Ever since United announced the introduction of the CRJ-550, I’ve had an irrational obsession with it. I know it’s just a reconfigured CRJ-700, but something about a regional jet designed for comfort seems – inspired? Anyway, I had a free Saturday just before Christmas, so I hit the air to check it out. For review purposes, I decided to book First Class one way, and coach the other; I further wanted to try two of the longer CRJ-550 routes to see just how comfortable these planes are. After some trial-and-error, I booked Oklahoma City to Chicago in First, then Chicago to Tulsa in Economy. Interestingly, OKC to Tulsa is just 106 miles by road, maybe a 1 hour 45 minute drive at most. By air, though? 6 hours and 36 minutes scheduled from gate to gate.
I paid cash for my ticket, and the weekend before Christmas, it wasn’t cheap. The total mixed cabin fare came to $495. So, please encourage all of your friends to click early and often, as I can use the cash. 🙂
What Is the CRJ-550?
My friend Matthew at Live and Let’s Fly has a good description of the aircraft with tons of photos. But in a nutshell, it’s a CRJ-700 reconfigured from 76 seats down to 50, in a premium-heavy configuration. The aircraft consists of 10 First Class, 20 Economy Plus, and 20 Economy seats. That’s a seriously passenger-friendly configuration, honestly not at all what I expected from Scott Kirby. The aircraft also includes innovations like a self-service snack bar for First Class passengers; and luggage storage closets available to all passengers to eliminate the need to gate check larger carry-ons.
Currently, you can find the CRJ-550 on select routes out of Chicago O’Hare operated by regional carrier Gojet. Matthew’s post linked to above has a current listing, though United plans to roll out the jet on routes out of Newark in 2020. How do you know whether a CRJ-550 is scheduled for your flight? First, on United’s website, look for flights operated by Gojet.
Then click “Details” to reveal the scheduled equipment. Most Gojet operated flights on the designated routes use the CRJ-550, but not all.
United Airlines (UA) Flight 4540
- Saturday, December 21, 2019
- Operated by: Gojet Airlines dba United Express
- Depart: Oklahoma City – Will Rogers World Airport (OKC), Gate 3, 10:52, 13m early
- Arrive: Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD), Terminal 1, Gate C2, 13:00, 16m early
- Duration: 2 hours 8 minutes
- Seat: 2A
- Equipment: Bombardier CRJ-550
Check-In and Boarding
The check-in process sort of started two hours prior to departure, when I received an automated text notification. Clearly, United’s quite proud of their new toy.
Otherwise, boarding began on time 30 minutes prior to departure. But thanks to just 50 passengers, and no need to gate check bags, boarding completed quickly. (The gate agent actually announced several times not to check bags at the podium, thanks to the jet’s extra space.) We ended up pushing back more than 10 minutes early with a full load of passengers.
United CRJ-550 First Class – Seating and Interior
The first thing I noticed? That new plane (or at least new seat) smell. Mmmmmm! Anyway, United CRJ-550 First Class consists of 10 seats; there’s 4 single seats on the right, and 3 rows in a 2×2 configuration on the left.
If you want privacy, select one of the four single “throne” seats. However, beware that although Seat 4A has no neighbors, it’s also next to the bag lockers. I imagine it might get noisy/congested due to passengers retrieving items from their bags.
The brand new seats look quite nice, and feature adjustable headrest “wings”. First Class seats measure 20″ wide with 42 inches of pitch – generous even by mainline standards. Indeed, I found legroom more than adequate. On this relatively long RJ flight, the seats were quite comfortable; good padding, legroom, and recline made for a relaxing trip. (Incidentally, I believe this flight clocks in as the longest CRJ-550 flight, at 2 hours 11 minutes block time.)
Compared to standard CRJ-700s, the cabin felt reasonably spacious, even when full. I suppose the thin configuration helps, though the ceilings felt higher and the windows larger than I remember. The bag lockers create a natural barrier between cabins, making the F cabin feel especially private.
Speaking of bag lockers, you’ll find a set of 4 on the left, and a set of 2 on the right. The lockers accept rollaboards lengthwise on their side; I’d guess you can fit four in each cubicle, and maybe one more on top of the others. In any event, the lockers seem to do the job. No passengers had to gate check bags, either on this flight or my return. Although all passengers can use the lockers, First Class passengers receive priority access thanks to boarding first.
Last but not least, there’s a “United First” plaque at the front of the cabin.
United CRJ-550 First Class – Food, Beverage, and Service
No pre-departure beverages were offered, but the single flight attendant began beverage service about 20 minutes after take-off. I ordered a gin and tonic for the obligatory beverage selfie.
The FA soon followed with a pass of the snack basket. Surprisingly, no stroopwafels, but I grabbed a banana and a biscotti.
Later, I took a look at the self-service snack station in the front galley. It contains a decent selection of snacks, including chips, cheese & crackers, and stroopwafels.
I helped myself to a package of cheese and crackers. Mainly because I forgot about the stroopwafels – doh! It is, interestingly enough, the same one Spirit sells you for $7.
There’s also a refrigerator underneath, fully stocked with soft drinks. If you want an adult beverage, you do still need to flag down the FA.
In short, while not a meal substitute, there’s plenty here if you need a quick snack. Or just something to tide you over until lunch or dinner.
As for service, I really have to hand it to the FA – she hustled her a** off. On this short 2-hour flight, she offered not one but two refills, the last one after we already began our descent into Chicago (I declined). That’s despite the fact she had to service the coach cabin, too. Yes, it’s only a 50-person cabin, but I’ve had many mainline flights in First where you might get one refill. I also appreciated little touches, like personally informing all First Class passengers when she left to service coach. It’s good to see that yes, you can still find excellent service on domestic carriers.
United does offer WiFi on its CRJ-550 fleet, which includes streaming entertainment without charge. Unfortunately, the WiFi failed to work on this flight, which meant no IFE, either. I tried multiple times, including rebooting my phone, but United WiFi never showed up as an available network. However, it did work on my return flight, so I’ll cover pricing and entertainment choices in my coach review.
Where I think United dropped the ball, though, is with the lack of power or USB ports. Apparently, United plans to install them, but there’s no timetable yet. Then again, with most flights on these aircraft under 90 minutes, I guess it’s not a huge deal.
Admittedly, trying to fly through Chicago in late December is playing with fire. On this day, though, I enjoyed a beautiful day for the most part. Oklahoma City was stuck in the muck, but the clouds cleared as we passed Topeka, Kansas.
Later, as we began descending, I grabbed this cool shot of Peoria, Illinois, including its small airport.
Shortly thereafter, we passed the favorite city of Wayne’s World fans everywhere, Aurora, Illinois.
As we came in from the west, we had to overfly the airport, head out over Lake Michigan, then come back in from the east. Though it adds a few minutes to flight time, it’s a real treat for AvGeeks, starting with a fly-by of the O’Hare airfield.
Then, a cool “half view” of the northern portion of the downtown Chicago skyline. The beautiful winter afternoon made the view all the more brilliant.
And finally, a full view of the skyline, though not the best due to sun glare.
United CRJ-550 First Class – Final Thoughts
The experience overall impressed me quite a bit. The aircraft really is a step up in terms of comfort compared to other CRJs. I haven’t decided if it beats the E-175, but given the unique features in First and the elimination of gate checking bags, it certainly has narrowed the gap considerably. More importantly, I enjoyed excellent service on this flight. United certainly seems to have a winner, both in terms of soft and hard product.
In my next post, I’ll take a look at the coach cabin of the CRJ-550, along with some thoughts on the aircraft overall.