What it’s like flying United’s new CRJ550, possibly the most comfortable regional jet in the US
United’s brand-new Bombardier CRJ550 regional jet is now flying. The inaugural service departed Chicago O’Hare on Sunday morning, and I was on board.
The CRJ550's introduction is part of United’s commitment to offering more premium-heavy aircraft, as the plane features 10 first-class seats, 20 Economy Plus seats and 20 standard economy seats. The CRJ550 isn’t actually a new airframe; instead, United converted the 70-seater CRJ700 regional jet into the CRJ550.
Unlike oft-dreaded regional jets, the CRJ550 was designed to feel like a mainline aircraft. With 50 seats in a frame that supports 70, United had lots of extra space that they’ve used to enhance passenger comfort and offer additional storage.
TPG’s executive editorial director Scott Mayerowitz caught a sneak peek of the new 50-seater last week, and he was quite impressed with what he saw.
When I got to Gate C1 at ORD, festivities to mark the first flight were well underway. Although it was only 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, there was a palpable buzz in the gate area in anticipation of the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Rick Leach, the President and CEO of GoJet Airlines (the subsidiary airline that actually flies the CRJ550), cut the ribbon, and I was the first passenger aboard United flight 4572 bound from ORD to Harrisburg, PA (MDT).
When I boarded, I was immediately wowed by how spacious the aircraft felt. The first class and economy cabins were arranged in a standard 1-2 and 2-2 regional jet configuration, respectively.
On the flight from Chicago to Harrisburg, I was seated in what I consider to be the best first-class seat, 4A. This single “throne” seat on the port side was incredibly private with a closet across from it and a closet behind it that separated the seat from economy.
We had a one-hour mechanical delay on the inaugural flight, as there was a faulty indicator light going off in the cockpit. I didn’t mind it at all, since it meant more time exploring the interior of the CRJ550. The captain kept us informed of the delay, and the flight attendant offered everyone a round of drinks.
All first-class seats had a comfortable 21 inches of width and about 4 inches of recline. I’d definitely avoid sitting in the bulkhead though, as the cabin partitions cut into your legroom.
The first-class armrests were oversized and had room for a water bottle. The bi-fold tray table measured 18.5 inches wide and 10 inches long— plenty large for my 13-inch MacBook Pro.
On the return leg to Chicago, I sat in a standard United Economy Plus aisle seat. The seat was quite comfortable, but not nearly as well padded as the first-class seat. At 17.5 inches wide, it still felt sizable, especially for a regional jet.
The ~1.5 inches of recline wasn’t especially comfortable, but most journeys on this plane are short.
The 16-inch wide and 9-inch long tray table was noticeably smaller than first class and just barely fit my computer.
We had another mechanical delay on the ground in Harrisburg (thanks to a fallen panel that a passenger broke on the inaugural flight), so I used the extra time to test a few different seats in the economy cabin. The best seats in the cabin were in the bulkhead in Row 7 and the exit row in Row 11.
Bulkhead seats had a whopping 31 inches of legroom, while the exit row had just 25 inches of legroom.
Compared to the standard Economy Plus seat with ~16 inches of legroom, you should definitely grab one of those seats when seated in economy.
I’d also avoid row 10 and the last row (row 17), since neither reclines.
There’s only one restroom on the plane located at the back of the economy cabin. It wasn’t as cramped as some other regional jets, but it wasn’t particularly spacious. It measured about 6 feet tall and 26 inches wide.
Even though neither flight was completely full, I saw the plane’s best feature—the four carry-on-bag storage closets— in action. Regional jets, including the CRJ550, have notoriously small overhead bins, so many standard-sized carry-on bags have trouble fitting.
With the help of these closets, though, not one passenger on either flight needed to gate-check their carry-on bag. I noticed that passengers placed their small personal items in the overhead compartments and stored their larger carry-on in the closets— exactly as designed.
If you plan on storing your full-sized carry-on bag in the closet, I definitely recommend brushing off your Tetris skills, as it took a long time for passengers to figure out the ideal geometric arrangement for their bags. Pro tip according to our flight attendant: place bags vertically with two in each row.
Three of the four closets were designed to store up to 12 carry-on bags, with 6 on each shelf. Each shelf measured 32 inches wide, 28 inches deep and 22 inches high.
The closet on the port side of the plane between first class and economy was a bit smaller, but still fit up to 9 carry-on bags.
In terms of amenities, the plane featured Gogo Wi-Fi and streaming entertainment, but the system was inoperable on both of my flights. The plane didn’t have power outlets, but they’re slated to be installed during the first quarter of 2020.
One of the most advertised features of the CRJ550 is the walk-up bar/refreshment center reserved for first-class passengers. United markets this as an improvement to the first-class service, since passengers can grab snacks and drinks on-demand. While it certainly adds to the luxurious vibe of the aircraft, it isn’t all good news for first-class passengers.
The CRJ550 only has one flight attendant, who’s responsible for serving both first-class and economy passengers (the Federal Aviation Administration mandates one flight attendant per 50 seats). On my flight, the flight attendant hustled to serve drinks to the first-class passengers and then went to serve economy.
With four times as many economy seats as first class, the economy service took quite a while, leaving first-class passengers to fend for themselves. I didn’t mind self-service, but the drink fridge was missing water, so I needed to wait for the flight attendant to return to first-class before rehydrating. (The same story applies for alcoholic drinks, since the FAA mandates that alcohol must be served by a flight attendant).
United’s certainly trying to speed up the economy service though, as passengers were given full cans of sodas instead of individual pours.
Otherwise, I found the service to be as efficient as possible for a 50-seater single-aisle regional jet. Pre-departure beverages were served in first class, and the flight attendant was courteous and professional throughout her service.
After two flights on the CRJ550, it’s clear that the plane is a massive improvement compared to other regional jets. It felt like United blended the best of a mainline and regional jet and called it the CRJ550. You’ve got similar (if not more) storage space than a mainline jet in the intimate cabin of a regional jet.
The CRJ550 is arguably the most comfortable regional jet in America, especially in first class. Once power is installed and Wi-Fi is fixed, the CRJ550 may just become my favorite regional jet in the sky.
All photos by the author.