United is expanding its New York-London route with more business-class seats in an aggressive push for premium revenue

United
  • United is launching a fifth daily flight between New York City’s Newark Airport and London Heathrow starting September 15.
  • Each of the flights will be operated by specialised premium-dense aircraft with 46 Polaris business class seats – a 50% increase – and 22 premium economy seats, up from zero on previous planes.
  • The New York-London route has notoriously high demand for premium seats, but United’s expansion is indicative of a trend seen industry-wide: passengers are more willing than ever before to pay more for better products.
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United Airlines is planning to add a fifth daily flight between New York City-area Newark Liberty Airport and London Heathrow, and will operate all five flights with aircraft that have significantly more premium cabin seats than the rest of its fleet.

The specially configured Boeing 767-300ER jets will be equipped with 46 business class seats – branded as “Polaris” – and 22 premium economy – or “Premium Plus” – seats.

The main economy cabin will also have 47 extra-legroom economy, or “Economy Plus” seats, and just 52 seats in the economy cabin.

Newark-Heathrow flights were previously operated by 767 aircraft with just 30 business class seats, no premium economy cabin, 70 extra-legroom economy seats and 133 seats in the main cabin.

The airline has already replaced the aircraft on the existing flight with the premium-dense version, but the fifth daily flight will bring its business class capacity above that of any of its competitors.

United Premium PlusUnited

The premium-heavy configuration represents a further investment in an industry trend that has become increasingly apparent in 2019, particularly during the second quarter: passengers are more willing to pay more for premium seats on both short- and long-haul flights, including both business travellers whose tickets are purchased by corporate travel managers and personal leisure travellers.


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“We’re seeing more aggressive demand for our products, all our products in general,” said Patrick Quayle, a vice president at United who oversees global route planning, in a phone call with Business Insider. “Particularly for Premium Plus and Polaris.”

Betting on customers who are willing to pay more

Ticket sales in premium cabins like business class offer significantly higher profit margins than economy cabin seats. Airlines can sell the spacious lie-flat seats in the front of the plane for thousands of dollars at high margins, while economy seats sell for much less.

Notably, the Polaris business class product on the specially configured 767-300ERs uses the new modernised seating that United first unveiled in 2016 – before that, the airline flew an older business class seat without aisle access for every seat. The airline has been slowly but steadily replacing the old product with the new throughout its fleet.

The airline recognised the need to implement the new product with increased capacity on the notoriously premium-heavy route. “New York to London Heathrow is the largest premium market in the world and we were not competitive prior to this,” Quayle said. “And now what we’ve done is we specially designed an aircraft for this market. It took us almost two years to design this aircraft and get it on property.”

The premium-dense 767-300ER was introduced as a trial on one daily Chicago O’Hare-London Heathrow flight in March. United has stated that it plans to reconfigure 21 planes with the layout. According to a representative from the airline, there will be spare high-premium-density aircraft available in case one of the planes on a premium route is ever taken out of service for mechanical issues or repairs.

The airline has also stated that it plans to use the aircraft on flights between Newark and Switzerland, though it did not give a timeline for that. The Chicago-London flight will resume using the normally configured plane, but will likely be upgraded permanently at a later point.


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United has made aggressive moves to experiment with increasing premium capacity this year

The airline reported a 2% increase in premium-seat ASMs – available seat miles – for the first half of 2019, with a projected 8% overall increase by year’s end.

United is also preparing to begin flights with a new premium-heavy regional aircraft, the CRJ-550. In reality, it’s an older CRJ-700 aircraft, usually configured with 70 seats, but designed to fit just 50 in a premium-heavy layout: 10 seats in first class, 20 with extra legroom, and 20 in regular economy (the introduction of the “new” plane with fewer seats is also a way for United to get around certain aircraft restrictions imposed by labour agreements). That aircraft is set to be introduced this summer.

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