Settling the Debate: Does American or United Have More First Class Seats in Chicago?

American, United

United had its first global media day (at least, first that I can remember) on Friday, and it was an event well done. That being said, I didn’t expect there would be homework…. Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella was up on stage when a question was asked about American’s claims to have more First Class seats than United in Chicago. In front of more than 100 media folk from around the world, Andrew called me out, and said I should look into it. Who am I to turn that down?

The context here is that United introduced the CRJ-550 airplane into service yesterday on routes from Chicago. I walked through this airplane, and will have a whole write-up shortly, but the important point for United is that this airplane has 10 First Class seats and it will often replace CRJ-200s that have none. Obviously United is very confident that it has the most First Class seats out of Chicago with this change or Andrew wouldn’t have called me out. But American President Robert Isom Vasu Raja had this to say on American’s earnings call just the day before:

And also as we look forward, though our principal competitor there is indeed rolling out the new product, the reality is we still will be able to offer a more first-class seats to the Chicago customer. We absolutely intend to continue doing that. 

[Updated: The call transcript incorrectly attributed the statement to Robert, and I went off that. It was Vasu.]

Robert makes it sound like American has had the most First Class seats and will continue to do so. There’s only one way to settle this. Let’s look at the numbers.

I was able to get the data via a Diio data pull. I looked at March of 2020, so this is after all of the current CRJ-550 rollout is in the market. I wasn’t sure how they wanted to interpret First Class, so I started with a broad look including both domestic First and international Business. (FYI, American has no international First in Chicago and United has no international First at all, so I could ignore that.)

Data includes international business class and domestic first class via Diio

The introduction of the CRJ-550 has given United a much more sizable lead here, but then again, United also has a lot of widebodies with a lot of premium seats on them flying. I was curious to see what would happen if I limited this to only domestic travel.

Data includes First Class seats on domestic departures, via Diio

The gap narrows, but the result is still the same. In case you’re wondering, of those 154,620 seats, 22,850 are on the CRJ-550. So the introduction of that airplane with its 10 First Class seats has really pushed United forward. (You can’t, however, just say that American would have the lead without the CRJ-550, because it wasn’t a 1:1 replacement of airplanes with no First Class for United. Some replaced 76-seaters or larger.)

Though Robert was pretty clearly talking about the total number of First Class seats, I did want to run one more chart. What about the number of First Class seats per flight? I stuck with domestic on this one:

Data via Diio

Ok, ok, so American could pull out a winner here, but that would be quite the stretch. It’s very clear this isn’t what Robert was talking about. It’s also an insignificant difference that will likely change as United adds 4 more First Class seats to its A319 fleet (that’ll be done by next summer). That brings up the question… what on Earth was Robert talking about?

I reached out to American to get some clarity, and it sounds like the airline is backing off the claim and instead projecting about the future. As American SVP of Revenue Don Casey noted in the earnings call, Chicago had the highest unit revenue of any American hub, and they’ve seen corporate share gains. United’s introduction of the CRJ-550 may threaten that, but American won’t stand still. There’s too much at stake. The airline will be upgauging 50-seaters to 76-seaters and then some of those up to A319s (which today barely touch Chicago). Then again, the A319s have fewer First Class seats (8) than United’s CRJ-550.

In short, American absolutely, unquestionably does not have a higher number of First Class seats than United in the Chicago market, no matter how you slice it. But does American want to have more? Yes. We’ll have to keep watching for schedule changes to come, because this is a battle that is just starting to heat up. The winners will be anyone traveling from, to, or through Chicago as these two fight it out.

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38 comments on “Settling the Debate: Does American or United Have More First Class Seats in Chicago?

  1. AA hasn’t updated their schedule for March yet, their updated schedule only goes through February 12th. Therefore comparing UA and AA in March isn’t really a fair comparison.

    1. It doesn’t even seem that effective as a PR/marketing brag. Really, it just feels like a comment aimed at people in the trade.

    2. A – Not really. I mean yes, but often these are just road warriors who are exhausted traveling week to week because that’s what their jobs require.
      So the ability to sit in First Class or at least extra legroom economy does make a difference. It’s not just a 1% thing.

      1. Oh, I get it. There’s a reason I send more of my business to DL than WN. The perks make business travel bearable. Still, to the majority of travelers that will never know what a seat up front is there are bigger issues that airlines could be tackling.

  2. yes, claims need to be accurate but the number of first class seats in the market only matters if they can be sold – from a business perspective. If the point is to try to convince passengers that a bunch of first class seats matters, then they have to be able to access them. Most of the first class seats in the new CRJ550 markets will not be sold to local ORD passengers so the real test is how many are available across each carrier’s system. The CRJ550 has such a high percentage of first class seats that the plane might be liked by those that are looking for an upgrade but UA’s overall presence in the market might actually take a step back. As much as UA might want to believe, there are plenty of people – esp. in the markets that the CRJ550 will serve – that pay good coach fares. Taking nearly 2 dozen seats off of existing CR7 flights and putting a high percentage of first class seats could actually lead to less revenue.

    Far more interesting than the marketing claims would be to look at share and revenue differences a year from now in markets served by the CRJ550

    1. This is a strong observation, but I may have missed the explanation on why “Most of the first class seats in the new CRJ550 markets will not be sold to local ORD passengers”. Is the assumption here that ORD passengers don’t fly to smaller markets?

      1. Jon,
        Small markets are disproportionately connected to the world via hubs – so yes, there is a much smaller amount of local passengers on flights to from small and medium sized cities (as defined by amount of air service and not necessarily population).

        The CRJ550 has to fly relatively short segments – shorter than the E175 and CR9 because the CRJ550 has an artificially lower Max Takeoff Weight to keep it within UA’s pilot scope requirements.

        The percent of passengers from ORD that will fly first class to these cities is even smaller given that these are fairly short flights. People may qualify for upgrades due to FF program status but very few people will pay for upgrades on a short 2 hour or less segment; as part of a longer itinerary of which the CRJ500 segment is the first or last leg, people will be more likely to buy upgraded service.

        Therefore, even arguing about who has more seats is more of a network argument than a local Chicago argument. And many of these smaller cities are served from other hubs by DL and potentially AS as well.

        1. Tim – It’s a mix. Routes like NW Arkansas are going to be heavily local, I’d think. But yes, many of these will be about connections. From a marketing point, however, that doesn’t matter. If you can pitch having the most premium seats in Chicago, it has a nice ring to it for the locals.

          1. When United announced the CRJ550, XNA was the first market that came to mind for me. I’ve made the trek from ORD to XNA multiple times and rarely pay less than $1,000 for a last minute coach fare. It’s a market that should perfect for the CRJ550 with the high percentage of business travelers who will absolutely choose United for the chance to upgrade. For routes where UA’s already getting a revenue premium, keeping us jaded business travelers happy can’t be a bad plan.

          2. I spent some time looking through DOT and schedule data.

            It might interest you and others to know that AA gets about 2X the share of the local ORD-XNA market but at lower average fares. The same is true in a number of other markets.

            However, if you look at all of the revenue that flows over the ORD-XXX segments where UA will deploy the CRJ550, AA often has higher share.

            The reason is not because AA has more first class seats but because they have more seats between XXX-ORD-YYY.

            However most of the markets such as XXX-YYY can and do compete with other hubs, both on AA and UA in other parts of the country as well as on DL.

            Most of the CRJ550s are being deployed in markets where UA is the third largest of the big 3 in terms of capacity. Also AA has more mainline service than UA from those cities – to all hubs – and DL has the most mainline service.

            So my conclusion is even stronger that UA is trying to use the CRJ550 to
            1. Regain its “natural share” in markets where it is not the largest carrier – and that has been proven to result in more growth by UA’s competitors in UA’s own markets.
            2. UA has the least amount of mainline capacity in most of those markets; they want you to believe that an RJ with a premium cabin will overcome its lack of mainline service – which is a systemwide characteristic of UA in many small and medium markets compared to AA and DL.
            3. UA does not suffer from a lack of high fare passengers; it lacks for enough passengers because it uses smaller aircraft than AA and esp. DL in medium and small markets.
            4. The CRJ550 will be competing with AA and DL’s large RJs and mainline aircraft – both of which are much more cost efficient.
            5. The CRJ550 is a junior-sized two cabin aircraft but it is still a regional jet. UA is trying to overcome its lack of large RJs compared to AA and DL and also overcome DL’s much larger use of mainline aircraft in small and medium sized cities – but the result is still that UA is the 3rd largest of 3 carriers in terms of domestic seats.

            UA might get more premium passengers than they get today by using the CRJ550 but it is unlikely that they will have better economics and they will also be less likely to get their share of premium revenue in these markets not because they don’t have the right airplanes but because they don’t have near as many seats.

            ORD is unique because two legacy carriers share a hub and serve many of the same markets so both are reluctant to flood the market with capacity. Instead they use less desirable and higher cost regional jets more than from the US3’s systems as a whole.

            I would love to see the results a few years from now but I doubt very much that UA will gain much; other carriers are adding more premium cabins and also adding more coach seats on the same aircraft- which create better economics and more total seats.

            And other carriers will still reframe UA’s efforts at regaining UA’s natural share (UA never had it because CO’s network was built around its hub, not flow markets) while other carriers increasingly add service into key UA markets.

            At best, a net zero game and at worse UA will give up share in a number of its top revenue markets that are worth far more than the relatively few incremental passengers they carry because of the CRJ550s.

            Already, DL gets 2X more revenue on ORD-SEA including connections than UA gets on ORD-XNA also including connections. and there are multiple other examples of DL growth in large UA markets vs. UA growth w/ RJs in markets where DL is dominant. Similar between AA and UA.

            I think a lot of people will be surprised with the results a few years from now.

        2. all true, but don’t let facts get in the way! Kidding aside, I do think there is generally more to the story than a press release. Private motivations can be more complex with multiple costs and benefits that aren’t always spelled out clearly.

          When competing for corporate contracts and individual loyalty, these statistics and experiences could be very helpful in tipping the scales. Offering a complete premium cabin vs. mixed class may also matter for connecting passengers, both as awards and paid traffic, two things that may help cover the marginal costs.

          United plans 50 crj550 planes. I imagine some of these down gauge larger planes on longer routes where F was needed, but not enough traffic to justify the plane, which would allow greater profit across the system, and others upguauge from crj200s or other small RJs. The 700 is 20% bigger, but not sure if acquisition or crew costs are materially different. (Acquisition may be a mostly sunk cost, not sure how many are new vs. retrofitted). So if the only difference is fuel burn, trip costs of 10-15% higher is significant, but perhaps a worthwhile investment for the other stated benefits. And at 10-15%, UA could also get aggressive with buy up offers. 1000 miles could be almost 3 hours of flying — probably not crazy to find a few people willing to pay a 20-30% buy up.

          1. I don’t think the CRJ550 can do 1000 miles. Its MTOW has been reduced in order to comply w/ scope requirements.

            And, the point is not whether UA can find routes that justify more first class seats.
            The point is that UA is adding small RJs while AA and DL have more large RJs and esp. w/ DL which is adding more mainline flying while reducing regional carrier flights.

            UA’s move would be fine if the airline industry wasn’t competitive – but it is and UA’s moves have to be considered w/in what other airlines are doing and how efficient UA’s moves are.

        3. Amen! I am a retired flight attendant who worked in First/Business Class most of the time. On domestic flights most of the time 40-50% of the premium cabin seats are FF upgrades–a lot of good feelings, but no extra cash. F/C seats make ORD-LHR bearable. (Let’s not even talk about the coming 17-19 hour flights. It makes me nauseous. Is changing planes at a big airport all that gruesome?)

    2. United can still sell seats on the CRJ550 to people who pay good coach fares. If needed, they can sell more coach seats than are physically available on the plane, and just upgrade some passengers to first. I’m sure the passengers won’t complain :-)

  3. It’s fun reading about all this stuff as a cattle class peon.

    I wish they’d figure out how to make economy more comfortable and/or offer free more reliable wfif.

    If I can distract myself from the fact that I’m stuck in a uncomfortable chair by browsing my normal websites to take my mind off it, I’d be happier.

    Heck if the airlines wasted a few tb and had a browseable copy of wikipedia on board it’d be better.

    1. If you want comfort, fly DL. If you want consistency fly WN.

      If you want to fly like cattle, stick with AA/UA, Spirit, etc.

      1. I’d argue that the best coach experience in the country is on JetBlue given their legroom advantage, TVs and free WiFi.

        1. If you don’t consider ops part of the coach experience and live in the north east i would agree, if you don’t live in the north east and care about reliability delta is a better way to go.

        2. Agreed – JetBlue is the best coach experience, and it’s consistently good.
          They’re pretty much not worth flying unless you’re going to/from JFK, BOS, MCO, or FLL though.

          1. My rule of thumb is that if a trip doesn’t start and end within an hour’s drive from an ocean, JetBlue probably isn’t an option.

      2. Why do you think DL is more comfortable? Are you talking international routes or widebody planes? For the average domestic coach traveler, I really don’t see much difference between DL’s seat pitch in coach vs. United or even AA (although AA’s fleet seems to be more consistent with 30 inch pitch than DL or UA, which have more 31 inch configurations according to Seat Guru). DL’s A220 fleet has the widest seats out there, but that is such a small part of the fleet, so I don’t see how you could base the comment on that, when most passengers will not fly it on a given day. I am generally curious what it is about them that makes them the most comfortable. Is it the personal TV’s?

        1. I would say that while delta’s best isn’t better their worse is much much better then AA’s. especially considering how many LUS aircraft are out their with no power, and and no IFE. but im not familiar enough with UA’s fleet to comment

          1. I agree with this and think if he had said most consistent Legacy, he would have been spot on. DL is the leader when it comes to product consistency across its fleet. UA has gotten a lot better over the past couple of years, but still has areas to improve (Airbus fleet does not have power in regular economy). From what I’ve seen (I don’t fly AA that much), AA can’t decide what it wants to be.

            If we’re going to talk about comfort in coach, I agree with 121Pilot that JetBlue offers the most comfortable coach experience. I’d give high marks to WN too if they offered the 32 inch pitch fleet-wide, but it is unfortunately only available on the 738s.

      3. IDK man, I fly almost 100% for work in UA E+

        Of UA, AA and DL I like UA the most.

        The main thing I don’t get is why the seats on mainline usually feel so bad? When I’m on an emb 175 the seats feel puffy and comfortable.

        If they’d put a seat like that on mainline it’d be nice

        I only started flying in’15 so maybe that was what pre slimline seats were?

        1. Yep, they mostly still use non slimlined seats on RJ cause they can’t jam more seats on because of scope requirements, but typically for me I can’t work in the older style seats they are just too comfortable, so you win some you lose some.

  4. I thought airline consolidation was supposed to be the end of competition. Obviously, that hasn’t happened. What consolidation has brought about is a more rational level of competition. There’s a difference between mindlessly dumping capacity into a market as opposed to competing on schedule and amenities. J.P. Morgan once observed, “Too much competition destroys all competition.” That proved to be true with railroads, with bankruptcy after bankruptcy leading to an era of consolidation. It also proved to be true of the airlines, with a remarkably similar ending – bankruptcy after bankruptcy followed by consolidation. Mindlessly increasing capacity led to many of those bankruptcies. But healthy competition has proven to be good for both consumers and the airline industry.

    1. Well how far do you want to argue that logic? The same thing could be said about the state of California. What do people endlessly lament about? Clogged roads and traffic, high rents, high cost of housing, shortage of both, ad nauseum.

      So does CA really have a shortage of all those things? Would building more roads and housing solve either? Or does the state really have a PEOPLE problem in the sense that there are too many of them? I’d bet that if you take care of the head count and reduce it, the rest of those ‘problems’ would also self correct.

      But how would you actually accomplish that?

      1. Repeatedly turning off the electricity to millions of Californians will cause many to decide that the state is just not worth it – after a litany of other problems.

        And even if people leave, the electricity and fire problems aren’t going away. CA has always been very dry this time of year because of meteorological conditions that have existed since before the US was a country.

        An influx of people, an unwillingness to clear the land of trees and scrub, and other problems are not the result of too many people but poor governance of a very fragile ecosystem that has been overrun with too many people chasing a dream that is now increasingly slipping from their hand.

        Unfortunately, there is no bankruptcy process for the CA way of life that will provide a reset as could occur w/ the airlines.

        People will leave CA and the cost will get higher for those who remain – but the difference between airlines and their bankruptcy and what is happening in CA right now couldn’t be more different simply because there is no way to go back to what CA used to know.

  5. So in other words American was just making stuff up and had no clue what was really going on out on the line.

    That seems to sum up their entire operation quite nicely.

  6. One of the long time travel myths out there is that the mainline legacy US carriers are more comfortable than Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit, etc. I flew UA and DL recently in economy and often fly WN and I can honestly say there is no difference in terms of comfort. And often WN is more fun. Of course, first class is a different story.

    1. The Spirit “Big Front Seat” is the best deal in the sky, especially on their long(-ish) flights like East Coast flights to Vegas and BWI/FLL flights to LAX.

  7. I guess if I wanted to fly First Class to/from Chicago I would care, but since I don’t……….I don’t.

  8. This first class talk is wonderful for those who can afford it, but what about the rest of us. Adding more first class seats either eliminates some economy seats or reduces leg room. Since the majority of passengers are flying economy, how about thinking of us for once.

  9. Amen! I am a retired flight attendant who worked in First/Business Class most of the time. On domestic flights most of the time 40-50% of the premium cabin seats are FF upgrades–a lot of good feelings, but no extra cash. F/C seats make ORD-LHR bearable. (Let’s not even talk about the coming 17-19 hour flights. It makes me nauseous. Is changing planes at a big airport all that gruesome?)

    1. Meant to say F/C seat makes ORD-LHR bearable. On ORD-TUL, you barely have time to figure out current a/c’s IFE controller before the Prepare for Landing PA is made. F/C on RJs is nice (I’ve flown as a passenger on a F/C-configured RJ and it is nice.), but it ain’t necessary. You are buying a Cadillac when all you needed was a Chevy. I agree with the flyer who posted that they should figure out an economical way to make coach more comfortable.

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