CHICAGO — With the introduction of the Airbus A220, Embraer E195-E2, coming Mitsubishi M90/M100s, and now United’s innovative new CRJ-550 regional flying is undergoing a passenger experience renaissance.

Ahead of its Sunday, October 27th entry-into-service, United Express unveiled the latest member of its fleet, the Bombardier CRJ-550 to its fleet.

Photo: United Airlines

The CRJ 550 is a reconfigured and re-certified CRJ-700 with 50 seats instead of the latter’s typical 76 seats.

United claims the new CRJ-550 is “the CRJ-550 is the world’s only 50-seat regional aircraft to offer true first-class seating and other premium amenities.”

The aircraft features 10 seats in First, 20 in Economy Plus and 20 in the main cabin. 

CRJ-550 seat map: Seat Guru

The regional jet was re-certified partially to allow it to operate with a sole flight attendant which is legal for the 50-seat cabin, while the 76-seat cabin required two. 

The new CRJ-500 serves a significant purpose in the fleet: United’s pilot’s contract caps the number of large regional airliners in the fleet such as the CRJ-700 at 255 aircraft.

This has forced the carrier to operate CRJ-200s that lack premium cabins to smaller and mid-size cities, putting it a disadvantage compared to competitors.

This particular aircraft is a creative solution of United’s strategy to increase its Premium seating by 1,600, which is 50% more across over 100 of its aircraft. 

United has been a contrarian in increasing 50-seat CRJ-200 flying and significant domestic increases as the airline seek to grow its domestic network to what UA President Scott Kirby calls its “Natural Share.”

The domestic network had been scaled back under the previous regime. Driving forces behind the creation of the CRJ-550 is adding a revenue premium, corporate business, and more domestic and international network feed.

The concept is that a low density of 50 passenger premium rich aircraft can generate more revenue than a higher density of 76 passenger aircraft. United has taken such an approach with its low density “High J” 767 with the expanded Polaris cabin but with only 166 seats.

Sarah Murphy, SVP United Express reports that the division’s flying comprises 60% of United’s daily departures. Murphy considers the end result magical.

“We wanted to put the customer at the center of the value process. Knowing these are business markets, we wanted those premium seats, high Economy Plus mix, the ability to keep your bags (in the cabin) which you don’t normally get on any regional aircraft. It allows us to be more efficient in our operation such as not tagging bags and it allows us to turn the aircraft faster.”

United will be operating 10 aircraft on entry into service day with all 54 of its CRJ-550s reaching critical mass by June. Service commences this Sunday to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (MDT) from the airline’s Chicago O’Hare hub. Other destinations include from ORD include:

  • Allentown, Pennsylvania (ABE)
  • Bentonville, Arkansas (XNA).
  • Cedar Rapids, Iowa (CID)
  • Cincinnati (CVG)
  • Columbus, Ohio (CMH)
  • Des Moines, Iowa (DSM)
  • Grand Rapids, Michigan (GRR)
  • Greensboro, North Carolina (GSO)
  • Indianapolis, Indiana (IND),
  • Madison, Wisconsin (MSN)
  • Oklahoma City (OKC)
  • Richmond, Virginia (RIC)
  • St. Louis, Missouri (STL)
  • Tulsa, Oklahoma (TUL)

Trans States-owned GoJet Airlines will operate the aircraft for United. United expects that the CRJ-550 will expand to other key hubs of Newark and Washington-Dulles.

According to Ankit Gupta, United’s VP of Domestic Network Planning, the new aircraft will overtime always be paired with other two-cabin aircraft such as an A319 or E-175 to guarantee premium cabin availability, rather than be mixed with single class CRJ-200s.

Gupta cites markets like Madison, Cincinnati, Northwest Arkansas, or Columbus all dual cabin.

The longest leg eventually planned is between Washington-Dulles (IAD) and St. Louis (STL) at 830 nm and 2 hours, 25 minutes flight time. With an up to 10,000 lbs less Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) than its CRJ-7000 descendants due to fewer seats, passengers, and bags, this CRJ is also more fuel-efficient and capable of slightly longer stage lengths than the 700.

Gupta says there are no plans to introduce the CRJ-550 at the West Coast San Francisco (SFO), Los Angeles (LAX), or Denver (DEN) hubs nor Houston George Bush Intercontinental (IAH).

“The project was a true collaboration between United and GoJet whose executives had a brilliant idea so they bought it for us. My first reaction was ‘Hell no’ but that’s the beauty of the United spirit that we don’t say no until we examine anything that could make sense or not make sense,” says Gupta.

Welcome Onboard

In advance of media day, United opened the CRJ-550 to media and Airways took the tour. 

First off the bat is a large First Class Cabin with 10 seats – gigantic by RJ standards. The 20” wide seats are arranged in a 1-2 configuration have a remarkable seat pitch of 42”. This legroom exceeds most domestic narrow-body aircraft. This contrasts to 6 First Class seats on a United Express CRJ-700.

To enhance passenger appeal and reduce turn times, the dreaded words “Gate Check” can be banished from the United Express lexicon when operated by a 550. The three large closet monuments allow each of the 50 passengers to bring a roller bag on board.

In a first for a regional jet, there’s a self-serve refreshment snack and drink bar for United First customers featuring a wide assortment of snacks and beverages. This allows the workload to be reduced for the single Flight Attendant. Alcohol beverages still must be ordered via the F/A.

The Economy Plus seating features 20 17” wide seats in 2-2 configuration with a mainline level 35”-37” pitch. The CRJ-550 offers 4 more Economy Plus seats than the CRJ-700.

At the back, the 20 standard economy seats have 30” pitch. Economy seating is where the significant de-densification exists between the 550 and 700 which has 48 Y seats.

There will be USB and AC power ports at every seat added beginning in early 2020. Every United CRJ-550 has Wi-Fi connectivity and free streaming video to the passenger’s personal devices.

So will this bold experiment of actually removing seats work?

The airline claims early bookings are encouraging with the seats going on sale just a few weeks ago.

Murphy says “We’ll be looking for proof though As Oscar (Munez, United CEO) says ‘we’re looking for proof not promise.'”