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.)
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.
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:
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.