Today Senior Contributor R.D. Sussman returns with another airline industry editorial. He has previously written fantastic pieces about the modern rise of Delta, the new American Airlines, the History of Low Cost Carriers, United Airlines, the History of Air Shuttles, The Middle East 3 and Alaska’s purchase of Virgin America. He has been involved with the airline industry for over 20 years and is an active travel consultant and airline analyst. R.D. is also a huge #Avgeek and theme park enthusiast.
United’s New Premium Class
The USA and its own flag carriers have gone from being innovators in passenger comfort to the last place as far as business class product is concerned over the past 30 years. While airlines worldwide have offered a business class product for years, most international carriers have constantly pushed the product forward – whereas most of our US flag carriers have tended to follow and to eventually be left behind in both hard & soft product. United had at one point a very high quality business product – Connoisseur Class – which rivaled the competition in product & quality. And that was it – the competition took off with the better product and service, and United began to downgrade theirs to what they thought was what the market would pay for.
A year ago, a survey was sent out to United’s Global Service & MileagePlus higher tiers asking them what they felt was the imperatives for their own needs. While a revamp of the international business cabins was in the works at this point, very few details had been leaked out about it; in fact, the two primary providers of the newly rebranded product weren’t even discussed at length. One thing was quite clear: The existing product was not well received; the rearward-forward configuration felt cramped, with no privacy and more of a bus-like feel.
Having flown LAX-NRT in this product on United, and returning NRT-LAX on All Nippon/ANA, I can say this clearly was a case of a product that was detrimental to their image. I was lucky enough to have the seat next to me empty – at the same time, I felt as if I was staring at the person across from me for 12 plus hours. Not a great way to inspire a long flight at all. The soft product was also lacking in comparison; meals were good, but not worthy of the normal ticket price in J.
After the ouster of Jeff Smisek, projects such as the revamping of business class and customer service focuses became foreground again. Premium travelers have always been the bread & butter for United, and this was an area Oscar Munoz had put as a priority at the carrier. The United Clubs would all be renovated, with improvements in the soft product inside including catering & amenities; the domestic economy & first cabins would get better focuses on food & snacks, and a retraining program to improve the customer service aspect on the ground & in the air. While some of these are ongoing, and will be for several years, the international business cabin was what stood out as being a sore thumb in the mix.
Working with PriestmanGoode, the next generation of United’s business class product was rolled out on 2 June 2016. With an emphasis on quality, privacy & comfort, the POLARIS rollout isn’t just a bits & pieces thing as had been done for the past 20 years, but rather a complete revamp of the product from check-in to arrival at the destination. A revised focus on the entire experience was the start of things.
First, at global gateway hubs such as Washington Dulles, Newark, Chicago, etc. a separate check-in facility is being added – one that moves both Global Services & POLARIS/International First into a private lounge area, with private check in. This alone is a worthy step forward, as anybody who has tried to negotiate IAD or ORD during rush hour check in knows it is a mess. After security, POLARIS passengers will have a dedicated lounge that is exclusive to the cabin – and separate from the existing United Clubs. The only guests in these lounges will be people flying in POLARIS. Here, pre-flight dining, an expanded food offering plus private areas throughout will welcome passengers into the POLARIS experience further. These gateway airport lounges will also have shower service, sleeping areas & other quiet zones for people to relax or work separate of the noise of the public areas (The bar, the dining/buffet areas, etc.) and will be unified systemwide by the end of 2018.
Onboard is the biggest change – and the one that is most noticeable. POLARIS removes the dreaded middle seat configuration long complained about by many – myself included. All aisle access, a staggered seating, and most noticeably no more rearward seating is a great beginning. Seating isn’t as spacious overall as other international carriers such as Emirates or Singapore, but it is a vast improvement off the hovel-like seating offered to date on United. More space is allotted in the rebuild for personal storage, and for work space as well. Softer lighting, as well as better personal lamps ensures that even when lights are out, work can still go on without a problem. Being as I am one who tends to work late, and rests later, this is a huge improvement; the guilt of having my light on while others try to sleep is no longer an issue – nor is my noise while working.
As far as the soft product goes, this too is getting a facelift. Small touches such as enhancing the food product go a long way in this industry, and for me food is one of the things I look forward to most of all in flight. (Yes, folks, I’m a big boy and a big eater… this should come as no surprise that in-flight dining is high up on what I critique a carrier for.) Menus are still being worked on, but a new attitude towards the dining service are being installed, including pre-order dining, pre-flight dining in the POLARIS lounge, and specialty meals suited to the destination/origin of a flight. In addition, snack/food bars are being added to the POLARIS product, ranging from simple munchies down to hot snacks, sandwiches & soups available on-demand anytime between meal services. This mirrors what other international carriers have been doing for many years in business, notably partners ANA & Lufthansa have had this as a staple service on longer segments.
Other product touches include the addition of branded high-end personal products from Saks Fifth Avenue; pillows, blankets, duvets & other soft items are being custom produced for United’s needs and the POLARIS branding. Personal amenity kits are being rebranded by PriestmanGoode & Saks to give a much needed touch of elegance & class to these products. While its a small thing, passengers remember quality – and reward it with returns. In an increasingly competitive environment, these are important overall.
The first POLARIS cabins will be rolled out with the arrival of the 777-300ERs into United’s fleet later this summer, and into the rest of the fleet as the 777s and 787s go in for heavy maintenance rotations. Not all the fleet will be getting the new POLARIS product; the 747s & 767s being retired will not get the new product. It remains to be seen if the 757 long-haul will get the seats as well. All new-delivery 787s, A350s & 777s will have the product installed.
United’s decision to throw out the existing business class product, and improve the new one shows initiative that brings them in line – at least in part – with other international carriers and their own product. While it will be at least a few years before the unified POLARIS product is seen on all flights, the changes to the business cabin have been long overdue – and are welcomed by many. I look forward to experiencing the POLARIS product this fall, and hope to have a full review at that time.