Snazzy to the MAX: Putting United’s newest cabin to the test
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It’s a good time to be a United Airlines frequent flyer.
At the “United Next” media event in late June, the Chicago-based carrier unveiled its five-year strategic plan, which includes taking delivery of 270 new planes, a comprehensive cabin retrofit program for existing aircraft and accelerated retirements of single-cabin regional jets.
By 2025, United plans to have its new “signature interior” installed on all mainline jets, featuring a host of flyer-friendly amenities like larger overhead bins, seat-back entertainment, next-generation Wi-Fi, power outlets and more.
For now, however, the carrier’s flying just one jet with its new interior — a brand-new Boeing 737 MAX 8 — that was delivered fresh from the factory with this upgraded onboard experience.
The plane’s inaugural was on July 16 (a day later than originally planned), and since then, I’ve been tracking the tail number, N27251, to hitch a ride on the new bird and experience the new cabin firsthand. (I had schedule conflicts with both the media event and the rescheduled inaugural flight.)
That opportunity came on July 22 for the 3-hour early morning hop between United’s Newark and Houston hubs. Despite the 5 a.m. alarm, it was well worth it to see the improvements coming to United’s onboard experience.
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More premium seats means more upgrades
Perhaps the most noticeable change with United’s signature interior is the cabin layout and breakdown. One of the key elements of the airline’s growth plan is to increase the number of premium seats on domestic flights by roughly 75% by 2026.
Case in point: though the new 737 MAX 8 has an industry-standard 16 first-class recliners, United installed a whopping nine rows of Economy Plus extra legroom seats. (That’s 24 more extra-legroom coach seats than American Airlines decided to install on the exact same aircraft.)
The proportion of extra-legroom to standard coach seats was immediately noticeable on the MAX 8. The “purple seats” extend all the way to the middle of the fuselage, right over the wing.
As such, entry-level Premier Silver members will have a much better shot at snagging one of these extra-legroom seats on the MAX during the check-in process, relative to United’s other domestic jets.
Seat-back entertainment for all
This one is big. Every United domestic jet will feature a seat-back screen by 2025.
On the 737 MAX 8, you’ll find 13-inch high-definition touchscreens at every first-class recliner and 10-inch ones spread throughout the economy cabin.
Each screen is powered by the airline’s next-generation entertainment portal, which features enhanced accessibility options like text-to-speech and color correction.
You’ll find over 300 movies and nearly as many TV shows available on-demand, as well as a variety of games and podcasts. The only thing missing is live TV.
Bluetooth audio is revolutionary
Say goodbye to all the extra dongles.
United’s new inflight entertainment monitors support Bluetooth audio — meaning that you can connect your AirPods or any other Bluetooth-equipped headphones directly to the seat-back monitor.
Previously, I’d rely on the airline to provide a pair of (sub-par) wired earbuds or bring an AirFly dongle to connect my AirPods to the seat-back screen.
On my flight, the connection process worked flawlessly. There’s a new Bluetooth icon located in the bottom right corner of the status bar.
Tapping it brings up the Bluetooth menu, which found my AirPods moments after placing them in pairing mode by holding down the circular white button on the back of the charging case.
Once connected, it was mostly smooth streaming.
Though the audio was crackly and grainy for the first few seconds after starting a movie or TV, the static quickly dissipated. Other than the initial hiccup, there was no noticeable lag.
For now, the Bluetooth audio functionality is still in “beta” testing while United’s internal teams continue to refine the functionality. While I had no issues connecting, I wouldn’t necessarily expect things to work seamlessly until quality testing is complete.
For instance, after every announcement on the PA system, the volume would revert back to the default setting, regardless of what level I had selected before the interruption.
A meaningful investment in connectivity
It’s no secret that United’s inflight Wi-Fi offering has historically lagged behind its competitors. Though every UA jet features onboard connectivity, much of the fleet isn’t outfitted with the most reliable technology.
That changes with the “United Next” strategic plan. The 737 MAX 8 connects to the ViaSat satellite network — one of the best in the biz — and United promises to install the “fastest available in-flight Wi-Fi” on future jets.
I purchased the upgraded stream package for $24.99 for the 1,400-mile flight to Houston. (The basic package was available for $18.99 for the full flight.)
Download speeds hovered around 10 Mbps, while upload speeds averaged around 1 Mbps. I had no trouble streaming YouTube videos in 1080p quality without any buffer or lag.
United’s also trailing a new free messaging plan to use IP-based messaging platforms, like iMessage or WhatsApp, without needing to purchase a full internet package.
It remains to be seen if this will become a permanent offering, but if it does, it shouldn’t require too much bandwidth and therefore degrade performance for paying users.
Plenty of juice…
There’s nothing worse than running out of battery power mid-flight. Fortunately, that won’t happen on any of United’s new jets — as long as you remember to pack your charger.
Every seat in United’s new interior has access to a USB-A port underneath the seat-back screen.
Each first-class recliner has an individual power outlet, and there are two outlets for every three coach seats.
…and space for your bags
On United’s latest jet, there’s no need to rush on board to find a space for your rollaboard.
That’s because a key feature of the new interior is larger overhead bins, enabling a 1:1 passenger-to-carry-on ratio.
On my Thursday morning trip to Houston, not one passenger was forced to gate-check a bag, despite the flight being booked to capacity.
Installing larger overhead bins has a ripple effect. It should help streamline the boarding process, ease congestion in the jetway, reduce stress for gate agents and more. Hopefully, it’ll also convince United to drop its punitive no full-size carry-on bag policy with basic economy fares.
The bones remain unchanged
Though there are plenty of improvements with the new interior, some things remain unchanged.
For instance, the seats themselves are identical to the ones you’ll find on many of United’s existing domestic jets.
United First recliners feature a 20-inch-wide and 11-inch-long tray table, with a built-in tablet stand.
Other enhancements include a pop-out cocktail tray, power outlet and deep storage pocket.
The coach cabin, spanning rows 7 through 38, is outfitted with the 150 seats arranged in a 3-3 configuration. They aren’t nearly as well-padded as the new economy seats you’ll find on Delta’s retrofitted 767, for example.
Nonetheless, they’re comfortable enough for a short domestic hop, but I’d try avoiding them on longer transcon routes.
Tray tables measure 16 inches wide and 7.5 inches long – large enough for my 11-inch iPad Pro. Bigger devices might not fit perfectly on the tray table.
You’ll find an additional 3 to 4 inches of pitch in the extra-legroom Economy Plus section. Note that row 11 is missing windows, and row 15 doesn’t recline due to its proximity to the exit row.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with United’s new 737 MAX 8 is the lavatories. The coach lavatories are some of the smallest you’ll find in the sky — identical to the cramped ones you’ll find on the larger MAX 9 variant.
Expect a tight squeeze once inside, and good luck using the sink without spraying water on the mirror, floor and even your shirt.
While I wouldn’t avoid the MAX for its undersized restrooms, I’d definitely consider using the one at the pointy end of the plane if it’s unoccupied.
United’s first 737 MAX 8 ushers in a new era for United. The carrier’s working to become a more premium-focused airline, and it starts with a slew of new aircraft deliveries, as well as a comprehensive cabin retrofit program.
For one, on the carrier’s newest jet, the Boeing 737 MAX 8, you’ll find a higher proportion of first-class and extra-legroom coach seats.
Between the high-tech seat-back screens with Bluetooth connectivity, upgraded Wi-Fi and power outlets for all, you’ll have plenty to keep you occupied once airborne. Plus, you won’t have to worry about gate-checking your bag thanks to the larger overhead bins.
You’ll likely walk off United’s latest jet impressed with the carrier’s new signature cabin — so long as you didn’t spray yourself with sink water in one of the undersized lavs.
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy. Editor’s note: this article was updated to reflect that the United First seat is a customized version from Safran.
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