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.
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.