United Airlines to keep International First Class cabins where appropriate… for now

Last week I posted about the possibility of United being close to announcing whether or not International First Class would remain on the carrier. Yesterday a report surfaced on Bloomberg quoting United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek saying “There are certain markets in which (first class) makes a lot of sense and there are others where it doesn’t.” There hasn’t been an official press release or updates to United’s website, but this may be good news for many high value international flyers accustomed to a three-cabin aircraft.

I read the Bloomberg article as a teaser of sorts with a lot of vague and unspecific data points. Another such point by Chief Revenue Officer Jim Compton stated “we have United 747s that have gone through a real recent reconfiguration with flat-bed in both first and business. So we’ll have both.” Retirement of the 747 fleet is scheduled for around the 2016 timeframe, and since they’ve taken down the conversion schedule for what remains on their 777 workhorse internationally, I’m led to believe this is a short-term (five year) decision. Is United considering making some of the unconverted international 777s into two-cabin aircraft?

Fleet integration is definitely a logistical challenge when merging carriers, and it sounds like we’ll have fairly different lie-flat products based on which “metal” we fly and to which markets. Continental’s seat architecture is different than United’s, and it sounds like the new United will maintain both for at least this short-term period. What United will certainly have to ensure during this period is that no market selling first class ends up with an ex-Continental metal aircraft with only two classes. Jeff Smisek acknowledges this issue in the article, however.

One good thing for frequent flyers is although United’s soft product (service & meals) in International First Class is completely inferior to that of its competitors, award redemption opportunities have been easier for the front cabin to popular destinations in Australia, Asia and Europe than that of business class. I will still generally redeem my miles for Star Alliance carriers, though, unless United really makes marketed improvements and reports begin to surface lauding a transformation. Time will paint the picture.

I am still anxious to see United’s official release to support this article, but I now expect United to keep a three-class presence in most markets served by the old United today, at least for the next five years. I now anticipate during the 2015-2016 timeframe United will make a decision on a uniform international offering (seat architecture & cabin configuration) to roll out in the 2018-2020 period based on market demand and global economic factors at that time.

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