Polaris: When United Cried Wolf

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.

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57 Comments on "Polaris: When United Cried Wolf"

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johnny
Member

So true. What were they thinking?

Tim Dunn
Member
Good article and it highlights the necessity of top to bottom coordination of the product, something United hasn’t done well on many instances. United should have known its supply chain from seats to wine to the number of people that would use a lounge…. those are far from things that pop up at the last minute or can’t be fairly accurately predicted months if not years in advance. I doubt if passengers are much less concerned about whether the product is identical on every aircraft type as they are that the basic product attributes are intact. Delta has had lie-flat,… Read more »
Tim Dunn
Member

after a punishing day on Wall Street, more criticism long before the stock market opened was far less costly than what came from the people who invested in UAL.

USBusinessTraveller
Guest
Tim (and Cranky), pretty much spot on. Firstly I have flown (real) Polaris on the 77W and it was excellent, better in all respects other than flight attendant service than the ANA 787-9 flights on the same ticket (okay and the wine list and sake) I’ve also used the Polaris lounge at ORD on a weekend (quiet) and it too was really good. But the issues with the rollout are mission creep (planes/retrofits) and just poor planning (lounges). The Polaris seats are bespoke/custom, not “off the shelf”. And the plan was to launch the seat on the A350-1000 in spring… Read more »
Davey
Guest
Crankster, great article. You touched on everything Polaris very well. I’ve flown United’s widebodies periodically and the eight-across business class is an abomination. The Chicago lounge situation is an embarrassment to United and is one of the single biggest deterrents to flying that airline. It’s true not just for Polaris but for the United Club as well. And don’t get started on Newark or Dulles. The former is a disaster and the latter causes me to ask questions about why United still is even there. If United has made a dime of investment at Dulles in the last 10 years,… Read more »
Chris
Guest

Totally agree; although, I have yet to see a decent lounge situation at O’Hare, including all the international carrier lounges in Terminal 5. The BA lounge with pre-flight dining is decent but still, nothing special. Maybe the old “First class” lounge in C concourse but again, it was still somewhat subpar.

Fitz
Member

… it is all a bit of a joke when compared to the service offered so efficiently by the west european Oceanic brands …

Kilroy
Guest

I wonder how much of this is marketing/management jumping the gun on making the announcement, and how much of it is project management issues… Guessing a project manager or two was or will be scapegoated and take the hit, rightly or wrongly.

Very interesting analysis, stuff like this is why I’ve been a loyal reader of this blog for many years.

Nick Barnard
Member

What I’m betting is once they actually almost have the product in place they’re going to have to relaunch it under a different name. The Polaris brand will have been that sullied.

Danie
Member

I’m having a hard time following you here. It’s logistically not possible to install a new business class cabin on all 200 long haul aircraft overnight so the new product was always going to be coming online over a period of time. What would you have had United do, introduce the product quietly and hope nobody would notice until they were “ready to launch”? Polaris involves a major financial investment on United’s part and financial disclosure requirements alone would dictate making a public announcement of their plans.

haolenate
Guest

Even Alaska Airlines waited until over 50% of its 737-800s were complete to roll out the Premium Economy seats. Even the EMB 175s were delivered with “special legroom seats” 6 months before it was officially announced.

southbay flier
Guest

IIRC, Delta didn’t launch Delta One as a brand until a lot (if not near all) of their long haul planes actually had lie flats with aisle access as opposed to the old loungers.

AC
Member

Yep, quiet rollout. If you start testing and dropping new hard and soft products into the mix without an announcement, you are surprising customers and going beyond expectations. It could only go over well. Under promise and over deliver. Never the reverse.

Danie
Member

Y’all make some good points.

Fitz
Member

… it is pretty dodgy to start a snails pace rollout of a premier service and then expect to be able to charge for a service which will not exist fully for many years … sharp practice in fact …

Jeff
Guest
Yes UA could have simply said “Polaris is coming soon and we are offering previews on some select routes, while we massively upgrade our long haul fleet.” That sounds so much more appealing where you don’t say something is here and raise expectations and when they don’t get it, they are disappointed. Better to say we are rolling this out with small special previews on some flights. Remember when they had to start giving $200-400 vouchers to C passengers at the tail end of the last retrofit from barcaloungers to the present lie flats? They could find themselves in this… Read more »
Davey
Guest
If you’re going to roll-out Polaris, you should have a representative sample of the product in your planes before you do. In short, install it in the 767-300 and 767-400 fleet before you roll it out and as others have said, dedicate the plane to specific routes. If a plane has pre roll-out seating and amenities, surprise people positively rather than negatively. What United has done is to create an unrealistic expectation for its premium classes. As a side note, when I first saw the post on Polaris, I thought the Crankster was making a veiled reference to former CEO… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

If I recall correctly, even newly delivered long haul aircraft (789s) don’t come with the Polaris seats. I am sure there is a reason that sounds acceptable to the project manager, but as a customer I find this bizarre.

It also doesn’t sound right to slap the Polaris branding on the product with the old seats. As if the new seats just were some icing on the cake. Welcome to Polaris… sorry, old seats, old lounge, but otherwise same great experience.

tr5642
Member

Amen! The lack of transparency of what is available where and when is terrible and branding it all Polaris is downright stupid.

Fitz
Member

… it is called ‘’sharp practice’’ and knowingly invites the attention of the Courts …

sfcarl
Member

“that old 2-4-2 configuration that people absolutely hate.”

Which people absolutely hate 2-4-2? With 2-4-2, no one is more than one seat away from access to the aisle and 50% of passengers are sitting in an aisle seat. That’s better than the flying experience with 2-5-2 or 3-4-3 seating.

Eric Coffman
Guest

I believe he meant the 2-4-2 configuration with the old lie flat business class seats in the 777.

David
Member

Wow, they had FOUR wide in business? I flew three wide in business on United and it was bad, I can’t imagine four. AA has/had three wide in business and it was bad as well.

Thanks for the clarification.

Chris
Guest

That doesn’t include the fact that some of the seats face backwards.

Oliver
Guest

I don’t mind the backward step facing seats and have often picked them deliberately.

I also didn’t mind the 2-4-2 too much since I was upgrading with SWUs and most of the time traveled with my wife (so I just had to climb over her). Perhaps it’s easier to understand when I point out that my main goal with business class is to sleep. And then the flat seats compared to the period generation of barcaloungers were a significant improvement. YMMV.

Fitz
Member

… check the layout on Speedbird 001 and its companions from LCY to JFK …

Dan McLeod
Member

Just one word in “support” of the small pillow. I fly business class all the time, and when I lie on a flat bed, I find that my legs ache at the knees if they have no support when lying on my back, which is my preferred position. So that little extra pillow is much appreciated, by me at least.

David
Member

Why do you say people hate 2-4-2? Is it the 4? Would they rather have 5?? Could it be the 2? I find that hard to believe. Can you enlighten please?

andrewpbaird
Member
David, in the 2-4-2 configuration, only 50% of the passengers have direct aisle access. If you are traveling with a companion, sharing the “2” is annoying but workable. I can only imagine that it would be downright awkward if you are sitting (or lying) next to a stranger. There are no barriers between seats, and you have to climb over the aisle seat if it is in lie-flat mode. In addition to these issues, the 2-4-2 seats are very narrow for business class (think about it – they are 8-seats wide in business class on a plane that is 9-seats… Read more »
David
Member

I thought it meant 2-4-2 in economy…I couldn’t even imagine 4 in business but I guess that is what was meant by “hated.” I can see why. Unless these business seats were very cheap I can’t imagine someone choosing this United product, ever, unless maybe they were a family of four and I don’t know that I have seen many of those in business. And when I do the parents usually try to pick a 2 for themselves anyway.

Thanks for clarifying.

A
Guest

2-4-2 is still way better than 9 (or 10) across in cattle class. While it’s not as good as what DL or AA have I’d still pay up for the old UA product providing they price it less than what the competition offers since it is inferior. I think we all forget that business class long haul flying wasn’t much different than domestic F not all that long ago.

JB
Member

Too bad they can’t reuse those 2-4-2 business class seats for a few rows of premium economy.I didn’t mind them that much, though as Oliver above pointed out, I too was only up there via SWUs as my company is too cheap to pay for anything but Y.

TimH
Member
Although the “4” isn’t ideal, since it means that only half the seats have access to the aisle, its also the specific arrangement here: There aren’t privacy dividers within a row, and all seats in the same row face the same direction. It means that three other people could see you sleeping, or what you’re watching on TV, or doing on your laptop, for the entire flight if you’re in the middle. British also does 2-4-2 in business, but you have privacy dividers and the middle seats in the 4 face the opposite direction, meaning if you’re with a partner,… Read more »
David
Member

I hadn’t seen this in BA either. However, what is worse in BA, is that they sell “first class” seats on single aisle planes (like A320’s) which is nothing but 3-3 seating with a fold-down table over the middle seat. And there is no more leg room. I’ve gotten stuck in this a couple of times and I find it a terrible value.

Chris
Guest

That’s consistent across all airlines in Europe. It’s so they can go all economy for leisure routes.

David
Member

That’s fine with me…just don’t sell it as first class. I bought two different tickets on BA, selected “First Class” each time and each time I got this. It didn’t say “Coach seat with the middle vacant.” And, it would have been cheaper to buy three seats in coach than two in first, a lot cheaper…but of course I wouldn’t get a free meal of whatever it was they gave me.

TimH
Member
I feel like every issue with United has a decent rationale… that explains about a third of the issue. You can explain away the plane retrofits on the luxury seat shortage… but what about the lounges? They really should have opened 3 lounges at brand launch (say, ORD with SFO and EWR, but certainly more than just ORD), and then shown off the seat as a “future” that was slowly coming today. As it stands, it’ll be 5 years after Polaris launched before you’ve got a better chance of having the “full” experience of both a dedicated lounge and one… Read more »
James
Guest

Whats is also insulting is brand new 787s keep arriving with the old seat product!

Marissa
Guest

It’s a total misrepresentation. The situation with the lounges is especially appalling. Many times in Chicago I couldn’t get into any club. I think United should apologize for what is a complete fiasco.

Doug Swalen
Guest

And you never even mentioned the fact that International Club visitors to SFO are getting royally hosed by the Polaris rebuild at terminal G because they have to walk over to one of the Terminal 3 clubs now and for the next year. Now, I will do and have done the 15 minute walk from the Star Alliance lounge at LAX to Terminal 7 or 8 because the lounge is worth the hastle. But for a Standard United Club walking from TG to T3 and back just to do a club is crazy

MB
Member

Good article with reasonable arguments….but if it’s taking this long, won’t United still be at the back of the pack when complete?

Nick Pajisco
Guest

Great Article!

davidrosen
Member
Maybe a bit critical Brett. Even the service step-ups were a welcome upgrade to what had been a pretty lousy product before hand. I’ve taken about 15 Polaris flights this year. The food has been (very) good [go for the Thai chicken soup], the wine flights a nice touch, the dessert tray super [salted caramel is a huge winner]. Never had an issue with a mattress pad and FAs more than generous with PJs — many of which ended up at Coachella. Luckily never have been forced to sit 4-accross. Lucky to have been upstairs on four flights this year… Read more »
Ronni
Member
I have flown the new Polaris 777-300 twice very recently and in addition to finding the cubicles claustrophobic (and I’ve never experienced claustrophobia), I found the narrowness and hardness of the beds extremely uncomfortable! No one mentioned a mattress pad to me even when I completed a survey after the flights so this was news to me from this blog. I did find a dramatic improvement in the food &was happy to provide United with that positive comment. Btw, no one from United contacted me after the survey to convey their “surprise” about my commentary on the very narrow, hard… Read more »
southbay flier
Guest

I agree. I remember seeing Polaris heavily advertised on TV, which seemed odd since at that time I don’t think there was even one Polaris seat flying at the time. How long has it been to get 15 planes with Polaris seats in the air since the announcement? A year or more?.

tr5642
Member

Oh, and let’s not ignore the disaster they are creating for PAYING United Club pax through all the continuing disruption while they redo the lounges (I’m looking at you SFO)

Jeff
Member
Cranky. You are not bashing Polaris but appropriately raising issues that all of us customers have spoken loudly about. Polaris rollout is minimal so it’s difficult to measure success. I have to say the onboard product , including Polaris blankets etc , is lacking. It seems the food quality has decreased and infact on a return trip from Europe even the ice cream was handed out in cups and not the glass sundae glasses, minimal cheese and cracker and fruit plate. In addition, the Inflight experience was substandard as the Flight Attendants finished the meal and “disappeared”. What happened to… Read more »
Mark Langston
Member

Why would anyone pay to fly Business Class on United? Because you might/maybe get an experience equal to most other carriers’ Business Class complimented by United’s legendary crummy service? What you’re more likely to get is 2/2/2 or 2/4/2* in an old plane with the crummy service.

Shashank Nigam
Guest

“Customers notice your implementation not your strategy” – it’s a great quote that sums up United’s great Polaris strategy but implementation that left much to be desired. Well written, Cranky!

MilesMath
Guest

I’ve forgotten that Polaris was even a thing. I guess that’s why all United advertising in NYC is about how EWR is closer to Manhattan than JFK. There’s no point even trying to promote the airline anymore.

Karl
Member
Good article. I usually fly ua 895 896 ord sin ord via hkg on my asian trips. The first time i flew out of ord on a Polaris equiped 777 old seating it was nice as far as hkg. The continuing flight 895 out of hkg to sin was down graded to donestic usa cabin type as well as a crew. No blankets or pillows to sin. The food served was just brought to u on a try. No menus or chance to enjoy a glass of wine. The crew basically quickly served the trays and cleaned up so that… Read more »
Fitz
Member

… this is laughable and odd that such service is tolerated … the solution is to join a west European Oceanic flight for the main part of the route to the Far East …

Fitz
Member

The implementation is ludicrously half hearted and typical of USA airlines’ half cocked attitude to the premium travel level … we are sticking to Speedbird for everything premium …

Preston
Guest
They continue to trim the on-board benefits that you do get with Polaris. They stopped the mid-flight hot snacks (like lobster mac and cheese), the wine flight, the bloody mary bar, scheduled meal service, etc. I see absolutely no difference now between the old crappy United International Business experience and the current Polaris experience. None. I flew the new 777-300 Polaris seat on a recent SFO-EWR flight. Honestly, the 787 angled seat suites are better even without direct aisle access for all. I had high hopes but, at this point, I think Polaris is yet another epic United failure. Like… Read more »
Davey
Guest

Your problem is that you are a crappy, money-losing domestic passenger. You flew pseudo-Polaris from SFO to EWR. United would never put the true Polaris experience on a USA Transcon.

Never, ever never. Just look at the garbage they represent to be the United Club. Or the inadequate, soon-to-be-outdated Polaris Lounge.

United takes its domestic passengers, particularly premium class domestic passengers way for granted. They throw crap at us and we much it like it was our last meal. What keeps them in business is that American and Delta do exactly the same thing.

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