United’s (ex Continental) New BusinessFirst Lie-Flat Seats – Initial Review

Update:  November 2012 – As of early 2011, United has completed the retrofit of all pre-merger-Continental 777 and 757 international flights with these new seats.  These seats are also featured in the 787 Dreamliner, which took first flight in November 2012.  In addition, some pre-Merger-Continental 767s are being retrofitted to include these seats.  Please note that these seats differ from the pre-merger-United Business Class and United International First Class (now known as “Global First”) seats, which are offered on some original United Airlines planes.  United is continuing to standardize their product line as the Continental/United merger standardization continues, but, for now, it appears that these BusinessFirst seats are here to stay for the long term.  On a separate note, I’ve now flown in these seats for over 300,000 miles and am still very happy with them, even as my typical flight has shifted over the last year from short NYC/London hops to mostly 14-hour NYC to Shanghai/Beijing/Hong Kong routes.  My original post follows:

Over the years, I’ve written many articles about airline seating and service, from the now-defunct (and once-great) Eos Airlines (review here) to the equally-defunct, but less-great, Silverjet (review here), to the spectacular Singapore All-business class service from Newark to Singapore (review here) that makes up the longest flight on earth.    I’ve done many reviews of the international business and first-class services of Singapore, British Airways, Silverjet, EOS, Emirates, Delta, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic, KLM, Northwest and Air France.   But it’s this review that I am most excited about, since I’ve finally gotten to fly in the new lie-flat BusinessFirst seats on Continental Airlines – my home airline.

Above:  a photo of the new cabin

Continental unveiled the new seats in 2008 and, while most of their international BusinessFirst customer are excited about them, one should not really hold their breathe too hard waiting to fly in one.  The system-wide roll-out on existing 757 and 777 models will not be fully completed until 2012 (future 787 models will be installed with these seats at the factory).   As of this writing, there is exactly one plane installed with these seats:  the Boeing 777-200ER, ship #13.   It was my lucky day, however, when I found out that I would be flying this baby back from London on my last flight of 2009 (flight #68 of 68 YTD for me, Continental Airlines Flight #29; December 17, 2009;  London Heathrow Airport to Newark Liberty International Airport).

I should preface this by saying that I have avoided Continental for overseas flights for most of the last two years, unless I really had to.  I love the airline, but their lack of true flat seats has turned me off, particularly when I could earn miles on a number of partner airlines and get where I needed to get easily out of EWR or JFK.  As for Elite Qualification Miles (EQMs), I really didn’t care since I still always flew enough on Continental domestically, to Canada and to Latin America to earn Platinum Status every year.   Some times I would even suck it up and bank miles to my United account (particularly with flights on Singapore Airlines), prior to Continental’s leap into the Star Alliance.    My most frequent international trip over the past ten years has been New York to London, where I have lived or worked for much of that time.   For those journeys, Virgin has always suited me well and, although Upper Class can be a bit cramped for a tall guy like me, the seats are flat and the Clubhouse on the Heathrow side is superb.  But enough about me…I’m here to talk about this:

Note:  You can click on any of the photos in this post to see a larger version.

To begin, the layout on the 777 is comprised of 11 rows in a two-aisle, 2-2-2 configuration.  The BusinessFirst section is segmented into two parts, with a service galley in the middle.  This leaves two bulkhead rows in BusinessFirst.  The last row of the first section and the first (bulkhead) row of the second section, perhaps, being the noisiest with the service galley between them.  The last row of the second section is directly in front of the main cabin, which, for my flight, was pretty quite until the screaming baby in the bulkhead woke up two hours before landing.   I do not believe any modifications needed to be made to the main cabin in order to accommodate the new BusinessFirst seats, but I could be wrong.    I was seated in Seat 11E, near the back.

[Digression:  While talking to my FA friend about these seats, he told me that the 777 has a crew bunk space above the main cabin, which is accessed through a secret stairway halfway down the rows.  I thought he was joking with me, but it is, indeed, true.  Why didn't I know about this?!!?  Check out this YouTube video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RX7wg-tWEo]

First Impressions

The first thing that went through my mind was, “Uh-oh, this looks narrow!”, particularly since I have very wide shoulders (size 46 jacket here).    The second thing that went through my mind was, “Uh-oh, this doesn’t look like enough legroom.”, which is my second concern given that I am 6 foot, 3 inches in height.   Looks can be deceiving, however, and my concerns were alleviated after a few minutes of relaxing in the seat.   The narrowness of the seat cushion gives the perception that your shoulders may be cramped, however, they have done a very good job at giving a lot of clearance on both sides of the seat cushion.   I did not feel cramped in the slightest bit and the seat was far less claustrophobic than those offered in most other lie-flat business class seats.

As for legroom, it is actually superb.  Although your feet must be tucked into a space about half the width of the seat, there is ample enough room.  I would venture to say that the “footrest” situation is just as comfortable as Singapore’s Business Class, whose massively-wide seats still require you to sleep diagonally and jam your feet into a smaller corner.

The overall legroom is excellent and was very comfortable for my long legs.   My feet were not pushed up into the seat in front of me.

In general, it is a comfortable seat to just sit in, without having to make many crazy adjustments.

Stowage

They have done a good job building in plenty of places to keep your stuff.   There is a small shelf below the front video monitor, which happily held a magazine and my Bose headphone case:

There is also a large bin next to your head, which held several newspapers, my headphones, a bottle of water, etc.  This is also where the power outlet, headphone jack and USB charger port are placed:

You can also store items on and below the “ottoman”  where you rest your feet.

There is one fatal flaw, however:  The front shelf, the bin and the ottoman are all marked as “No Stowage” zones!    The flight crew did not enforce this during takeoff or landing – remember, they are all new to these seats, as well – however, the reason for the no stowage regulation was apparent during takeoff.  On the immediate thrust to takeoff, everything went flying from the shelf and the ottomans fairly forcefully.   If you put a laptop on the shelf during takeoff, it would have certainly gone smashing to the floor.  Here you can see my neighbor with tons of stuff stacked up pre-flight:

Most of this was on the floor after takeoff.

If the FA’s decide to enforce the “no stowage” rule in these spaces, this will now severely limit your storage space during takeoff and landing.  You are essentially left with two small pockets that barely hold a magazine and the space under your ottoman (Warning:  things slide from this space during takeoff, as well).   This isn’t too big of a deal, but just an inconvenience if you have to “unpack” from the overhead after you are first able to leave your seat.  I am serious in saying that you would not even be able to store a medium size book in the magazine pouches if you needed to…

IFE, Electronics and Seat Controls and Seat Configuration

Seat controls are located in the center armrest and are very easy to use.   You can independently control the seat recline, lumbar and footrest portions of the seat.  There is also one touch access to bring you to fully-upright or full lie-flat configuration:

Your tray is located under the seat controls and it is, by far, the easiest tray to remove and stow on any seat that I’ve ever flown.  It folds out into full or half-width positions.

The side, interior of the seat has the remote control for the IFE system and a magazine pouch:

This is easy to access and easy to use, but the placement can be inconvenient.  I hit the remote control several times when shuffling in my seat, pausing or stopping my movie.  (Please refrain from any jokes about excess Christmas cookie consumption…)

As noted earlier, there is a storage bin next to your head.  This also includes a multi-national power-plug (no adapter required), a USB port for charing phones, iPods, etc. and your three prong headphone jack.    This is actually a pretty good design  for phone charging and movie watching because you can simply stash your charging phones in the bin and the headphone cord does not get tangled in your legs or body when you shift.  For working on your laptop, however, your power cord must travel from your head to the back of your laptop on the tray in front of you.  This can be a bit awkward, but not too bad.

The screen is sufficiently large and bright, although not as crisp as those on Singapore, Emirates, BA or others.   The IFE itself is pretty much what you’ve always had with the Continental 777 AVOD system, with one exception:   You can plug your iPod into the system and watch your own movies on your seat’s screen.   This is a great feature, but Continental doesn’t have it right, yet.  First, it requires a proprietary cable which hooks into a jack next to the monitor:

That’s all fine, but Continental wants you to buy this cable.  There is a note on the IFE system card which says that the cables are available for sale as part of the in-flight duty free service.    This is poor, particularly since Singapore will lend these cables to passengers for free.   In addition, when I asked a FA about it, they didn’t know what I was talking about and returned to tell me that “I had to bring my own cable for it to work.”, which is, obviously, not the case.   Even if they have offered to sell me the cable, when was the next time I would fly in one of these seats, particularly since this is the only plane in the sky with them installed???   For 2010 and most of 2011, they may wish to consider offering these cables for free.

Sleeping

This is all well and good, but there’s only one question that really matters:  Can you sleep in it?

I am very, very happy to answer that question with a glorious “YES”!

I am a notoriously bad sleeper on planes, regardless of how good the seat is.  The only time I have ever slept for more than 5 hours on a plane has been when I flew in Emirate’s First Class Suites on a flight that left Dubai at 2am.   I did not have high expectations for this seat.   Part of the problem is that I’m just a bad sleeper.  The other part of the problem is that I am a big guy.   For all the single ladies out there, my measurements are:    46 chest, 34 waist, 34 inseam, 6 foot 3 inches in height, 220 lbs. weight.

The challenge is to comfortably fit this:

into this:

I can, without a doubt, say that this is a comfortable seat to sleep in.  Even though my flight left at 10:30 in the morning, a late night out in London, coupled with a 6:45 wake-up call meant that I was very tired.  I easily slept 3 1/2 hours in this seat without any problems.  I would have no problem doing a long-haul in this seat.  The sleeping comfort is far superior to Emirates, Qantas, BA and Virgin, in my opinion – all of which leave you bent in a weird position or give you very little shoulder room.

OK, so Singapore’s Business Class has it beat.  But c’mon, they use a 1-2-1 configuration in their 777 cabin.  That’s a little unfair ;)

Another nice thing about this seat is that it converts to a bed very easily.  There is no need to get up and flip the seat down to make your bed.  Simply hold the “bed” button down for 10 seconds and you are ready to snooze.  The portions of the seat also move independently of each other, so it is easy to find a configuration that suits you.   You are not limited to any awkward configurations due to the seat’s movement limitations.

I should also mention that there are seat control buttons just next to your ear, which are handy when you are laying down and want to bring the seat back upright.

Privacy

When seated upright, privacy is not the greatest.  Continental has chosen to use a very small partition to separate the seats as opposed to, say, a full fold-down partition, such as those in BA’s ClubWorld.  When sleeping, there is no issue, but some may find your neighbor a bit too close for comfort.

Of course, if you are in a window seat and your neighbor is laying down, you will have to step over him to get to the bathroom.  You can weigh this against the fact that the window seats are probably the most private seats on the plane.

Other Notes and Conclusions

First, let me say that Continental is clearly proud of these seats.  When we were first seated, the International Concierge came to each of us and asked us what we thought about the seats and pointed out a number of the features to passengers.    Later in the flight, the Flight Service Coordinator made a pass down each aisle asking how we found the seats.  I can say that most of the passengers on that flight were really delighted that they got to experience them.  I almost feel like it was a waste “using” this special plane on the short hop from London to Newark!  One suggestion I would make to Continental is to ask passengers for feedback on the seats just before the flight is about to land, collect the feedback and send it back to HQ.  Although there is not much they can probably do regarding the design of the seats at this point, I’m sure it would be helpful to know things like how none of the crew knew how to find an iPod cable, etc.  (BTW, please don’t take my story about the iPod cable as a knock on the crew.  I understand that they are new to these seats as well.  The crew we had on this flight was fantastic.)

In conclusion, let me say this is a very good seat.  I was extremely nervous about the quality of this new product since I know that I will have to live with these seats for many years to come.  There is no doubt that these seats will make Continental more competitive in the long-haul market.  This is an excellent product.

Is it as good as Singapore’s business class seat?  No, it is not.   Is it better than Virgin, Emirates, BA and Qantas?  In my opinion, it is, indeed.  Is it better than anything else that isn’t a true lie-flat?  Without a doubt.

Well done, Continental.

7 responses to “United’s (ex Continental) New BusinessFirst Lie-Flat Seats – Initial Review

  1. Pingback: Continental's New BusinessFirst Lie-Flat Seats – Initial Review … | singapore News

  2. Nice review – agree with your comments wholeheartedly, particularly given that 13 *never* seems to cover LHRIAH!

    I’m in the entertaining situation of flying back to London on Friday, and evidently either Continental have move #13, or managed to get another bird retrofitted – so tres excited about finally flying on my “home” carrier in comfort.

    I spend a week in London, and then hit the road to KL via Singapore on Singapore Airlines – so I’ll have what I think are the best business seats back to back with Continentals – and rack up some proper Continental miles to boot! Gonna try and set a record for Platinum in Q1 this year.

  3. Hey Chris,

    Great article and very timely! We just booked one of several trips overseas for this Summer and decided to go Business/First on Continental to Venice (via Frankfurt). So we’ll be up front and this will be our first time with the new sleepers. Should be a great trip. Like you, we rarely fly Continental out of the U.S. but thought it would be good this time with the new 777-200ER service. We’re elite status and use that a lot in the U.S. but paid for the business/first seats this time.

    Overall, how did you like the meal service?

    Thanks,
    Scotty

  4. Chris, Thank you for the above. I’m about to use BusinessFirst for the first time en route to Moscow and have a question. Do the front rows of the front 1st cabin and 2nd cabin have down sides because they are in a front row–ie distance to TV, storage space not available, etc. I unfortunately have the front row on both of my flights and am concerned. Any guidance would be much appreciated. my email is tabblu007@gmail.com.

    • Sorry, I know this is long past your trip, but for others who are reading in the future, the answer to your question is no, there is no disadvantage to the bulkhead seats from a size or feature perspective. The only downside may be that they are adjacent to the lavs and service galley, so they are, of course, subject to more light and noise.

  5. Pingback: Quick Review: United Airlines International First Class Suites Service | the chris uriarte blog

  6. Pingback: AA to introduce 3-class A321 Transcontinental aircraft; PTVs on domestic planes. - Page 15 - FlyerTalk Forums

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