I wrote about the commercial side of United’s new CRJ-550 regional jet last week, and now it’s time to talk product. While I was in Chicago last Thursday for United’s media day, the airline invited attendees out to O’Hare to see the new airplane for themselves before it entered service on Sunday.
[Disclosure: United paid for my flights and hotel]
From the outside, the airplane looks like any other CRJ-700, because, well, it is a CRJ-700. It has an artificially capped maximum take-off weight (MTOW) which, as the pilots told me, will likely cap its range at 900 to 1,000 miles at best. But other than that, it’s the same airplane.
The difference is on the inside where instead of 70 seats in First/Economy Plus/Economy, this airplane has only 50 thanks to complicated restrictions related to labor negotiations. Because of that, United found itself in the odd position of having to figure out what to do with all that extra space.
You notice the extra space right away when you walk on the aircraft. Just inside, there is a huge bar area (well, huge for a regional jet) which is stocked with snacks. Down below, there are cans of sodas and juice.
This area is only for those seated in the 10 First Class seats up front. Why? It’s not as benevolent as you’d think. A normal 70-seater has two flight attendants, but with only 50 seats onboard, United can go down to a single flight attendant. That doesn’t sound bad when you have 50 coach seats, but when you have a First Class cabin, service is going to suffer.
The addition of the self-service bar acknowledges that the flight attendant won’t be as readily available as would be the case on a 70-seater. While service in First Class will begin with beverages — which will be pre-ordered on the ground before departure to speed up service — and snacks handed out by the flight attendant as normal, follow-up service will be lacking.
Across from the bar is one of four large closets onboard the aircraft.
These closets were designed to hold a ton of roller bags. In fact, United says it can fit 50 carry-ons onboard (including in the overheads), so no traveler should have to gate check a bag. That is an enormous perk of this airplane, and one that makes it the best regional jet experience flying.
Immediately behind the closet and bar is where passenger seating finally begins.
As mentioned, there are 10 First Class seats on this airplane, and they are in a 1-2 configuration.
Behind First Class on the right side side is where I think lies the best way to explain just how much room there is on this airplane. The are several coat hangars which get their own window. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for the design team at the airline to figure this out. They aren’t use to wasted space, and this plane is full of it. It’s like being in The Twilight Zone.
Behind that, there are… more closets.
Those closets act as a convenient barrier between First and the riff-raff in the back of the bus. That means that next up is Economy Plus.
There are 20 purple-hued Economy Plus seats onboard. The exit row has ample legroom, but I would trade that in for the first row in Economy Plus — row 7 — in a heartbeat.
Look at that absurd amount of room. This legroom serves a very important purpose.
And that purpose is preventing people from putting their feet up. Ok, maybe it’s not all that important, but it still shows just how crazy this legroom is. (As an added bonus, this gives you an opportunity to make fun of my shoes, as usual….)
I should note, regular Economy Plus isn’t bad either.
Next up, we get to the peasants. There are 20 smart-looking regular coach seats back there.
Sitting in the back on this airplane has its privileges, as small as they may be. Because of the limited amount of time available for one flight attendant to serve the entire cabin, passengers will receive a full can instead of a poured drink in a cup. United and its regional partner GoJet did multiple tests to try to figure out how to shave time off service, and this was a winning suggestion.
Finally, we have the only lavatory onboard. It’s… a lavatory. Not very exciting.
And that’s it. Pretty swanky, eh? It looks like United has done an impressive job of packing in amenities with all that space it had to fill. The airline has also spent a lot of time thinking through service flow thanks to having only a single flight attendant onboard. I’m sure that staffing decision matters a great deal when it comes to trying to keep a lid on the costs of operating an airplane with 20 fewer seats than it can hold.