United, American in a first-class fight for Chicago’s premium flyers

Oct 28, 2019

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American Airlines and United Airlines are ramping up their long-standing battle for Chicago travelers.

Hometown United debuted its new dual-class regional jet, the Bombardier CRJ550 — its first 50-seat model with 10 first class seats — over the weekend in an effort to close the competitive gap with American. The latter, as a result of a more lenient scope clause in its pilots’ contract, has more two-class regional jets to fly from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) — and elsewhere in its network — than United.

American is not giving up without a fight, though.

“Though our principal competitor [at O’Hare] is indeed rolling out the new product, the reality is we still will be able to offer more first-class seats to the Chicago customer,” Robert Isom, president of Fort Worth, Texas-based American, said during the carrier’s quarterly earnings call on Oct. 24. “We absolutely intend to continue doing that.”

Isom went on to say that American’s focus is offering more domestic first-class seats that cater to “business customers in the Chicago and Greater Midwest area.”

Related: American plans to come back strong after MAX grounding with aggressive growth

The data does not entirely back up Isom’s claim, however. On domestic flights, American is scheduled to offer 136,888 premium seats compared to United’s 138,506 premium seats on departures from O’Hare in October, according to Diio by Cirium schedules.

United’s lead continues into 2020. By April, American will fly 131,504 premium seats and United 138,308 premium seats on departures from Chicago, the data shows.

“When I count the math, I think we have a very sizable lead,” Andrew Nocella, commercial chief at United, said when asked about premium seats from O’Hare at the airline’s media day on Oct. 25.

There is one metric where American leads United, however. American offers more premium seats per domestic departure — but not overall — than its competitor from O’Hare both this month and in April, Diio shows.

American offered 9.4 premium seats per departure in October, and is scheduled to offer 9.5 seats in April, according to the data. United offered 7.8 premium seats per departure this month and, even with the CRJ550 introduction, will offer just eight seats in April.

Related: What it’s like flying United’s new CRJ550

“American absolutely, unquestionably does not have a higher number of first-class seats than United in the Chicago market,” wrote Brett Snyder, author of the Cranky Flier blog, on Monday. “But does American want to have more? Yes… This is a battle that is just starting to heat up. The winners will be anyone traveling from, to, or through Chicago as these two fight it out.”

American, as Snyder pointed out, plans to offer more premium domestic seats from Chicago. The airline’s network head Vasu Raja, speaking on the same call as Isom, outlined multi-year plans to phase out 50-seat jets that only have economy seats at O’Hare in favor of either larger regional models with premium cabins, like the Bombardier CRJ900 and Embraer 175, or mainline Airbus A319s.

The airline could begin flying more A319s from O’Hare as soon as next year, said Isom. He added that American is just waiting for clarity on when the Boeing 737 MAX will return to service to begin this shift.

However, United is not sitting idle. In addition to the CRJ550, the airline is adding four first-class seats to both its Airbus A319s and Airbus A320s. The mainline jets will have 12 and 16 first class seats, respectively, after the retrofits are completed in 2020.

Related: United Is Flying Its First Airbus A319 With More First-Class Seats

American configures the A319 with eight first-class seats and the A320 with 12 first-class seats. The airline has not released any plans to add premium seats to either aircraft.

It is anyone’s guess how this battle will play out long term. But, as Snyder said, passengers will win in the short term.

Featured image by Alberto Riva/TPG.

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