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So you think United’s Boeing 747 service from Sydney and Melbourne to the US is a second-rate offering compared to other airlines, especially when it comes to the economy class cabin?
Jeff Smisek, president and CEO of United Airlines, agrees with you. And he’s eager to upgrade the ageing jumbo fleet, which has an average age of 15.5 years according to airfleets.net.
“The back of the product on the 747 that United flies to Australia is not an acceptable level of product” Smisek admits. “And I know that, I recognise that. But United on its own didn’t have the money to invest in that product. Now (with the United-Continental merger) it does, and we will.”
Smisek told Australian Business Traveller he would "strongly prefer" to upgrade the 747 rather than wait for the first Airbus A350s to replace the jumbo jets from 2016 onwards. This would include an overhaul of the in-flight entertainment in the 747’s economy cabin, which currently relies on an out-of-date system with a dozen ceiling-mounted LCD screens rather than the more modern alternative of personal seat-back video displays with video-on-demand.
“You have to invest, because the price of not investing is that you lose business" Smisek insists. "The A350 is a spectacular airplane, and we have 25 on order, but that doesn’t matter if we can’t give you the service level you deserve, the reliability you deserve and the respect you deserve.”
United-Continental also has 25 of Boeing’s much-delayed 787 Dreamliners on order, which will replace its current Boeing 767s starting from 2016. This represents a dramatic refresh of the United fleet, as the airline’s last aircraft order was placed in 1998 and the most recent arrival was in 2002.
Smisek sees very different roles for the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, but singled out the Dreamliner for the most praise as well as having significant impact on opening new routes.
“The Boeing 787 is a spectacular aircraft in every sense of the word" he enthused to Australian Business Traveller. "We’re going to have a huge advantage with the 787, and although it’s been delayed we will still have it years ahead of our competitors.”
“Let’s say you want to fly between Auckland and Houston, and you want flights on a daily basis. We have our (Continental) Houston hub, we have our single carrier network with United and we have the power of Star Alliance. That market is dependent on the 787 – we will not fly that route without the 787. But with the 787 we can make money on that route. That’s one reason we’re very excited about getting that airplane.”