Elbow Room Coming to U.S. Skies as United Shifts Wide-Body Jets

A United Boeing 777 in San Francisco, California.

A United Boeing 777 in San Francisco, California.

Photographer: George Rose/Getty Images

Coach passengers used to rubbing up against neighbors on crowded U.S. flights are about to get something unusual on a few United Airlines flights: elbow room.

As United shuffles its fleet and brings in a mix of new and used jets, it’s putting 10 Boeing Co. 777-200s on U.S. routes instead of just flying them abroad. A benefit for road warriors is that with two aisles instead of one, the wide-body 777 boasts twice as many of the coveted spots adjacent to those pathways as the narrow-bodies that predominate on U.S. routes.

“It would give people a higher percentage of aisle seats,” said Andrew Coggins Jr., a Pace University management professor in New York who has logged more than 1 million miles on United. “I prefer the aisle seat even if it means my shoulders get bumped by the flight attendants and all the people going by.”

Seasoned travelers prize those places because they offer a smidgen more room to spread out and the promise of a faster getaway on landing. Aisle seats, especially at the front of the cabin, are among those that full-service airlines reserve for elite-level frequent fliers and passengers paying the most-expensive fares.

While no one envisions a four-engine 747 jumbo returning to U.S. routes, domestic flights by a 777 -- the world’s largest twin-engine jetliner -- are radical enough in modern aviation. Big jets fell from favor for U.S. operations in recent years as airlines focused on more-frequent jaunts with smaller planes.

More Room

United is upending that industry norm by redeploying the 777-200 models as part of an efficiency drive. With seating for 266 to 344 people, United’s 777s are about twice as spacious as a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 -- the workhorses on U.S. routes.

The move separates United from peers that have also engaged in so-called “up-gauging.” The practice is usually done on a smaller scale, such as bringing in a 76-seat regional jet and dumping a 50-seater.

Flying between hubs, the 777s may let United consolidate three San Francisco-to-Chicago departures that now come within a 90-minute span, according to Chief Revenue Officer Jim Compton.

“It really promotes more cost-efficient flying, while serving the demand that’s out there,” Compton said last week on a conference call for parent United Continental Holdings Inc., where the jet shift was disclosed.

Wider Seats

United isn’t offering many details, such as how many seats the domestic 777s will have, when the jets will be shifted or how the nine-abreast coach cabins may change.

One plus besides extra aisles: Seats on United’s 777s are slightly wider than those on its 737s. The 777’s 18-inch (46-centimeter) models outdo the 17.2 or 17.3 inches on the 737.

“Believe it or not, that seven-tenths of an inch or inch can make a big difference,” said Jami Counter, senior director of SeatGuru and TripAdvisor Flights. The caveat: The extra width would disappear if United follows an industry trend and goes to snug, 10-across rows in coach, Counter said.

United’s 777s are the smaller of Boeing’s two main variants of the plane. The airline’s fleet changes include buying 10 of the larger 777-300ER model for long-haul service abroad.

Wide-bodies are rare on U.S. routes. Delta Air Lines uses a Boeing 767 regularly between New York and Los Angeles, and has Airbus A330s and the four-engine 747 on Hawaii trips, said Elizabeth Caminiti, a spokeswoman. American Airlines operates two 777s from Los Angeles to Miami, spokesman Matt Miller said.

Robert Mann, an ex-American executive who runs consultant R.W. Mann & Co., agreed that the industry won’t return to the free-spending 1970s and ’80s, when even jumbo jets flew in the U.S. “But I think you’ll see selective up-gauging,” Mann said.

The practice is being encouraged by the industry’s consolidation into three carriers with global networks -- American, United and Delta -- plus discounter Southwest Airlines, said George Hamlin, a former Airbus executive who leads Hamlin Transportation Consulting.

“With fewer competing hubs,” Hamlin said, “it’s possible for airlines to concentrate passengers with fewer flights with bigger airplanes.”

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