United adds upgrade-friendly premium seats in battle for big spenders

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United says it’s adding more than 1,600 premium seats to about 250 of its aircraft, part of an effort to compete against rivals for high-spending road warriors.

The carrier is even planning to introduce a new type of 50-seat regional jet. Complete with first-class seats and a self-serve beverage and snack area, United believes the new Bombardier CRJ 550s will help it attract business travelers flying from small markets to its hubs or connecting to international markets.

“We felt like we were at a competitive disadvantage in certain markets,” Andrew Nocella, United’s chief commercial officer, said in an interview with reporters.

“Today we hear all too often that passengers come in from a smaller market trying to access United’s global network, (but) can’t find a premium seat on the short-haul segment,” he said.

He pointed to Bentonville, Arkansas – home to Walmart’s corporate headquarters – as an example of a market where United has been at a disadvantage.

“Our competitors offer premium seats for the entire journey. United does not. As a result, we have a low share of premium Bentonville passengers to the world,” Nocella said.

In an example United hopes to replicate in similar markets across its network, Nocella said the carrier’s CRJ 550s will be added to its service from Bentonville to Chicago, “connecting to our flights to China and the rest of our … global network.”

“We’ll attract more premium passengers to our network as a result,” he said.

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