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United/Continental Merger Update - $550M to Improve On-board Product

It was a pretty quiet morning, until I received the latest merger update email from United. While I was hoping to hear more about the potential changes to MileagePlus, I was still pleasantly surprised to see that United will begin to improve the on-board product, by investing a substantial amount of money into the fleet, and adding streaming IFE (Inflight Entertainment) to the United 747 fleet. Below are the rest of the changes.

Improved Long-Haul Comfort with More Flat-Bed Seats than Any Other U.S. Carrier

In September, United will begin installing all-new flat-bed seats, on-demand audio and video programming and iPod connectivity in the premium cabins on 26 Boeing 767s - 12 Continental 767-400 aircraft and 14 United 767-300 aircraft. The company will also upgrade 767-400s with extra-legroom Economy Plus seating and the Channel 9 air traffic control audio channel, which all United aircraft have today. The 26 aircraft, which primarily serve trans-Atlantic, Latin and Hawaiian markets, will offer BusinessFirst and Economy cabins.

Ongoing upgrades to First, Business and Economy class on the airline's three-cabin Boeing 777 aircraft will continue, with 17 of 46 aircraft currently offering flat-bed seats and advanced in-flight entertainment in First and Business and on-demand video in Economy. United will retrofit more than a dozen additional 777 aircraft this year.

United now offers more flat-bed seats than any other U.S. airline, with 124 aircraft reconfigured to date and 185 once the 767 and 777 fleets are completed.

First off, many frequent fliers know about the domestic 767-300s that United is currently flying. Nicknamed the Ghetto Bird, the 14 767s have domestic first class seats, followed by a large economy plus section. However, the first class seats are narrower than the other domestic aircraft, making the whole first class cabin feel a bit small. The A319/A320 fleet, as well as the B757s have first class seats that are 20.5" wide, with the 767 trailing at 19" wide. To some, it may not seem like a big difference, but when you sit down in the 767 seat, you can tell that you've lost more than an inch of space.

Once the reconfiguration is complete, these aircraft will all feature the Continental BusinessFirst product, not the United Business Class product. While I am pleased that they are installing flat-bed seats, I do wonder if this means that all 767 flights to Hawaii from the United/Continental hubs (SFO/LAX/DEN/IAH) will be run with BusinessFirst service, which requires some sort of upgrade currency to sit up-front. As of now, all Hawaii routes flown by United are eligible for Unlimited Domestic Upgrades. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that this will not be the case, and the only true BusinessFirst routes to Hawaii will be EWR-HNL & ORD-HNL. Both of those routes are pushing 9+ hours, so better service would be appreciated! Would you prefer a domestic first class seat on a 9 hour flight, or a flat-bed? ;)

image from friendlyskies.smugmug.com

I look forward to my first flight on Continental with Channel 9 installed. For the last few years, I've always loved listening to air-traffic control on my United flights, as it gives you a good sense of your surroundings, as well as providing some quality entertainment.  

With 17 777s currently retrofitted with the new First/Business/Economy seating, there was a bit of worry that the merger would put a hold on the rest of the retrofits, while United decided if they would cut out first class, and mimic the Continental approach for their widebody aircraft, which only has BusinessFirst & Economy seating. With the news from today, I am extremely pleased to see the retrofits continuing. It does seem a bit strange for United to do this, especially if some routes will lose three-cabin service after the merger is complete, as Jeff Smisek had hinted several months ago. I suppose time will tell.

More Extra-Legroom Economy Seating Than Any Airline Worldwide

United will begin installing Economy Plus seating on all Continental mainline aircraft this fall, offering the extra-legroom seating on 38 Continental aircraft by year's end and nearly 100 more by the end of the first quarter of 2012. For customers flying in shorter-haul markets, United is adding First and Economy Plus seating beginning this fall to 29 Bombardier Q400 regional aircraft operated under the United Express banner. The Q400 aircraft fly principally out of United's hubs in Houston, Chicago, New York/Newark and Washington.

Economy Plus seating is currently available on every United aircraft and more than 150 United Express regional jets. Upon completion of the Economy Plus installation on mainline Continental aircraft and the Q400 fleet - bringing the total number of aircraft with Economy Plus to more than 850 - United will offer more extra-legroom economy seating than any airline in the world.

After the merger was announced, there was a large bit of speculation as to the fate of Economy Plus. Some believed that it would be removed from the United fleet, while others were certain that Continental would add it to their aircraft. On February 17th, United confirmed that Economy Plus would move to the Continental fleet, alleviating some of the worries. With this latest update, I'm pleased to see the work moving forward. I have flown a couple of Continental flights, but do my best to avoid them, due to the lack of Economy Plus seating. There are only so many exit row seats available!

Moving on the Bombardier Q400 fleet, this is good news for some, but something that I, personally, couldn't care less about. Many of you may remember the Continental Connection flight from Newark to Buffalo. Operated by Colgan Air, a regional carrier for Continental, the aircraft crashed while on it's final approach. Forty-five passengers, as well as four crew members were aboard the aircraft. All were killed in the crash, as well as one person on the ground. After an extensive NTSB investigation, the cause of the crash was determined to be pilot error. For more information about the crash and the investigation, feel free to watch this Frontline piece, Flying Cheap. I for one, do not book myself, or any of my family members aboard aircraft operated by Colgan. While they have not had any major accidents since the Buffalo crash, I still worry a bit about their pilot training. We'll see what the future has to hold for Colgan Air.

Nearly Double the Overhead Space

Beginning in March 2012, the airline will nearly double the size of the overhead bins on all 152 of its Airbus A319 and A320 aircraft. The larger bins will increase storage space for standard 22-inch rolling bags by 66 percent. The airline will also refresh the interiors of its Airbus fleet.

While this seems like good news, I just worry about the amount of stuff that passengers will not try to bring onto the aircraft. If you fly fairly often, you may have seen the passengers that bring aboard an overstuffed rollerboard, which barely fits into the overhead bin, as well as a large bag that will not fit under the seat. Hopefully United will be vigilent with carry-on baggage, despite the increase in space. When I fly, I take either my backpack (if it's a weekend trip), or my backpack and my TravelPro 20" rollerboard. This bag has never had a problem fitting into the overhead on any United aircraft, including the Embraer 170.

Now if United would upgrade the overhead bins on the domestic 767 fleet, then I would be a happy camper. These aircraft have some of the smallest bins, causing a headache for the flight attendants working these aircraft, as well as the passengers that have to try and cram their bag into the overhead. United updated the bins in first and business, when they received the new seats, yet economy was left untouched.

Streaming In-Flight Entertainment and Wi-Fi

United is selecting a vendor for a streaming video in-flight entertainment option on its Boeing 747-400 aircraft, enabling customers to access video options via their Wi-Fi-enabled handheld devices, tablets and laptop computers. United's 747 aircraft currently feature on-demand audio and video options in First and Business, with more than 150 hours of entertainment choices and iPod connectivity.

United continues with plans to install Wi-Fi on its aircraft. In March, Continental Airlines signed a letter of intent with LiveTV to install advanced broadband Wi-Fi using Ka-band satellite technology on more than 200 Boeing 737 and 757 aircraft equipped with DIRECTV.

Now this is a change that I'm going to like! Having flown two round-trips to Australia in Economy on the 747, I was disappointed at United for not doing anything to improve the conditions of the Economy cabin. First and Business both have individual IFE units, as well as 120v AC power. Economy has a large LCD screen for all passengers to share. If you don't like what they're watching, then you can use your laptop, or other electronic device, providing it's got a decent battery life. I am hoping that they'll install AC power in Economy, but this is a good start.

Upgraded p.s. Transcontinental Service

United is also doing a complete nose-to-tail renovation of its popular p.s. fleet, which serves the New York Kennedy to San Francisco and Los Angeles markets. When completed in 2013, p.s. aircraft will offer flat-bed seats, Economy Plus, power ports at every row, on-demand audio and video and Wi-Fi service.

This may be old news to some, as it was a topic during an investor call in the beginning of the year. Once the retrofit is complete, the Premium Service (p.s.) 757s will have 26 business class seats, and 114 seats in economy. The 757s will continue to have wifi and AC power, and will gain Audio-Video On-Demand at every seat. Goodbye handheld media players. Still unknown, is whether these will get the United Business class product, or Continental BusinessFirst product.

Overall

I'm pretty excited about the changes. I've always been a fan of United's Channel 9, and would have been pretty disappointed if the new carrier had decided to kill it off. I do hope that United will keep some of the new business class seats for the 767s, as well as the p.s. fleet. While both products are lie-flat, I reakky enjoy the United business class seats.

The upgrades to the 747 are something that I'm very excited about. United is extremely uncompetitive in Economy on their flights to Australia/Asia. Other carriers offer AVOD, better food, and a better Economy product. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for some decent changes. While I would like to try the updated product to Australia, I'd much rather sit in Business or First class. If only United would clear my upgrade request!

Stay tuned for the latest news on the United/Continental merger. In the next month of two, we should have a more complete picture on the new MileagePlus, hopefully alleviating the fears of turning it into a program wholly based on revenue.

 

United Press Release: http://ir.unitedcontinentalholdings.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=83680&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1598567&highlight

FlyerTalk Discussion: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/united-mileage-plus-consolidated/1250040-merger-update-details-about-our-500m-onboard-product-improvements.html#post16965094

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