It’s official: United Airlines has rolled out their next-generation business class seats, and they look good. (They rolled out a first class prototype a few months ago.) The new seats will be fully lie-flat, which is great news. They’ll also alternate forward and rear-facing seats, much like British Airways’ ClubWorld.
Some videos introducing the new seats, with some fanfare, can be found at United’s press release. See also their promotional site for the new business class: suitedreams.united.com. Better yet: An anonymous tipster forwarded this internal company “employee q&a” memo (MS Word doc) — it’s still a sales pitch, but it’s pretty detailed.
So what to make of the new UA business class? Four thoughts:
First, the seats themselves look very good. 180-degree lie-flat. Proper. Screw those angled flat seats — gravity always wins, people! Nice big screen. Wider (23.5″) than the current-generation first seats. On its own, it looks like other new-generation seats out there, with larger screens. But they’re the best looking seats offered by an American airline right now.
Second, the alternating forward- and rear-facing seats will be an adjustment for many people, but British Airways has been doing it for a while, and they’re still selling tickets. (Interestingly, the promo photos show two parallel seats…)
Third, the service is supposed to improve along with the seat. But “service” is really “features.” That is, new food from chef Charlie Trotter, and better in-flight entertainment. (Movies and games.) But what’s missing from the company’s PR pitch is the actual service in flight. A great restaurant is more than a tasty-sounding menu and a nicely decorated room. It’s how the customer is treated that makes a world of difference. The same is true of an airline, and United’s in-flight customer service has been hit-or-miss lately. It’s not clear that the company realizes this, either. The promotional materials focus on the hardware, and not the human “software” that really makes or breaks the experience.
Fourth, and from the customer’s point of view, the question remains: How much is this going to cost? And how much more difficult will it be to get an upgrade (or free frequent flyer ticket) into these swank new seats? The airline says it’s not raising prices, or changing upgrade policies, but it’s easy to limit award supply or to blame “market forces” for a price hike.
At any rate, the new seats are a step forward for the airline. The new seats will only be on internationally-configured three-class Boeing 747, 777, and 767 planes, and the rollout will take thirty months to complete. I’m hoping to try them on for size some day soon.