Last night United Airlines hosted an event in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco to highlight its new Polaris (Business Class) product that will begin to rollout later this year. On December 01, 2016 a new soft product including upgraded food, drink, bedding, and amenity kits will hit all longhaul international flights. Beginning in 2017 on newly delivered 777-300ERs and eventually throughout much of the widebody fleet we will see new business class seats.
The event was well-attended and very nicely put together, including a virtual reality experience I will describe below. United already has 100% lie-flat beds in its longhaul fleet but this remake of the entire ground and air business class experience represents a great step forward in making United’s business class competitive on the world stage.
United Polaris Lounge
As you walked into the studio, a bar greeted you that will resemble what the bar inside the new Polaris Lounges will look like. Polaris Lounges will feature bartenders and a better assortment of complimentary alcohol. The clubs will be modeled after the Global First Lounge in London, which is arguably United’s fanciest club in the world.
United Polaris Seat
In the center of the studio was two rows of seats, highlighting that although United will squeeze in more seats than the 1-2-1 configuration found in many leading business class products, each seat will have direct aisle access, privacy, and plenty of space.
Before testing the seat I was a bit concerned that the new seats would be too narrow, but this was not the case. The seats actually are nearly identical to the seats currently found in Global First — plenty of room to stretch out. True, the privacy dividers gives the seats a more constrained feeling, but I actually prefer this than looking out my neighbor.
80% of the seats recline to beds of 6’8″ when fully reclined while the remaining 20% will be somewhere between 6’2″ and 6’6″. The footrests are not claustrophobic, though they are more spacious in the seats specifically geared for couples traveling together.
You no longer will have to reach behind you to plug in headphones or electronic devices: the outlets are conveniently located adjacent to the seat. Two USB ports allow for simultaneous charging and the tray table easily slides in and out and even has a flip-up piece at the end that will serve as an iPad stand if you bring your own IFE.
Seat controls include a semi-circular knob that can adjust the seat up or down as well as buttons to adjust the ottoman, lumbar support, and reading light (which looks like British Airways First Class). FAs will be able to tell if your seat is in a landing position by a green light outside the seat and this seat does have the extra shoulder harness currently found in Global First.
Lighting includes a reading light just above the seat and a lamp, both of which can be dimmed. There is no air nozzle in the seat itself, but there will still be overhead lights and nozzles. The seat will have a “Do Not Disturb” light that can be turned on if you do not wish to be disturbed during the flight.
Storage space is limited in the seats — primarily some space under the footwell that can fit a laptop or small purse (and is FAA certified, so you won’t be told to remove items), a small cabinet that will contain the amenity kit and headphones as you enter the seat, and a cubby hole on the other side that can hold a passport, wallet, and cell phone.
Here’s some intel on seat retrofits that Pat from Flyertalk was able to gather and I confirmed:
- The 777-300 is due for delivery in January 2017 and will come with the new Polaris seats. There will be 60 seats in business class.
- Retrofits will begin with the 767s, starting sometime between February and April 2017. There will be 30 seats in 1-1-1 configuration.
- The 777-200 retrofit (excluding Hawaii Configuration) will begin sometime between July and September 2017. There will be 50 seats in C in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration.
- The 787-9 will not be retrofitted with Polaris seats, even those yet to be delivered. The 787-10 orders will be delivered with the Polaris seats.
- The Hawaii configured 777-200s will receive the old lie flat international business seats in a 2-4-2 configuration (from the pre-merger United subfleet).
- The international 757s will receive some kind of Polaris seats, but this is still in the planning stage (my hunch: the seats will ultimately remain the same).
- No Polaris seats in the 747-400s, which are slated for retirement in 2018.
- The retrofit of each aircraft type will take 18-24 months
United Polaris Amenity Kits
New amenity kits will be rolling out with the new Polaris product launch on December 01, 2016. The kits will contain Cowshed products and be refreshed quarterly. More on that below.
United Polaris Virtual Reality
The coolest part of the evening was a virtual reality experience that took you inside a Polaris Lounge and onboard to see the new Polaris-configured cabin. It was my first 360º VR experience and was amazingly realistic. Narrated by Matt Damon and showcasing all the bells and whistles of the lounge and seat, it really gave a very good look at what the seat will look like.
United Polaris Onboard Amenities
United is finally introducing pajamas, though only for flights 12 hours or longer initially. I spoke to a United employee behind many of the soft product improvements in Polaris and he stated that if there was adequate consumer demand, pajamas would be introduced on shorter flights. Plush slippers will be a staple on all fights and are much better than the current slippers that appear on flights to/from Japan.
The headphones will be noise-cancelling, of the same variant that are currently found onboard. These are not great headphones, but good enough. Cowshed amenities will be available not just in amenity kits, but in lavatories and Polaris lounges. A soothing mist (great aroma) will be available “to spray on your pillow to help you fall asleep”. New eye shades are coming as well that will contour to your eyes.
United Polaris Bedding
Polaris bedding is a nice improvement over what is currently offered in business class. Each seat will come with two hypoallergenic pillows and very plush soft and heavier blankets. Mattress pads will be available for each seat.
Interestingly, there will be a limited number of gel memory foam pillows (the blue economy-class sized pillow below) loaded onto each flight that include a cooling feature to keep the pillow cold. You’re going to have to ask them and it will be interesting to see how FAs manage these.
United Polaris Table Settings
All new cups, glasses, plates, bowls, dishes, forks, knives, and ramekins are coming this December. The new style is modern and seeks to integrate United’s globe logo into the theme. Salt and pepper shakers will be intended for customers to take home with them and the new ice cream bowl is cool.
United will be introducing pastries and cakes in addition to its normal ice cream and will have a three-tiered plate stand to serve it on.
Wine glasses will not have stems and there will be smaller and larger glasses because United intends to showcase its improved wines with wine tastings on all flights.
Lastly, United’s signature welcome amenity will be a glass of champagne or juice served with a chocolate truffle. United has created a special tray to accommodate this. It remains plastic, but looks much better than the current plastic glasses used to serve pre-departure beverages in international business class.
United Airlines Polaris Dining
United Airlines is transforming its meal service, unchanged since the merger, on its international flights. I outlined changes here and was able to sample some of the food we may see onboard last night. Lamb chops were wonderful and pasta was wonderful. There was also a nice selection of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian food. As for what we may see onbaord, a chef from Charlie Trotter project was onhand offering small samples of what we may see onboard. I actually don’t have a problem with the current menu (I like United’s food) but it will be nice to have a greater variety. There were also a variety of desserts available, including some pastries we will see onboard. I had a cookie in the SFO American Express Lounge earlier in the afternoon with my coffee, so did not indulge in any sweets at the event.
Final Thoughts on United Polaris
Ray Fast, a Manager in Marketing Product Development said a few words about the new product, but the event was really just a chance to check it out and mingle with others: there was no formal program.
Here’s why I am excited about Polaris — I run an award consulting business and I want my clients to have a good product when they fly, but also have the chance to actually use their miles to secure one of these seats. By maintaining current cabin densities, United has succeeded in offering a great product that will still give budget-conscious travelers the chance to upgrade. The planned economy-business ratios are not bad and yet the seats will be dramatically better than either of the current business class seats offered on United.
To say United missed a chance to offer something truly industry-leading is just wrong — the seats are not as spacious as a reverse herringbone product but United has managed to still deliver almost all the benefits while squeezing a lot more seats in the cabin. That’s good for Untied’s bottom line, shareholders, and travelers. That’s revolutionary.
United sent a bag home with each guest that included an Italian-made leather notebook with the Polaris logo, a box of chocolate truffles, and a Saks Fifth Avenue blanket that will soon be available onboard.