United announces significant investments to in-flight product


United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek has stated a few times that the company had some deficiencies in their in-flight product, bits that would be addressed as part of the merger process between United and Continental. The first of many bits detailed on that topic was the announcement that Economy Plus would be expanded to the Continental fleet starting in 2012. Other than that, however, not many specifics have been discussed. That changed today with the release of some upcoming changes that can be expected from the company to the tune of a $550MM investment.

Economy Plus Seating

While the Economy Plus efforts on the Continental fleet were initially expected to not be seen until 2012 the new release suggests that the conversion will be starting sooner. The company expects to see the E+seats on 38 Continental aircraft before the end of the year. Based on some information received from other sources it is quite possible that these first Economy Plus aircraft will be 757-300s or 737-800s. Those aircraft have been operating with temporary seats and without any in-flight entertainment systems for a while now due to issues with the Koito seats.

By the end of Q1 2012 the company expects to have 100 Continental aircraft equipped with Economy Plus seats. That number will include 29 Bombardier Q400 commuter turbo-prop aircraft which will be equipped with both a first class and economy plus section.

Flat-bed Seats

Already the leader in total flat-bed seating capacity to and from North America, United has committed to expanding their installation starting in Q3 2011. There are 26 Boeing 767s – 12 of the -400 variant form Continental and 14 of the -300 variant from United – which will be equipped with the new seats. The 12 -400s were previously announced while the 14 -300s have only been speculative recently. These aircraft are also going to be receiving winglets to improve their range and performance. This does mean the likely reduction of wide-body service in the form of 767s on domestic routes as the -300s being converted are the aircraft that service that function.

In addition to the 767s being converted the company has committed to installing flat beds in 12 more 777s by the end of the year. The United aircraft being converted will continue to be in a three-cabin configuration.

In-Flight Entertainment

The announcement also highlights updates to the IFE systems on the Boeing 747 aircraft. Rather than installing dedicated systems in the seats of the economy cabin United will instead offer a streaming media option for users with their own wireless devices. While the release suggests the decision is still out to bid the only current offering that is installed is that of gogo and the product they currently have in operation on American Airlines 767s running their premium transcon routes. There is no indication that they will be adding power outlets to the economy cabin on the 747s so hopefully your wireless media receiving device has a good battery.

The IFE systems will also be updated as part of the full-fleet renewal of the p.s. aircraft operating between New York City‘s JFK airport and Los Angeles and San Francisco. Those aircraft will receive the lie-flat Continental BusinessFirst seats as well as a full AVOD system and will maintain wifi service.

Not included in the announcement but referenced above, the company also expects to begin the deployment of the DirecTV systems on the few 737s that were delivered without it as well as the 757-300s that have not yet been converted later this year.

Channel 9

While this could arguably be included in the regular IFE section of the report but it is worth highlighting separately as it is a pretty cool feature and one that it unique to United. The company has committed to expanding the Channel 9 systems on all legacy Continental aircraft. Woohoo!

There are a number of other improvements being made as well, including upgrades to the overhead bins and a retrofit of the interiors of the United Airbus narrow-body aircraft. They also reaffirmed the commitment to add wifi to the legacy Continental aircraft that have DirecTV systems, pending the launch of the additional satellite by LiveTV to bring that service into operation.

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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.

11 Comments

  1. CO has already retired its first 762 aircraft, due to its age and high operating cost PPM. The UA 763 aircraft being converted to ETOPS with the new interiors will replace those CO 762s. Expect to see them deployed in/around HNL and GUM, where passenger traffic mix doesn’t justify a 3-cabin configuration, but can support paid business class (if they are market competitive).

    1. Oh anonymous one, I’d be surprised if the 763s being converted end up spending a lot of time in HNL or GUM. They’ve got the domestic 777s and the old 76H configs running the longer flights (IAH/EWR/ORD) and the shorter ones are being operated with 757s and 737s. Sure, with the two cabin BF config they can work the HNL routes (and the press release mentions Hawaii) but I’d expect that routes like IAH-SCL or IAH-MAD are higher yielding and more likely to see the new cabin configs before Hawaii gets an upgrade on that front.

  2. I really like the addition of Economy Plus on the Q400. That aircraft is well suited for shorter flights due to its lower fuel burn, and adding Economy Plus will make it hugely more comfortable.

    I suspect we’ll see some of the 2-class 763’s on routes with more demand than CO’s 2-class 752’s but not much paid F demand. It really gives the combined airline more flexibility. I also wonder if the new pS 752 configuration with 28 premium seats might finds its way onto some international routes that need more than 16.

    1. There is a decent chance that they could convert a few extra 752s into the new p.s. config and use that for other routes, Carl. A follow-up post from the UA folks intimated that this was a possibility down the line. I think that LHR is the obvious destination that could see such service. I also wonder if they’d use that config in something akin to a PrivatAir offering. Figure that dropping 35 seats out of the plane can do a decent job of increasing the range and you could potentially see a few more destinations come into play, particularly if the company thinks they can support the higher Biz loads.

      As for the 763s replacing 752s, I’m sure there will be a few instances of that. But I’m also betting that the 763s open up more routes like IAH-SCL or IAH-MAD where they have the range but the 752s simply can not make it happen.

  3. So what about DEN, SFO, LAX flights to Hawaii as most are on the 767 during peak times of year do they just stick with the 757 all year or what

    1. Right now, Jeremy, the LAX and SFO flights would be EUA/UDU under both the CO and UA policies. DEN on a BF-equipped aircraft would not be. We’ll have to see what the policy is going forward. There is going to be at least one flight (ORD-HNL) that is a domestic 772 so they are going to have to handle that permutation of the options along with all the others.

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