Touring United’s New, Ridiculously-Spacious CRJ-550 Aircraft


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.

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58 comments on “Touring United’s New, Ridiculously-Spacious CRJ-550 Aircraft

      1. Yes sock, I agree. As for the shoes Brett, try a pair of Allbirds as they are so comfortable you’ll wear nothing else. There also sockless & can be warn year round.

        Getting back on topic, the plane is interesting with that 2-1 seat configuration & all that dead space, but at least useful features were added. That said, I wonder if this will be a problem if & or when there’s a downturn in the economy & short hall& thinner routes get cut as that is usually the MO of airlines.

        1. SEAN – Yeah, yeah. I was on the road for a long time and ran out of socks. Sometimes… that’s the way it goes. But I’m a big fan of these Olukais, which can also be worn without socks and are incredibly comfortable.

        2. Another vote for Allbirds. Most comfortable shoes I own. Now if they could do something about how they smell after a few wears.

          1. Hey Chris,

            If your Allbirds stink after wearing them, there are a few simple solutions…

            1. remove the inserts & throw the shoes in the wash. Use a gentle cycle & then air dry them.
            2. Just let them sit for at least a day after wearing. Be sure to switch pairs each day.
            3. add a supportive insert from such brands as Dr. Sholes. Since I’ve done the latter, I get better support & as a side benefit, the shoes don’t stink at all.

            Hope that helps!

  1. How come the Economy Plus seats are purple? I thought they were supposed to be a different shade of blue like on other aircraft.

    1. they won’t get 900-1000 miles out of that aircraft from ORD or EWR during extensive takeoff delays.

      1. Take-off delays and long taxis shouldn’t figure into MTOW restrictions, as long as they can be reasonably anticipated, which – in Chicago – they should be. MTOW is, as the name says, weight on take-off. Ramp weight minus taxi fuel burn = MTOW.

  2. I like the idea of the bar area but for the pax in the inside seat you have to disturb the person next to you to get up for your snacks. Not a perfect solution but wish that more airlines would embrace this. I don’t always want the snack offerings right away but an hour into the flight, sure. Self serve sounds like a good solution.

  3. Looks fantastic! Air Canada did something similar 14 years ago with the CRJ-705, only that was a CRJ-900 certified to hold 75 passengers in a two-class configuration. No extra closets for rolling bags (and the bins are barely adequate) but lots of legroom throughout Y.

    1. Danie – Yep, the 705 is gone now, I believe, but it was the same rationale. The difference is that United appears to have put much more thought into how to use the extra space.

  4. I wonder how they went from 70 to 50 seats and only increased CASM by high single digit? I would imagine part of that is one fewer FA, lower weight and maybe lower pay scale for the pilots, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. You would need to reduce the total trip cost by like 20% which is a lot.

    1. Wonder if they could have gone all-E+ in coach with a bit less space “wasted” on empty space.

      Or are they counting on sets upsell?

      1. Oliver – Yes, it’s all about the upsell. If they had all E+, they couldn’t get anyone to buy up. That’s important.

        1. I figured this was the reason the regular coach seats only have 30″ pitch, instead of a roomier 31 or the now-luxurious 32.” I suppose no one would pay for E+ if the seats at the back of the bus were roomier than normal.

    2. FC – Where did you see a single digit CASM increase? Did I miss that somewhere? Either way, there is no difference in pilot wages. It’s entirely based on that decrease in flight attendant staffing combined with increase in fuel burn, best I can tell.

      1. Kirby has said single digit over the CRJ50 seaters. He didn’t point out that the CRJ is the most expensive aircraft on a CASM basis already.

        except for AA’s A321T

        1. FWIW the ERJ145 has a 2 or 3% higher CASM than the CRJ200.

          Now, I agree this CRJ550 must have the highest CASM of the fleet. But probably also the highest RASM to match it…

          1. no, AA’s A321T has the highest average fares in the JFK-LAX market – but RASM still trails other markets. There is a reason why AA has not expanded its fleet of A321T fleet. It is an aircraft that has competitively succeeded in just one market – JFK-LAX.

            And the A321T is built on a much more competitive aircraft from an efficiency standpoint to begin with – the A321CEO.

            AA also has been largely able to hold onto its share in the JFK-LAX market based on its capacity – which has not grown. AA has been supplanted by DL and B6 in the JFK-LAX market with DL average fares above average and B6 below average. DL is now the largest carrier in the JFK-LAX market based on total revenue and share with 1 1/2 times the amount of share that AA has.
            A high RASM/CASM strategy leaves a carrier vulnerable to more efficient carriers – and that is the problem for UA. It thinks it can pull off the premium passengers from a market – but the CRJ550 largely competes with other aircraft and other hubs for the same connecting traffic; AA and DL’s larger two cabin regional jets and DL’s higher number of mainline aircraft lead to a larger amount of capacity from these smaller cities on the UA network being served more efficiently by other airlines.

            And, the real root of the issue is that UA wants to continue to outsource a much larger portion of its domestic network to regional carriers rather than use a small mainline aircraft.

            Add in that UA is using the CRJ550 in markets where it is often #3 of the big 3 carriers, DL is most certainly going to grow its presence in key UA markets esp. from ORD that are worth way more than what the CRJ550 can possibly deliver to UA.

            Just as with AA’s decision to try to serve just a “niche portion” of the JFK transcon market, UA’s decision is the same with the CRJ 550 and will ultimately lead to the same result – higher cost, less share compared to other airlines that serve the market more efficiently.

  5. Wow! Brings back memories of the large, in-cabin closets TWA had on its Boeing 727s for flights between NYC-LaGuardia and Chicago-O’Hare (waaayyy) back in the day!

    I guess what’s old is what’s new sometimes since these types of full length, in-cabin closets and hangers for jackets and coats were commonplace for TWA’s LGA-ORD flights for many years.

    And while slightly off topic, does anyone remember those cool, “space age-like” coat closets on the Lockheed L-1011 where after all of the coats were hung on an electronic rack they disappeared into the wall lifted and tucked away just before the door was closed for push-back all with the push of a button by the flight attendant?!?!

  6. Hey Cranky, I’m flying one of these from ORD to RIC today. I can’t wait to see it in action.

  7. It’s funny seeing DL and UA making tradeoffs in their overall passenger experience, while AA is purely making cuts. This is the kind of thing that will make road-warriors prefer UA over anyone else. The experience and ratio on these aircraft is a differentiator.
    DL’s international 9-across instead of 10-across on their 777’s will certainly sway long-haul travelers.

    And at lowly AA, they’re plowing ahead with Project Oasis.

    1. While there’s truth to what you say, this is about finding a way to grow capacity on low-cost regional operators without increasing capacity on higher-cost mainline flights. An improved customer experience is entirely a byproduct of the operational demand. Of course, United is very happy to tout the improved customer experience.

  8. Is there even a second jumpseat in the back if they wanted to add a 2nd FA?

    As for the self serve, B6 has this on the Mint 321’s and now the all Core new. It’s interesting to watch. On some flights it gets consistent use and on others, nobody will use it at first until 1 or 2 people do, and then it’s like the floodgates open.

    1. Phllax – Definitely not jumpseat in the back, but I imagine there is a second one in case they needed it. But I didn’t see for myself.

      The bar on the new JetBlue config makes much more sense since flight times are longer.

  9. Yes, it looks comfortable and – being based near ORD – I’ll probably be on one of them sooner than later. But still, ultimately it’s a CRJ-700. And that means no headroom, a bumpy ride through even the slightest of turbulence and…..your flight is one of the first to be delayed or cancelled during IrrOPS.

  10. This feels like a ton of wasted space and unnecessary fuel burn. Flying 50 in the space for 70 is a huge inefficiency.

  11. I still think they’re nuts trying this concept in terms of costs. Rather have a 3 class ~70 seater running those routes instead of making a subfleet of 3 class 50 seaters.

    1. B Launders – They’d rather have a 3 class 70 seaters as well, but unless they buy new small mainline airplanes, the agreement the pilot prohibits that.

    2. Having more 70 seaters isn’t an option due to scope restrictions. It’s either this or scrounge up more ERJ145s.

      1. Why is it so difficult to accept that UA’s reason for not wanting a small mainline aircraft is about contracting out as much of its flying as it can.

        If Delta can make 2 small mainline aircraft work – including the 717 – there is no reason why UA can’t make the E2 jets or the A220 work.

        UA’s reason for not wanting a small mainline aircraft is not about economics.

        1. Even if they started the process today, it would be a long time before United could start operating a significant number of E2 jets or A220s, so they still need some way to meet their regional capacity needs over the next couple years.

          In the medium- to long-term, I agree that the only reasonable long-term way to grow total capacity is to add a small mainline jet. I agree with you that people who expect pilot unions to allow more regional jets than are allowed by the current contract are being unrealistic.

          One possible path forward that I think might work well:
          – United agrees to add the E195-E2/E190-E2 to its mainline fleet.
          – In exchange, the pilot’s union agrees to relax the MTOW restriction in the current scope clause (while leaving all other aspects of the scope clause the same), in order to allow United to buy a 76-seat version of the E175-E2 for United Express.

          Significant advantages of this deal:
          – Pilots unions get additional jobs on the new E195s.
          – United gets to add an additional 70 76-seat regional aircraft.
          – United benefits by having fewer aircraft families to maintain, and can deliver a more consistent product across mainline and regional jets.
          – Less retraining required as pilots move from the regionals to mainline aircraft.
          – Relaxing the MTOW restriction doesn’t really cost the pilots anything in the long-term, because those E175-E2s would otherwise just be MRJ-100s.
          – Both United and pilots union benefit from growth due to a regional airline fleet that’s more efficient and cost-competitive than AA or DL’s regional fleet.

  12. The narrative pushed by Willis Tower is that the CASM hit will be offset by premium up-sale. That’s why they are going into medium sized markets that can’t support mainline but have solid business demand. Sounds do-able as long as corporate/biz demand stays strong.
    Sourcing it to one of the lowest cost operators in the Express minagrie helps.

    1. Especially cause GoJet just lost their Delta flying and is desperate to stay in business, so United had them right where they wanted them

  13. now THIS is definitely a textbook case of making lemonade out of lemons. it might be a major flop commercially but at least they tried something different.

  14. 100% rollerboard guarentee is a bit of a game changer. . . . .that’s certainly a real posistive. its too bad that cattle like me couldn’t get an extra inch or two in back, but so it goes. . .

    1. Definitely, it will also be helpful from the ramp and gate perspectives. We will sometimes get 20-30 roller boards we have to pull out of the aft cargo pit upon arrival and it can take some time…and then load 20-30 more for the turn…not fun on a quick turn…

  15. MSN is my base so I cant wait to plan a trip around trying out this plane. Hopefully United keeps it around for a while. Saw one take off over the weekend, looks good in the new livery.

  16. One bathroom for 50 pax doesn’t meet first class standards. I think they should have fit a second lavatory in instead of some of the “wasted” space.

    1. How many people are going to have to use the bathroom on a <1000 mile flight? I don’t think there’s going to be a line, even with one lav.

    2. Hi hi, good question. I thought the same.
      But think of it like this – The 550 is like a home renovation… Adding a forward lav is like moving/removing/adding load-barring walls along with moving plumbing lines. What United did was your standard general contractor work like moving drywalls, adding custom cabinets and moving a few electoral lines.
      And that’s all for argument’s sake, as I don’t think that’s possible on a CR7, right!? Never knew of an airline that had one. And if there is, I’m excited to learn!

  17. Interestingly the banner add at the bottom of this article for me is a link for the world’s most comfortable shoe. I think that’s by design :)

  18. I bet they already have the STC drawn up to certify these babies at a higher MTOW. The next recession, out go the closets and in go the seats.

    1. Yes that STC is indeed all drawn up. It’s called a CRJ-700…

      But then, the previous role those CRJ-700s had is now taken over by ERJ-175SCs (@70 seats). So there is no coming back…

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