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

Seats, United

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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46 comments on “United Goes Fully Flat… in Business Class… On Long Haul… From North American Hubs

    1. DL can be summed as follows –777-flat bed herringbone pattern facing aisle; 747-flat bed herringbone pattern facing away from aisle; 767-most have flat bed staggered pattern (These are my favorite), some still have old Delta BE cradle seat, but these are getting fewer; A330-most still have NW WBC seat, but according to Delta’s website will be getting the 747 style herringbone pattern seats.

    2. In a nutshell, no. Delta is making steady progress on providing lie-flat across its entire long-haul fleet… and when they are done, the product will be fairly consistant. There are some differences between the 777 and 747/333/332 seat (including orientation toward/away from the aisle), but they are still realtively similar.

      Once the DL mods underway are complete, there will basically be only three different lie-flat products — all similar in terms of width, pitch and amenities — whereas UA’s “final product” is much more varied even among the same type of aircraft.

    3. Nick – As has been said, Delta is doing this a bit differently. It will have commonality of product on each fleet type, however, it has different seats on different fleets. This is because Delta is trying to create as much density as possible with these seats and different cabin widths mean that different seats fit better on different aircraft types.

      Delta decided to create a common product standard of fully flat beds with direct aisle access. But the seat itself will be different. I’m sure I’ll have a post on that when Delta finishes outfitting its fleet.

  1. Great summary. So it sounds like if I can differentiate between the PMUA and PMCO seats, I’d want the CO ones. Seems like a weird experience to sit backwards on a plane.

    1. EggSS4 – I’ve flown backwards several time on British Airways and it has never been a problem for me. (Also used to do it back when Southwest had its lounge seating onboard.) But some people don’t like it, and I don’t really get why.

  2. Wow, I started reading this thinking I forgot to take two aspirin before sitting down. Now I need to go take the whole bottle!

    Will there ever be a day when they are just UA seats and aircraft and you don’t have to still figure out if you are on a UA or CO plane to know what you will be getting?

    1. David, please don’t take the whole bottle of Asprin, your liver is far too important to keep your body functioning so you can provide witty comments.

      That said, Sure, UA’s seats will all be the same within 20 years or so, once they’ve replaced all the legacy UA and CO planes. :-p

      1. In 20 years, they will be purchased by Delta, and then you will need to figure out if they are seats from Continental, Delta, Northwest or United.

        1. Don’t forget the planes that came from PeopleExpress, Western, Republic, or PanAm! (Which now that I look at it, its odd that PM-United and PM-Delta had so few mergers compared to Northwest, Continental, American Airlines, and US Airways.)

          1. I would think the former Western and Pan Am planes have been refurbished since the respective mergers — IIRC Western merged out of existence in 88 or 89 and Pan Am’s route sale to (IIRC) Delta was done about the same time (Pan Am went belly-up in late 91). David, I would forgo that aspirin as (in regards to seating) sitting in old Western/Pan Am seats is not going to happen this far out. Republic has also been gone a while now as has People Express — long enough that their planes have been refurbished as well.

            Deregluation — regarding airlines it was a bad idea from the start. The airlines didn’t start eliminating their formerly good service until profits declined, without deregulation that would likely have never happened.

          2. mharris127 – All the former Western and Pan Am planes are long gone from the fleet. I believe Delta only took the Pan Am A310s for the Europe routes, and those left years ago. Even if they took other aircraft, Pan Am only had 747 classics (gone), 727s (gone), and 737s (gone).

            Western operated DC-10s, 737s, and 727s, all gone from the fleet.

            There may be some Republic 757s around, though I’m not positive. If you want to fly a Republic 757, you can fly US Airways. Some of those old America West 757s started their careers with Republic more than 25 years ago.

          3. mharris127 and CF, I was being a bit sarcastic, as David was being sarcastic as well.. Airplanes generally tend to stay around for no more than 20-25 years, however the interiors get completely removed and either replaced or reinstalled at least every few years.

            Although, Delta might have a few former Republic DC9s hanging around, although those are almost gone from the fleet.

          4. Nick – Actually, you’re right. I think most of the DC-9s are former Republic birds. They were actually originally North Central birds that merged into Republic.

    2. David SF – It’s not even an issue of United vs Continental airplanes. I mean, the two seat types were sourced through those airlines pre-merger, but there are Continental seats on United airplanes. I just call them by the airline that originated the seats. These aren’t likely to go away for a long time, but when they do, then this issue will finally be put to bed.

  3. Cranky – one other thing that might be worth mentioning is that you can tell whether the aircraft is PMCO or PMUA by the flight number (I don’t know about 1 or 2 digit flight numbers but I know at least that PMUA are 3 digit numbers and all 4 digit numbers that start with 1 are PMCO).

    1. EggSS4 – Yes, you can tell it by flight number now, but that will change once the airlines integrate. And there are United aircraft with Continental seats on them. So that hurts. But yes, if it’s 1-199 or over 1000 (and it’s a mainline flight), that’s Continental. 200-999 is United.

  4. Soon enough, the 2-3-2 cradle style seats will be completely gone, at least on planes with First Class as well. The three 777-200s left in this config and the 6 domestic 777s are apparently being converted at some point in the future to a new domestic config that will feature refurbish cradle-style seats that are being removed from the old PS 757 business class I believe. These additional domestic 777s will replace the capacity lost by converting the 4 767-400s in the island config to the new standard 767-400 flat-bed config, and will be flying Hawaii and Pacific island flights primarily.

    1. Chris – Thanks for all the background. Makes sense. Though when I asked United, they said all 767s had flat beds, so I assumed that the island 767-400s were gone already.

      1. Yup, they have already been converted to flat beds. That’s why you see the three unconverted non-ER 777s flying in their place.

        It remains to be seen in the long term though what planes United will have fly the EWR-HNL and IAD-HNL routes, formerly flown by the island 764s, as these routes push the range limits of the non ER 777s. So they’ll be served by either flat-bed 764s, or the 777s will have to go out with weight restrictions.

  5. I think you meant to include the 767-400 when you refer to, “The 767-300 fleet gets a bit more complex.” There are no PM CO 763s, so no 763s with the PM CO BF seat.

    1. Scott – No. You are correct that the 767-300s were all with United before the merger. But the new United converted the formerly domestic 767-300s into international 2-cabin aircraft that used the Continental business seats.

  6. Since CF has trouble sleeping on planes, I don’t see what the big deal is about flat beds. Unless you are going on a really long flight such as East Coast to Asia (five lousy movies each way), do you really need a flat bed? Is it just a competitive advertising gimmick?

    I confess that I can sleep in any good reclining chair at home, in the air, on a train, or even on the “hound.” What I need is space for my knees and a bit of separation from my neighbor.

    Early in the development of commercial aviation, it was determined that seating facing the rear was safest, and some planes were so equipped. However, customers were not comfortable sitting backwards and the idea was dropped — until the new first class configurations which alternate front and back.

    1. Ed – Last time I checked, the airlines weren’t marketing to me with flat beds. They’re marketing to all the people who actually can sleep on airplanes and need the flat bed to get a better sleep. (Though I did get nearly 7 hours on my return from Korea – amazing.)

      Personally, I can get comfortable for sleep in a flat bed or in the old school recliners. It’s the angled flat beds that I find least comfortable of all.

  7. Ironically, the flat bed seats are notably less comfortable when used as an actual seat than the non-flat bed (i.e., cradle) seats. That’s ironic because all this money has been spent on flat bed seats and I would wager that people spend more time in these seats awake than asleep; therefore, all these new flat bed seats are actually less comfortable for passengers during the majority of their usage.

    1. I’ve not found that to be the case — at least not on Delta. I spend very little time with my seat in the full, upright position… though, in that time, I can’t say I’ve ever felt uncomfortable. But, even when not lying flat, the vast majority of the rest of the time I’m sitting in a reclined position, and haven’t found DL’s “lie flat” product to be less-comfortable than previous seats at all.

    2. Bill, I agree.
      Since I’m tall, broad-shouldered, and have boats for feet, I find the tapered nature of the herringbone seats a bit confining. The DL 767 seats have more room at the shoulder and foot areas. The CO seats above look more comfortable than the UA seats for the same reason, but the fabric covering is a bit off-putting.

        1. Bill – Which part? I’ve never found the herringbone to be too tight, though I never flew Cathay’s and those were supposed to be pretty bad. And while I’ve sat in the United and Continental seats on the ground, I’ve never actually flown in them. On the ground, I liked the CO seats for having more room and more storage area.

  8. I’ll miss the old Business Firts recliner seats on the PMCO 767-400’s on the IAH-HNL run.
    I slept like a baby.
    Steaks for lunch and the use of the arrival showers in the President’s Club at IAH are a distant memory.
    My flight on UA’s 767 last summer from DEN-HNL actually had a space between the seat for an in-inflight phone. Let’s not get into the food, though the drinks were flowing. It was like something from a “Mad Men” episode.

    1. CP – I think most of Delta’s intra-Asia flying is on widebodies which will eventually have flat beds. But there are some 757s flying around, especially within the Pacific like to Guam and Palau. I think those are old school recliners, but not domestic style.

  9. Fun post, but… MOST UA pax still don’t see anything close to the full package, even on very long flights. Seats: Sorry, that’s only on a very few routes. IFE: We’re working on it, but this route probably won’t see it for several years. WiFi: Sorry, this airplane is not provisioned with that service. And for meals, even in BC or FC, is is usually the ‘wrong time of day’ to have anything other than a spilled drink in plastic and cold peanuts – even at the pointy end. Want a meal on UA, and on a 5-hour flight? You’d better depart 1130 – 1300 or 1700 -1800, or you’re SOL. Info on their booking pages is often wrong, displaying ‘Meal’ when snack, light snack or none is closer to the truth. They simply don’t tell the truth…

    1. My solution would be to buy a sandwich at the Subway or Quizno’s (or local replacement) that is usually available in the airport, many times after security. If the sandwich place is before security in your particular airport, the TSA has declared that sandwiches are a solid and may be taken through the X-Ray machine and through security. There is almost always a place to buy a soda after you go through security so you can have a drink as well, you may carry your own container (as long as it is empty until after passing through security) with a decent top to dispense your drink in so it does not spill during takeoff or landing. I would make a bet that a sandwich from Subway would taste much better than most US domestic airline meals anyway.

      As far as in-flight entertainment, an MP3 player (loaded with your favorite music and a full battery) with studio-type over the ear headphones (I haven’t ever used the new noise-cancelling variety and don’t really see the need) and a good book can suffice for a few hours. Carry them in a small briefcase (or if you are female your purse) that fits under your seat and once the flight reaches the FAA 10,000 foot minimum, start listening to music and reading your book. If you really need video a compact DVD player and movie DVD (preferably not one of the “adult” variety) should work. You are allowed two carry-ons, one being a laptop-size case or purse and the other being a small suitcase (which goes in the overhead compartment). You can also fly an airline that has in-flight entertainment, most first class tickets are about $2000 – $2500 round-trip although I did find a Delta first-class DFW-SFO non-refundable ticket for $1300 round-trip recently — booking a month ahead of time. Coach isn’t an option for me due to my size (as in I would not be allowed to fly coach, not just being uncomfortable there).

  10. I think there is confusion on the 777-200 part. For the Hawaii version, it is a domestic style 2-3-2 configuration instead of a 2-2-2. also the seats go to only up to row five. In 2012 I flew a 777, but it had only 7 channels, and had a 2-5-2 in economy, i am confused also.

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