Assessing the viability of offering a first-class product in the future United Airlines has reached the same conclusion as other US carriers – demand for a deeply extravagant experience continues to wane as business-class satisfies the needs of most premium customers.
United brings a somewhat different perspective to the evolution of first class. The carrier in 2010 merged with Continental, a carrier that only offered two-classes of service, business and economy. Last year United told the APEX Editor’s Blog that more than 100 of the combined carrier’s widebody aircraft would retain a three-class configuration.
By year-end United plans to operate 698 mainline aircraft, of which 155 are widebody jets including 23 Boeing 747-400s, 74 777-200s, 54 767s and four 787-8s. United also operates a portion of its 153 757s in international service. United has opted to shun first class on its new 787 aircraft, and instead offers business, premium economy and economy seating.
Over the long-term the number of aircraft in United’s mainline fleet featuring a dedicated first-class cabin is likely to dwindle even further, owing to the strides made in offering flatbed seating in business class. “First class going forward on United is most likely going to diminish,” United director of product and brand marketing John Yeng recently told the APEX Editor’s blog. “We see that most of our bread and butter is in our business class cabin.”
United is attempting to ensure that its business class cabin is on par with its global competitors through a significant re-fleeting project to install full-flat seats in the first and business sections of its widebody aircraft. The carrier is transforming its premium service (PS) Boeing 757-200s operating between the hugely competitive New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco from a three class to a two-class configuration featuring the flat-bed seat.
United’s rivals Delta and American are making similar moves in order to compete effectively for the all-important business class passenger. Delta starting in Mar-2013 plans to offer 16 flatbed seats on its Boeing 757s operated from New York to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, whilst the Airbus A321s scheduled for delivery to American beginning in November 2013 will feature a first class cabin with 10 flatbed seats. The A321s are pegged to replace 767s currently operating on transcontinental flights from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
While American’s strategy is somewhat different in offering a dedicated first class on transcontinental flights, United has concluded there is “just not a lot of demand, especially [among] corporate customers, looking for first class”, said Yeng.
Even as American is distinguishing its US transcontinental product with a dedicated first class, overall the carrier is paring down its first-class offering. Once deliveries of 10 Boeing 777-300ERs have been completed, those jets will represent the flagship long-haul aircraft in American’s fleet, and the only type to feature a first class cabin. Presently, first class is available on 47 of the carriers 777-200s, but the carrier is undertaking reconfiguration project for those aircraft to transform the jets into a different three class offering that features business class, economy and the airline’s new “Main Cabin Extra” premium economy offering.
United, meanwhile, continues to steadily install the flat-bed seats across its international fleet as competition to capture business class customers heats up among US legacy carriers. In October, carrier CEO Jeff Smisek declared that more than 6,200 premium cabin flatbed seats have been installed on the carrier’s international fleet. “And by February of next year, every aircraft flying over the Atlantic will have flatbed seats in the premium cabin.” He eagerly pledged that “our entire long haul international fleet worldwide will have flatbed seats next spring”.