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Is it bad that United’s tightest planes get the highest satisfaction ratings?

by on Thu May 14, 2015 • No Comment


A United Airlines executive recently shared parts of the passenger survey data it collects from passengers with a reporter, focusing on perceptions of United’s long haul international aircraft.

The results – from over 8,000 responses a day – are surprising.

The highest rated planes in United’s international fleet are the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and recently remodeled Boeing 767-300s.

Yet these are planes with some of the narrowest coach seats in United’s fleet – just 17.3 inches wide.

Compare that to 18.3 inches wide for most of United’s 777s, which are the bulk of its international fleet, and the the 18 inch width of the 767-300s before they were reconfigured.

Doesn’t sound like much?

Up in the skies an inch can be the difference between touching your neighbor’s shoulder for 10 hours and not.

And the average person has a shoulder width of just about 18 inches.

So why the good results?

Both the 787 and the new 767s have the most advanced in flight entertainment options in United’s fleet, available at every seat. And they have big, roomy overhead bins that make boarding easier.

The Economy Class seats also have a mechanism that pans the seat forward while you recline, so there’s less disturbing the person behind, and full recline for you.

These factors combined with things unique to the 787 (like more comfortable cabin pressure, bigger windows) and the 767 (fewer middle seats) give them high ratings with tighter seats.

Will it embolden even tighter configurations?

United is going to take delivery of new 777-300 aircraft next year.

The speculation is they will try to cram 10 people across in Economy Class on these aircraft, instead of 9 across they currently offer on 777s.

And they can probably accomplish that by using the narrower 17 inch seat instead of the 18 inch plus seat used today.

The surveys seem to make them believe they’ll get away with this and maybe even improve satisfaction by installing the latest seat design and entertainment system.

But these new 777-300s are going on United’s very longest routes.

And 10 people across means 4 middle seats in every row.

On the surface it’s not much different than the 747s United flies today – with 17 inch wide seats and 10 people across.

But a 747’s cabin is 20 feet wide. A 777’s is just 19 feet 3 inches wide for those same 10 seats.

Here’s what that means for cabin space per passenger (which captures both how wide a seat can be and the overall feeling of spaciousness).

  • 747 – 10 across: 24 inches per passenger
  • 787 – 9 across: 24 inches per passenger
  • 777 – 9 across: 26 inches per passenger
  • 777 – 10 across: 23 inches per passenger

A 777 with 10 seats across will be tight to a degree United hasn’t offered yet.

Though United wouldn’t be the first to put 10 across on a 777.

Air France, KLM, and even the often lauded Emirates and Air New Zealand put 10 seats across on their 777-300s.

Among U.S. competitors, American Airlines has the 10 seat across configuration on its flagship 777-300s.

This is how tight it looks – there’s almost no aisle space left.


But there is a compromise

American’s has a ‘Main Cabin Extra’ section with extra legroom, which also has only 9 seats across, offering more width.

That gives American’s most loyal fliers an option to avoid the cramped width for free, as Main Cabin Extra is available for free to all AAdvantage Platinum and Executive Platinum level fliers.

It also gives regular fliers a chance to pay a reasonable price to fly at the level of comfort that was once a given.

There’s nothing to indicate United will do the same.

United has more seats in its Economy Plus cabins, a legacy of offering the product since the late 90s, while American has offered an extra legroom section for just a few years.

So going 9 across there would mean a bigger sacrifice in total seats on the plane for United. And this game is all about squeezing as many seats as possible on the theory that maximizes revenue.

We hope they see an opportunity to better upsell Economy Plus seats to passengers who want to escape the 10 across seating by keeping 9 seats across in the Economy Plus section.

But that situation isn’t captured in surveys and we’re not holding our breath there will be a leap of faith. So color us pleasantly surprised if they do stick with the more spacious 9 seats across in Economy Plus.

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