Confirmation of expectations is a good thing. When United Airlines announced its A321XLR order the planes were designated as replacements for the carrier’s aging 757-200 fleet’s international operations. As such, the confirmation this week that the planes would see a Polaris business class bed installed is good news. But also not a huge surprise.
That Patrick Quayle, United’s senior vice president of international network and alliances, described the offering as a “completely new product” does raise some questions about the vendor and what the configuration will be. To date most single-aisle premium flat-bed installs have been the Collins Aerospace (nee B/E Aerospace) Diamond or the Vantage from Thompson Aero.
JetBlue inaugurated the Vantage Solo on its A321LR fleet, bringing direct aisle access to every seat in the cabin. Stelia also recently launched the Opera seat, similarly offering direct-aisle access.
With the MAX 10 expected to serve United’s transcon premium market when it joins the fleet, it would not be too surprising to see United as an early customer for that seat, and also have it installed on the A321XLRs as they join the fleet.
The back half of United’s A321XLRs
Perhaps more intriguing, however, is how United plans to configure the rest of the aircraft. Quayle also confirmed that the carrier intends to fit a Premium Plus premium economy section on board. If United installs a true 2-2 (or maybe 2-3) setup on board that would be a big win for passengers who want a little extra space and comfort, but not the full bed experience.
Less clear, however, is what that configuration would mean for economy class passengers on a United A321XLR.
Getting to 180 seats on board, as the report implies, is a relatively high count for the aircraft size. SAS put 157 seats on its A321LR. JetBlue, with an absurdly large premium cabin, seats only 138. British Airways fits 154 seats on its ex-BMI planes with the premium seats up front while Gulf Air gets to 169 on board with a very small angled-flat business product.
Keeping 16 Polaris beds and maybe 12 Premium Plus seats on board means 152 economy seats. It would be hard to realize that without squeezing the economy class pitch pretty aggressively. And if Economy Plus remains, which there’s no reason to doubt, the rest of the seats squeeze even more.
Or, perhaps, the 180 seat target is a red herring. The SAS layout includes a larger business class cabin than is likely on United’s configuration. Removing a few rows there and adding in economy class could still get to something in the 160-170 seat range, without crushing knees nor giving up too much in terms of Economy Plus ancillary revenue upsell opportunities.
And given United’s focus on premium seating in the next round of fleet layouts, that seems a more reasonable target.
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