United’s New Polaris Business Class Service Launches Thursday, Here’s What to Expect

I covered the details of United’s new business class product extensively when it was first announced in June.

The soft product goes live December 1 and I spoke with Maria Walter, Managing Director of Product and Brand Strategy, about the roll out.

She emphasized how they’re viewing Polaris as more than just the seat. It’s the onboard service, food and amenities as well as lounges on the ground as well.

Flight Attendant Training

They’ve gone through extensive flight attendant training since June, bringing all 24,000 flight attendants in for the service. They’ve also provided displays to familiarize flight attendants with the product in their flight attendant bases, and given hands-on opportunities to experience the cart setup in advance. They’ve pushed details on the service through flight attendant handheld devices. And training has gone beyond just flight attendants and extended to catering and provisioning as well.


Flight attendants with United CEO Oscar Munoz at the Polaris Launch Event

Completely New Food and Servingware

The extensive prep work is because of how detailed the service overhaul is — there are 2000 food and servingware items created for Polaris, including 48 new salads, 96 appetizers, and 240 entrees. Then there’s specialty items, such as the servingware for their wine tasting experience that’s part of Polaris.

And with all of that they’ve had to design, bid, contract, produce, ship, stage, and store everything in advance of the December 1 cutover.

I asked about the new Bloody Mary cart. Since the goal is a shorter service, which I certainly appreciate, I worry that provisioning a cart with specific drinks actually will create challenges — if you want a different drink you’d either have to wait until the cart service is over, or the flight attendant will have to return to the galley to make that drink and then re-start the cart service.

Marie shared that the specialty beverage cart — which will have bloody marys and mimosas in the morning and wine in the afternoon — will also have sparkling and still water. Customers can still order any other beverage and it should be provided right away, not after completing cart service. But they do find most people really like the ‘build your own bloody mary’ concept.

Business Class Bedding

In addition to the new food, there will be new Saks Fifth Avenue bedding for all passengers including a duvet and throw blanket and two pillows at each seat. Two pillows are important while United assures that each pillow is better than what’s provisioned today, almost no airline has a single pillow that’s good enough for a night’s rest. Two pillows, and not having to scrounge for the second pillow, matters.

Pajamas will be featured on flights of 12 hours or longer.


Bedding and pajamas

In addition, a mattress pad and cooling gel pillow are described as ‘optional amenities’ – their intent is that everybody that wants these can have one but they expect not everyone will and since space on an aircraft is at a huge premium they don’t want to overprovision. As a result they don’t have one of each for every passenger in the cabin, so my advice is to ask for these early in flight if they’re important to you just to be sure.

Polaris Business Class Lounges

United’s new business class lounges will feature preflight dining from a menu, brought to you anywhere in the club as well as a buffet. These are not Star Alliance Gold lounges and United Club members won’t have access (although partner airline business and first class customers will).


United CEO Oscar Munoz in front of a Polaris Lounge Mockup Bar

The Chicago lounge opens in a matter of days. By mid-2017 we’ll see Newark, San Francisco, and Houston lounges. Then we’ll see Los Angeles and Washington Dulles. They’re talking about the ‘back half of 2017’ for Hong Kong, Tokyo-Narita and London Heathrow though they recognize that these may “bleed to 2018” so they may not hit the original goal of completing the opening of all Polaris lounges by end of 2017.

Interestingly though LAX opened its new United Club, they’re farther behind on the Polaris lounge which won’t simply be replacing the old first class lounge space.

New Flat Seats With Direct Aisle Access

United is understandably focused on the launch of their new business class soft product, and it looks like a significant improvement over what they offer today (and over what American offers on most of their routes as well).

However to me business class is primarily about the seat. United is legions behind both Delta and American in offering fully flat seats with direct aisle access.


Credit: United

United will be taking delivery of their first Boeing 777-300 with these seats in December. They’re going to be putting it into revenue service domestically in February and then international service by the end of the first quarter. They’re scheduled to take delivery of 14 of these new Boeing 777-300s in 2017 all with the new seats.

Meanwhile they’ll begin retrofitting existing Boeing 767s and 777-200s in 2017. Boeing 787-10 and Airbus A350-1000 deliveries will come equipped with Polaris seats from the factory.

They’re far more coy about the timeframe to have the majority of the fleet equipped with these seats than they were at the June rollout, where I was told that they wouldn’t have the seats in “most of the fleet” until 2021. Some existing aircraft won’t ever see the seats, as the new 787-10s and A350-1000s will be replacing aircraft set for retirement.

United’s plan is to publish seat maps for flights with 767s and 777-200s with the existing configuration and then do a day of departure reaccommodation when they assign a Polaris seat equipped aircraft, that way they’ll surprise and delight rather than disappointing customers.

But What About International First Class?

United eliminating three-cabin first class but they’ll still be flying 3-cabin aircraft for 2-3 years.

I asked what the new Polaris service means for “United Global First” passengers. Global First gets turndown service, more menu options (such as a soup course that business won’t have), and United first class passengers will have access to the Global First lounges until those switch over to Polaris lounges. First class customers will always get their first choice meal item from the jointly-catered first and business class.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Pingbacks

Comments

  1. I wunder if it would make sense for UA to eliminate Golabl First and give the GF seats to elites or offer a slight upcharge. This would be until to new cabins arrive.

  2. “These are not Star Alliance Gold lounges and United Club members won’t have access (although partner airline business and first class customers will).”

    Not *G, but *J/F pax is confusing. Do any other lounges operate this way?

    “I asked what the new Polaris service means for “United Global First” passengers.” … “First class customers will always get their first choice meal item from the jointly-catered first and business class.”

    Was that the answer to your question? If so, that’s a pretty piss poor differentiator. They may as well just sell it all as J and allow elites to pick the F pods.

  3. I’m really excited for Polaris but this has to be the worst rollout ever.

    United admits “most of the fleet” won’t have Polaris seats until 2021. That’s not even 100% in 2021 — 5 years from now. This is insane, especially when Polaris — whether it’s with the old seats or the new seats — will, I assume, be sold at the same price. The idea that you never know what you’ll get until at least 2021 is absurd from a branding standpoint.

    Why is Polaris being rolled out in December if the first planes won’t have the new seat until 2017? Perhaps they should have waited. There is going to be a lot of disappointment.

  4. Talk about First World problems…”I worry that provisioning a cart with specific drinks actually will create challenges” and “Two pillows, and not having to scrounge for the second pillow, matters.”
    “worry”. Really? You actually worry? As a therapist I’d prescribe you to get out more!
    Wonder how this sounds to kids dying in Aleppo? Or homeless US citizens ? Mmmm two pillows, let’s scrounge.
    Dear oh dear Gary am kind of shocked that it’s come to this in The Diss-United States of Trumpland. Much worse than Bush’s vulgar “Haves and Have Mores”……a word in your shelllike… Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions!!!

  5. FYI – the 2 ladies in the picture with Oscar are Global Services airport agents (gold scarf), not flight attendants. The other way you can tell: no wings on their uniform.

    @Justin – SQ SilverKris lounges in SIN operate the same way. No *G access, only J and F.

    Also, the meal catering for F vs. J is similar to how it’s done today. Those passengers will continue to get hot appetizers (as opposed to cold appetizers) and soup as part of the meal, presumably tableside service (i.e., one course at a time) as opposed to tray service (i.e., salad and app on a tray).

  6. Gary… I know you qualify your statement that UA is “legions behind” AA and DL with respect to direct aisle access in J, but at this point, with the number of angle-flat and recliner (757) seats in service on AA widebodies (as not all 767s and 777s are yet/to be converted), direct aisle access at the moment is really about DL, then everybody else.

    By the end of 2017, there will be a fair number of Polaris *seats* in service, with 14 77W, 12 763 and a number of 772 (former 3 cabin 777-222ER) slated to be retrofit. The rollout only seems slow if one ignores the fact that UA has a massive widebody fleet… Starting in early 2017 they’ll have 1-2 aircraft a month, at least, out of service for mods for the next 3-4 years.

  7. You said…”United’s plan is to publish seat maps for flights with 767s and 777-200s with the existing configuration and then do a day of departure reaccommodation when they assign a Polaris seat equipped aircraft, that way they’ll surprise and delight rather than disappointing customers….”

    One problem with that is the capacity will be less with the nrw seats vs the old seat configuration…..so I doubt they will do this.

    It’s also an interesting observation that they are saying it will take well into 2021 fir all the planes to be reconfigured. Industry competitors like Lufthansa rushed it in two years to remain competitive.

  8. @James.
    This and all the other travel blogs are all about first world problems. I highly recommend you stop reading these blogs and subscribe to the NYTimes. They do a much better job at addressing the “real” problems. I don’t think Gary needs anybody to defend him but “leave him alone”

  9. I remember when they rolled out P.S on JFK/SFO and LAX. Nice to start, then UA gradually went down hill. No cookies. No second meal service. No Godiva. Enjoy it while you can

    This too will be short-lived.

  10. This rollout reminds me of United’s wifi roll out. They advertised like all the planes had wifi and meanwhile it took them almost 5 years to finally install it. It’s misleading advertising. If they want to surprise and delight they should just add the seats and service and not brag about it until it’s systemwide. Now instead of delighting they’ll be disappointing because most planes won’t have it and consumers will expect it.

  11. Is there a specific date for the Chicago Polaris lounge opening? I’m flying from there on the 7th, in Businessfirst assuming my GPU clears.

  12. Given relatively slow rollout of hard product, I’m more curious about lounges. If they can do them well (and allocate enough space), sounds like they maybe able to compete with Amex lounges.

  13. You can forget that idea. United isn’t gonna give up half its revenue just because those flying hairdryers can’t fit two abreast. They’ll still charge the same fares tho! Kerching!

  14. Good one . Flying hair dryers. Hadn’t heard that one.
    I meant the 200 version with the lie flat already.
    Going to Shannon in the spring.

  15. @Jon. The 757-200 That’s the equipment that flies to all UK (non london) Airports. 2×2. They won’t have room for Polaris but will continue to charge premium prices.

  16. Gary:

    I am flying on the first day of Polaris, Thursday: Newark-Charles DeGaulle. I will send you my unbiased review.

  17. “United’s plan is to publish seat maps for flights with 767s and 777-200s with the existing configuration and then do a day of departure reaccommodation when they assign a Polaris seat equipped aircraft”

    What about the 787 -8 and -9?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that the only way to “guarantee” Polaris is fly a 777-300, A350, or 787-10.

  18. I wouldn’t get that excited about Polaris. It’s just a fancy name. They also said their slimline seats were so great and how comfortable they would be and they’re like rock hard benches. Lipstick on a pig is still a pig.

  19. @Gene –

    Agreed on the comparison to American & Delta.

    Where did you get the info on the refurbishment schedule? Are they going to refurb the ex-UA planes first?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *