Topic of the Week: United Keeps First Class, At Least on Some Airplanes

Seats, United

It sounds like the new United is keeping First Class, but maybe only on the airplanes that already have it. Bloomberg reports that United has decided to keep First Class on some of its fleet but not all. So, is this a good move? Do they just want to avoid reconfiguring airplanes? Does it make sense? What do you think?

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33 comments on “Topic of the Week: United Keeps First Class, At Least on Some Airplanes

  1. What did you think they were going to rip out the brand new BF seats on the CO fleet and reconfigure in 3-class? This isn’t even newsworthy. It’ll only matter what they do with new aircraft.

    1. Actually, that was a perfectly reasonable possibility. It’s a merger, which means they have to blend their products into something cohesive and consistent for the customer. Just because the CO seats are new, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have scrapped the cabins and started over. Just as it was possible they’d reconfigure the UA aircraft (many with new seats, as well) into a two cabin configuration. The post exists to create discussion. If all you have to add is that it’s beneath you to participate, why did you even bother?

    2. Man, I guess I’ll just come to you, Obviously, for info in the future because you seem to be the only person who knew exactly what would happen. There had been speculation about whether the new First Class would even be kept at all. And by the way, reconfiguring the existing equipment into 3-cabin wouldn’t have cost that much. They could have put any excess biz seats in current United airplanes that don’t have the flat bed yet. And Continental still has airplanes without beds as well.

  2. Hey Cranky — Two things come to mind reading this: One, reminds me of standard UA: too many products, erratically presented, setting up the very things that Smisek wants to avoid: product confusion and disappointed premium passengers. Nothing worse than expecting a true lie-flat seat for your international flight and getting a cradle seat instead.

    Two, perhaps the new UA just wants to get caught up on work already in progress: a/c repaints, E+ on CO a/c, inflight services standardized. We all know how the old UA took decades to complete a livery change.

    I’m getting a sense there’s a struggle of which corporate DNA will be dominant. At my UA/UAX station, we just got memo that after a month of CO-style row boarding process, we’re going back to UA’s seating area boarding process. Then, as with any merger, decisions that used to be made in a matter of weeks are now taking months, if at all. Hmm, the peculiar joys of an airline merger…

      1. I suppose the question now is when the last time the entire United fleet was in the same livery? You would think it would be the Malevolent Skies gray colors, but I wonder. When was the last white-top Shuttle by United airplane painted? And did that happen before the first Ted airplane was painted? It’s hard to keep track.

    1. “Nothing worse than expecting a true lie-flat seat for your international flight and getting a cradle seat instead.”

      Both UA and CO configurations will be true lie-flat. I’m sure upgrades will continue across the entire widebody fleet, the only difference being 2 or 3 class.

    2. United has always had that problem. (I mean, they even went ahead with two configurations for their A320s after Ted went away. Sheesh.) But in this case, I don’t think it’s a real issue. I mean, as long as they isolate the First Class cabin to certain routes, then it should work. As was said elsewhere, American makes it work just fine. Are there times where airplanes have to be subbed? Sure. But you then need to do everything possible to make that customer happy.

  3. I agree with wyodog. First class is great, but UA seems to like to keep things complicated. It just sets the airline up to disappoint premium customers during the inevitable aircraft swap in a mixed fleet. If they can make it work money-wise, then more power to ’em, but it seems like a big risk if it can’t be consiconsistent across the longhaul/wide-body fleet.

  4. Unfortunately I haven’t had the problem of expecting a true 1st class seat and instead getting a business. However, flying Delta I get quite upset that there is such a huge difference of in flight ammenities across the fleet. At least all aircraft of a single type should be the same, instead some 757’s have PTV while others have old TV’s hanging from the ceiling. An airline should have only one difference in ammenities across their entire fleet – that’s domestic vs. international. Why do people like Southwest? You always know what you’re going to get. Anybody else it seems there could be an equipment change and it’s a crap shoot what you get. Bad move United.

    1. For Delta’s 757s, you can almost always tell what type of 757 or any other aircraft you’re getting if you take just a minute or two to check. Besides, United isn’t going to randomly switch between two and three class aircraft – it will be in the schedule and planned out. Anyways, having more than one type of aircraft means that different routes can get different aircraft as needed (leisure markets won’t need first class, and nobody needs a PTV on a 70 minute flight)

      Also, with Southwest you do know what you’re getting – nothing. I doubt that’s why people like them.

    2. I think Delta is a much more extreme example than this, though United has that same problem elsewhere. Sit in coach on a 747 and it’s very different than a 777 or a 767. But those things can all be standardized. If you sit in coach, it should be the same (with differences between short haul and long haul being ok). This move would only create a real issue if there are significant aircraft substitutions and I imagine that can be mostly managed.

      1. Yes, they do, so it’s better than if you book on today. But plenty of people book on other websites or through agents who don’t even know about this kind of stuff.

  5. No big deal as other airlines already do this with their fleet. Some planes have 3-cabins and some two.

    And with codesharing even in the same alliance you will bet different products no matter which ‘code’ you book and which airline really operates the flight.

    Plus an airline can have eight flights between two cities operated by 1, 2, or cabin aircraft, so again no big deal.

    But the issue for some would be the same type aircraft having different layouts and passengers being in the front cabin on the outbound and now find themselves in the middle cabin with the same fare/booking class and it’s the same airline and not codeshares which can be that way now.

  6. This move makes sense. There are just way too many international destinations that just don’t have the demand for paid first class seats needed to justify three-class service, but moving solely to two-class service on the routes that can support first class would leave a lot of money on the table or drive business to the remaining three-class carriers. By maintaining a three-class subfleet, the new United should be able to attract first-class buyers in destinations like London while having a broader fleet that can support flights to lower-margin destinations like Madrid.

    Pre-merger United saw that its three-class fleet wouldn’t allow it to profitably serve a lot of big destinations that would work with a higher-density two-class plane; that’s why United tried the IAD-MAD codeshare operated by Aer Lingus in a two-class configuration. With the three-class fleet United had at the time, it couldn’t have profitably served that route.

    Plus, Continental’s management has at least some experience with managing premium customer expectations while operating a subfleet: When it rolled out its lie-flat Businessfirst seat, Continental guaranteed customers going to Heathrow that they would have a lie-flat seat even before installation on the 777 and 757s was complete.

    1. You hit on something with the codeshares… with these new JVs, what really annoys me is that JV partners offer such different products despite selling their flights as metal-neutral. If these JVs are going to function as one airline in the JV markets they serve, then they would be well-advised to standardize their onboard product… as well as policies (the latter we are starting to see them do).

      1. Look at DL/AF. DL uses 2-cabin and AF 3-cabin. DL markets it as Business (J/C) and coach and AF First(P/F)/Business(J/C)/coach. If you book the flight as DL (J/C) but the flight is operated by AF, you are not sitting in the front cabin like you would on a DL operated aircraft, but in business on AF.

        So is DL’s front cabin service the same as AF’s second (business) cabin service?

        Since each airline is different, using codeshare partners doesn’t always mean the same service inside the airplane. So if it really matters, you need to really check everything out before buying that ticket.

  7. Before the new United does anything else it should fix economy in the old United’s 747’s. The product is horrible.

    1. Does anyone know if United is going to get rid of the 747s anytime soon? Delta is removing some of them from NW but keeping a few as well. I have found CO’s aircraft much more comfortable anyways.

    2. i thought Smisek specifically mentioned Economy on the 747s as being woeful, at the time of the merger. which you’d think would indicate a priority to do something about it.

  8. ugh….as a United customer it’s a pain to have to pay attention to which equipment they are using in the current fleet. I agree with XJT DX – they mix equipment on current routes so if you’re not paying attention you may end up with a recliner instead of a flat bed.

    As those in the know: is there a fare difference for business on a 2 vs. 3 class plane? It would be terrible to be forced by a company travel policy into the worse equipment in order to save a few bucks…

  9. If they keep all the same aircraft types the same and in the same markets (domestic vs international) it shouldn’t be bad. With AA internationally if its a 763/757 you know its 2-cabin, and a 777 3-cabin.

  10. What I find interesting is that there has become such little differentiation between first and business these days — in particular on the two U.S. carriers (UA/AA). On LH, by contrast, there’s a HUGE difference between C and F — from the service on the ground through the flight and at the destination.

    Meanwhile, many foreign flag carriers that moved to a mostly 2-class config a while back (AF, AZ, VS, etc.) did so only to later roll-out a “premium economy” option, which really makes them a three-class cabin again. If you look back in history, you’ll notice that today’s “premium economy” looks a lot like the original “business” class (i.e., PanAm’s Clipper Class). With airlines now offering lie-flat in C, I find it odd that those airlines still have a market to sell F seats. But, I suppose the market must exist!

    1. I agree with everything you say. First Class in my mind has become much more of status symbol in many airlines that it is a significant product improvement. Sure, there’s better food, better wine, and a better seat (at least a bigger bed) but I just don’t see enough value there personally. The difference between flying coach and biz is tremendous and the additional cost can be justifiable. But First Class to me says that you just have enough money (or enough miles to upgrade) to not have to worry about having an inferior bed.

  11. Personally I don’t see the need for a three class airline. If I want to upgrade on a short or middle range trip OK, business class. If I had the big bucks to spend on First Class, it would be on a long international flight, and I clearly would not spend it in United when others (asian or middle east) airlines do first class so much better. Remove first class, offer a few more Business seats to make the frequent fliers happy, and keep it at that.

  12. I don’t see any reason to offer a domestic F product. It no longer provides any premium cabin revenue, and as a result, the carriers don’t spend any money to make it into a true premium product. (Consider this fact: WN’s RPM Yield is often higher than UA, AA or DL’s, and WN has NO premium cabin!)

    US flag carriers also have a problem with International F. Generally neither the cabin is largely filled with people who haven’t actually paid an A or an F fare, and the product tends to be inferior to the F product on the beter foreign flag carriers (LH, BA, NH, CX, EK) etc. I would add that most passengers flying in the F cabin on the likes of BA,NH, LH, CX and EK are there because they paid for the privlege.

    I think most US airlines would be much better off if they simply ceased calling domestic F, a 1st class product, and don’t even try to compete with the F products from BA, LH etc). They aren’t generating the revenue from it, and it is occupying space that would probably produce better yields as C or premium Y.

    My thoughts

  13. Correction: AF now has FOUR Classes (At least on the 777’s doing longhaul to the USA): First, Business, Premium Economy and Economy. (And the Premium Economy product IS a seperate Cabin with different seats). I believe the food is the same however, just served on different china; that’s a dissapointment considering the “Premium” in the fare for that Cabin.

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