CHICAGO -- United will offer a first-class cabin in a 50-seat jet when it launches flights on its Bombardier CRJ-550 fleet this Sunday.

"People are going to walk on and they’re going to say, 'I thought I was on a 50-seat jet.' They're not going to know what hit them," Sarah Murphy, senior vice president of United Express, boasted during a media preview of the aircraft at Chicago O'Hare on Thursday. 

The CRJ-550 is actually just a reconfigured 70-seat CRJ-700. But United has stripped 20 seats from the plane and designed an interior with a focus on business customers. The aircraft offers a 10-seat first-class cabin, 20 United Plus seats with extra legroom and 20 economy seats.

Other amenities include a self-service refreshment center in the first-class cabin and luggage storage closets for all passengers. The closets, when coupled with the overhead bins, provide enough space for every passenger to bring a roller-bag onboard, United says. 

United is launching its CRJ-550 service with 10 aircraft that will service 15 cities from Chicago O'Hare. Newark flights will follow in early January, said Ankit Gupta, the carrier's vice president of network planning and scheduling. Washington Dulles will be the third United hub to offer CRJ-550 service. By next summer, the carrier will have a fleet of 54 CRJ-550s, Murphy said. 

She described United's decision to strip out 20 seats from an aircraft as "revolutionary" in light of the longstanding industry trend of ever-denser cabins. Murphy wasn't specific, but said that even with the loss of seats, United expects to improve profits with the CRJ-550. 

To do that, the carrier will have to strategically place the aircraft in small- and middle-sized markets with strong demand for premium products. Gupta said that on 85% of the routes United has scheduled for the CRJ-550, the aircraft will replace single-cabin, 50-seat CRJ 200s. On the other 15%, United will replace 70-seat aircraft, but in some markets that will allow for an increase in daily flights. 

Among the first 15 cities from which United will offer CRJ-550 service to Chicago are medium-sized markets such as Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Smaller markets include Madison, Wis.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Allentown and Harrisburg, Pa.; and Bentonville, Ark.

Bentonville, home of Walmart, is a textbook example of a small market with solid corporate traffic. But Gupta noted that other inaugural cities, such as Madison, offer corporate traffic from a broader base of companies. 

He said that the aircraft will smooth the experience for premium United customers connecting from small cities to United's international network.

"If you’re on a Polaris ticket (international business class), you want to be able to get on a product like this," said Gupta. 

Correction: Walmart's headquarters are in Bentonville, Ark.


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