A hint of Economy Plus from Continental??

Continental Airlines and United Airlines have made no secret of the fact that they are aligning their operations. United has changed their upgrade scheme to more or less match that of Continental and Continental is moving to offer System-Wide upgrades, a revenue-based top tier, non-hub routes and charging for the seats with the most legroom, similar to United’s Economy Plus program.

That last one, Economy Plus, is the cause of much angst based on the announced merger plans between the two carriers. Continental’s management has stated on many occasions that they don’t see the profit margins in such an offering while United has made quite a bit of money – and built quite a brand – offering such an option. The announcement yesterday of the new Houston – Auckland route on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Continental included an interesting note regarding the seating on the aircraft, one that appears to significantly raise the chances of Continental offering an Economy Plus cabin on the new aircraft.

The bit in question from yesterday’s release is this:

The aircraft will have 228 seats, including 36 of Continental’s new flat-bed BusinessFirst seats for the best rest on long-distance flights.

The line seems somewhat innocuous at first blush, but the numbers, along with the dimensions of the 787-8, lead to slightly different conclusions.

Boeing 767-200 seat mapThe 787 is approximately 27.5 feet longer than the 767-200 that Continental currently operates (138 feet, 9 inches v. 111 feet, 3 inches) and 2.5 feet wider. The current Continental 762 configuration (shown at right) allocates about 950 inches of seat space given the number of rows and the reported pitch. Assuming that the space between the two forward doors is about the same and that the space there is fully consumed by the 36 BusinessFirst seats – which will almost certainly be 2-2-2 across, similar to the 777-200ERs – there are about 608 inches of pitch assigned to coach seating in the back of the 762. Adding 27.5 feet (330 inches) to that length is a ton of extra space. Assuming that some of it is used by galleys and lavatories and that only 200 inches are added to the economy section there are still about 800 inches of cabin space allocated to the coach cabin.

To get to 192 seat in coach would require either 21 rows of a 3-3-3 configuration or 24 rows of a 2-4-2 configuration. If you take 21 rows and spread it through 800 inches of cabin each row would have about 38” of pitch. That would be, by far, the most generous coach cabin seating arrangement in the industry, though quite narrow seats. Should they opt for the 8-abreast configuration and 24 rows the average pitch would be over 33” distributed through the cabin. If we assume that Continental will match the existing 32” pitch from the 767s (or even worse, the 31” pitch from the rest of the fleet) then those extra inches can be allocated to an Economy Plus-esque configuration. Maybe 6 rows of 37” pitch and 18 rows of 32” pitch. That would actually represent a quite comfortable cabin configuration, still one of the best in the industry, even for the folks in the non-E+ seats.

There is also a chance that there was a typo in the release and that they are planning on including 228 Coach seats PLUS the 36 BusinessFirst seats. At 25-28 rows required in the same 800-ish inches of space things would be a bit tighter, though it would still be 32” pitch through the cabin at 25 rows. It is also worth noting that for the interior dimensions I’ve been rounding down, trying to assume that there is something wrong in the calculations or in the measurements. But I cannot find where that is. I’m still looking for it, but I’m not sure that I’ll ever find it. It sure would be nice for Continental to actually offer a cabin that would be so spacious and comfortable, but their history suggests that it isn’t their style, even if the dimensions of the plane suggest that it is possible.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Very interesting analysis. Being based at SFO, UA has always been my go-to airline of choice for geographic reasons, but since they introduced E+, that loyalty has been cemented and I have made sure to retain elite status (nowadays 1K, all from personal travel). It would be a big loss if the new United abandoned that offering. I don’t expect to be upgraded to F every time I fly (though I have had good luck with SWUs and now UDUs because in almost never book at the last minute), but the guarantee of at least a decent E+ seat makes sure I stick with UA. I don’t think I’d even consider going IAH-AKL in E- – the memories of 16 hrs or so flying ATL-CPT in South African’s 747 in standard E are still just to vivid (you can tell from the route this was quite a while ago) I think I’d rather fly in many hops via Micronesia than that long non-stop in E- 🙂

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