United’s new flat-bed transcontinental service — why it’s not all good news

by Janice Hough on March 26, 2013

The term “business class,” especially to infrequent fliers, may evoke the image of luxury on planes with good free food and drink, along with an actual comfortable seat.

In actuality, while business class is almost — but not always — better than coach, the product varies widely, especially for domestic flights.

On some planes, while the onboard service is a plus, many travelers would say that a good exit row seat in back is preferable. (On many flights, exit rows in coach have significantly more legroom than in first or business.) On occasional flights there’s the chance for an empty row with space that beats business class.

On the other hand, some business-class seats in the U.S. are particularly nice. Nowhere is the competition more fierce than on the transcontinental routes, specifically JFK to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

United Airlines is following American and Delta by announcing that they will have lie-flat business-class seats, which they dub “P.S.” (Premium Service) for these transcontinental flights. The seats will have WiFi, in-seat power, USB ports and on-demand entertainment. What’s not to like?

On these planes with lie-flat seats, there will now be 28 business-class seats, with no first class, 48 Economy Plus seats and 66 seats in regular coach. This compares to the current P.S. planes with 26 business class seats and 12 in first, along with 66 seats in an ALL Economy-Plus cabin.

The translation: There are going to be a lot fewer good seats. Since United introduced the P.S. service, it has been a treat for fliers, frequent and infrequent, since even the coach seats have been better than average with more legroom.

United doesn’t allow automatic free standby upgrades on the P.S. service, which means the only chance to get up front with a coach ticket is using miles or “Regional” upgrades. These are given in small quantities to the most elite fliers. So, fewer people have been chasing those upgrades.

With other United, non-P.S., service, even travelers who haven’t held the highest elite status have often been able to get in business class, which almost never happens on other popular routes where elites get automatic standby upgrades. As an added occasional benefit, United has perhaps been slightly overbooking business class, as I’ve had several clients who’ve booked paid business class and been upgraded to first, for free.

(As an aside, airlines for years have sometimes overbooked the back sections of planes when there are a lot of empty seats up front, figuring they would rather have the extra revenue and, worst case, give away some free food and drink.)

However, with the new planes configured with 28 front-cabin seats as opposed to 38, passengers trying to upgrade are going to have a much harder time. (Something similar happened when United modified some of their 777s to include business-class flat-bed seats, but took the seat count from 49 to 40. And a lot of fliers suddenly found themselves stuck in coach.) Plus, those who book late, even elite fliers, are more likely to end up in a cramped seat with regular legroom.

Infrequent fliers may not notice the changes, but in my experience, many business travelers choose the P.S. service over other carriers (and United’s Newark service) just because they KNOW, worst case, they will have an Economy Plus seat.

Clearly, United is betting that both improving and reducing the number of premium seats will increase the number of people who will actually pay for those seats.

Nonetheless, expect the whining to begin.

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  • bodega3

    I will mostly like raise the cost of flying in that cabin, too.

  • MeanMeosh

    This reminds me of something I read on another travel blog a few years ago. The whole point of the article was knocking United’s old ad campaign with Rhapsody in Blue in the background. The gist was that you’re given this impression of a luxurious airline with the ad campaign – and find yourself ultimately disappointed when you end up with a middle seat in Economy Minus. Now you’re going to end up with a lot more folks in that predicament.

  • GlobalX

    This is just the begining of the “New United” Or Is it Continental’s Business First Model that we will be seeing more and more of. P.S.”Premium Service”, In my opinion will not apply anymore on these 757s’ Trancon Routes. It won’t be long until there is no Domestic First, as is already the case in most other Countrys around the World.

  • TonyA_says

    Janice, I respectfully disagree with your analysis. I believe you are getting confused between the two (2) current 757 configurations that United uses for JFK-LAX. (I am not referring to the 752s.)

    I looked at my GDS seat maps and here is what I can decipher.
    Currently United flies about six nonstops from JFK to LAX with three cabin configurations:

    (A) 757 with 3 classes F6-J26-Y72 (No Premium Economy)
    (B) 757 with 2 classes J28-Y114 (with 48 Premium Economy)
    (C) 752 with 2 classes J16-Y153 (with 45 Premium Economy)
    CARRIER* 01APR-MO-6A JFKLAX(NYCQLA)ET PT AC1
    1*A#UA 797 F9 A8 J5 C5 D5 Z0 P0 Y9 JFKLAX- 630A 945A 757 0E (A)
    2*A#UA 443 F8 A6 J4 C4 D4 Z2 P2 Y9 JFKLAX- 840A1150A 757 0E (A)
    3*A#UA 703 F6 A6 J6 C6 D6 Z6 P4 Y9 JFKLAX-1200N 307P 8 757 0E (A)
    4*A#UA 132 J1 C1 D1 Z0 P0 Y9 B9 M9 JFKLAX- 345P 709P 8 752 0E (C)
    5*A#UA 535 F9 A9 J4 C4 D4 Z0 P0 Y9 JFKLAX- 553P 905P 8 757 0E (A)
    6*A#UA 771 J9 C9 D9 Z9 P9 Y9 B9 M9 JFKLAX- 829P1133P 6 757 0E (B)
    Come June 6, 2013, United is showing all available flights from JFK to LAX using two configurations:

    (A*) 757 with 2 classes J38-Y72 (with new 30 Premium Economy)
    (B) 757 with 2 classes J28-Y114 (with 48 Premium Economy)

    Note: The (C) configuration is used a lot prior to 6JUN while United retrofits its 757 fleet.
    CARRIER* 06JUN-TH-6A JFKLAX(NYCQLA)ET PT
    1*A#UA 270 J9 C9 D9 Z9 P9 Y9 B9 M9 JFKLAX- 600A 853A 757 0E (A*)
    2*A#UA 443 J9 C9 D9 Z9 P9 Y9 B9 M9 JFKLAX- 840A1139A 7 757 0E (B)
    3*A#UA 703 J9 C9 D9 Z0 P0 Y9 B9 M9 JFKLAX-1126A 215P 8 757 0E (A*)
    4*A#UA 841 J9 C9 D9 Z7 P5 Y9 B9 M9 JFKLAX- 240P 539P N 757 0E (B)
    5*A#UA 535 J9 C9 D9 Z4 P0 Y9 B9 M9 JFKLAX- 556P 855P 8 757 0E (B)
    6*A#UA 771 J9 C9 D9 Z9 P6 Y9 B9 M9 JFKLAX- 825P1124P 6 757 0E (A*)
    Therefore the swap is between the:
    (OLD) (A) 757 with 3 classes F6-J26-Y72 (No Premium Economy)
    (NEW) (A*) 757 with 2 classes J38-Y72 (with 30 Premium Economy)
    on some flights; since the (B) configuration is kept as is.

    Note that the change does not affect total economy seating for that type of airplane.
    There still are 72 seats.
    In fact it got better since this aircraft will now have 30 Econ Plus seats that it did not have before.
    What’s gone is First Class. But that allows 12 more Business Class seats (I believe with lay flat seat).
    I’m having a tough time finding something to hate about this change.

  • TonyA_says

    However, on or after 02JUL 2013, United will use only the (A*) configuration:

    (A*) 757 with 2 classes J38-Y72 (with new 30 Premium Economy)

    for JFK-LAX nonstop.

    Now this move will reduce the overall Y (econ) available seats, since the (B) configuration had:

    (B) 757 with 2 classes J28-Y114 (with 48 Premium Economy)

    114 coach seats.

    With less ECON seats, the coach fares would probably go up.
    So Bodega is quite right in this regard.

    On the other hand, the amount of J Business Class seats will increase.

  • TonyA_says

    But bodega, that’s (the premier service) a totally different cabin we are talking about. The trans-continental flights are beginning to look like international flights (with lay flat seats).

    Janice is really complaining about the inability to use COMPLIMENTARY upgrades on Premium Service flights.

    Today, a FEW non-stop flights between JFK-LAX are not premium service. A 752 with 2 classes J16-Y153 (with 45 Premium Economy) is not p.s.

    But starting 06JUN, that 752 is gone. All nonstop UA JFK-LAX flights will be p.s. If you want to upgrade, you need to use Regional Premier Upgrades or Global Premier Upgrades.

    But those who want to PAY for a business class seat will get a real, lay-flat reclining seat. I did not see a fare increase on BC before or after 06JUN. Still costs $2019.90 each way (FBC: V3UP14N3).

    Aside from the inability to get a complimentary upgrade, starting summer, there will be less seats in economy. So, theoretically, that is where the possible effective rate increase will be.

  • bodega3

    Yes, when there are less seats in a cabin they have to pay for the cost of the flight someway. Our next UA flight got down graded from a 777, which really annoys me as I really try to only fly the larger planes. I was really surprised to see our seats in first class were the only ones booked until a few days ago.

  • janice

    MeanMeosh, exactly. It’s less the upgrade than the fact there will be a lot more seats with basic legroom on what will be marketed as a premium plane.

  • janice

    TonyA, what I had heard was that they are going to all B, more coach seats, less premium coach seats. At least JFK-SFO. Guess we shall see, but leaving upgrades aside a number of business people on high coach fares are likely to end up in non-econ plus.

  • bayareascott

    Tony, you are mistaken. United does not offer any complimentary upgrades on P.S. flights.

  • bayareascott

    Again, Tony, you are operating with wrong information. There is no A* aircraft configuration as you are describing.

    The current P.S. aircraft is 3 classes: 12-26-72. All Economy Plus. No other aircraft is scheduled for that route except for occasional aircraft substitutions.

    The new aircraft will be exactly as Janice has described it. Two classes, with 28-114. Only 48 Economy Plus.

    During the period of reconfiguration, United is selling routes scheduled for the new equipment as 28-82 (instead of 28-114). The reason for this being that if an “old” P.S. aircraft must be substituted, then it will not be drastically oversold.

    United has no equipment configured 6-26-72. United also has no aircraft with no economy plus. United also has no equipment configured 38-72.

    The 16-153 configuration is typically used as an international aircraft from EWR to Europe, and has flat-bed seating.

  • TonyA_says

    I agree, that’s what I said. Some (one a day) of the JFK-LAX flights are not P.S. airplanes (752) so there was a possibility to get complimentary upgrades, correct. But they are soon gone. All of the JFK-SFO equipment are P.S.

  • TonyA_says

    Oops Sorry typo on the total FC seats on the current 3 class 757.
    Yes you are correct it is:
    (A) 757 with 3 classes F12-J26-Y72 (Premium Economy**) P.S. **EP not reflected in GDS seat map

    The new aircraft as you all say is reported here:
    https://hub.united.com/en-us/News/Company-Operations/Pages/united-ps-aircraft-get-premium-updates.aspx

    It corresponds to the (B) configuration.
    (B) 757 with 2 classes J28-Y114 (with 48 Premium Economy) P.S.
    Econ Rows 20-38.

    However, I looked at each seat map for the flights on 6JUN for JFK-LAX. What I got is the A* configuration below:

    (A*) 757 with 2 classes J38-Y72 (with 30 Premium Economy) P.S.
    Econ Rows 15-26 only.

    I have no clue why the (B) configuration goes away in the seat maps for later this year (2013).

    If you doubt me, please look at your GDS seat map display.

  • TonyA_says

    You know, the seat maps in GDS for 6June 2013 and later could be wrong. If it so, then essentially the swap is:

    OLD (A) 757 with 3 classes F12-J26-Y72
    All Prem. Econ. (per seatguru)
    NEW (B) 757 with 2 classes J28-Y114 (with 48 Premium Economy) P.S.

    Yes, those currently enjoying Econ Plus will get demoted to “PURE” economy. From 72 down to 48.

  • bayareascott

    Not sure if you will get this Tony. I am fairly confident that the 752 equipment you are referring to still has lie-flat seats, even though not a P.S. aircraft. It is equipment otherwise used for EWR-Europe routes. So there still should not be complimentary upgrades.

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