Why more lie-flat seats on United flights isn’t necessarily good news

May 30, 2020

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United has been making lots of adjustments to its flight schedules throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

But there’s one route in particular that’s received the most attention, and that’s the carrier’s premium transcon service between Newark and Los Angeles and San Francisco. During May, United pulled most of its lie-flat seats from the route. In June, the carrier is back to offering lie-flat seats on a mix of Boeing 757s, 767s and 787s.

Sadly, this isn’t the “usual” 757 that United used to operate on this flagship route. Before the pandemic, UA was flying a pre-merger United Boeing 757-200 that featured a premium-heavy configuration with 28 biz seats.

Going forward, United appears to be reactivating a different 757 variant — the 16 biz-seat version that used to fly for Continental. And though it’s great that UA will be flying more lie-flat equipped jets, it isn’t necessarily good news for flyers who’re used to the “usual” 757.

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Less award and upgrade space

The premium-heavy 757 was designed to operate flagship transcon flights that are usually filled with business travelers with large expense accounts. As some of the most competitive routes in the country, each major U.S. carrier brought their best product to the market between New York and California. For UA, that included a 757 with just 142 seats.

United refreshed Boeing 757 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

But with substantially fewer business travelers right now, United doesn’t seem to see enough demand to warrant a 28-seat business-class cabin. While the densified 757s still feature lie-flat seats in biz, there are just 16 of them. 

And with a 12-seat reduction, expect to see much less award and upgrade space. Previously, the 757 offered one of the best upgrade percentages for Premier members.

Related: How to upgrade United flights

Now, there’s a much higher chance that UA actually sells a larger proportion of the cabin. That’s good for United’s bottom line, but it also likely reduces how many will be available as award tickets.

Biz on the latest United 757 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Coach cabin is densified

On the latest version of United’s 757, the economy cabin fits 160 passengers, 46 more than the premium-heavy version.

The densified coach cabin isn’t great for those who plan to take these 5-plus hour flights while sitting in the back. For one, the seats are slimline. Additionally, there’s less recline and some seats are narrower than on the more spacious 757.

Though cabin densification isn’t generally good news, at least United kept the same number of extra-legroom Economy Plus seats on the updated 757.

Related: The refreshed 757 offers the best economy seats in United’s fleet

Even more interestingly, there are two rows of exit seats that aren’t labeled as Economy Plus on the carrier’s latest 757s. These seats are designated as Preferred, and the price to buy up to Preferred is much lower than to Economy Plus. This is also good for United elite members since they get free Preferred seating when booking.

Coach on the latest United 757 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Though select coach seats are better on the latest 757, most coach flyers will miss the other 757 that United used to fly across the country.

Inflight connectivity isn’t as good

Before the coronavirus hit, United was updating the premium service 757s with cutting-edge ViaSat Ka-band Wi-Fi. Though United’s inflight Wi-Fi offering generally isn’t as good as American’s or Delta’s, the premium-service 757 was the exception.

But now that UA is returning the densified 757s to service, power users are going to notice a big drop in inflight productivity. That’s because these 757s feature Ku-band satellite Wi-Fi, which typically isn’t as robust or reliable as the Ka-band.

Related: Who has the best Wi-Fi among U.S. airlines?

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. The premium-heavy 757s didn’t feature personal device entertainment, and the inflight entertainment systems were running old software. On the 757 subfleet that United is reactivating, you’ll find both the latest personal device entertainment and latest IFE software onboard.

United’s latest IFE software (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Personally, I much prefer to work when flying across the country, so I’ll miss the faster Ka-band Wi-Fi on my next transcon flight.

Bottom line

It’s a great sign that United is seeing enough demand to justify returning some Boeing 757s to the sky.

However, it’s unfortunate that the carrier isn’t reactivating its premium-heavy 757s that featured 28 lie-flat biz seats. It’ll almost certainly mean less award and upgrade space, and the coach cabin won’t be as comfortable as before. Plus, if you’re looking to stay connected, the Wi-Fi won’t be as reliable.

Nonetheless, those seated in biz will still be treated to fully-flat beds, which is a big improvement from the recliners that were flying the route in May.

Featured image by Wikimedia Commons

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