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badice.com ~ musings for the masses

Last night as I boarded my flight home from a week of work in New York City, I noticed that the seats on my United Airbus A320 looked a little different. Turns out I was experiencing the newly converted A320 with the Recaro slimline seats with the “comfort” upgrade. These seats are very similar to the Lufthansa NEK seats that have caused a bit of stir in their frequent flyer ranks, the difference being that United’s install has more padding and are supposed to be a more comfortable experience. From my three hour and fifteen minute flight last night, my conclusion are that the seats are a downgrade for passengers.

Recaro Slimline Seat 1

My immediate reaction to the flight last night was a little bit of the knee-jerk, “I hate change!” type but after gathering my thoughts and reading through my notes, my summary is this – the seats are not a one for one swap with regards to passenger comfort when compared to the previous United A320 seats and the new seats are certainly not an improvement. United’s reasoning for these seats was clear from the get-go, they wanted to fit an extra row of seats on the plane and these seats allowed them to do that by moving the rows closer together.

I was seated in row 21, seat A, an exit row window seat, for my flight last night. The first thing I noticed was that the legroom in this particular row had been severly reduced. The previous seat configuration here gave so much legroom that a passenger could barely touch their bag if there was one under the seat in front of them. The exit rows were clearly the losers when it came to where rows were squeezed closer together. The second thing I noticed was the somewhat cheap feeling of the seat. It is flimsy, just like the Lufthansa seat. When you or others in your row move, the lightweight metal frame of the seat is not very forgiving, allowing that movement to be felt by everyone else in the row.

Recaro Slimline Seat 2

The magazine storage has changed so that the magazine and safety briefing card are now in a small plastic divider behind the tray table. I was not surprised by this, I have seen the setup before on Lufthansa and it is actually a smart way to store the magazines. Where the negatives are for the passengers is the standard storage sleeve. What used to be a pocket in the seatback in front of you is now a shortened mesh pocket that is not good for storing much. I typically carry a small bag with my headphones and electrical accessories and between it and an iPad mini, the storage area could barely hold them. The seatback pocket is great for holding things and allowing a passenger to stay in their seat and avoid moving things around in the overhead bin.

Recaro Slimline Seat 3

The tray table on these new seats is noticeably smaller. In the exit rows the tray table used to be held in the armrest, that is no longer the case. I did not see what the setup was for the bulkhead rows but in the exit row, the tray table is now on the seat in front of you. The width has been reduced but I would say the depth is about the same as what the tray tables were when stored in the armrests. Again, the metal connections feel a little flimsy here. I rested my hands holding a book on the table and without really pushing I could feel a significant give in the table.

Lastly, the seat itself and a number of aspects that I find contribute to the overall uncomfortable feel of these seats. A lot of people think it’s the padding alone but with the things I list below, I think it is a group of things that really make these seats a downgrade for passengers.

  1. The comfort package does not add a significant amount of padding. There is definitely more than what Lufthansa offers but it is certainly not a huge improvement. It slightly removes the wood feel of the Lufthansa seats.
  2. The bottom cushion of the seat is a standard width but does not extend as far forward under the passenger’s legs as the previous seats. I would say the bottom seat cushion reminded me more of an exit row seat on a regional jet where they had to reduce its length to comply with safety standards. Thinking about this now I wonder if it is the same case on the A320s, the exit row required the seat cushion to be shorter. If you’ve flown in a regular row (rather than an exit row) on this converted plane I’d love to know if you felt the same way about the bottom cushion.
  3. There is very little lumbar support. In United’s announcement about these seats it was stated that there would be more lumbar support than the seats installed on Lufthansa but if it was there, it definitely was not noticeable. I thought reclining would help a little but it did not.
  4. The armrest width and length has been significantly reduced. The armrest is no longer as long as the seat is deep, ending up around four to five inches shorter. The width suffers greatly as well. I used to be able to share the armrest with a neighbor, each of us taking a little bit of it, but that is no longer possible. My seatmate and I were being polite and trying to do just that on the flight but we both commented that it wasn’t really possible.
  5. Tapering of the back of the seat. Halfway down the seatback, the seat tapers inward, leaving larger gaps between the seats. I have not noticed this before on Lufthansa flights but doing a quick Google Images search shows that it is there as well. My only comment on this is that it leaves you feeling a little more exposed. The armrest used to fill this void now there is nothing there. It is not a huge deal, just really different.
  6. The multidirectional headrest is small but slightly padded. I do not see any real benefit.

All of the above, especially items 1-4, combine to make the seat uncomfortable. Let me explain. Since there is less support under the forward portion of your legs your butt slides forward some so that your back takes on more of a support role, but there is no longer significant lumbar support so you continue to slide forward. To counteract this you have to use your feet to push yourself back into place. This process repeats until finally you leave your feet firmly planted on the floor to keep from sliding forward. In the exit row window seat there is no armrest attached to the seat on the window side leaving you with the middle seat’s outer armrest to try and keep your balance. This leaves you kind of squirming in the seat trying to find a comfortable position. I tried leaning back against the headrest but to keep from sliding into a slouched position I had to plant my feet and push myself into the seat to use the headrest.

Recaro Slimline Seat 4

If you can’t tell from the short novella I have written, I do not find the seat very comfortable. I think it is a downgrade for customers and a poor choice for United to make, no matter the extra revenue United squeezes out of those six extra seats. And I was not the only one making negative remarks, I heard plenty of people comment that they could not find a comfortable position in the seat. My co-worker leaned over and asked me “why have they not removed these old harder seats for those nicer padded ones”. I am serious, that is what I was asked. When I replied that these were new seats and were coming to the Airbus fleet he simply shook his head.

One last item. In the United announcement a comment was made about the entertainment options on these planes. There are none. While it was stated that Wi-Fi would be available, it definitely was not on during my flight last night and I also noticed there are no power ports to charge devices when they do get Wi-Fi on these planes. If they are going to be streaming entertainment via the Wi-Fi then they are going to need a power source of some kind. Also, the pilot announced Channel 9 was available but there is no audio on the plane and thus, no way to listen to air traffic control.

Recaro Slimline Seat 5

All in all the seat is a disappointment and I hope decision makers at United are flying on these planes and noting the issues that customers are having. I cannot imagine sitting in one of these seats for a transcon or even a red-eye, which are bad enough without uncomfortable seats thrown into the mix. The revenue of those six extra seats may look good on an accountant’s business case but it is being earned on passenger’s lower backs and rear ends.

I know this was a lot of words to describe a seat but when you are in one of these things twice a week, every week, it kind of matters.

Comments

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  1. June 7, 2013

    So IIRC back in the day UA took out a row of coach seats to create Economy Plus. Now that row is back thanks to these new seats. This begs the question would you rather have the plane as it is now with the slimline seats or have the old seats with no Economy Plus seating?

  2. UAGuy #
    June 7, 2013

    What is UA trying to do to us?! No IFE + seats from hell. I’d rather sit in WN or spirit’s seats than these … especially on a transcon like you said.

    Maybe it would be tolerable if it was a 1-2 hour flight, but they would use CRJ/ERJs for those …. thumbs down UA!!!!

  3. June 8, 2013

    And the best part for elites is that is the seat you get when UA sells your upgrade on the cheapo to some non-elite.

    I don’t know how UA expects this change to help them compete against VX or DL or AA, or help them get back all of the high value elites they have lost, but hey, I’m sure that this all looks good on a spreadsheet, which appears to be the limit of UAs planning at this point.

  4. eileen #
    June 15, 2013

    Thank you for this very thorough article! Haven’t been on one of these planes yet with the new configuration but will be soon.

    Question: my last two itineraries (SFO-Chicago and SFO-JFK) earlier this year, the seat configuration was changed so that the legroom width in economy plus had decreased – for aisle and window, but increased for the center seat: the center person to splay their legs far apart underneath me, while my leg adjacent to them was cramped in under me. I tried to find out what had happened to no avail. I only hope and pray that this new seat configuration corrected that – can’t tell from your photos. (I have images showing what I mean if you are curious.)

    re: lack of lumbar support: a blow-up neck pillow I attach to a velcro strap that loops around the headrest, so that it can stay in place for me at the lumbar region, and that works OK for me. without the velcro strap it won’t sit in the right place and tends to go flying into the aisle whenever I move.

    re: chair wobble: ug, that’s why I stopeed virgin after one try – the seat wobble! too bad.

    Thanks again for a great review.
    Eileen

  5. Lauren #
    August 10, 2013

    I just got off of a new United A 320 and immediately looked for a website commenting on the seats. This article was at the top of the list. Mr. Segregates was much more diplomatic in his writing than I choose to be. 3 1/2 hours on the flight and I was totally miserable. As I walked on the plane I commented that we have brand new seats..this is great. Sitting down we immediately noticed the length of the seat was too short giving sitting a weird and uncomfortable feeling. After only a short time into the flight my derrière was killing me. I felt like I was sitting on a park bench. By the time we landed I was ready to scream! We were in the bulkhead which I can say was a bit better than some. Because the divider between first class and coach was so small (and flimsy) you could put your carryon under it as we’ll as stretch your legs out further than in most bulkhead seats. All-in-all it was a miserable experience. I assume first class is now like sitting in the old coach section at twice the price! Thanks for nothing United. My loyaly is diminishing by the day.

  6. T G #
    December 2, 2013

    Thank you for this article. I flew in seat 20a yesterday transcontinental New York to California.

    AWFUL.

    I am a united million mile flier and platinum for life. This plane with these seats in air bus’s vaunted “high density” configuration trumps that. I will never fly in a united airbus A320 again if I can avoid it.

  7. FA Ufa #
    December 23, 2013

    The mesh pocket allows you easily see personal items that might get left behind (like a cellphone), but it is not intended to restrain large objects, like the iPad pictured.

    • Stephan Segraves #
      December 23, 2013

      Yep, I understand that. The pocket is essentially useless for things that people actually carry on planes (besides cellphones). I usually have a book or my iPad mini with me and my headphones. The old seats handled my stuff just fine.

  8. Ramiz #
    December 25, 2013

    I flew on this airplane and I almost had a panic attack. As a frequent flyer myself, I can attest to all of the comments on this article. It was extremely uncomfortable!

    • Anne #
      January 16, 2014

      You just made me feel so much better – I am also fly frequently and have never had a panic/anxiety attack …….until sitting in 23B for 4 hours!

  9. Kevin #
    December 25, 2013

    A few corrections are needed to this ‘Article’. The A320AS aircraft are ‘horrid’ as you state. The ‘New’ Slimline Seats – horrid. The removal of ‘All’ IFE – horrid. The lack of ‘In-Seat Power Plugs’ – horrid. The Cheap Feel and look of the Seats, Carpet and non-refurbished Lavatories – horrid. Overall – a downgrade to all UNITED Passengers in Economy and for that fact, Domestic First on the Airbus A320AS Fleet.

    – An additional ‘Row’ of Seats added to Economy, by ‘removing’ the aft section of the First Class Galley (3 plus feet gained). However, loss of ‘Separation’ for the Passengers in United First and the ‘noises’ of the Galley and Flight Attendants Jumpseats at door 1L/1R.

    - WiFi added, for a price for All Passengers, including those in United First. Yet, on sub-Continental DirectTV equipped aircraft – DirectTV is ‘free’ to those in First Class…. Curious? Consistency – no.

    - Power Outlets (were) to be installed throughout the entire aircraft – now, only United First and Economy Plus will be receiving in-seat Power Outlets.

    - ‘Hot Spot’ WiFi is to be ‘Installed’ at a future date throughout the A320AS Fleet. Timeline continues to shift. This ‘Hot Spot’ will provide the Inflight Entertainment (T.V Shows/Movies/Audio Selection) on the Aircraft, via the Passengers own device, for a ‘Charge’, according to Continental-United Management.

    - Seat Recline Standardization is taking place throughout the UNITED Fleet – United First, 5 to 6 inches of recline. United Economy Plus, 3 inches of recline. United Economy (row 22 and back), 2 inches of recline. Overall, a stiff, uncomfortable experience, for sure.

    Overall – a downgrade to the product – which bodes the question, “Why fly on UNITED at this point?” There is no consistency of Product. Continental-United Management has no understanding of what ‘Customer Service’ and Product Comfort, means.

    • Stephan Segraves #
      December 25, 2013

      Kevin,

      I appreciate the comment. It’s less about correction and simply giving us more information.

      I had not heard about the recline standardization.

      The WiFi based entertainment is slowly being turned on but to be honest I have yet to see the WiFi actually working correctly on any of the reconfigured A320 flights I have taken.

      Lastly, I am not sure why ‘Article’ is in quotes. I guess it does not fit the standard for a NYTimes article? I was just trying to provide my own opinion and experiences with this particular aircraft configuration.

  10. Tony Burgard #
    January 11, 2014

    New Economy Plus window seats on 737-700 and 737-800 aircraft are excruciating. The wall of the aircraft significantly cuts down on the available shoulder room. It is no longer possible for me to sit back in my seat without my shoulders extending over the middle seat. I am an average sized male. The seats without windows are even worse if that is possible. I am a 1K with almost 1 million miles. By far my last two flying experiences have been the worst in 10 years – even worse than the old US Airways back breaker seats. I can’t believe United would do this. This has to drive away business. It will drive away mine.

  11. Anne #
    January 16, 2014

    Thank you. This was excellent.

    Spent a miserable 4 hours in 23B

    It is not the seat width that is the killer – it is the seat depth.

    I’m sure a jump seat is more luxurious.

    The pockets & arm-rests might as well have been omitted from the design – they are functionless and worthless.

    I will not board a United A320 again.

  12. Mike Weiderhold #
    January 18, 2014

    Excellent assessment by Steve and the preponderance of respondents. I complain to United extensively about their lack of concern for their customers (and employees) over what they think is their bottom line. I now avoid the A320 whenever possible and would never give them a dime of extra revenue for WiFi (or so-called “meals” for that matter). They would sell the air if they could figure out how to do that.

    • Rob DiSalvo #
      May 17, 2014

      Mike, good for you, for taking the time to complain to United, did they ever get back to you with a response ?

  13. Richard #
    January 22, 2014

    Just flew STL->SFO in seat 26C on an A320 with the new seats. Major dislike! They were significantly less comfortable than other airline seats, with less recline and with useless nonfunctional tiny armrests. But the lack of audio (especially channel 9) was a bigger disappointment, and the lack of power adds insult to injury. I have a tiny netbook, but there wasn’t enough space for it to be used comfortably on the tray table, so I wasn’t going to pay for WiFi.

    I had just flown SFO to STL a few days previously on an Airbus with the old style seats. The contrast was significant. The new seats are a serious downgrade!

  14. cindy #
    February 2, 2014

    omg i recently flew sitting on these new seats what a disaster! i felt like i was sitting on a tiny bridge chair, my legs were in the aisle because they did not fit in front of me, and the pocket was a joke couldn’t fit anything in there it was useless! i do not think that they had real people in mind when they designed these seats, maybe small children with short legs??? i will do everything in my power to avoid flying in these seats again even switching airlines!

  15. Pat McCormack #
    March 20, 2014

    I flew the A 320 slim recently, LAX to EWR. 5 freakin’ hours of misery. As others have stated, when first boarding, the plane seems newer, and nice. THEN you go to sit down. OMG. Seats are awful. So small, The seat pocket no longer holds a water bottle, or even a book. Storing these items under the seat in front of you is tough, because there is little room to bend down to get them in and out of a bag. The armrests are so narrow, you are likely to have to sit “skin to skin” with your neighbor, who in my case, was a stranger. Neither of us were oversized, I shudder to think about how larger passengers would spill onto their neighbor’s personal space.

    EVERYONE on this flight was talking about how awful it was. I said, worst flight of my life, and I am 55 years old and almost always fly coach. I also almost had a panic attack, I had to close my eyes and will myself to stay calm at one point, and I have never had a panic attack in my life.

    SO bad, that I will never fly United again, and I will try and make sure I never fly on one of these planes on another airline either. MAYBE it would have been less awful on a shorter flight, but on a coast to coast non-stop, it was a nightmare.

    • Rob DiSalvo #
      May 17, 2014

      Pat, I have 10 hour flight in December, and judging from your comments, I better prepare myself for the worse.
      I use a cane, because of a very bad left leg, and am now very worried. I have already invested a good amount of money with United and changing airlines is not an option for me.
      Thank you for laying out what to expect.

  16. Edmond #
    March 28, 2014

    I am a 1K flying transcon every week between Baltimore and Los Angeles, and I encountered the new A320 seats this Monday morning. Like the author I was seated at row 21, but on the aisle side. My first impression was that they thinned out the armrest so the seats would look – and perhaps feel – wider. Once seated, I thought it was a little wider. But Stephan was spot on about several, er, “shortcomings” of the new seats. The bottom cushion was shorter, to create an illusion of more legroom because the space between the seats appeared to be wider. That’s treating passengers like we were fools, as if we wouldn’t notice. The armrests are not just thin but they are not padded. Even if you could rest your elbow on them without somehow hitting your neighbor, the hard plastic and sharp angles cut into your flesh, and I eventually had to wrap my arms around my torso to rest. There was no discernible lumbar support, especially when you are constantly sliding down and thus creating more space between your lower back and the seat. And I am surprised that no one else echoed another thing Stephan mentioned: I found myself eventually having to plant my feet to push myself ramrod straight on the seat so I could get neck and back support from the seat. Try doing that while you try to sleep for the 6 hours transcon flight. Speaking of sleeping: the headrest had much less give than before, and the side flaps were very shallow, causing my head to roll around in my sleep and woke me. Thus I dozed off, rolled my head, woke up, dozed off, in an endless cycle for 6 hours. I was useless in the office for the entire Monday because I was exhausted.

    One last thing. I couldn’t find the button for the recline. So I asked the flight attendant. She too looked around for the button, and eventually concluded that the seats did not recline. She said, “this is the exit row and the seats are limited recline”. I was like, “yes I know limited recline, but are you saying these seats do not recline at all?” I looked around and everyone was fumbling around for the recline button and none found it. I even walked around and checked. No one. So the whole cabin flew 6 hours without recline. But according to this article and the responses, the seats do recline – however little. My question is, did United not brief their attendant’s about the new seats? I imagine that would be a safety violation of some sort in NTSB’s book.

  17. Randy #
    April 4, 2014

    After riding Denver to Tampa, and then the leg Houston to Denver in the “new and improved” seats, I can tell you (a) I will change carriers before ever riding in these seats again and (b) I am not pleased my chiropractor’s offices are closed today. Could not even run on my treadmill as my back is so screwed up (and I’m pretty fit). Everything in the article is true–seats are like those restraint seats you see on prison shows for disciplining inmates, the seat pocket is cheap and useless, and God forbid you get the non-reclining seats in the exit row–absolutely torture. No power outlets, no entertainment–thanks, United, your pricing has all but eliminated you from my company’s allowed carriers, and now you are driving me to Southwest. I never get upgraded since the Conty merger, and my company allows booking business for International, bye-bye. The only reason I used to “steer” towards UAL was for upgrades. 5 years ago, usually happened 1/3 flights, now–well, Gold level travelers are 38 on thelist with three open upgrades. I have Platinum friends that don’t get them.

    Enough of that-back to the A320. Never again. Hope you enjoy that revenue from the 6 seats and the fuel savings, but when travelers start fleeing, you’ll see the balance sheet go south.

  18. Bonnie #
    April 29, 2014

    I just flew on a new airplane this trip, and had these same plastic seats; a bit thicker than deck lounge chairs. Uncomfortable, and my “overhead” light did not line up over my book because they had slid in some extra rows of seats. I had to put my bag under my seat – all the overhead hogs had put their 2 or 3 bags in the bins – so nowhere to put my feet. Knees hurt, and my neck from being pushed forward by awkward head rest. I was in the exit row; I saw some passengers who were not going to fit if they needed to. Oy, staycations and driving trips have become the luxury!

    Carry ons are limited, but for some that means a carry-on bag that’s only a couple of inches too big in each dimension, a personal bag, which is a canvas purse the size of a tent, a coat with all pockets stuffed, and a shopping bag full of duty free and souvenirs. And a guitar.

    I don’t think Europeans would put up with this. Vote with your feet and fly on a non-US carrier to Europe. Last time I flew out of the country, they still had meals with free wine, hot towels, peanuts, and movies. My flight from Denver had meals for $5.99, internet for $6.99 an hour, and that was how you got movie or music access. Next will be parking meters on the luggage bins.

    • Rob DiSalvo #
      May 17, 2014

      “parking meters for the bins” lol x1000

  19. Rob DiSalvo #
    May 17, 2014

    Great, informative article…but now I am gripping, by thinking of my 10 hour ,Canada to Hawaii flight in December…that and the fact I now need to buy an I pad to relieve the boredom and hopefully distract me from a horrible seat…..what’s next…..an extra cost if you want the window shade open for a view ??

  20. Thomas Byrne #
    May 22, 2014

    I flew from Austin to San Francisco two days ago and the first thing I noticed was that the seat was short and I felt like I was going to slip out if it. I was seated at 27A, not an emergency row. I am 5′ 10″ and I felt like a giant in that seat. Also, the mesh “pocket” was so tightly drawn that I could not put my water bottle in it, something I had no trouble doing with the previous seat pockets, I ended up wedging my water between my feet for most of the flight. Not a fan, I will be switching to Virgin America, they have better amenities and service.

  21. Derp #
    May 30, 2014

    Sitting in 21a right now about to taxi out in a 320… 10 year plat about to quit united…

  22. LL #
    June 13, 2014

    Just arrived from SFO – > NWK in 20A. Terrible experience. The last two hours were very painful. I will avoid this equipment.

  23. July 30, 2014

    I very much agree! I suffered an excruciating trip from San Francisco to Chicago. I almost had a panic attack in the middle of the flight from Hell. It is impossible to get comfortable in these seats. We were on United Express flights that were just fine, but this A320 plane wasn’t designed with human beings in mind. Thanks for describing my observations so throughly!

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