Followup on United’s 777 Reconfiguration

Inflight Entertainment, Seats, United

Yesterday’s post on United’s upcoming 777 reconfiguration generated a bunch of emails and comments. After sifting through everything, it appears that things will be slightly different (and better) than what I wrote yesterday.

  • Inflight entertainment has to be standard throughout the plane, so there will be audio/video on demand in coach (they may charge for it in coach, but that’s unclear)

  • This upgrade requires new screens to be in coach, so there will be bigger, better screens

  • The new screens require entirely new seats which will be the latest of the slimline variety

  • I’m still not sure of the exact reasons other than for standardization and probably cost saving purposes, but they will be switching to a 3-3-3 configuration in coach

So if you’re in coach, it looks like the 777 will finally (eventually) be up to international product standards. Of course, now each different widebody will have a different experience in coach. The 767s will still have small personal screens but they’ll keep the looping movies instead of on demand. The 747s will still have the overhead screens only.

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26 comments on “Followup on United’s 777 Reconfiguration

  1. This is probably quite a naive question – but why did it take United (and possibly other major US carriers) so long to get around to this ?

    In a large wealthy country, with a population spread over a wide physical area, and major cities with significant money sloshing around the country, there is plenty of demand for air transport.

    There is no real shortage of major airlines based in the US…. so why did it take so long to come up with seatback TV in long-haul ?

  2. As mentioned in my previous post, the primary reason for switching over to 3-3-3 was to reduce the time to market for the new seats, as they were already developed and certified in a 777 3-3-3 arrangement. The time reduction was fairly significant.

  3. David – Not a naive question at all. A little insight in to the general mindset of most US carriers:

    1) We won’t differentiate by offering more than our competitors.
    2) We’ll rely on our staff to provide the “superior” experience.
    3) We’ll use market studies to determine our onboard experience.
    4) We’ll determine maximum value based on customer spend.
    5) We’ll upgrade our product/match fares to remain competitive.
    6) We did not budget/don’t have the money to address the concern.

    For innovative, cutting edge products and industry leading onboard service, fly Singapore, Emirates or Virgin Atlantic. In the US, wait for the carriers to be forced to respond or roll out services based on market studies conducted two years ago and after a six month feasibility study and six month lead time to market followed by a phased introduction scheme that (see UA’s VOD plan above) will take years to complete and is perpetually vulnerable to operational substitution.

    That is, IF they’ve earned enough money to actually re-invest in their product.

  4. CF, there is nothing “better” about this for me. I bring my own IFE. The 3×3 config means the aisle B or H seat I request may be a center. I will have no choice but to go with C or G.

    1. Everyone is bringing their own IFE. Look around any flight. The business travelers are easily spotted with the Bose headsets. Most of the Gen X’s and Gen Y’s sporting some kind of iPod. Idiots with portable DVD players or even worse, DVD’s running on laptops.

      These IFE systems are passé and instead they should have a highspeed wifi connection and iPads all around.

  5. 1) We won’t differentiate by offering more than our competitors.

    There are domestic US airlines doing this right now. Virgin America, Jet Blue and Frontier all have seatback TV’s in their 319/320 fleet. The problem is how many people pick a carrier based on this? Very few I would imagine. Most people buy on price and schedule alone. Only airline geeks pick a flight by aircraft type or on-board entertainment. I’m sure United has a whole research team that’s long ago figured out all the economics and knows how to save the most money. The only way to really make an impact is to boycott their product and go with foreign carriers or the few US carriers that offer what on-board product you desire.

  6. A – You’ve nailed it precisely. Bob Crandall discovered decades ago that price is most often the final argument, not whether or not the seat has a television or steak is on the menu, especially if the passenger is on corporate travel. That is the catch-all behind

    Point 4) We will determine maximum value based on customer spend.

    The customer is not necessarily the actual passenger but the corporation footing the bill. Add in the passenger’s addiction to FFY miles and the carriers have to do very little to guarantee your return business.

    They will avoid at literally all costs spending more than their competitor or more than they will get on their return from heavily discounted corporate contract revenue.

    Southwest snuck up on the legacy boys to overtake them in domestic demand so anything is possible. V-Blue and JetBlue have a long way to go before that happens so their nice little touches right now are in the same category as Midwest Express. Great for a few but that tail won’t wag the dog.

  7. I’ve never been a believer in IFE, *especially* in coach, because the truth is, there’s no reason to have it. It’s only extra weight to carry around and job security for MX. People won’t pay more for it in coach. Not even longhaul. They *say* they will pay more, but they don’t. Even when you charge for IFE in coach, you barely cover costs if you’re lucky. As someone once said, in the premium cabins, it’s all about the seat. In economy, it’s all about the fare.

  8. I agree, A has it right. Time and time again it’s been shown that people buy based on price and schedule (in coach). Until people start buying on other criteria, airlines will be reluctant to add amenities. I think the same thing goes for fees. If people flooded Southwest and ditched other airlines, then they’d see that fees aren’t going to fly. But my guess is that it hasn’t happened in significant numbers, and Southwest may end up being forced to back off its no fee position because it’s leaving money on the table.

    The one thing I would say is that TV on JetBlue has more than paid for itself. That was so innovative when it came out that it really gave them a tremendous brand. They also were handily beating airlines like Song, and getting significant revenue premiums as well. Virgin America doesn’t really have any incredible innovations like that. Ordering food at your seat? Yeah, it’s nice, but nobody cares that much.

  9. The longer the flight gets, the more important amenities get, but only to a small degree. If price was the only concern, Southwest should have done better on PVD-PHX, PHL-LAX, PHL-OAK, as well as BWI to the west coast. I think that once Southwest flights hit four hours or more, some people start shopping around for something a little more comfy, especially the business travelers who pay the bills. Our entire conversation seems to have focused around grandma or the college student who shops on Orbitz and only cares about low fares. Business travelers are a bit more attuned to what is going on, and pay fares five times higher than the Orbitz crowd. I don’t think Southwest was pulling in many high yield fares on transcons and refocused on medium hauls. Granted I am an airline geek (hence reading this blog and posting,) who flies Delta trans-con because of AVOD, vs. CO which only has overheads, and avoids NW because they have nothing. I avoid USAirways, despite having worked for them, because they have turned into Air Walmart, two bucks for a diet coke and no movies in the US, I’ll pass. I did have one friend randomly buy a Virgin America ticket to fly to DC from SFO. He knew little about them ahead of time and bought based on fare, but was so impressed by the gadgets and great service, that he said he would go out of his way to fly them next time. I just don’t think that many people know why Virgin America is different.

  10. Randy – About Southwest, I think part of the problem with the transcon flying was that there weren’t many connecting opportunities. Southwest thrives by having high frequencies and then flowing people from multiple cities on those various frequencies. When you’re touching both coasts, you don’t have that many options. But of course, it’s tougher to make money on a transcon because your costs are higher but the fare levels are lower in comparison. In terms of comfort, Southwest has better than average legroom and comfortable seats. So really the only difference is lack of inflight entertainment.

    As for Virgin America, people may say they’ll go out of their way to fly them again, but I won’t believe it until I actually see it. I’ll bet that if your friend checks again and see another airline that’s $100 less, he’s going with the cheaper one. People often say one thing and do another in this business.

  11. Southwest was always more about local traffic with connections being a side benefit from naturally occurring connecting opportunities. Their focus may have changed over the years, but BWI should have provided decent feed to certain degree. I still have an image of them and the cattle call. Not such a bad thing on a one hour flight, but dreadful on a transcon. Southwest didn’t have Business Select and it’s automatic A boarding priority when they did the transcons, so the business traveler who shows 30 minutes before a flight would have been in a center seat, while grandma paying one-third and showing up two hours early, got A, or the college student was smart and checked in at 12:01AM to get his A. Meanwhile high yield business guy got stuck with C, a turnoff on a long flight.

    Got to help the Traveling Optimist out one time on a Southwest scheduling project. It did seem they do best, RASM vs. CASM on 75-90 minute segments, where they fared poorly the longer a flight got.

    My advice to friends is find a transcon route where Souhwest touches both sides, and then try to book on a major carrier where they have their miles. The seat is the same these days, unless you get on a six-inch wider A320 vs. a B737. Meals are no longer a differentiator except for Continental, but who cares about food. I still like a seat assignment, window please. My friend on Virgin America threw out $50 as his cutoff, but his actions vs. words will be interesting on his next trip.

  12. Randy – Good point about the old boarding process. Getting stuck on those long hauls with a B or a C felt like a death sentence.

    For me, airport is the biggest differentiator of all and that’s why I fly JetBlue when I can. I’m right near Long Beach, and that’s worth extra money for me to avoid LAX. I’ve got a trip this summer to Jackson Hole, and my wife and I are hoping to fly Delta Long Beach – Salt Lake – Jackson Hole even if it costs more.

  13. 3x3x3 is dumb since the sum of the number of “climbovers” (2+1+1+1+2 = 7) required is higher than in 2x5x2 (1+1+2+1+1 = 6).

  14. Optimist – I’m happy to set myself up like that. First off, if there were nonstops from LAX, that would trump all, but there aren’t. So then I’ll look at flight times and airports. It appears that right now Long Beach is about $100 more per person than LAX, and that’s probably the far limit of my consideration set. I’ll wait for awhile for fares to come down (it’s too early now), and then I’ll decide at the time, and I’ll let you know how much more Long Beach was.

  15. I hear ya on the fares, Cranky…..I’m looking at Prague this Summer but even London from DFW is $1500 r/t right now. I’ll wait and see cuz that kinda money the won’t get from me!

  16. Does anyone know when the 777 reconfig will take place?

    I booked with United over other carriers due to their 2-5-2 seating in coach because I prefer the 2 seater when flying as a couple. The flights are in may – july.

    If I knew this was going to happen, I would have flown other carriers who offer better IFE despite having 3-3-3-.

    Also, one leg has allready been changed from a 777 to a 747 NRT – SFO. So, no IFE for 10 hrs.

    The UAL experience keeps getting better!

    So, any idea when I can expect to see a 3-3-3 UA 777 and thus avoid them?

  17. ajarn wrote:

    So, any idea when I can expect to see a 3-3-3 UA 777 and thus avoid them?

    I actually still haven’t heard this confirmed yet. The first 777 hasn’t gone in to refurb yet, so we’ll have to wait to see what comes out on the other side before we really know what’s going to happen. Should be in Feb, I think.

  18. I believe the first one is getting done now. It is supposed to take 50 days or so but eventually it should take about 20 days per plane. If they do only one at a time, there should not be too many done in the next few months. Fingers crossed I still get a 2-5-2 cofig. I wonder how the advanced seat selection would work. Perhaps you select a B isle seat on the current 2-5-2 seat map and end up with a middle seat after it changes to 3-3-3. I doubt UAL will know which planes will be on which route far in advance, so they might just use the 2-5-2 seat map until most planes are done and then change to 3-3-3, so it will be a lucky guess what seat to pick? How will this work? Will they use the same config on the same routes and cahnge seat selection maps accordingly?

      1. The first one is done, and they just received final certification. I do not know if it’s flying or not – United isn’t updating that info on their site.

  19. I just came back from Japan and I rode on the 777 premium to Seattle. The entertainment system in coach was updated with a touch screen and on demand video services and some games. The seet layout is 3-3-3 and there were power plugs in the bottom of the seers. The seats were also new and felt more comfortable.

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