American airline United has confirmed the seating layout for its first Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, which are due to start flying between Houston and Auckland next year. The new planes will contain BusinessFirst, Economy Plus and regular economy class, and the airline plans to receive the aircraft in "early 2012".
At the front of the plane will be 36 BusinessFirst flat bed seats -- so this isn't a route that will have United's international first class. United hasn't yet confirmed the exact layout, but six rows of 2-2-2 seating is likely, based on the layout of the slightly larger Boeing 777 operated by Continental, United's now-merged predecessor that ordered the 2012-delivery planes.
(BusinessFirst is the former Continental offering, so don't confuse it with the old United's business class we reviewed recently between Sydney and San Francisco.)
63 Economy Plus seats -- which are regular economy with extra legroom -- will be fitted behind BusinessFirst. The number of seats suggests seven rows of nine seats in a 3-3-3 configuration. That's the same as the slightly wider Boeing 777. Japanese airline ANA has a more spacious eight-abreast 2-4-2 configuration in Economy on its 787s.
There will also be 120 regular economy seats, likely in the same higher-density 3-3-3 layout.
United previously confirmed that it would be keeping Economy Plus on its fleet, a move popular with high-tier frequent flyers, who are assigned the seat as a premium benefit.
Economy Plus isn't up to the international long-haul standard of the premium economy seats on Qantas, Virgin Atlantic or British Airways but it's certainly a lot better than regular Economy for a 14-16 hour flight over the Pacific.
The flights are designed to connect key Star Alliance hubs Houston Intercontinental Airport (IAH), the main base for the former Continental Airlines that United inherited, with Auckland Airport (AKL) -- home to airline partner Air New Zealand.
Alison Espley, United's General Manager for Australia and New Zealand, earlier confirmed to Australian Business Traveller that Houston-Auckland will be the first route for the airline's 787.
Air New Zealand is also in a separate trans-Tasman partnership with Virgin Australia, meaning that Australian travellers may find connecting through Auckland more convenient for US trips. The two airlines recently started allowing reciprocal points earning and lounge access for Velocity Rewards and Airpoints frequent flyers as part of the deal, so expect improvements for connecting services.
United CEO Jeff Smisek -- who called his own airline's existing trans-Pacific service "unacceptable" in an Australian Business Traveller interview -- is certainly spruiking the 787 as a hub-to-hub aircraft.
"We are proud to be the first North American airline to receive the 787, which will be a game changer for the new United and the industry," enthused Smisek. "The 787 will be a very comfortable, customer pleasing aircraft."
Among the list of benefits United is promising are better lighting, bigger windows and overhead bins, increased cabin humidity (meaning your skin won't dry out as much and you won't get as dehydrated), lower cabin pressure and improved ventilation systems, among other "passenger-friendly features".
About John Walton
Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.