Let’s get one thing straight. I’m not here to bash Polaris. When United relaunched its international business class last June, I liked the Polaris plan. The branding was sharp, the product looked great, and it seemed like a well-designed end-to-end experience. The one thing that nagged at me back then was the fact that almost nobody at the time would actually get the full experience. Was United jumping the gun? It took me awhile to get to this point, but yes. Right now it feels a whole lot like the boy who cried wolf.
I debated this with friends at United and elsewhere at the time, and I could see both sides. On the one hand, United wouldn’t have the seat and lounge experience available for most customers for years. But on the other side, there were big soft product improvements that everyone would see immediately. It was also aspirational; a directional sign for travelers. United wasn’t just happy sitting around and offering a sub-standard product. It was investing heavily in making something better.
The fancy duvets and cooling pillows were just a piece of it. Travelers could look forward to dedicated Polaris lounges, something the other big guys in the US wouldn’t offer. They could also prepare for a very comfortable flat bed with direct aisle access for all, and one that unlike at American or Delta would be the same fleetwide. I certainly could understand not waiting until the entire fleet was done. That would have taken years. But at the time I wondered if this was being done too early. Would there be too few people actually getting the experience? Would everyone else just be mad that high expectations weren’t met?
That appears to be the case. Excluding the 747s which will be gone from the fleet soon, United has more than 200 aircraft flying long-haul. That’s, I believe, 171 widebodies and the majority of the 56 757-200s in the fleet. Of those 200+ airplanes, only 15 have the Polaris seat today. Fourteen of those make up the new 777-300ER fleet which was delivered with the seat installed, but the only other lonely airplane is one 767-300 (out of the 35 in the fleet). That airplane just went into service last month. This has been delayed by problems with the seat manufacturer, but that’s the point. When you make an announcement like this, you don’t know what kind of things might prevent you from delivering the service more widely. Sixteen months after this project went public there should be a lot more than 15 airplanes flying.
United says it will have 13 more 767s done by the end of NEXT year. The first 777-200 retrofit is underway and should be flying sometime this winter. In other words, things aren’t going to change significantly for some time. And remember, there are still many 777s flying around with that old 2-4-2 configuration that people absolutely hate.
Then there’s the saga of the lounges. One of the big differentiators between Polaris and both American and Delta’s offerings is that United would put dedicated Polaris lounges in every hub. It started with one at Chicago/O’Hare and the reviews were generally good. Others were to follow shortly… but they haven’t. The timeline has continued to slip. United tells me the plan is that the rest of the lounges should open sometime in 2018. San Francisco and Newark will be next. But when you think about how many people have flown United internationally in the last 16 months, and you imagine the relatively small fraction that have used O’Hare, you realize that most travelers haven’t had the chance to try the Polaris lounge at all.
Then again, even Chicago travelers might not have experienced it. The O’Hare lounge has had its own problems with massive overcrowding. There have been reports of people being turned away. (United says the lounge is being expanded this winter from 204 to 277 seats, so that will help.)
At the same time, the Polaris amenities that people do get on all flights have been cut back marginally. No, the elimination of a small pillow doesn’t matter (and may even be welcomed). And not boarding mattress pads for everyone will likely be fine on most flights. The airline has undoubtedly learned that from experience, though I suppose things can change as the airplanes get rolled out on to new routes with different demand patterns. But when so much of the product isn’t being delivered due to the delayed rollout, the pieces that everyone does get become more important. Even a wine shortage becomes a big deal. People hold on to the little things when the big things aren’t there to be experienced.
In the end, I do think Polaris is going to be successful. I find the brand appealing, and the elements of the product seem solid. Even without the seats and lounges, the onboard experience is better than it was before. Polaris will undoubtedly touch more people a year from now than it does today, but even that’s not enough. At that point, it will have been in existence for over 2 years with still a very small percentage of people experiencing the full product.
I think United was probably at least 2 years premature in announcing Polaris. I bet some people over there now wish they had waited.