Removing nearly 30% of the seats from an aircraft is guaranteed to make the remaining product a more comfortable experience. Still, until United Airlines opened up its new CRJ550 to passengers over the weekend it was not clear just how much better the on board passenger experience would be. After walking through the aircraft during a preview on Friday afternoon it is safe to say that it is going to be one of the better short-haul options for many passengers on board.
For Sarah Murphy, United’s SVP for United Express, the new plane entering service is the culmination of a massive amount of work and a source of pride. As she talked through the various on-board changes from the CRJ700 frame the aircraft is based on her smile grew, bit by bit, until she was barely able to contain the excitement, “Everything that we designed was with the customer in mind, from the leg room to the mix of premium seats to the baggage storage to the snack bar. And that speaks to what’s at the core of United, which is how do we put the customer first.”
After hearing that and then walking through the aircraft it is easy to understand why she is so proud of the transformation.
So much space, and not just in first class
The availability of first class seats on the CRJ550 is a boon to the network planning and revenue management teams. And the first class cabin is impressive.
A self-service snack bar (see below) and 1-2 seating arrangement leave passengers with space and nourishment, while the closets mean no gate-checked bags, speeding the boarding process and keeping travelers happy.
Perhaps more impressive – or at least more surprising – is just how much space is available to Economy Plus travelers.
Row 7 – the first row behind the closets – delivers nearly infinite space to passengers. I stretched my legs all the way out and still could not kick the wall in front.
Row 11, the exit row and last row of Economy Plus, is similarly spacious. As an added bonus, the window seats in row 11 also have a small side table for a drink, useful as there is no tray table in the armrest and the row in front is pretty far away.
Economy class is, well, economy class. Nothing too special one way or the other at the back of the plane. Worth noting that the windows are slightly misaligned which could impact the view.
The storage closets
Ensuring enough space on board for 50 passengers to all have a standard sized carry-on bag was no easy feat. United installed three large closets in the middle of the cabin to meet that need. There are also the standard CRJ-sized (i.e. small) overhead bins available and the overall storage should be sufficient.
Time will tell just how well it all works. Part of that will depend on passengers learning to load/stow the bags efficiently or the flight attendant on board helping sort things in the closet. It will also be interesting when it comes time to depart the aircraft, as the first class passengers will have to walk back to get their bags before leaving the plane. Human factors are almost certain to determine the success of this experiment more than the physical realities of the space on board.
But, seriously, there is a ton of space in those closets.
More than seats
The improved on-board experience is about more than just the seats and space for passengers. The inflight service gets a remake on United’s CRJ550 as well.
The change is forced by the limited cabin staffing. With only 50 passengers the company will operate the flights with a single flight attendant. While many routes are short, with minimal expectation of service, others are longer hops where drinks and snacks are expected. But how can a single flight attendant handle both the economy and first class cabins and still get through the full service?
Part of the solution comes in the form of the snack bar up front. Loaded with soft drinks, snacks and even cheese plate packs, the first class passengers have access whenever they want to the full range of food and drink normally available on shorter regional jet flights. Alcohol is not self-serve (pesky FAA rules and such) but is available.
For passengers in the back the drink service will also change a bit. The flight attendant will come through the aisle with pre-filled ice cups and serve a full can by default to all travelers in Economy Plus or Economy. It is faster and most fliers seem to prefer the extra beverage anyways. Call it a win-win for catering and comfort on board.
Some experts question the viability of only a single crewmember in the cabin as a long-term plan for this fleet. Between greeting passengers as they board and helping load bags into the closets and any other responsibilities that might arise the crew will be very busy on board. Improving turn times is a goal with this type, especially related to no/fewer gate-checked bags. How that plays out in reality will be interesting to watch.
Entertainment, Connectivity and Power
The CRJ700s already had inflight connectivity from Gogo‘s ATG4 network on board. That remains on with the CRJ550 configuration, making this fleet the first 50-seat regional jets in the USA to operate with wifi on board. Given the focus on a more premium passenger mix that makes a certain amount of sense. The streaming IFE system that sits on that Gogo platform will also remain in service.
United markets the planes as including in-seat power as well. The frame on display for media did not have the outlets installed yet. It is unclear if that is a change in policy or an issue with certification in the near term that will be resolved going forward. But, for now, passengers should note that power is not available on board.
A broader adoption?
For United Airlines the CRJ550 was born of necessity. The company needed first class seats on more routes to compete with Delta and American, especially for feeding long-haul international traffic, but also for domestic travelers. It also faces scope clause challenges with its pilots and converting these to 50-seat frames with a lower maximum take-off weight means that the company can add more Embraer E175s to its regional operations. It also means higher costs for the small planes, but United hopes to make that up in boosting revenue as the conversions expand. The fleet enters service with 10 frames and is expected to hit 54 by the end of 2020. But, for now, only United appears interested in operating the type.
Could others try? Murphy acknowledges it is possible, though points out the regulatory and certification challenges were “a significant hurdle to overcome” involving multiple engineering teams and a sizable investment of time and money. Might United seek to recoup some of that investment by licensing the intellectual property that went in to making the CRJ550 a reality?
Could someone try to match it? That’s possible. But we had to go through the entire certification process with the FAA and Canadian authorities, so this is not a simple project to do. It is a significant hurdle to overcome. Murphy is not keen on that idea, “I’m not planning on us doing anything for anyone. I’m a pretty competitive person so I don’t want to let this one go. Someone might try to replicate it, but it isn’t easy.”
More from United's Flight Plan 2020 Media Day event
- What to expect on board as United’s new CRJ550 takes flight
- United Airlines’ 50-seat RJ refresh will not include IFE/C…Yet!
- MilePlay: Inside the numbers of United’s loyalty gamification & personalization push
- Does hourly service a shuttle make??
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