US airlines poised for economy downgrade

10 Mar 2016 by Alex McWhirter

American Airlines and United are set to downgrade their economy class cabins. But they are doing it in different ways.

Let’s take American Airlines first. As previously reported by Business Traveller, the carrier is converting its entire B777 fleet to a ten-across 3-4-3 layout in economy class. Indeed its new B777-300ERs were delivered from Boeing’s Seattle plant already configured 3-4-3.

But in the second half of 2016, American will create two different economy classes across its fleet.

I am not referring to premium economy and normal economy. 

American has devised two separate economy class cabins. These will be branded Economy and Basic Economy.

It’s what Fortune recently billed as “Economy Minus.”

As its name suggests, Economy will be more or less the same as today. In other words American says passengers will be entitled to “preferred seating” and “food and baggage options.”

Basic Economy as its name suggests is true no-frills. American says it is “customisable” so in other words passengers will pay for those amenities and frills they require.

US carrier Delta was the first to launch a basic economy product on domestic routes. But Delta’s product may not be as basic as the cabin proposed by American.

As with Delta, one imagines American’s Basic Economy will initially be confined to the domestic market. According to American, this is the “Segmentation of our product. [It will] generate higher ancillary revenue for price sensitive customers.”

As yet no information is available on American’s plans for seat pitch.

What about United? Well United is happy to tell the world that it will be retiring its elderly fleet of B747-400s by 2018 (see news March 10). 

But it remains strangely silent with its intention of joining the ten-across B777 club.

That’s right. United is falling in line with its arch rival American and adopting tighter 3-4-3 seating on some B777s.

Initially it will retrofit just 19 of its 74-strong B777-200 domestic fleet.

The B777s in question will be rostered for busy domestic routes including the overwater sectors to Hawaii.

They will be retrofitted with 28 business and 336 economy seats which means a capacity increase of 20 passengers. (The capacity increase would be greater still but business class will comprise spacious lie-flat seating which take up more room).

So United’s international customers can rest easy for now. But not for long, I am sure.

Later this year United will be taking delivery of 14 B777-300ERs (original order of ten has been increased). These flagship aircraft will serve its main transatlantic and transpacific international routes.

United declines to comment on the economy configuration on its soon-to-arrive B777-300ERs.

But as sure as night follows day we can expect it to be ten-across 3-4-3.

Why do I say that? Because no single airline can afford an immediate rival to have a cost advantage. When American goes ten-across, United has to follow.

We’ve seen it with the Gulf carriers (where Etihad and Qatar Airways have followed Emirates’ lead with 10-across B777s) and now we will see it with American and United.,

Alex McWhirter

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