As a Silver Premier member with United Airlines (their lowest-level elite tier), getting a complementary first class upgrade happens almost as rarely asÂ spotting a unicorn. Â In a year and a half of being an elite, I’ve gotten two first class upgrades. Â Recently, upgrade number two came in an unlikely form; on a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400.
That’s right, folks – United is offering a first class cabin on planes with propellers. Â I caught myÂ upgrade on a quick business trip from Denver (DEN) to Durango (DRO), Colorado.
All of United’s Q400s are actually operated by Republic Airlines, one of many regional carriers for UA. Â They are configured with 71 seats; seven in first class, 10 in Economy Plus, and 54 in economy. Â As to be expected on a regional plane, “first class” really only meant a wider seat, more legroom, and a free beer. Â Well, we got some pretzels too. Â
After my experience, I can tell you that the problem with offering a first class product on such a small regional aircraft is that the airport/ground experience just isn’t up to snuff. Â As I said above, really what you’re getting is a little better hard product, but the soft product (food, drink, experience) just can’t more than marginally better.
In Denver, the regional gates at the far end of the terminal are a zoo. Â There aren’t enough seats, or staff for that matter, and they generally are boarding four flights at one time, though a single door. Â At the same time, arriving passengers are coming out through that same door. Â It’s a cluster.
So, while I can’t say much for the service/experience, I do have to say that the Q400 was a very comfortable bird. Â The cabin width is much better than an Embraer ERJ-145, and it feels roomier than a CRJ-200.
While SeatGuru says that the first class seats are the same width as economy, their records are not accurate; the seats were noticeably wider, and configured in a 1-2 row as opposed to economy, which was 2-2. Â I noticed no discernible difference in noise or vibration from the turboprops, as opposed to other small regional jets I’ve flown.
Ultimately, for such a short flight (only slightly over an hour), where I sat didn’t really matter. Â I was in an Economy Plus seat on the way home, and found it plenty comfortable for the quick hop. Â Unfortunately, I had to pay for my beer.
I’m not sure of the economics of United offering a first class product on these types of planes. Â In their all-economy configuration, these planes hold 74 passengers. Â Three people doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a 4.2% capacity increase. Â For what it’s worth, on both legs, there were zero passengers booked in to first; they were all upgrades like me.
Probably the best part of my flight was my seat mate in 2D. Â He was a commuting United Airlines 777 pilot, heading back home to Durango after a trip to and from Sydney, Australia. Â We talked about the continuing work on the United/Continental merger integration, and he mentioned how much happier economy passengers are on that route, now that United swapped out the 747-400 (with no personal in-flight entertainment in economy) with the 777-200ER.
Talk about a long day, though; he started by flying a jumbo jet across the Pacific, and ended on a prop plane bumping over the Rocky Mountains.