United Airlines plans to upgrade business class

As part of a push to improve overall customer service, United Airlines is upgrading its business-class cabins to attract more high-paying international travelers.

The airline's top-tier customers can expect new comforts like extra leg room and lie-flat seats, as well as technology amenities such as Apple iPod connections, personal seat back video screens and better in-flight entertainment.

The airline that operates half the daily flights at San Francisco International Airport is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in its premium cabins. Passengers taking international flights to places such as London, Beijing and Brazil will see the upgrades at SFO before the end of the year.

"We want to create a more relaxing and rewarding flight for our most loyal, frequent customers," said Robin Urbanski, a United spokeswoman. "We want them to feel that way right away."

Urbanski said that United is making an "across-the-board" effort to improve customer service.

Major airlines have long made much oftheir profits catering to business travelers.

The moves come as low-fare carriers such as Virgin America, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines have started service at SFO.

Virgin America made a point of highlighting its business-class service with mood lighting, more music and video choices, and good food.

After nearly two years of bankruptcy, including cuts to service and staff, United is determined to improve its customer service, Urbanski noted.

United and other airlines lost billions of dollars following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and ensuing economic downturn.

While low-fare carriers don't compete on international flights, domestically they have attracted an increasing number of business travelers.

"Discount airlines have attracted business travelers by upgrading," said Doug Abbey, a principal at the Velocity Group, an airline consultant group. "United's responding to competition."

Abbey noted that the trend of business travelers migrating to low-fare carriers started even before 9/11. Some business travelers have even moved to charters and smaller luxury planes, he said.

For United's international business travelers, there will be more space to work and a place to sleep on seats that recline 180 degrees. Travelers will have their own 15-inch video screen and can plug in their own music and video libraries.

Business travelers will also get their own boarding lane.

Many of the international flights the upgrade is targeting are overnight trips that last from eight to 15 hours.

The cost of international business-class flights from SFO to places like London and Beijing can range between $5,000 and $10,000. Prices won't be bumped higher due to the upgrades, Urbanski said.

Ninety-seven United aircraft will be included in the upgrade, including Boeing 747s, 767s and 777s.

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have also announced plans to upgrade their premium cabins on international flights.

Business writer Tim Simmers can be reached at 650-348-4361 or by e-mail at tsimmers@sanmateocountytimes.com .

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