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.
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.