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United Airlines to Revamp Business Class for Intercontinental Flights

Chicago's O'Hare Airport Hosts Air Industry's World Route ForumChicago's O'Hare Airport Hosts Air Industry's World Route Forum
They need to be fuller.Scott Olson Getty Images

United Continental Holdings Inc (UAL) said on Thursday it will overhaul its international business class in an effort to win over high-spending travelers and chip away at its reputation as industry-lagging.

United, the No.3 U.S. airline by traffic, said it will open nine business class-only lounges in the United States, Europe and Asia so customers can eat a full meal before their flight. It then will offer a shorter meal service on board and seats with privacy walls so customers can maximize their sleep time.

The revamp, to be rolled out from December, is United’s latest attempt to rival Delta Air Lines Inc, (DAL) which has renovated its plane cabins, canceled fewer flights and posted an operating profit margin about twice United’s last quarter. United said the private lounges will be a first for a U.S. carrier. Additionally, its Boeing Co 777-300ER planes will have a walk-up bar.

In an interview, Chief Executive Oscar Munoz said United is not prioritizing business over economy-class passengers. Rather, the upgrade was already scheduled in part due to upcoming plane deliveries.

“Philosophically, I don’t care if you’re flying us once a year or a hundred times a year,” he said. “I’m going to treat you as well as I can.”

 

Since Munoz took the airline’s top job in September, United has arrived more flights on time and added free snacks and better coffee for economy-cabin passengers. Munoz has said he wants United to be disruptive in the industry, though he has yet to detail how: his work was delayed by a five-month medical leave and a now-resolved fight over United’s board composition.

Munoz declined to disclose the cost of the new long-haul class, known as United Polaris.

A critical component of it – service by flight attendants – comes as United seeks to clinch a contract with them this week, the last meetings on schedule for federal mediation. United and Continental flight attendants have operated separately since the carriers merged in 2010.

“Products and services are meaningless without the people who introduce them to customers,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, in a statement.

Munoz, who has made a point of securing new labor contracts, said the business class is something flight attendants can be proud of.

United Polaris will launch on Dec. 1, with the rollout continuing in 2017 and beyond as the airline takes delivery of Boeing 787-10 and Airbus Group SE A350-1000 aircraft.

Munoz said United has visited the company that is building the seats for the new service, Zodiac Aerospace SA, and has been assured there will not be production delays.