United begins 777 seat conversion process — an update and review


While airlines seem to be coming up with tighter and tighter seats in economy class, business and first class markets are still seeing many carriers striving to offer the most attractive seating options, especially on lucrative international routes.

United Airlines has been one of the last major carriers in the U.S. to install flat-bed or even “lie-flat” seats on many of their planes. Their international 747s and 767s have been converted for some time, with business class seats that recline 180 degrees.

But passengers on international 777s have been dealing with the old-style business seats, which are a big step down, for example, from British Airways’ flat-bed seats, or even Lufthansa’s lie-flat angled seats.

Now, the 777s, over a third of United’s international fleet, are finally being converted. Three are done now, apparently nine will be done by the end of the year, and the rest in 2011.

The results, mostly good, but there are some caveats — there will be some unhappy people.

For starters, the new business class will have only 40 seats, down from 49. In effect, that is nine less seats for upgrades. These upgrades have already been getting tougher, as countless posts and articles will attest. Limiting the possibility of upgrades may have other repercussions.

The new configuration is also eight across instead of seven. Personally, I love the flat beds, but I am not a very wide person. However, large or broad-shouldered travelers may find it an issue.

The new business class seats also have a touch-screen on-demand video and audio system. No complaints there at all, except less technologically savvy travelers may have to ask flight attendants for help.

In addition, some of the seats face backwards. In general, except for takeoff and landing. Personally, I don’t find the difference noticable in flight, but I have changed seats twice in the past year on the request of fellow travelers who were “flying backwards” and didn’t feel comfortable.

And row 10, the last row of business does face backwards, right into coach, with a transparent curtain. Not an ideal situation, though when I mentioned this to flight attendants I was told they have all been suggesting that the airline change future planes to have that back row face forward.

There are also changes in economy class. The new seats are supposed to be more comfortable, with what will feel like more recline because of the design.

The seats also have individual touch screen entertainment, with nine free movie choices, and extra “premium” entertainment for about $10 a flight.

Plus, the configuration is different, which will no doubt occasion some grouchy letters. Instead of 2-5-2, the seats are arranged 3-3-3.

Personally, I prefer the new design, because it eliminates that dreaded middle seat of five. But travelers who have been lucky enough to book two together on the side in the past will be disappointed.

On the other hand, as a travel agent, I can report that most of the time those paired seats have been gone four to six months in advance during vacation times. Except in the premium Economy Plus section.

Anyone who pays Economy Plus with the new planes will have the option of paying for a window and aisle, and hoping no one buys the middle between them. (Presumably those will be the last to sell.)

One other thing, because there are so few of these newly redone planes, passengers may not know they are booked on one until the last minute.

In fact, in my case, I had a waitlisted upgrade clear just a few days before the flight, had booked a seat assignment, and found it had changed the night before when I checked in online.

Which means however you feel about the new seat arrangement, it’s another reason for travelers booked on United’s 777s both to keep an eye on their reservation, and to check in online, as United may or may not send a message about seat changes.

On my flight there was a fair amount of commotion with passengers trying to switch seats. Which may improve as United is able to assign the redone planes further in advance. In the meantime, for minimal stress, if seat assignments matter, it’s easier to try to fix any problems before boarding.

  • Bodega

    I am disappointed in the 3-3-3 configuration in coach on the 777’s.

    I just flew a newly configured UA 777 in first class and liked the new seating arrangement in that cabin. One thing i noticed was that the cubby on the sides were set up a bit differently that those in the middle regarding the storage box and counter space.

    I have flown ‘backwards’ on Southwest and didn’t like it so flying backwards in business class on the 777’s wouldn’t appeal to me.

  • http://www.bonjourparis.com Karen Fawcett

    These flat beds in United’d business class are a vast improvement over the “old” seats. But, there’s a tiny ridge that hits you in the flat of the back if you’re sensitive.

    Some caveats: If you’re in a window seat, you have additional space for storage under the window. However, if you need to use the WC and the person in the aisle seat is asleep, climbing over him/her is next to impossible without awakening the person.

    People in the middle section don’t have that problem. But, there’s nearly no storage in the unit above them.

    As for flying backwards or forwards, it doesn’t make a difference except psychologically. I keep telling myself that.

    The entertainment unit is terrific – but unless you’re a rocket scientist or a tech guru, don’t be embarrassed to ask for help on your first trip.

    But United is (finally) going in the right direction.

  • Ed F London

    (First, Karen, I seem to be following you more than once as the next comment. Nice to know I’m in good company, and, yes, a subscriber to your Bonjour Paris newsletter as well.)

    Second, and more to the point, as a Lifetime Premier Exec on United I can already see the new seat assignments on a plane-by-plane basis when I am planning travel as close in as early October. I’m not at all a fan of 3-3-3 seating as I have always been able to get the coveted 21H on the (old) 777s.

    I, too, was leery of flying backwards but my first trip in business had me rear-facing and I found it of no consequence at all and even a bit more comfortable on landing. However, while not tall at 5’10 (178cm), I am broad-shouldered, and feel more cocooned than coddled in the new 767 seats.

  • Scott

    RE: 3-3-3 configuration.

    it always amuses me that some people will always find something to complain about. 3-3-3 is the standard configuration on this aircraft for international carriers. Many people have complained bitterly for years about getting stuck in the middle of the 5-seat section. Now, groups/families can never get stuck in an all-middle configuration, which happened all the time. Complaining about the one “secret” seat that doesn’t exist anymore is laughable. Besides, there are similarly “secret” seats on the new configuration as well. But then it is always more fun to complain about something, isn’t it?

    In addition, there are new ergonomic seat bottoms, on-demand video, and regular POWER OUTLETS……so really there is no reason to complain about the 777 economy cabin.

    RE: rear-facing seats

    Flying backwards is almost all in the mind. Little bit different sensation than what people are used to only on takeoff and landing. It is just the fact that it is different. Trying flying on the 747 in 1AK….you are flying sideways! Now that is a different, especially on takeoff. I’ll be waiting for the day when someone will turn down a business class upgrade because the seat is rear-facing.

    The biggest issues with the cabin are narrower seats with little storage space, and less of them.

  • Bodega

    Scott@to each their own. I prefer the 2-5-2 seating and my families have liked the 5 in the middle so they are all together especially when little ones are flying with them. Much easier to contain them!

  • Robert

    I have tried the United BC and FC seats in the 767 only.

    BC is fine; it has design issues. And sockets aren’t where they should be – you end up with a mass of wires. BUT. Having done BC several times in 767, the thought of 4 across in the middle (777) is plain stupid. I cannot even image how they fit having flown the 777 so many times before the upgrade. I’ll never book them.

    Having flown 3 or 4 times in United FC now, … at prices hideously low or dumping a million miles, it’s almost worth it. No one to trip over for the bathroom. Excellent amenities. The only gripe I have is so much wasted space for “closets” with nothing. Had they made the linear space 1 foot longer, they could have made a “suite” out of it.

    My only MAJOR complaints are United are:

    1. The further you get from their Elk Grove hub the BETTER the service gets. OHare is a JOKE for FC, BC check in. Heathrow excellent.

    2. Miles are becoming useless. I don’t care how many you have if you cannot spend them. Today you have to wait a month to find a plane that has available inventory.

    3. I only fly United for Channel 9 and since the “upgrade” 9 rarely works and it has nothing to do with pilot discretion. You can barely hear it … 90% noise, 10% audio. And the in flight entertainment seems to need a complete reboot after almost every take off … Panasonic SUCKS for this.

    Off my pulpit.

  • Luke

    I really dislike the 8 across configuration in United’s new 777 business configuration. This is only one seat less across than coach and you feel it. The “four in the middle” sucks, with no space for anything other than your lap, elbow rubbing with the neighbors, and the video screens are lined right up next to each other – very distracting for viewing. Obviously these are an upgrade over coach (and I am fine with sitting backwards) but for the big price differential this is a crappy way for United to treat its most profitable customers. They have shrunk the supply of business class seats in the new configuration, but not to create more space in the business class section, but to add seats in Economy Plus (nine less business seats but 27! more Economy Plus seats). Overall, they have added 17 more seats in the 777 and a traveler cannot help but feel the pain of the ongoing assault by the airliners on passenger space.

  • Edwinchen

    Does anyone know if the power outlet is still the old EmPower 15V-75 DC, or is there 110V AC available now? 

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