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United Offers Flat-Bed Seats on Cross-Country 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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