In February 2019, United Airlines announced a fleetwide initiative to add premium cabin seats. That included enlarging the first class cabin on the Airbus A320 from 12 seats to 16 seat. But the first retrofit is now flying and still has 12 seats, with one insider claiming the issue is staffing levels.
Will United Airlines Airbus A320 First Class Cabin Grow To 16 Seats Or Remain at 12 Seats?
United is in the process of retrofitting its entire narrowbody fleet to add seatback screens, mood lighting, and other features to modernize the cabin its calls United Next. Even before that initiative began, United indicated it would increase the number of first class seats on its Airbus jets (from eight to 12 on the A319 and from 12 to 16 on the A320).
While the A319 project is complete (in terms of making all first class cabins 12 seats), not a single A320 first class cabin has been enlarged. Interestingly, earlier this week the first A320 retrofitted with the United Next cabin took to the skies (registration number N438UA) and it only has 12 first class seats.
As aviation insider JonNYC explains, the issue is likely staffing:
It’s 12F on these. Some are leaving room for it to be changed to 16F at some point and some point to the issue being FA staffing of F having been the determiner and an explanation as to why UA stated, pretty unequivocally, 16F, and then reversed course on that.
— 🇺🇦 JonNYC 🇺🇦 (@xJonNYC) June 1, 2023
The Staffing Dilemma
Earlier this week I shared about my regrettable experience, specifically concerning service, in first class on American Airlines. The biggest problem of the flight was that one flight attendant was assigned to 10 passengers. That included doing everything, from warming up and plating food to refilling drinks to handling any service-related needs (and dealing with pilot requests as well). It was simply too much and service was regrettably bad.
Not coincidentally, United has configured its Airbus A320 with 150 seats: 12 seats in first class and 138 seats in economy class. That is because the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sets minimum staffing at two flight attendants per 100 seats and one flight attendant for each additional 50 seats. At 150 seats, United can staff the A320 with only three flight attendants.
But that means that one flight attendant works first class while two work economy class. Already, one flight attendant is forced to do everything for 12 passengers. Imagine increasing that number to 16. Can you imagine how long it would to properly serve all 16 passengers? In that sense, perhaps the Association of Flight Attendants, which purportedly has balked at increasing the footprint of the first class cabin, is doing both United and customers a favor if United is unwilling to add a fourth flight attendant.
As much as I would like four more first class seats on the A320, which of course would mean a better shot at upgrades or discounted first class fares, I understand why flight attendants are reluctant to embrace four more seats in first class (they will be blamed for the slow service).
The long-term solution is for United to add a fourth flight attendant, but with 12 first class seats on both the A319 and A320, it is much easier to swap aircraft without needing to downgrade passengers, which used to be a frequent problem when an A320 was swapped for an A319 at the last minute.
My prediction is that the A320 will remain at 12 seats in first class.