United’s new business class: still one step behind

US majors are slowly closing the gap with their overseas rivals when it comes to business class products but don’t expect them to win any awards.

seat UA.JPG 

Last week I flew in the new United Airlines business class (pictured), which was put in service just over one year ago and is now on eight inter-continental routes.

While the new United business class seat is several steps above the old United seat it is still one step behind the leaders in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. And by the time the last United widebody gets the new seat United could be an entire generation or two behind.

United’s lie-flat seat and large video screen (15.4 inches) finally matches the recline and IFE on leading Asian and European carriers. The old United business class seat, which as of today is still on three-quarters of the carrier’s widebodies, doesn’t recline fully and doesn’t even have on-demand video.

But the new seat isn’t as wide or as long as the new seat offered by some Asian, European and Middle Eastern carriers. I also noticed United’s headphones fall way short of the state-of-the-art noise cancellation headphones provided by many other carriers.

The service overall is also way below European or Asian standards. Little things, like the thinness of the hot towels handed out before meals and the lack of snacks offered in the galley between meals, show United is still skimping on business class.

Over the last few weeks I also had the opportunity to fly the long-haul business class products of Lufthansa, Swiss and Singapore Airlines and the service overall was clearly better than United. And I wasn’t even on the new Singapore business class, which features the widest business class seat in the industry today, but had a product that is several years old.

Of course the fact US carriers still lag behind their Asian and European counterparts is no surprise. In late 2007 I had the opportunity to fly the new American Airlines international business class product and made similar comments on this blog. Last year Delta introduced a similar lie-flat business class seat and I expect the new seats that will be introduced by Continental later this year will be on par with Americana and United rather than meet the standards of leading foreign carriers.

With that said, US majors should be applauded for investing in new business class products during difficult times. While United hasn’t found money to buy any new aircraft in a decade (and they clearly can use new generation widebodies to replace their ageing 767 and 747 fleets) and aren’t investing in upgrading economy (which is in as much need of a facelift as business), at least they are doing something to improve their business and first offering.

Now only if United would accelerate the project and be more reliable in sticking to their published schedule. Washington Dulles-Zurich is one of eight routes United has introduced the new seat on but on the outbound flight I got onboard to find the old product. Clearly this is not a way to please smart business class travellers who select their flights based on the product.

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10 Responses to United’s new business class: still one step behind

  1. Devesh Agarwal 15 January, 2009 at 6:34 pm #

    The fundamental issue is the mindless upgrades that all US carriers dole out like candy. This only lowers their business class returns, and hence their ability or desire to invest in their premium products.

    You have may have been the minority who actually paid for the business class seat.

  2. Brendan Sobie 16 January, 2009 at 4:13 am #

    Devesh, I agree, US carriers do give out a lot of upgrades. But I believe this is more the case on domestic flights and perhaps this is a factor in the recent cuts to the domestic first class product, including some airlines eliminating all free meals. On international flights I believe there are still a lot of passengers paying for business class tickets, many through corporate accounts. It is important for US carriers to offer a good product to keep these passengers from switching to foreign carriers for intercontinental flights.

  3. malcontent 16 January, 2009 at 5:32 pm #

    I disagree that upgrades are the problem. Yield management does a fine job of balancing seats for sale at full fare and upgrades for elites. The issue isn’t the upgrades, it’s that people don’t want to pay for the substandard product and service United is providing relative to the competition.

    As for your post, I agree 100%. As for your IAD-ZRH flight not having the new config, United would say that they don’t guarantee a particular configuration on any given day. If you’re flying full fare, the response should be, “I don’t guarantee you my money on any particular day”. Get a refund and fly Swiss. Better product all-round.

  4. Devesh Agarwal 17 January, 2009 at 6:33 am #

    Brendan, may be things have changed now. Sorry, but after enough disappointing experiences, I have not flown on a US carrier internationally in more than 6 years.

    Hospitality is also a critical aspect of the cabin experience, especially in competition to Asia, and certain European carriers like Virgin. Cabin crews jaded by their domestic experience cannot be allowed to dilute the international service, where competition is on the overall experience.

    A good solution would be for US carriers to have a separate international division which will function with full autonomy right down to the cabin crews.

    The US airlines led the world in, to the glamorous world of air travel, and have led their passengers out, of it. I believe they can regain much of what they have lost, but it will take leaders from outside the domestic US airline industry to do it.

  5. Tom 17 January, 2009 at 6:22 pm #

    Those first class seats look amazing. It’s great to see how far airline cabins have advanced in just the past 10 years. I remember flying Northwest a few years back in first class and I couldn’t even tell a difference from first class and coach besides the hit on my wallet, haha.

  6. JimmyZ 23 January, 2009 at 7:53 pm #

    The pricing on all of the seats is out of control, and never make any sense. For example, why pay $6,000 for a business class seat when you can pay $1,000 for a coach seat and just upgrade to business class?

    All airlines should look at the long haul aircraft they have, and offer seating that fits the task. I have said for years that an airline that thinks of this will take the lead. For example, on a 777, instead of 9 across in coach, do 8. Make each seat a little wider. Remove 1 or 2 rows per cabin, and let the seats recline more. Remove a row or 2 from Business class to allow more coach seats. Then advertise the superior coach product, and justify the additional $200 a seat. Limit upgrades, then price business class so it is perhaps twice that of coach. Over all the revenue would come out the same, and the business traveler would be far happier.

  7. Brendan Sobie 23 January, 2009 at 8:07 pm #

    Jimmy, it sounds like you are talking about premium economy. A handful of carriers in Europe and Asia have introduced over the last several years a new section of the cabin that offers more space than economy (but not as much as business class) for roughly double the price of economy. Upgrades are traditionally limited to one class above the class purchased (so economy to premium economy or premium economy to business). This concept has been quite successful at carriers such as BA, Virgin, EVA and ANA but so far no US carrier has introduced this. United has a “premium economy” but this is still the same economy seat in the same economy cabin with the only difference being a few extra inches of legroom.

  8. HJ 7 May, 2009 at 8:16 pm #

    Changing aircraft configuration is not an easy matter. United’s 777 economy is actually very good. Emirates’ 777 is configured 10 abreast. United’s seating is whole lot better. United’s business class is falling apart and only good for upgrade fare. When I pay full business class fare, I normally fly ANA, Lufthansa, or Emirates depending where I am going. I fly so much that I still accumulate enough United miles to qualify free United international upgrade, which is under tight control. The problem is not only in the seats. United flight attendants’ services are bad. Low moral and low pay were their justification to their poor attitude. I rarely running into a good flight attendant in recent years. I have not been able to use Award voucher provided by UAL for good services in almost two years, though I fly every week and over 300K miles annually.

    In conclusion, United gets a portion of my business at low end with low margin. That’s not every smart business model for United. I also lower my expectation when I fly United or any other US carriers.

  9. Marc Strenbof 28 July, 2009 at 6:22 pm #

    I disagree with your comments about United’s new business class. I fly from the bay area to Frankfurt almost every month using both United and Lufthansa, I have found that United’s new business class product is far better than Lufthansa. On Lufthansa the seats are flat, but they are tilted, so you are always slipping out of your seat. And the IFE is good but not as extensive as the one on United. I agree the service on United is not up to par with Lufthansa, however I feel United has a much more enjoyable long haul business class seat. Seeing as that United is often around $1500-$2000 cheaper, I will skimp on the service for a better seat.

  10. Leonor 3 September, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    I love looking through an article that will make men and women think.
    Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!

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