Zodiac Aerospace, the seat manufacturer for United’s new Polaris Business Class seat, is in trouble. With labor issues threatening production schedules, United faces further delays in its Polaris retrofit program. Nevertheless, I contend United will not lose too much sleep over this setback.
Zodiac is facing labor problems in the United Kingdom, primary assembly site for the United Polaris program–
In guidance issued Tuesday, Zodiac warned investors it was having “industrial issues” in the United Kingdom, and said the problems were causing “significant disruptions and delays.” Zodiac also makes seats in the United States, and that branch is operating normally, but that’s likely little consolation to United, which has said its seats are being manufactured by Zodiac Seats United Kingdom.
“We are not happy. Period.” United CEO Oscar Munoz said Tuesday at the J.P. Morgan Aviation, Transportation and Industrials Conference.
Of course United is not happy. It is not like United can just call B/E Aerospace and be penciled into their busy calendar. United’s proprietary premium class product is stuck in the hands of Zodiac and all United can do is what they are already doing — keep the pressure on:
We have plans that are dynamic at this point, and [Zodiac] is receiving lots of beneficial support from our management team every single day. We are working hard with them and with other suppliers to make sure that we can expedite our plan. Rather than just be unhappy, we’ve got people on site with the folks there to make sure that we can expedite and accelerate as much as we can.
Munoz uses “expedite” in consecutive sentences, underscoring that United will be the nagging customer who wakes up with Zodiac each day to ensure that at least it is given priority over others. In my experience, this works. While working for Star Alliance I had the opportunity to work with both B/E Aerospace and Zodiac and there are two things I can add. First, Zodiac’s issues are not recent (just ask American Airlines). Second, pressure works.
Why United Won’t Sweat It
Customers are a funny commodity. We see that United has plastered airports, magazines, and even popular TV shows with ads like this–
Many customers walk on to planes expecting the new product.
And many customers walk away thinking they have got it…
Twice recently I flew United’s old business class (which still has lie-flat beds) and heard passengers comment on how great the new seats were.
Lipstick on a Pig
United rolled out its new Polaris soft product on all longhaul flights last December and that action alone is buying it time. Passengers love the new Saks Fifth Avenue bedding and though the menus also represent a more modest change than initially imagined, at least the staple meal items have been given fresh crockery and new garnishes.
What I’m trying to say is that passengers in business class are just happy to sleep and United’s lie-flat beds — even the 8-across 777-200 version — will still do the trick. Bedding is now nice, meals are better, FAs are much more pleasant, and Wi-Fi available. Combine all those benefits and United has bought itself some time. Heck, some consumers are already under the impression (and happy) with United Polaris.
That doesn’t mean United has a competitive product right now — if we are talking about the seat alone — but combine all aspects of the business class experience and United is respectably competing.
Perhaps my theory will not bear out, but I have flown some beautiful brand new planes with spacious business class seats lately. In all honesty, I did not sleep any better on a reverse herringbone seat than in United’s denser configuration. I reject the notion United is going to lose market share for offering a lie-flat seat with better bedding than any airline I can think of in business class. The new seat is welcomed and necessary, but not so critical that this latest production delay will torpedo premium yields.