United Airlines Turns Its Focus To A Premium Travel Experience

United Airlines debuted its post-pandemic aviation strategy on Tuesday. As part of its plans to make incredible progress on gauge, United is also turning its attention elsewhere. The airline, which has been trending towards a focus on premium travel, is now fully embracing a strategy where it goes after not just the business and premium cabin travelers. It is also turning its attention to those flying in the back of the aircraft, and hoping to become “an airline customers choose to fly.”

United Boeing 737 MAX 8
United Airlines is making a huge bet on premium customers. It announced the strategy at a major event where it also unveiled its Boeing 737 MAX 8 in Newark. Photo: Jay Singh | Simple Flying

Expanding the domestic premium footprint

United Airlines is well-known for being a global network carrier. Passengers could fly to Chengdu, Singapore, Melbourne, Delhi, and Geneva nonstop from the United States onboard United.

Those destinations are known not just for leisure travel but also represent United’s strength in the business segment abroad. Many of those destinations received 30+ business class seats per flight, which is significantly higher than the number operated by other airlines to some of their most premier destinations like London or Frankfurt.

In the domestic market, United wants to be able to do what it can abroad. Leveraging higher gauge and mission-specific aircraft, it wants to increase its offering of premium seating options in the US.

CRJ First class
While much of the discussion around premium seating in United’s future fleet plan revolves around mainline narrowbody aircraft, United also relies on dual-class regional jets, including the CRJ550. Photo: United Airlines

United breaks down its domestic premium seating into United First and Economy Plus. This is standard, domestic first class and extra-legroom economy, respectively. While some routes see the airline’s swanky Polaris international business class and international premium economy (Premium Plus), those two products are reserved for only the most prestigious routes.

In 2019, United Airlines flew an average of 31 premium seats per short-haul departure in North America. Come 2022, the airline expects to grow that to 39 per departure, and by 2026, it is targeting 53 premium seats per departure in North America – a whopping 75% increase compared to 2019.

UA 737-800
While the airline has made great strides in enhancing the international widebody experience, it has some work left to do with domestic narrowbodies. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The biggest driver in this increase is the extra-legroom economy section, which is seeing more average growth per departure than domestic first class. While first class cabins on United may not be objectively getting larger, there will be more extra-legroom economy seats to choose from in the future.

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Enhancing the travel experience

Targeting a more premium travel experience is far more than just offering more premium seats. United is also elevating the hard product. To that extent, the airline has announced an extensive overhaul of its fleet.

United seatback
United Airlines is bringing back seatback screens. Photo: Jay Singh | Simple Flying

United will be bringing back on-demand seatback entertainment to all seats. This will come alongside the continued rollout of faster, next-generation WiFi. Passengers will also notice more power and USB outlets, as well as enhanced LED mood lighting.

A big customer improvement will be the 1:1 overhead bins. United’s planes will have larger overhead bin storage so that the airline will give every passenger room for their carry-on bag in the overhead compartments.

The first aircraft with this enhanced interior, a Boeing 737 MAX 8, will enter service in mid-July. The jet is absolutely stunning and is a pleasant sign of things to come. By 2023, United Airlines expects to be 66% complete with its retrofits and 99% complete by the summer of 2025.

Overhead Stowage
The large overhead bins onboard narrowbody aircraft is just one example of customer-friendly improvements that United is targeting. Photo: Jay Singh | Simple Flying

The retrofits are targeting narrowbody aircraft that will stay in United’s fleet for the foreseeable future. There is currently no news on the airline’s plan to introduce the enhanced overhead bins and upgraded seatback entertainment system to its long-haul widebody jets.

“An airline customers choose to fly”

United Airlines wants to become “an airline customers choose to fly.” When it comes to aviation, airlines generally win passengers over on one of three metrics: price, schedule, and experience.

In terms of price, an airline like United cannot readily compete with ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit Airlines or Allegiant Air. While it can offer targeted basic economy fares, that is not a recipe for making money, and United is not set up to be able to survive on the ultra-low-cost model.

United Boeing 787X
United is a full-service airline. It is not primed to be able to make profits on an ultra-low-cost model. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Turning to schedule, then United already offers a wide array of choices for passengers. It certainly has some work to do on schedule depth, but this is one aspect where it is difficult to win customers over with, and much of the airline’s schedule revolves around being able to manage its crew and offer convenient connections at its hubs.

So, United is turning to the third metric: customer experience. In this case, United Airlines wants customers to specifically seek out the airline when they book and forego the traditional shopping around on price. While United may be able to lure travelers in on price, it wants to make sure those customers stay loyal to the business and, later on, are willing to perhaps even pay more than the competition to fly the United experience.

This is why United is focused on ensuring an improved passenger experience. The airline knows its customers like seatback entertainment, room for bags in the overhead compartments, and power outlets.

This is a huge gamble that United is taking, but the airline is extremely confident in its ability to reap the rewards from it. It will need to ensure that its retrofit programs can happen quickly so passengers can get used to a standardized product.

What do you make of United Airlines’ plan to focus on premium travel? Let us know in the comments!

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