Some airlines are moving away from offering first class and instead are significantly upgrading their business class experience. Improvements in technology have made business class better than ever, and the expense is more palatable to corporate bean counters. United Airlines is moving in this direction with the recent announcement of United Polaris, a new business class product coming this December to most of its international routes.
Current evidence suggests that United’s p.s. service on transcontinental routes between Newark (EWR) and San Francisco (SFO) or Los Angeles (LAX) will not be affected, and “first class” will still be used to describe the premium cabin on shorter domestic flights.
Just how significant is this news? When United and Continental Airlines merged in 2010, they decided to keep the first class cabins on the legacy United fleet, resulting in a business class that was uncompetitive and a first class that few could pay for. Polaris is the most important step so far in reinvigorating the airline’s ability to compete for high-value customers.
Revolutionary Changes to United’s Business Class Cabins
United Airlines currently operates a mix of different business class configurations that are a holdover from its merger with Continental Airlines. Polaris will consolidate and improve that experience. There are four key features of the Polaris cabin that United hopes will make the product stand out from its competition.
- New lie-flat seats are 6 feet and 6 inches in length. All seats have direct aisle access in a 1-2-1 configuration. On some narrower aircraft, the arrangement could resemble 1-1-1.
- United has worked with Saks Fifth Avenue to design new bedding, including mattress pads available upon request and pajamas for overnight flights.
- An improved dining experience will include seasonal menus, optional wine tasting flights, Illy coffee, and more.
- Exclusive Polaris business class lounges will be opened in nine airports (Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Newark, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and London). These will also feature pre-flight dining for more rest onboard.
The seats that United plans to use are a definite improvement. In the last major update the carrier tried to squeeze as many as eight seats into each row on its Boeing 777-200, which almost defeats the purpose of business class. These new seats, however, are positively roomy. Large extensions on each side provide additional privacy, and each passenger has more shelf space and a cubby to store items used during the trip.
United has long partnered with celebrity chef Charlie Trotter and others to help design its menus, a relationship that will continue with Polaris. United promises “seasonal and regional specialties” so you never have to eat the same meal twice. Those who want to maximize their shuteye can dine ahead in the Polaris Lounge or use Express Dining to get all their courses served at once.
The United Polaris Lounge will be open by exclusive invitation to Polaris customers at United’s hub airports in the United States as well as London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. Of course, you’ll have access to all the standard United Club locations, too, but the Polaris Lounge is meant to be an escape from lounges that sometimes become crowded with passengers from other airlines, purchase memberships, or gain admission with elite status.
Once in the Polaris Lounge you can snack on cured meats, specialty cheeses, and roasted vegetables from a larger buffet. Or, sit down to a full-service meal. The bar will include a rotating beer menu and premium wines.
United seems particularly intent on exceeding the competition with its new inflight bedding. Designed by Saks Fifth Avenue, the selection includes a blanket, duvet, two pillows, and pajamas. Very few airlines offer pajamas in business class; Delta is still testing them on select routes, e.g., Los Angeles to Shanghai. Though the idea of changing clothes on an airplane can seem odd to the uninitiated, it is a great way to arrive at your destination feeling more refreshed.
Comparing Polaris to the Competition
Lie-flat seats in business class were first introduced by British Airways in 2000, and most airlines have followed suit since then. There are several different configurations and models created to suit the specific preferences of each airline and the space limitations of each aircraft.
Ultimately the most useful baseline for evaluating United Polaris is Delta Air Line’s international business class product, Delta One. Delta has long offered lie-flat seats in a 1-2-1 configuration similar to Polaris, and it was a leader in partnering with Westin to offer its signature Heavenly bedding onboard. The carrier is also experimenting with pajamas on some flights — a feature many airlines reserve for first class passengers. However, as first class cabins are taken out of service it is not surprising to see these special touches make their way into business class.
But where United stands out is with an entirely new seat designed by Acumen, a British firm. Some of the seats are angled while others are straight, and all of them face forward. It’s flexible enough to be used on the wide variety of aircraft types in United’s fleet, so you’ll always enjoy the same features. The carrier also has a five-year window of exclusivity; you’re not likely to see it elsewhere until the Polaris rollout is complete.
United appears poised for success, but a few airlines do push the envelope. Singapore Airlines has long had massive business class seats that resemble a small bed. Other carriers use more generic models like the popular Sicma Aero Cirrus designed by Zodiac and customized further for Cathay Pacific. Regardless, the meals and customer service can distinguish a carrier more than the physical seat. It remains to be seen how much improvement United Polaris will demonstrate in these areas.
When Can You Experience Polaris?
The first flight with a Polaris cabin will depart on December 1, 2016, and the first United Polaris Lounge will open at the same time in Chicago. Travelers can enjoy the experience on Boeing 777-300ER, Boeing 787-10, and Airbus A350-1000 aircraft as they’re delivered. In addition, existing Boeing 767-300 and 777-200 aircraft, some of which currently have separate business and first class cabins, will be retrofitted with a single Polaris cabin.
It’s unclear at this time what will happen to United’s business class service on the Boeing 787-8 and 787-9, or to its upscale p.s. cabin on transcontinental routes.
What we do know is that this is the beginning of the end for United’s first class service. It can still be found on the Boeing 747-400, for example, as well as on aircraft that are waiting to be retrofitted. But with plans to retire the 747 from the United Airlines fleet by the end of 2017, it is clear that Polaris is the future of this carrier’s premium international service.