This week I had a chance to preview United’s new “Polaris” business class in San Francisco. The airline is putting a lot of effort into this new product, including a roadshow to its major hubs to show it off to press, top tier Global Services flyers, and major corporate accounts.
United built a mockup of the new cabin inside a studio in the edgy Dogpatch neighborhood of SF, which gave the whole event a hip, innovative vibe compared to a more traditional location like a hotel ballroom or even United’s large facilities at SFO airport. And that was fitting for a product where United has clearly put a lot of thought into being different and not simply copying its competition.
- All of the features of the new Polaris product will roll out system-wide on December 1, except for the new seat, which will be retrofitted to the fleet over a 3-year period. But the new food, bedding, and amenity kits will be on all business class flights later this year.
- Innovative features include a new bloody mary service for morning flights and wine tasting flights for afternoon/evening departures
- Enhanced flight attendant training in an effort to improve “soft” service levels, one of the major complaints customers often make when comparing U.S. carriers to international competitors
- Big emphasis on delivering the best possible sleeping experience, including an option to dine prior to the flight at a sit-down waiter service in the Polaris airport lounge; high quality bedding including two pillows, two blankets, and a mattress pad; snazzy new eyeshades with foam that conforms to the eyes and blocks out more light; and on-request items such as a cooling gel memory foam pillow, pajamas, and slippers on select flights
- A pod-like seat that felt spacious, comfortable, and private — much more in line with competitors and a big step up from UA’s current offering
- A beautiful new amenity kit that felt luxurious, especially for business class
- A nice upgrade to the airport experience with new Polaris business class lounges at major international hubs, including a buffet with premium food offerings, sit-down waiter service, and sleeping rooms
United says they spent three years developing this new business class product and tried hard to be truly innovative, rather than just catching up and copying the competition. And it shows. While in many ways this new Polaris product does finally bring United up to par with major U.S. and international competitors, it is nice to see them going above and beyond in some small and even some more significant ways.
In speaking with the lead product director for Polaris, it was clear that United’s main focus for this product was on providing the best possible sleeping experience. Through extensive customer research, United found that a good night of sleep is the one thing customers want the most, and UA has tried hard to deliver on that. From a new airport lounge that provides the opportunity to eat a sit-down meal prior to the flight, thereby allowing for maximum sleeping time on board, to a comfortable new fully-flat seat/pod with enhanced privacy, and all-new bedding including and mattress pad, multiple pillows and blankets, and additional amenities, it does look like United has done a lot to make it easier for customers to arrive at their destination well-rested.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the details, starting with the seat itself. (In subsequent posts, we’ll inspect bedding, food and bev, inflight service and the new Polaris lounge so come back for more!)
At last, United will be offering a lie-flat bed with all-aisle access, similar to what American and Delta already offer throughout most of their fleets. While it’s nice to see UA catch up to its U.S. peers, it’s worth noting that this hard product will be better than what many international carriers, such as British Airways and Emirates, offer on all or most of their planes.
United developed this seat in partnership with a design agency, Boeing, and a seat manufacturer. They say that the unique layout allows them to fit the same number of business class seats into the cabin as their old/current product, without taking up any extra space. They claim that if they had used a product similar to what American has on the 777-300 and Delta has on the A330, the wasted space of that design would have required United to remove 6-8 business class seats from the cabin, or 24-40 seats from the economy cabin, just to fit into the same amount of space. If this is true, UA might have found the holy grail of delivering a seat that is a great customer experience at a cost/efficiency level that allows UA to offer it at lower prices than the competition and/or at higher margins.
My first impression of the seat was quite good. Although it’s hard to say for sure how good the seat is when you only sit in it for 20 minutes versus 12 hours, it felt comfortable, private, and spacious (enough). When Polaris was first unveiled a couple of months ago, reaction seemed to be centered around the seat layout looking very tight, and I shared that concern. But sitting in the actual seat in a mock layout of two rows of the cabin, it felt more spacious than I was expecting. However, the seats in the mock-up did not recline, so I don’t yet have an opinion about the lie-flat space. It certainly felt like more space than something like American’s updated 777-200 business class, and maybe about the same as the Delta A330 and American 777-300ER. Polaris will have a 1-2-1 configuration, with each alternating row being a bit different.
For the single seats along the windows, one seat will be closer to the window and the next row will have the seat closer to the aisle. It’s reminiscent of AA’s and DL’s updated 767-300 cabins in that way, but different in that the United seats still maintain the pod-like feel of the AA 777-300 and DL A330. It’s similar for the two seats in the middle, where one row will have the seats closer to the aisles, and the next row will have the seats closer to the middle of the aircraft. Those two seats in the middle section that are closer to the middle would be great for a pair traveling together, and both seats face forward and you can easily look at the person next to you, if you have the divider down.
I was pleased to see that the divider will be in the up position when you board, providing a nice amount of privacy and avoiding the social awkwardness one experience when having to keep putting the divider up in BA’s Club World cabin.
Looking at the cabin layout, it felt to me like the seats that are further away from the aisle (both the single seats along the windows and the side-by-side seats in the middle section) were more private, so would be my preference if flying Polaris.
The seat has nice finishes and feels upscale. United went with a cloth upholstery, as they found in their research that customers don’t like leather (they’re looking at you, Delta). There was the standard assortment of power ports and lighting that one would expect. Storage also feels fairly typical with a door that opens near your head to reveal a storage compartment, plus a few little pockets down lower.
A nice element is that the large monitor is in a fixed position facing you as you sit in the seat, which seems nicer than the type that you have to pop out of a wall on a hinge like you find on AA and BA. Additionally, United says this setup will give customers gate-to-gate use of the entertainment system.
The pod includes several neat, novel features. One of the side tables in the pod is finished with a real “stone” surface. United says it’s a stone polymer composite, but it does indeed use real stone. To me, it felt a bit more like plastic than stone, but kudos nonetheless for at least trying to incorporate some natural materials in the design.
And from the no-brainer department, United has included a “do not disturb” sign at each seat, so you can let the flight attendant know not to bother you for anything. It’s such a simple feature, I don’t know why all airlines aren’t doing this.
Adjusting the recline of the seat is done primarily through a simple dial feature that worked well for me. Finally, it’s nice that the tray table easily slides out from underneath the monitor in front of you, as opposed to some of the judo origami tricks it takes to unfold some trays from armrests without accidentally chopping off a finger. Furthermore, United showed me how you can slide the tray forward far enough to get out of your seat even while you might have some used dishes still on your tray.
At last, no more feeling like a hostage while you wait for the flight attendants to clear your plates! The tray also has a little extendable “lip” near the back so you can easily prop up your iPad or other tablet if you’re using it to watch a movie — smart.
United says that a unique characteristic of their Polaris seat is that it will be easy to get in and out of it even while it’s in the fully reclined position. I did test that out and found it to be accurate, but it’s hard to recall if it’s really that much more difficult from competitors’ seats. A United spokesperson said that you have to basically return the seat to the full upright position in order to get out of it on some other airlines. I know this to be largely true on British Airways, especially if you are in a window seat and have walls on both sides of you, but can’t say how much more broadly this dynamic applies across the industry.
That’s it for part one of our Deep Dive series on United’s new Polaris business class. Next up we will look at bedding, amenity kids, food and beverage, inflight service, a new lounge and more. Come back!
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