United Offers Flat-Bed Seats on Cross-Country Routes

United will offer flat-bed first-class seats on the nation’s two premier nonstop transcontinental routes.

United has won the race to be the first airline to offer flat-bed first-class seats on the nation’s two premier nonstop transcontinental routes: New York/JFK to Los Angeles and New York/JFK to San Francisco. United’s refurbished 757s have 28 flat-bed BusinessFirst seats, 42 Economy Plus extra-legroom economy seats, and 72 cattle-car seats. These “P.S.” (for “Permium Seervice”), planes also provide power outlets and USB ports at every seat and onboard Wi-Fi (for an extra charge). Meal service is close to international standards. I checked United’s flights for next week, and they’re already fully converted.

Flat-bed seats have suddenly become the “next big thing” on these two routes—presumably, the domestic routes with the highest demand for premium service. American, Delta, and JetBlue all plan to offer front-cabin flat-bed options starting next spring: American and JetBlue with newly delivered A321s, and Delta with refurbished 757s and 767s. So far, Virgin America hasn’t announced a similar upgrading, but it will either have to match or concede the top-premium market to its competitors.

In some ways, I find this move to flat-bed seats perplexing. United’s former P.S. first-class configuration, similar to international business class before flat beds, was already exceptionally roomy, and out of more than two dozen transcon flights, only two—one each from Los Angeles and San Francisco—are overnight red eyes. But apparently United and its competitors see flat beds as a marketing plus—so, flat beds it is.

So far, none of the three major airlines has suggested using flat-bed premium seats on other routes. But if the services prove popular, you could speculate that (1) United might want to try P.S. flights from California to Newark or Washington/Dulles, to feed its many international routes, (2) Delta might want to connect JFK with its emerging major gateway at Seattle, and (3) American might want to connect California with its big Miami gateway.

You’ll certainly pay for the extra luxury. For flights in February, United quotes round-trip JFK-to-Los Angeles in the new flat-bed P.S. BusinessFirst as $4,374, while American and Delta quote $3,400 to $3,500 for conventional first class. And if you’re willing to schlep to/from Newark rather than JFK—really, not a big difference in Manhattan access—United charges $2,854 for a nonstop in conventional domestic first class. For some reason, Virgin America still quotes $4,385 for its much less opulent first class—a nonstarter for most travelers. Whatever happens up front, however, I suspect that most of you will be flying in the rear cabins, for less than $500.

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By Ed Perkins

A nationally recognized reporter, writer, and consumer advocate, Ed Perkins focuses on how travelers can find the best deals and avoid scams.

He is the author of "Online Travel" (2000) and "Business Travel: When It's Your Money" (2004), the first step-by-step guide specifically written for small business and self-employed professional travelers. He was also the co-author of the annual "Best Travel Deals" series from Consumers Union.

Perkins' advice for business travelers is featured on MyBusinessTravel.com, a website devoted to helping small business and self-employed professional travelers find the best value for their travel dollars.

Perkins was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, one of the country's most influential travel publications, from which he retired in 1998. He has also written for Business Traveller magazine (London).

Perkins' travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's "Good Morning America" and "This Week with David Brinkley," "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather," CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.

Before editing Consumer Reports Travel Letter, Perkins spent 25 years in travel research and consulting with assignments ranging from national tourism development strategies to the design of computer-based tourism models.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, Perkins lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife.

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