United plans to upgrade its business-class cabin; Wide-screen TVs, seats that become beds are coming

July 23, 2007

United Airlines is outfitting the business-class cabins on its international flights with a host of technology upgrades, from wide-screen personal TVs to -iPod adapters.

The nation's second-largest carrier also will equip the cabin with seats that fully recline to become beds, an all-important amenity for business travelers.

It's all part of United's move to provide different levels of service for different customers and cater to its elite - and highest-paying - passengers.

"For those prepared to pay more money for value, we've been very much targeting improving the product," said Graham Atkinson, United's executive vice president and chief customer officer. "This is the epitome of that strategy. We believe it takes us well ahead of U.S. competitors and right up there with the best in the world."

The upgrade, which involves 97 aircraft, is scheduled to begin this year. United, Denver's dominant carrier, expects to modify the last of the planes by late 2009.

Once complete, United's business-class cabins on international flights will feature larger TV monitors, on-demand video and audio programs, power ports and noise-canceling headphones.

In today's high-tech world, such amenities are becoming increasingly important for business travelers, said Henry Harteveldt, a vice president at Forrester Research.

"They own all of the tech toys and devices, and it's more important than ever for them to be plugged in and productive," he said.

Of greater importance, Harteveldt said, are the new seats, which recline into 6-foot, 4-inch beds. The seats will be configured with some facing forward and some facing backward, and each will have a divider screen.

The new seats require more room, so the business-class cabin on international flights will have fewer seats available overall, while the economy section will gain some.

"It's all about the seat," Harteveldt said. "You could have the finest champagne and caviar, but if you don't have lie-flat seats, the business traveler doesn't care."

Still, Harteveldt said he worries that passengers seated near the windows will have a difficult time getting out if the person next to them is fully reclined. United says the new configuration makes it easier to get out than now.

As for those stuck in the main cabin? They'll notice a few changes as well.

United plans to update rest- rooms and install new upholstery and carpet in its economy cabins on international flights. It'll also add more overhead TV screens and incorporate digital technology for a better picture.


New amenities

United's enhanced business-class cabins on international flights will feature:

* Seats that recline 180 degrees to make 6-foot, 4-inch beds

* A 15.4-inch, flat-panel TV monitor, which is three times larger than United's current versions

* More than 150 hours of movies and TV programs as well as audiobooks

* Select entertainment content available in 14 languages

* Ports to charge and power personal electronic devices, an LED reading light and iPod adapters

Source: United Airlines