United jet packs fewer seats, more space for luggage

Lauren Zumbach
Chicago Tribune

Chicago — Regional flights usually mean cramped quarters and a race to board before all the overhead bin space is claimed, forcing stragglers to check bags at the gate.

The experience on the newest small aircraft in United Airlines’ fleet, the Bombardier CRJ-550, will be a little different.

The United Airlines Bombardier CRJ-550 regional jet at Chicago O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on October 24, 2019. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The plane has the same frame as the Bombardier CRJ-700, which seats 70. But United pulled out 20 seats to create more space for first-class travelers and amenities, like a self-service snack bar and extra luggage storage.

United wants to make a regional flight feel a little more like a standard flight between big cities, said Ankit Gupta, the airline’s vice president of network planning and scheduling. With the new aircraft, a traveler paying for a premium ticket can sit in first or business class on a short connecting flight from a small city to a hub like O’Hare International Airport.

United, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines all have a handful of first-class seats on larger, 70-seat regional aircraft. But smaller 50-seat regional jets on those carriers typically only let travelers upgrade to coach seats with extra legroom.

The 10 first-class passengers on United’s CRJ-550 get 42 inches of seat pitch, the distance from one point on a seat to the same spot on the seat in front of it. That’s five inches more than a first-class passenger gets on the CRJ-700, and a full foot more than a coach passenger on either plane, though you’ll still need to duck under the overhead bins to get in the seat.

Travelers in first class also can use the self-service snack bar near the aircraft door, stocked with packages of cheese and crackers, kettle chips, pretzels, Albanese gummy bears and soft drinks.

The remaining 40 seats on the CRJ-550 are split between standard coach and seats with extra legroom. A CRJ-700 has 48 coach seats, 16 with extra legroom and six in first class.

The CRJ-550 also has four luggage closets for extra carry-on storage, meant to make sure passengers don’t get stuck checking their bags at the gate if overhead bins fill up. Between the overhead bins and lockers, there should be enough space for every traveler to bring a rolling carry-on, said Sarah Murphy, senior vice president of United Express.

“We want to make travel easy and less stressful,” she said.

That doesn’t mean United is going to make every regional jet more spacious. Flying with 20 fewer passengers increases United’s costs by between 5 and 10% compared with the 70-seat version of the aircraft, Gupta said.

The airline is introducing it in smaller cities that still have a sizable business community.

“It’s not for every city, but people will start to see it more and more,” he said.

The initial destinations from Chicago are Allentown and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Bentonville, Arkansas; Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, Iowa; Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Greensboro, N.C.; Indianapolis, Indiana; Madison, Wisconsin; Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Oklahoma; Richmond, Virginia; and St. Louis, Missouri.

United said it plans to add flights between additional cities and its Newark and Washington, D.C. hubs in the coming weeks.

Scott Solombrino, executive director of the Global Business Travel Association, said he thought more space for first class would appeal to companies that are putting more emphasis on employees’ experience when traveling for work.

When the economy is doing well and unemployment is low, “they don’t want people leaving because they don’t like the travel policy,” he said.