United reaches for the stars with Polaris rebranding


United’s Polaris initiative was launched at the beginning of the month and I was out of town covering the IATA AGM so didn’t have time to write about it then. With a couple weeks to consider the news and process the nuance I am mostly satisfied with the announced plans, though there are some facets I see as more significant than others. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that Polaris is not just a new seat, it is the whole of the product. The seat is probably most important – that’s where passengers will spend the most time – but it is not the only thing changing.

The Seat

Fully flat, long enough (though not the longest flying), similar width and direct aisle access. You’d think that would be enough to satisfy travelers. And I suppose level of satisfaction varies depending on how much one reads  FlyerTalk. There are some aspects of the seat I’m not a huge fan of – mostly no rear facing option and no window seat option for couples traveling together. It is far from perfect but also not nearly as bad as some of the complaints I’ve heard raised.

Is the layout 1-2-1 or 2-4-2? Does it really matter if there is direct aisle access and the bed space is the same width? Storage space, outlet locations and other details will necessarily differ between the seat designs but suggesting that one is materially different from the other is missing the point. It is also unclear (at least I haven’t yet seen anything) what the layout will be on the 767s and 787s with the narrower fuselage. We should know soon enough as the first 767s with the new seats are due later this year, as are the 777-300ERs.

On-board Service

New plates don’t do much for me. I get how they can contribute to the overall experience (e.g. the JetBlue Mint plate shape matching other facets of that product marketing) but I don’t think United has done a ton on that front, even with new service ware being added; the updated food offerings (see below) may make a difference. Slippers are coming back on all flights and pajamas will be available on flights longer than 12 hours (which includes Asia and Australia but generally excludes South America or Europe). Also included in the new soft product are new pillows, blankets and mattress pads in partnership with Saks Fifth Avenue (I didn’t realize it marketed its own brand-name products versus selling others’) and new amenity kits with Cowshed and SoHo House.

I have some concerns about the mattress pad situation and overall service duration, particularly on the shorter east coast flights I generally take. If the flight attendants are involved in that setup and are still performing a similar meal service to today’s then there are going to be timing challenges. And I wonder just how excited they’re going to be to help me put the mattress on while we’re still at the gate so I can go straight to sleep. Still, better padding on the bed should be a good thing overall.

The in-flight entertainment system is mentioned in the marketing video, with a 16″ screen and “HD gate-to-gate entertainment” on offer. I’ll admit that having to put the screen away for take-off and landing irks me, especially at landing when I want to have the map available. But I’m skeptical of the HD factor. That the screens can support HD content is one thing. Getting that HD content on to the planes is another. And even as on-board content storage capacity grows most airlines have chosen to increase the number of selections or languages available rather than storing HD content. That is slowly changing, like many things in the IFE industry, but it is unclear just how much the new Polaris-fitted aircraft will see of that.

In-flight dining

Pre-flight now includes a “gourmet chocolate” in addition to drinks. I hadn’t realized there was demand for that, but I guess there is. Evening flights will offer wine tastings while day flights will include a mimosa and bloody mary cart. I like the concept, particularly for the longer flights, though execution will be interesting to watch. In recent years United’s wine selection dropped in quality, variety and predictability. Just fixing the basic selection and service process would be a big win; the tasting concept is another level.

New menus should be a good thing, though historical association with the Trotter Project hasn’t necessarily been special. Switching the mid-flight snack to an on-demand option should mean getting to eat even if you also want to sleep, something I’m a big fan of. And bringing back the petit fours and adding hot apple pie to the dessert cart are small upgrades but welcome ones for those who aren’t inclined to go for the ice cream sundae.

Lounges

The new lounge product is, to me, the most significant change associated with the Polaris product. A dedicated premium class lounge, including buffet dining and premium drinks is a first for US carriers. Delta toyed with a pre-flight dining program at its JFK lounge but killed that earlier this year. American recently announced Flagship lounge access for business class passengers but will limit the flagship dining service to only first class. The lounges will alo include showers, a notable change for most of the legacy United hub locations. For United the Polaris lounge is a replacement of the Global First offering in the few locations it exists, plus growing the offering to additional airports; eventually Polaris lounges will exist at NRT, HKG, LHR, LAX, SFO, ORD, IAH, IAD and EWR. Arguably a downgrade for Global First passengers but given that the first class product is quickly disappearing that’s not too hard to get over.

And, in a move which I find mostly ridiculous, United is advertising that the Polaris lounges will offer water bottles to go. Presumably not in Hong Kong where screeners at the gate will immediately confiscate them on US-bound flights. And I’d be much more impressed by a filtered water bottle refilling station than adding more plastic bottles to waste piles the world over, but I probably lost that battle long ago.

Other bits

Overall I see Polaris as a necessary update to the product and one which is mostly evolutionary, not revolutionary (lounge excluded). I think the name is stupid, though I also understand the branding decisions that got there. I also think that Delta One and Upper Class and Club World are stupid, so that’s more about me hating cutesy branding than the choice of Polaris. If they had to do something of that nature I actually don’t think Polaris is so bad.

I also harbor some skepticism related to implementation. I wish that were not the case, but United has been less than stellar at execution over the past few years. Things seem to be improving of late on the operations side of the business and hopefully this will be a win for the company and passengers. Then again, this is a custom product to be manufactured by Zodiac, so there’s some risk there. I’m cautiously optimistic.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

11 Comments

  1. The bottled water to go is pretty ridiculous, especially if they continue to pass them out on board the plane after the meal service, which I’m sure will be the case.

    As for the chocolate with the pre-departure beverage, I’ve seen similar service on other airlines, such as a bag of nuts or other small snack with that service. The chocolate is a nice touch as a welcome amenity, and does close a small service gap that does exist between United and some of the competition today. It’s not a huge deal, but probably falls into that “small things add up” category.

    I am very glad to see a non-ice cream option on the dessert cart (sorry, I’m not European; I love cheese but don’t consider it “dessert”). Ice cream is great, but I don’t want it on every flight. Cake and/or pie is a great alternate choice.

  2. The elephant in the room that NOBODY is mentioning: the FAs on UA are still subpar across the board when compared to nearly every other developed nation’s airlines. Europe, ME, and Asia have got the US beat, hands-down. All this is lipstick on a pig…and I’ll let you decide if that’s tongue-in-cheek or a double entendre…when Gloria, the unionized FA who’s been “flying” for 40+ years and long ago lost any sense of give-a-shit or customer service, is now forced to offer turndown service or make bloody marys on-demand from a cart, or generally just try to offer a somewhat competitive product.

    So long as the US’ terrible carriers continue to preface ALL service with the overtly anti-customer-service “we are here primarily for your safety”, then no amount of hard product will compensate for the shoddy service you’ll ALWAYS receive on American carriers. When will a well-known blogger bring that up to United?

  3. I’m with Adam. The old crabby FAs on UA’s premium long-haul routes never fail to disappoint.

    Overall I’m looking forward to trying it out though. Maybe they’ll surprise me ?

  4. I also agree with @Adam. Human service will remain disgraceful unless they make drastic changes to the company culture.

  5. Great review Seth. Agree with you 100%.
    Adam; I have met “Gloria” so many times. I was actually laughing out loud reading your comments.

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