 777 project in favor of the 767 and 747 one right now.

As part of this project, I’m told that United will actually be changing the configuration in coach on the 777s from 2-5-2 to 3-3-3. I’m not sure why this change is happening, but I wonder if it has to do with how many screens each box can power. If each box can power 3 screens, then a 3-3-3 configuration would need 3 boxes per row while 2-5-2 would need 4 boxes (assuming they can’t reach across the aisle). This would certainly make the configuration change worthwhile.

United 777 Config

But that’s speculation. If anyone knows why this change is being done, please let me know. Assuming this information is accurate, it’s going to once again mean a painful transition for United customers in coach. I assume it’s a safe bet that they won’t dedicate certain configurations to a single route. (Though they’re trying to do it now, it’s far from a guarantee.) So while the change is happening, if you booked a B seat on one plane thinking you had an aisle, you might end up with a middle seat. On the other hand, if you booked a D seat thinking you have a middle, you might be rewarded with an aisle.

On top of all this, I think it’s safe to assume that the domestic 777 fleet which has no international premium product or in seat video, probably won’t change at all. If those are all isolated to the Hawai’i and domestic routes they’re intended to fly, it’s not a huge problem but it still adds to the confusion.

What’s the worst part of all this? There won’t be any material changes for coach passengers, as far as I can see. This won’t bring video on demand or anything like that into coach. It will simply be a costly infrastructure upgrade to allow for video on demand up front.

If anyone has further information about this, hit the comments.

[There is now an updated post with info that United will have on demand in coach.]

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44 comments on “United 777 Premium Reconfiguration Requiring Changes in Coach?

  1. From the posts on Flyertalk and Airliners.net that I’ve read, the video reconfig seems to be the sticking point for 777 coach on United and you’ve summarized all the available info I’ve seen.

  2. From a coach traveler’s perspective that sucks.

    I love those two seat rows on the 777 and 767s – especially on long flights (Europe and such.) It means that if you travel with your other half or a friend you have one tiny row with each other. And on long flights it means one less person bumping in and out past you if you’re in the aisle.

  3. Agree with James, the 2 seat rows on the 777 make coach a much nicer ride then 3-3-3 (well, along with the geek factor of being on a 777 domestically). But are the 767’s also going 3 seats on the sides? Is that possible?

  4. No, no changes to the 767s in coach. I don’t think I said anything along those lines in my post, but I’m happy to clarify if I did.

  5. The singular benefit to 3-3-3 is on the rare occasion of having a row to yourself and having a 60″ bed for the duration of a longhaul flight. That’s three beds per row instead of just one dog in the manger sprawled across five seats in the middle. Even for couples, three seats to yourself gives you more room to stretch out if the center seat stays empty.

    All the same, again I’m confused over the fuss of not having inseat video on long haul flights. I use it when its available almost exclusively for the AirMap but who stares at that for an entire 12-hour flight?

    I’ve got a laptop and an iPod, either of which can play all the unedited movies, games and shows I want at my command. Inflight WiFi will truly make all the World of Warcraft fans rejoice. For the airlines bringing in-seat power to coach, you get my business.

    United, if you’re truly smart, here’s one man’s opinion that you can just scrap all the IFE for coach and introduce power ports instead. Saves weight, maintenance costs and truly lets the passenger design their own non-X-rated inflight experience from their own personal library.

  6. I disagree about scrapping the IFE. Not everyone wants to take a mess of electronic junk with them on their vacation. As it is I’m already bringing one still digital camera and one DV video camera so I want to minimize more electronic carry ons. And your mileage may vary but IPods are too dang small to watch anything on for extended periods of time. I prefer having some sort of video distraction that I can leave on the plane (and not have to shlep through an airport and past the TSA)

  7. And yeah…going from 2-5-2 to 3-3-3 sucks. But since i mainly fly United 777s to Hawaii, I guess I’ll be dodging that bullet.

  8. I suppose that aisle-seat aficionados who want to assure themselves of that aisle seat will need to choose the C or G seat — though it will vary from aisle-on-left to aisle-on-right according to configuration.

    Too bad re: the disappearance of the 2-5-2. I know that you were bumming if you were in the E seat, but 2-5-2 meant that only 1 person per row would have to climb over two other passengers to reach the aisle. Now, 2 people per row (both window seats) will have that pleasure.

  9. More UAL “lets confuse the hell out of our customers” brilliance at its best. It is the only airline I know of that requires due diligence to purchase a ticket or pick a freakin seat. (am I on a Bus or a TED bus? Is it a mainline paint with TED seats or TED paint with mainline F seats? Is it the Intl 777 config on a domestic run or a domestic config on an international run?)

    Lawdy..where does it end??

  10. It would almost seem easier/cheaper if they kept the existing seats and IFE for coach and had a separate system for C/F.

    And yeah, those plane swaps will be a LOT of fun for a lot of people.

  11. I too despise carrying loads of crap on board for my own “entertainment.” Just more stuff to potentially get lost or broken. I think all the hype about IFE for domestic short run flights under 3 hours is somewhat stupid, but for long haul the systems are nice. Not like I’d ever consider taking United “across the pond” but for how often I take one of those flights (not often) I do research things like the on-board product.

  12. I support TTO’s suggestion – laptop power in coach would be a considerable improvement (I thought AA and Virgin had it on some of their fleet?). Cranky, I hadn’t heard about the IFE causing a problem, but had heard that the forward/backward seat configuration in C class was going to cause a space issue? Anyway, for my next trip, I was surprised that United let me upgrade from coach (reduced fare seat, not Y) with miles and confirmed the upgrade immediately. As I’m taking the early LHR-IAD flight it’s a 767, so the choice now (any suggestions anyone!) is forward or rear-facing seat?

    Belated Happy New Year to everyone.

  13. @Bobber — I deliberately chose the backward facing seat on the UD of the 747 recently because I wanted to see what it was like (any joho can fly forward-facing, after all). It was fine. During take-off you are leaning a bit forward and the magazines starting sliding out of the storage area between the seats, but it was a fun experience none the less. I booked it again for next year and certainly isn’t something I’d be concerned about.

    On the IFE, I always bring my own. People bring a book (instead of borring the People magazine from the FAs), so why not a small hard-disk or flash-based PMP? I’ve carried my Cowon A2 (8 hrs battery life) on every flight > 4 hrs for the last three or four years. Even if there is a larger screen available, the PMP lets me watch what I want, not what the airline scheduled.

  14. Cheers, Oliver – will change my selection! I’ve flown rear-facing in RAF transports (a VC10!) when I was a naive air cadet years ago – argument being you’ve got a better chance of surviving a crash (with the ground!) because you’re more likely to be pushed back in your seat. Don’t really need to test this hypothesis though.

    The switch from 2-5-2 to 3-3-3 would put UA in line with the rest of the 777 flying airlines, I would have thought. Personally, I prefer 2-5-2, but that’s only because I can almost always guarantee getting a seat on the side. Getting stuck in the 5 row is a nightmare, and I can see why many people would actually welcome such a reconfiguration.

  15. Doug – You are correct in wanting to carry less through TSA. Last time I flew I took up four trays alone just in shoes, laptop, pocket junk (cell phone, iPod and and jacket. If they’d taken my belt it might have been five! All that plus the computer bag and the carry-on. Yeesh!

    At the same time, I was able to enjoy “300” and “Shawshank Redemption” on the flight home, one movie not likely to have much story left after the airlines finish editing the thing and the other long past onboard circulation instead of the tame and lame programming most airlines are afraid to let go of. “Pushing Tin,” anybody? Not on an airplane unless ya bring it y’self!

    Trust me I love my window seat and at 6’4″ ’tis far more humane to disturb one person instead of two to get to the aisle. But, again, at 6’4″ if I get three across to myself on any flight over five hours I admit to being that frothing dog in the manger for the sake of some space!

  16. I always wonder why airlines don’t go to a 2-4-3 configuration in coach on a 777 and the 747. Couples could go for the two, a family of four could go for the middle 4, and randoms or maybe the single child parents could for for the 3 row. This is how Air New Zealand originally configured their 747-100’s and how they are looking to do their 787’s. I recently flew DL with VOD cross country, and this was far better than the overhead screens that CO had coming back. VOD is a major benefit to coach passengers, but UA ignores that. That is a huge benefit on international flights given the flight time, even if I thought Wall-E was lousy on my last Delta VOD flight in F, but at least was my bad choice, not the airlines.

  17. Actually, the 3-3-3 configuration has become pretty standard across 777s industry-wide. As far as I know, only UA, AA & MH operate 2-5-2 777s… although AF has introduced a (gasp!) 3-4-3 configuration on its newer 777-300ERs.

    As to why, I cannot say for sure… although Cranky’s theory about power distribution to in-seat IFE sounds very logical.

    I will say that when CO introduced the 3-3-3, the ostensible reason was for passenger comfort… so that no seat was more than one away from an aisle. Frankly, while I’d much prefer to sit in the “2” side section… heaven forbid I end up in the center section of a 2-5-2 777. (Even on the aisle, I recall the old DC-10 days and often lamented being stuck next to four other people for 10 hours.)

  18. I just got back from Australia on united, was travelling as NRSA, so was business down but economy plus back. Can anyone explain why United has chosen not to put on demand in coach? Is it really that expensive? It makes such a difference on a 15 hour flight, people will pay for it.

  19. @Joe — how do you know that people will pay for it? Do you have statistics that show that UA economy is empty to Australia while Qantas is packed? I am sure there are some people who’d pay a bit more, but there are probably also plenty who’d pick the cheaper carrier even if it just saves a few bucks. For me, E+ is much more important that VOD. As I keep saying in threads like this: I can bring my own entertainment, but I can’t bring my own leg room.

  20. For those who don’t know, “NRSA” is United-speak for “Non-Revenue, Space Available,” otherwise known as employee or “buddy” pass riders who do not pay much more than the taxes levied to fly their employing airline.

    Joe may have a point in this fee-crazy environment that airlines who haven’t already will find a way to charge for VOD. It’s one more reason I agree with Oliver and respectfully disagree with Doug – for a long vacation in a foreign country involving extreme flight times (Australia, South Africa, India, etc), I’ll bring my own. It’ll pass the time in the air and guarantee entertainment in my language on the ground.

    Before I started packing my own films and shows I did a month in Hong Kong once and felt I knew the CNN and BBC World News anchors personally for the sake of endless updates on Test Cricket and the FTSE!

  21. Random Geek Minutiae “Inflight WiFi will truly make all the World of Warcraft fans rejoice.” Probably not. Inflight internet will have latencies that are too high for game playing, not to mention that the bandwidth probably won’t be that great.

    On topic: What another brilliant move by United. Can they hurry it up and file Chapter 7, e.g. Management doesn’t know what they’re doing.

    And I vote for 2-4-3, it seems to be the best option all around, assuming your VOD system won’t have a 33% price increase.

  22. Sounds like a silly change, I mean insofar as they’re redoing coach just to upgrade business IFE. That said, I HATE the 2-5-2 config, so 3-3-3 or even 3-4-3 is an upgrade to me.

  23. I agree that as a window seat fan the 2-5-2 config is much better. BA has always had the 3-3-3 config and it has it advantages and disadvantages. I suppose if you find that you really miss this set up then just make sure you choose an airline that flies A330/A340s as they are always 2-4-2, though with only NW and US to choose from among the US carriers, it’s a bit restrictive!

  24. OK, folks, this is what happened and why:

    1. In order to take advantage of existing design and certification efforts, UA opted to switch over to the 3-3-3 arrangement. UA and AA are the only 777 carriers that operate 2-5-2. Since no quint seats had ever been developed, the retrofit schedule would have been much worse. Additionally, due to basic physics, the testing risk for the 5x seat assembly was still a major concern.

    2. The monitor change was driven by the 777 Cabin Management System, which was wired based on an old platform. All IFE systems are designed to the new platform.

    2. To say that there is no benefit to the new video is simply not correct. With the new monitors, Economy passengers will have access to video on demand, which they would not have had originally. Additionally, the new seats offer greater comfort.

    On the surface it seems like haphazard decision making, this was the best option given the constraints. While UA deserves to be smacked around for some decisions, this would not be one of them.

  25. I started a thread on this topic in the FT United forum ( http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/united-mileage-plus/907041-3-class-777-re-configured-3-3-3-e.html ), and the consensus so far is:

    – 2 – 5 – 2 is staying. The maps UA has published for new 777 config say 2-5-2. Granted these maps were published in 2007, and I note that suitedreams.united.com does say that maps for 777 won’t be available till fall.

    – the hold up is verifying the crash worthiness of the new seats (seats in economy with a larger LCD that are lighter, and thus different from the new 767 and 747 seats)

    – AVOD for economy pax is not going to happen

    This consensus was given a thumbs up by the resident UA plane mechanic.

  26. I can’t see any airline ever going to 2-4-3 if the cabin will support 3-4-3. Do we as customers care? For the sake of comfort, yes! Do the airlines care? For the sake of additional seat revenue, not a bit.

    On a 747 that one seat per row can mean 50 additional customers per flight to spread operating costs and margin over. Be glad they haven’t figured out how to make 3-5-3 work!

    Geek rejoinder: I don’t play video games so I defer to Mr. Barnard’s assessment regarding bandwidth. I can see where games like Warcraft would overwhelm a minimalist airplane WiFi set-up.

  27. I’ve posted an update on the blog today. I’m hearing that it will now have on demand throughout the plane, including coach. There are, of course differing opinions, as expressed by mre5765 above, so we’ll see what actually happens.

  28. > I can’t see any airline ever going to 2-4-3 if the cabin will support 3-4-3. Do we as customers care? For the sake of comfort, yes! Do the airlines care? For the sake of additional seat revenue, not a bit.

    That plane has 3-3-3 and 2-5-2 (i.e. 10 seats across). Do you know of an airline that configures 11 seats (3 + 4 + 3) on that plane? It seems like that only way to do 11 seats would be with a singe aisle, 5-6, and I suspect that violates safety regulations.

  29. “It’s one more reason I agree with Oliver and respectfully disagree with Doug – for a long vacation in a foreign country involving extreme flight times (Australia, South Africa, India, etc), I’ll bring my own.”

    I guess it all depends on where you travel to. My destinations tend to revolve around diving so the destinations tend to have more rain issues. More rain issues = the need to keep electronic equipment to a minimum. I do have a portable DVD player and I’ve considered taking it on a flight but when you’re up against baggage restrictions for carry ons and are traveling in 3rd world countries, you really have to be picky about what you bring along. I’m not confinced the DVD Player would have survived the four island hops we did through Tonga last year. It was nice to have an on the plane distraction for the 11 hour Air New Zealand trip and not to have to worry about bringing my own.

    For my trip to Palau on Continental in April however…I may be forced to relent. Actually it’s SFO-HNL-PGUM-YAP-ROR..and will take 20+ hours counting layovers.

  30. mre5765 – Actually, there are airlines out there doing the 3-4-3 config. Emirates was the first that I know of, and Air France has started to configure some that way as well.

  31. In response to mre5765’s comments:

    1. 3-3-3 IS HAPPENING. 2-5-2 will remain for the 2 class 777s.

    2. AVOD IS GOING TO HAPPEN. The monitors are being outfitted with
    credit card readers.

    UA mechanics are rarely good sources for product changes.

  32. > mre5765 – Actually, there are airlines out there doing the 3-4-3 config. Emirates was the first that I know of, and Air France has started to configure some that way as well.

    Looking at seatguru I see you are correct.

    I’m puzzled by the math though. 3-4-3 => 10 * 17 inches = 170 inches.
    3-3-3 or 2-5-2 => 9 * 18 = 162 inches. Where is United putting the 8 missing inches?

    > UA mechanics are rarely good sources for product changes.

    That’s pretty scary if it is true.

  33. Mechanics are not involved in cabin product development. Ever. Nothing scary about it. Their job is to maintain, not design. Maintainability is always a concern, but it is not a determining factor in whether IFE is offered or not, etc.

  34. Agreed with SG. Mechanics are THE source if something is mechanically sound or prone to constant, cost ineffective repairs. Otherwise, HQ makes all the decisions on what to buy, what to fly and what to try in terms of aircraft and onboard product.

    3-5-3 is not in the market. 11 seats across is not possible simply because the largest widebodies, the 747, 777 and A380 aren’t wide enough so long as the standard coach seat is 17-18 inches in width. 10 across was shocking 40 years ago, standard now in the larger birds. If the seat shrinks (please, God, no!) or the planes get wider, who knows? Maybe three aisles, one day?

    Doug, Dude! Love diving! I completely hear ya about not taking a small Circuit City to the tropics, man. But 20 hours to Palau? Then there’s that extra day at the end to decompress before flying. “Animal House!” Or at least, maybe “Friday?” Have you dived on Truk/Chuuk yet? That’s a goal of mine!

  35. @Doug — the successor of my Cowon A2 (the A3 — http://www.laptopmag.com/review/mp3/cowon-a3.aspx) weights in at a whopping 9.9 ounces and easily fits into my carry-on. The Bose headset is the thing that concerns me most as far as space is concerned, but I just love the peace and quiet it gives me on long flights and I can’t stand in-ear buds. Even after I reach my destination, my PMP comes in handy as I can hook it up to my hotel’s TV and watch something other than CNN International or BBC (I had the same experience as The Traveling Optimist, it seems).

    @SG — will the new seats offer in-seat power in economy?

  36. > Agreed with SG. Mechanics are THE source if something is mechanically sound or prone to constant, cost ineffective repairs. Otherwise, HQ makes all the decisions on what to buy, what to fly and what to try in terms of aircraft and onboard product.

    And of course there’s no need to train mechanics in advance on how to service upcoming products; just teach them as problems show up.

    > 3-5-3 is not in the market.

    Where did I say 3-5-3? I’m asking a math question 2-5-2/3-3-3 is 162 inches @ 18 inch seats, 3-4-3 is 170 inches. What does UA today do with the extra 8 inches in is 2-5-2 config?

  37. Mechanics do receive advance training in two ways prior to product release. Training from the manufacturer on how maintenance and upkeep plus hands-on experience in the hangars prior to service introduction. The nature of their training, however, is most often trickle-down since there is so many of them and often only one plane at a time being rolled out with the new stuff. With phased roll outs and closed loop service patterns (i.e. EWR-LHR only) until more of the fleet is reconfigured, the mechanic in IAD may seem like he hasn’t a clue but will at least have received the manuals as a guide.

    The question was if an 11-seat configuration was in the market place. No. The only way 11-across would work would be a 3-5-3 using current seat dimensions with two aisles. Both are accepted seat configurations regarding ease of egress for emergencies and other operational concerns. The issue/reason/answer is, no current widebody is wide enough for such a layout, but I wouldn’t say never to the future.

    It appears the extra 8 inches you’re referring to is taken up in the seat itself. For a 3-4-3 to work in the 777 (as it once did on Cathay Pacific in their L-1011 fleet) I speculate that the seat is narrower by one inch, from 18 to 17 inches. There may also be a slightly narrower profile to the armrests for each set of seats to allow for that 10th chair to go in.

    A B-777 cabin is 231 inches on the interior. Ten chairs at 17″ = 170″. Allow two aisles at 17″ each (industry standard for passengers, service carts, handicap aisle chairs and evac equipment) for 34″. Allow 2″ between each seat for armrests and bench framing, including armrests against the panel and on the aisle for 26″ total. That pretty much covers the floor from Seat A to Seat J, totalling 230 inches with one to spare.

    Take out the 10th chair, redistribute the 17-inches to the remaining seats and armrests and you have the “roomier” 3-3-3 or 2-5-2.

    Sources: Boeing and the American Institutes for Research technical paper entitled “Guidelines for Aircraft Boarding Chairs.”

  38. I totally with SG and since we are in the topic of aircraft. Anyone know about whether there are any jobs opening? Ever since I got laid off, I might want to consider a switch to becoming a stewardess. I saw a few post at http://jobstaxi.com
    Pls advice further.

  39. Nadia – My first impulse was to shout loudly “STAY AWAAAY!” I’m not convinced at all the airlines have hit bottom in this economy. With fuel prices starting to creep up it will only make them more anxious.

    My second thought is to be selective about which company or side of the business to target and flexible in your thoughts regarding possible relocation.

    The perception at United is that the ax is still swinging nor is American done in reducing heads by some 7,000. At the same time, Southwest always seems to be hiring.

    You may also consider offering your talents as a consultant, either free-lance or through a large firm. Further, check the distribution companies such as Expedia, Travelocity and even the large data providers like SABRE, Worldspan and Amadeus. Then there are the freight forwarders to consider as well.

    Look at EVERY facet of the industry, including the service vendors for at least a temporary place to work to keep you in the business until this whole thing settles down. Good luck!

  40. Air New Zealand did 2-4-3 on their 747-100’s and are considering the same configuration on the 787’s. If an airline stayed with 9 across on the 777, 2-4-3 offers a lot of benefits to customers, but the crash safety testing does bring up a cost and time factor. There are no 4 across seats in the right width for 9 across seating.

    As far as AVOD, most major US carriers except DL (only to a lesser degree,) lag far behind foreign carriers in all cabins, particularly coach. But that is price vs. amenities. I wonder how Air Asia X will fare since I assume they will have absolutely no amenities. Didn’t mind flying them around southeast Asia, but crammed in like sardines on Jakarta – London, sounds painful. Granted backpackers won’t care.

  41. As a lifelong flight fanatic who memorized OAG schedules instead of baseball stats when I was a kid. I must respectfully, but forcefully disagree with the well intentioned by spoon-fed fans of the unworkable 2-5-2 777 seating configuration.

    There is no other plane configuration offering a greater guarantee that an unpleasant experience awaits.

    So great, that I purposefully avoid flying the magnificent powerhouse that is the 777. And just as determinedly as I would avoid contact with the airline equivalent of an untouchable-caste–the DC-9/MD-80/717. Here’s why:

    #1–Those two-seats together on the sides may be nice for couples, but they are just too cozy for strangers. And both seats will ALWAYS be occupied.

    #2–A row of 5 semi-accessible seats anywhere is not good, but on a commercial airliner it is shared solitary confinement. Nothing is capable of a higher misery index than that center seat, which is flanked by a middle seat on both sides, all of which are situated in the center of a massive grid filling the cabin space.

    #3–This ‘number-of-people-climbed-over’ factor is just a dumb distraction, eagerly embraced by no one but these History Channel expert wannabes unable to grasp that it means nothing.

    #4–No matter what the config is, anyone NOT sitting on an aisle cannot get out of the row unless they can get others to move out of the row as well. It doesn’t matter if its one or two seats you pass by, the amount of unpleasantness involved in the task is basically the same.

    #5–The only happy people on the plane are the ones sitting in an aisle seat and at a window. Window seats, despite being boxed in, are still valuable real estate. So in a 2-5-2 config there will be three unhappy people not at a window or on an aisle–same as for the 3-3-3 config. [This is why its tempting to use that B.S. about the number of people climbed over to make a differentiation. But that b.s. is IRRELEVANT.

    * * * There may be 3 unhappy people on the 3-3-3, but on the 2-5-2 there are 3 PROFOUNDLY unhappy people. * * *

    These aren’t just three assorted middle seats, this is a trio of middle seats made worse by being fused together and inserted deep within the confines of an inaccessible interior space. Light from the windows does not easily penetrate through the narrow slot canyon, depriving the hapless travellers of visual cues necessary for situational tracking of the flight’s progress.

    I fly out to LHR from SFO on UA on Monday on a new 777, and am so excited I can’t sleep!

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