United Airlines has received the first of its next-gen Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes, with the brand new jet set to revolutionise flying to and around the US.
United's new livery – a sweeping gold flare running from nose to tail - will be exclusive to its 787 fleet and is inspired by the trademark swoop painted on each of Boeing’s aircraft.
After "a variety of tests and training, including completing Federal Aviation Administration conformity checks and proving runs", United's newest bird will start to carry paying passengers in US autumn.
The airline says it is "planning to place five Boeing 787s into service in 2012", although it didn't reveal any routes beyond the direct Denver-Tokyo service slated to commence in March next year.
(What happened to United's plans for the Dreamliner to debut on a new Auckland-Houston route this year? Here's the story.)
Those first five Dreamliners will be followed by another 45 through to 2019, making for a massive 50-strong order which equals Qantas' commitment to the 787.
United's three-class Boeing 787 seating chart
United will divvy up its Dreamliners into a three-class layout for Business First, Economy Plus and Economy seating.
United's international business class – which is tagged Business First, in a confusing attempt to differentiate it from 'Global First' international first class and US domestic 'United First' – numbers 36 seats, occupying the first six rows in a 2-2-2 configuration.
And before you read further, note that these pics – supplied by United PR as part of its Boeing 787 media kit – are not the exact same seats or layout as you'll see in the 787.
United has yet to share actual pics (or even mockups) of the 787's cabin. But for the time being, these photos still give you an idea of how you'll fly Dreamliner-style on United.
Business First seats are arrayed in a 2-2-2 configuration and, as you'd expect, convert into a fully lie-flat bed. None of those 'sloping sleepers' here!
That's followed by a surprisingly large Economy Plus cabin of 72 seats – from rows 16-22, some seats in row 23 plus all of row 27 (the exit row at the front of the main economy cabin).
Economy Plus isn't your conventional Premium Economy class – it's the same seat, 3-3-3 layout and in-flight menu as economy, but with extra legroom. (The shot above shows Economy Plus in a 2-3-2 layout from a different United aircraft.)
The rest of the plane, from rows 28 to 38, is given over to 11 standard close-quarter Economy seats – delivering a total seat count of 219 from tip to tail.
United's 787s will also use an inflight entertainment system powered by Android, which is says "offers more intuitive browsing and more filtering options, giving customers the option of searching for programs by language."
Business is the new first, says Boeing
So what happened to United's GlobalFirst international first-class mini-suites (shown below)?
They're not being fitted on the 787, and United is far from alone in that respect. Airlines appear to be opting for three-class or even just two-class cabins on the Dreamliner, with Qantas and Jetstar already confirming these as their respective configurations.
For its part, Boeing doesn't expect any airlines to offer traditional first class onto the 787 – high-spec business class will instead take pride of place at the pointy end of the plane.
"We’re seeing many airlines starting to reduce their full-blown first class offering, mainly because business class is beyond what first class used to be" observes Tom Galantowicz, Boeing’s Director of 787 Interiors.
"The front end of the 787 cabin has first class features, and business class is where the better airlines spend money because passengers are willing to pay for it” Galantowicz told Australian Business Traveller during one of our visits to Seattle last year.
"So there’s (increasingly) a big gap between business class and economy class. Airlines are looking at an intermedia product to fill that gap, which is why we're seeing wide interest by airlines in premium economy.”
“25 years ago, business class was the gap-filler between first and economy, and if you look at a lot of premium economy product they literally mirror what we saw in business class 25 years ago.”
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About David Flynn
David Flynn is the editor of Australian Business Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.