United 777-300ER: “Triple Seven(th) Heaven” or fourth circle of hell?

United Airlines has confirmed the seatmap for its new Boeing 777-300ER, and this launch aircraft for the airline’s new Polaris seat — United’s first fully flat business class bed with direct aisle access — is a heavily premium-focussed jet. It is currently filed as going into service on 16 February 2017 between San Francisco and Newark for the usual proving and training purposes, before heading out on the long haul between SFO and Hong Kong from 25 March, although United notes that this is “subject to receipt of government operating authority”.

In a sign of just how much emphasis airlines (including United) are placing on the next generation of international business class as their top product, United is stretching Polaris through nearly half of the aircraft. 60 of the Zodiac Aerospace SKYlounge-derived seats stretch in a 1-2-1 configuration across sixteen rows, compared with 52 of the older, narrower United business class seats (and 12 first class pods) on the 747-400 the 777-300ER is replacing.

The 777-300ER seat map emphasises just how much of the real estate is premium. Image: United

There are, however, a third fewer lavatories, according to the seat map, with just two in the nose and two by the bar space at doors 2. This lack of lavs is likely to create queues at the time of descent for passengers changing out of their Polaris pajamas.

United continues its praiseworthy pattern of highlighting the direction in which the seats face, both at the time of booking and at the time of seat selection, with new Polaris-specific icons representing the alternate rows facing forwards and inwards. More airlines could do with emulating this example, particularly where they have staggered seating, and where passengers may wish to select seats either closer to a travelling companion or further away from others when travelling solo.

In a smart move for future product adjustment, United has situated a small Economy Plus extra-legroom seating cabin ahead of doors 3, which looks ripe for the airline’s future premium economy product. In the event that Polaris is more popular than expected, the business section can expand to fit this space, but if business demand shrinks United can add more premium economy or Economy Plus seats relatively swiftly.

It’s poor news overall behind the Polaris bulkhead, though, as what the airline is calling “United’s Triple Seven(th) Heaven” feels more like Dante’s nine circles of hell.

United’s nine-abreast 787 was bad enough, but at least the airline offers 32” of seat pitch on its ultra-longhaul Dreamliners, both the 787-8 and 787-9 versions. Economy Plus on both these aircraft is 35”. The ten-abreast 777-300ER will offer only 31” in pitch, and Economy Plus at just 34”.

Both regular economy and Economy Plus passengers get short shrift on the 777-300ER: while United’s previous 10-abreast domestic 777-200 refit has 31” down the back, at least economy plus starts at 35”. By not synchronising the launch of premium economy with the 777-300ER, United is only serving to highlight the “comfort canyon” between its new and now market-meeting business class and its at – and below-par economy offerings.

The airline is highlighting the directions of travel for Polaris passengers. Image: United

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11 Comments

  1. With four lavs in business the company is matching or bettering the current 777-200ER options. The current 2-class layout has 3 lavs up front for 50 passengers. Going to 4 for 60 is an improvement, not a cut by a third. Comparing the lav count to the 744 is misleading IMO as there is no longer a second floor so no need to add those extra lavs. The ratio for biz pax holds steady even against the 744 with the two forward lavs on that plane reserved for F passengers IIRC.

    For economy passengers the extra pair at the over-wing doors help out, though a lot more seats in the back, too. But the overall ratio isn’t all that bad, unlike say how AC provisioned its 77Ws.

  2. Howard Miller

    I have a very long attachment to the airline industry. I started in my early teens working at a travel agency, and taught myself how to use AA’s SABRE when it was first being introduced (way back in the day!). My background also includes several years of working with an industry focused attorney on multiple research and consulting assignements for several well known airlines, as well as a quite a few columns and detailed data reports, for one of the earliest, and still excellent, online publications, Planebusiness. Toss in a few years working at what in its day was one of the premier Wall St. investment firms, where I outperformed most of my peers on the rigorous Series 7 & 63 Exams. I include all of this info, if only to convey: 1.) a lifelong “affection” for the industry that continues to this day; 2.) a reasonable degree of knowledge and understanding of the industry from a variety, perhaps, unique, perspectives ranging from serving and advising passengers to meet their needs, to working directly with management, not necessarily the highest levels on a day-to-day basis while in the field, but very much so at meetings/presentations and at times included working with the in the C-suite with individuals who reported directly to the CFO; and 3.) that I understand, and recognize, that the goal is a sustainable business model that produces a reasonable rate of return instead of chronically losing money. In short, I’m anything but hostile to the industry, and far from being a chronic, impossible to please whiner!!! I don’t wax poetic about a mythical “Golden Age” of air travel where but a select, priveledged few could enjoy the extraordinary experience of flying, be it to connect with family and friends, to earn a living, or my personal favorite, visiting distant lands and discovering the beautiful things we have in common with others we previously knew little or nothing about. So, no, I don’t seek a return to what for many are actually the “bad old days” where flights serving steak and champagne in 34″-36″ pitch coach, yes, coach, rows, to the fortunate few between NYC and major cities in Florida while the rest of us are left behind, as if pressing our noses to the windows of a high-end steakhouse and watching the diners feast on an orgy of food while we’re on the way to the nearest fast food take-out joint to order off of the $1 menu. Those days are long gone, as well they should be. Indeed, I happily embraced the $55 “no frills” fares introduced by Delta on flights to Florida, then often flown on widebody jets. But this 10-abreast, 31″ pitch configuration on United’s (and others’) 777’s is an abomination, not to mention likely dangerous to the health of anyone over the age of 8. To think anyone should be expected to endure these densely packed coach cabins for anything more than say a short hop between large cities such as the specially configured 747s once used in Japan, is a joke

  3. Howard Miller

    Period. It is not only affront to most average size and weight travelers, it is dangerous and a slap in the face. To those who have the arrogance to say this is the price to pay for being cheapskates, I would reply, shame on you for being so lucky to be able to sit in the pointy end of the plane, and not taking stock of just how fortunate you are to be blessed with the means to enjoy having the option to choose a seat that’s not only likely to be more comfortable and pleasant, but doesn’t comfine you to a small space, shoulder to shoulder with, or worse, trapped between strangers, for 3 or more hours, in these narrow, hard, extremely uncomfortable seats. For many, the “options” of buying up — or only “paying for the things one wants” is anything but an option, and is an insult especially when they or their company is already paying hundreds — or thousands — of $$$ to sit in the back of the bus. And that’s before the seat in front of them practically smacks them in the face, or they’re stuck with an entertainment box a their feet, further reducing their personal space to anything remotely tolerable. Yet, in the pointy end of this bird, or actually, as John Walton notes, now nearly HALF OF THE PLANE, there’s but 60 comfy Polaris suites arranged in a spacious 1-2-1 abreast per row. Nearly half the plane!!! Imagine that!!! All just so the fortunate few don’t have to concern themselves with stepping over their neighbor — a SINGLE NEIGHBOR — to use the loo. Meanwhile, the other 300 or so humans onboard are densely packed into the remaining half of flying tube, well for them, sardine can. Ironically, instead of bringing the world together democratizing the flying experience somewhat, what this configuration makes clear, is that there are now two, vastly different experiences: one where literally half of the airplane is taken up by the privileged few, and the other 83.6% are crammed into the remaining half of the plane, forced to endure sub-par service while putting themselves at heighted risk of developing Deep Vein Thrombosis. So, as in life, where one sits will determine where one stands (to paraphrase the expression often used in social/political science studies): If one is in the front half of this plane it’s certainly going to be a far preferable and desirable experience. This being United (which I used to fly for most trips until a few years ago, and now only fly to keep unused miles from expiring), calling it “Seventh Heaven” in any class, strikes me as over promising and risking the wrath of many when they inevitably under deliver. But calling this plane “Seventh Heaven” to the 83.6% of passengers jammed jnto the back half is a cruel joke, and downright, insulting to their intelligence. It truly betrays to arrogance and contempt now seen throughout airline C-suites toward coach passengers, perhaps best captured in a recent British Airways investors’ presentation by a PowerPoint slide that read “Show Us the F-ing Money” when they announced they, too, are adopting the same 3-4-3 configuration on their 777s as United (and others). This, as John Walton noted, is the “Ninth Circle of Hell”. Period. It is not a “first world problem”. It’s a matter of health and well being for any person of average size and weight, or above. It’s also demanding that the 83.6% in the back half of the plane SUBSIDIZE the 14.6% in the front half. Yeah, yeah, I know the comments made by Scott Kirby that this basically matches the breakdown of who pays what. But the fact remains now, that this aircraft configuration is hostile, if not downright unsafe, to the vast majority of the people who are paying good money, often very hard earned money, and being offered so little in return ofher than an ever widening array of expensive additional “options” in an ever shrinking, increasingly crowded space. If I’m nimble enough, or lucky enough, to sit in the front half of this plane, then sure, I’ll head down the jetway and take a seat. If someone asks me to help them book flights (as friends and family often do), and they or their company can pay to sit in the front-half of this plane (or the other “densified” Boeing widebodies), then sure, I’ll assist them in completing their bookings. But otherwise, as some in the comments section have noted, I’ll book flights on other airplanes and/or other airlines, even if that means making a connection along the way. I will NOT fly this airplane in coach in this configuration. Period. For those that trust me to book/recommend flights, I also do whatever I can to AVOID booking them on these abominations if they’re flying coach. Friends don’t (or should NOT) let friends or loved ones fly on planes with these despicable configurations. It’s a bridge too far, way too far. That nothing can be done about it short of government regulation, is the reality we must endure indefinitely in an era when societies in many places around the world seem more inclined to race back to the 1800’s when railroads routinely offered roofless 3rd class carriages as they perfected the art of misery to force those who could afford to escape such hostile conditions to buy up to higher classes of service, while making those stuck in 3rd class become increasingly isolated and reminded of how so little they’re valued, indeed left behind, in life. This contemptible configuration certainly makes this abundantly clear. That someone at United had the nerve to describe this plane as “Seventh Heaven ” just goes to show how out of touch this supposedly “new and improved” management must be. What can one say? I guess the only thing that’s changed at this long out of touch, mismanaged company, are the names on the doors in the C-suite. Certainly NOT much else if they’re viewing as any kind of meaningful improvement in service for the vast majority of their paying passengers. And that’s not even including the new, “NO BINS FOR YOU!” product. Oh, yes, such passenger pleasing improvements at an airline that but for the dismal state of competition and barriers to entry for newcomers (including the cross-ownership by hedge funds, etc.) would and should go the way of Pan Am and the others long gone whose service product was equally awful.

  4. Mark Skinner

    While what you say is true Mr Miller, you also have to consider that but for the downsizing of seats, restrooms and amenities, air fares would be more than they are, and many people now traveling by air, would be forced onto buses with even smaller seats and restrooms. Further, there are those who are forced by low incomes onto those buses at the moment, but who would be willing to take bus sized seats in a plane for a few hours to save spending overnight in a bus, if fares were cheaper.

    The other point is that seats at the front of the plane are now far cheaper in real prices than ever they have been in history.

    Basically more people are able to travel in the back of the plane than ever could do before, and more people can affordably travel in the front. That’s not something to be angry about.

  5. Howard Miller

    Certainly respect difference of opinions. This configuration, and others like it, is always presented in consumer friendly ways with misnomers like “options”, “choices” or only paying for what one “wants”. Advocates of this model have done an excellent job of getting people to actually believe this, too. But as someone who’s been following the airlines as long as I have, and for many years booked travel for corporations and individuals, and who has been afforded the opportunity to travel a great many places, on many airlines large and small, in all classes of service save for international premium economy, I’m just not seeing in either personal travel arrangements or for those made when family or friends seek my advice or assistance, an overall reduction in price for air travel. I just don’t. Instead, it literally requires me to create mini-spreadsheets to factor in all of the added fees to determine the actual cost of any itinerary, with the end result always being far higher than the headline grabbing fare on any metasearch engine, with even the things like extra space rows now nearly always costing more and offering much less space, as United’s new 777’s will. The race to the bottom by most airlines seems to know no end in terms of what’s offered in any of the Main Cabin product offerings, save perhaps, for Delta or Jetblue. I could “live” (so to speak) with a ten abreast 777 if the pitch for a 3+ hours flight was NOT LESS than 32-33″ for basic seating, and 35″-36″ for the “extra space” rows. But this plane is going to be used on long-haul segments, which itself presents concerns about Deep Vein Thrombosis, and quite frankly, I have yet to see the type of discounted fares that would justify such atrocious seating. Instead, I just see neverending multi-billion dollar stockbuybacks, arrogant managents that never have to suffer the indignties most other passengers commonly experience, and greed run amok. I wish this perception was wrong, I truly do. But just not seeing the good touted by those who would have us believe passengers are benefitting from these new seat plans anywhere near as much as the few lucky shareholders and executives, perhaps best expressed only weeks ago when British Airways managers literally bared their greed and contempt for its passengers with a PowerPoint slide that callously and shamefully read “Show Us the “F-ing Money”. This, to me, is what the industry has become with competition substantially eliminated domestically, and much international travel enjoying immunized joint ventures allowing them to carve up markets.

  6. YaterSpoon

    Having recently flown on an Air Canada 777 Slaveship, HKG ~ YVR, I’m in full agreement with Mr. Miller. I will not fly another 10-abreast 777 without a gun to my head. I was fairly happy long-haul’in on UA’s 777 fleet with the 9-abreast seating and have 1.8 million lifetime miles in my MileagePlus account to prove I’m a loyal customer. That loyalty goes out the window with this new seating arrangement. I’ll be off to other Star Alliance partners and/or older, less cramped aircraft from now on. Seatguru – show me the way!

    On comment I picked up from others on Seatguru was how much the crews hated these aircraft as well (the AC slaveships that is). Passengers leaning out into the aisles, cramped aisles for carts, long lines at the lavs and the lack of bin space. So UA, you not only are disgruntled passengers on the way – get ready for staffing issues as well.

    I find it laughable – UA is now touting it’s great Polaris product when 2/3 of the passengers will be receiving a fairly substantial downgrade flying the luxurious new 777er. United Airlines, missing the mark yet again.

    -Yater

  7. Matt

    It’s funny that Southwest can offer a 32-34″ pitch for short haul domestic flights, and offer competitive fairs, but these long haul flights can’t.

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