It’s a new, or neo, day for United.
The airline’s first Airbus A321neo aircraft is set to enter service with an evening flight from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD).
The plane is the newest model to join United’s fleet, and it’s the first new Airbus that the Chicago-based carrier has taken delivery of since 2002, according to data from Airfleets.net.
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United announced its initial A321neo purchase as part of a record-breaking order it placed in June 2021. At the time, the airline ordered 70 of the A321neo jets, alongside 200 variants of Boeing’s 737 MAX.
In October of this year, United announced it was exercising options for an additional 60 of the A321neo aircraft, bringing the total order up to 110 jets. It also secured options for 40 additional aircraft.
Separately, in 2019, the airline ordered 50 of the extended-range version of the A321XLR, meant to replace the airline’s aging Boeing 757-200 fleet on some transcontinental and shorter transatlantic routes.
Meanwhile, the “regular” A321neo will function as a larger gauge jet on United’s core domestic network and, potentially in the future, on its short-haul international routes — spots in Mexico and Central America.
During a media briefing in October surrounding the additional options, United president Andrew Nocella said that the A321neos and previously ordered 737 MAX 10 aircraft are part of United’s strategy to grow in busy and congested markets; it’ll do so by upgauging flights to larger and more efficient aircraft, rather than adding flights.
“Gauge growth is how we’ll manage an increasing number of limitations on runways, airspace and the capacity at the nation’s largest airports, while still growing,” he said.
The new jet will initially operate on United’s route between Chicago and Phoenix and Fort Lauderdale, according to published schedules, with more routes to be added as United takes delivery of additional aircraft.
United describes the A321neo as the latest step in its “United Next” plan; the plan sees the airline retrofitting and modernizing the cabins on its existing narrow-body aircraft, replacing much of its fleet with more efficient next-generation jets and reconfiguring its broader network strategy and growth plans.
Ahead of the inaugural revenue flight on the new airplane — which comes on a route that will not be regularly flown by the new jet, at least for now — the airline held a behind-the-scenes media preview and a chance to tour the new jet.
Inside United Airlines’ Airbus A321neo
United’s A321neo is outfitted with 20 first-class recliner-style seats, 57 extra-legroom “Economy Plus” seats and 123 economy seats.
The Economy Plus seats are split between the front of the economy cabin and the middle, surrounding the emergency exit rows.
Right off the bat, the plane features the United Next interior — better cabin lighting, seatback screens with Bluetooth connectivity for headphones at every seat, larger overhead bins, power outlets, USB ports and more.
That’s the same new interior that United has been rolling out across its 737 MAX and A319 fleet, and it’s undoubtedly an upgrade.
A unique feature on the A321neo will be a new grab-and-go snack station at the back of the economy cabin. It will be available on flights longer than 801 miles and offer United’s standard onboard snacks along with water. The set-up will likely be similar to the “pantries” JetBlue offers on some flights.
It’s a small-ish cabinet and will be first-come, first-served. Still, it’ll be a pleasant option for longer flights after the main drink and snack service.
United claims the new overhead bins are large enough for every passenger to stow a carry-on bag. Anecdotally, the claim seems to be holding up on 737 MAX jets with the new interior, which is definitely good news for passengers. During TPG’s tour of the new cabin, a flight attendant said that having enough stowage space for everyone fixes one of the most annoying parts of her job.
There’s a lavatory in between the first class and economy cabins, as well as two at the very rear of the cabin and one at the very front.
Every seat has a standard AC power outlet, as well as a USB-A and USB-C outlet on the screens, primarily meant for charging phones.
The 20 first-class seats feature a new design for United, the Safran Z600 model, which includes a barrier between seats for a bit more privacy.
Each first-class seat also features a slightly winged headrest, although not as big as the ones on Delta’s A321neo.
First-class seats also have wireless charging pads in the armrests.
Screens on all of the seats, made by Panasonic, feature a secondary display in the lower-right corner; shows information such as the timeline for the movie you’re watching or the amount of time left in the flight.
While the full lighting was on for most of Thursday’s media tour, a feature of the new cabins is signature mood lighting. This makes for a more refreshing atmosphere during flights.
Ultimately, the new plane is not revolutionary, but it does feature a lot of little upgrades that add up to a better experience for passengers. Things like easier device charging, more bag space and seatback inflight entertainment help create a more premium overall environment, which is a big part of United’s broader plan.
With Thursday’s inaugural flight, it really is a new era for United.