United completes refit of B767 fleet

6 Apr 2009 by Mark Caswell

New business and first class seats have now been fitted to United’s entire B767 fleet, with the carrier’s B747 fleet to be completed by October.

The completion the B767 will be particularly welcome to United’s European customers, as most of the transatlantic flights from Europe are served with either this aircraft or the B777.

“The 767 is effectively done now, the last one is in refurbishment now,” says Graham Atkinson, executive vice president at United and president of the airline’s Mileage Plus frequent flyer programme.

“The 747s will be done by October this year, and importantly, the first prototype of the 777 is going into the hanger in August – we will be rolling through those as quickly as we can in 2010.”

As previously reported (see online news December 30, 2008), United has been slow to promote the new seats because of the size of the fleet.

“We wanted to give customers a consistent product and disappoint fewer [of them],” says Atkinson. “We have tried to make the new seats “route dedicated” so that the customer knows that they will be getting the new seats, but the complexity of our route network makes that difficult. We have five hubs in the States and our planes flow through our system. A plane taking you to Chicago might be Tokyo next day, San Francisco and then Denver. Some flow through Chicago only every six weeks, so trying to develop closed loops where we just put them on London and they only fly London is challenging for us. Having said that, the approach was to try and accelerate through each of the fleets in order, and since fleets are dedicated to markets it was possible to focus on, say, Chicago to London.”

United has been criticised for effectively operating a two-tier airline, where the international onboard product is far superior to the domestic market, but Atkinson says that this is “simple economics”.

“Tell me something that you don’t get better value for money if you spend more, whether it’s a holiday resort or a hotel or a new carpet. People lose sight of the fact that we have a certain amount of confined space in a metallic tube that has a cost per square foot... All we are trying to do is understand the value proposition for each of those square feet and how you can optimise it. Some are prepared to pay a high dollar price for using seven or eight of those feet, and others want to pay the lowest cost to get from A to B.”

Despite the economic slowdown, Atkinson says that the new seats were developed as a result of feedback from its big corporate customers:

“Our industry is hard enough already without developing products that no-one wants to buy – we wouldn’t produce then if there wasn’t a demand. Our top corporate accounts buy on quality and those corporates are what drives the ability for us to offer the frequency, the network and many of the things we do on the ground. London was always a priority. Our single largest customer on that route made it clear it was very important that they would have the newest and best product on the market.”

Atkinson says the decision to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the new business and first class seats has already proved to be a successful one.

“Since we launched the product, our customer satisfaction levels have doubled and we are regaining market share on all our key markets from competitors. We are highly delighted we went for 180 degree lie-flat as opposed to the sort of seats some of our US competitors went for, and we think they will be forced to go the whole way eventually and that will be an expensive two-stage process.”

Finally Atkinson admits that the seats are being used on routes where competition is most fierce.

 “We had a conceptual plan as to where we needed to deploy the new seats most urgently, and it was determined by the strength of our competitors on particular routes, the product they were flying in terms of their business and first class products, and other relative competitive dynamics. London, Frankfurt and Tokyo come to the top of the list as key markets, but as the two years of the roll out programme [for fitting the seats] has developed, other priorities have muscled in. The US to Australia has become a very competitive route with V Australia and Delta launching, so we accelerated the product on the Los Angeles and San Francisco to Sydney routes and slowed it down on the US to Japan routes.”

For more information visit

Report by Tom Otley

  • For a review of United’s new business class click here.
  • For a review of the carrier’s first class product click here.

For seatplan diagrams of United’s new business class, click on the relevant aircraft types below:

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