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

  1. 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, direct-aisle access in business class for years; American moved VERY quickly to retrofit its fleet to have it.

    Goes to the old age, overpromise and underdeliver is a far worse position to be in than to underpromise and overdeliver.

    1. 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.

    2. 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 2018. But then order conversions take over and it’s now a 77W 18 months earlier, then they decide to retrofit the 3-class 763s. That’s two new designs for Zodiac to come up with and manufacture at short notice. Meanwhile the A35J is gone and anything like the original designs (A359) aren’t needed until 2022. For a struggling company like Zodiac that has been too much to bear and I’m surprised (in a positive way) they’re pulling through.

      The lounges were just poor planning. Firstly if the first real Polaris plane flies from SFO you should make SFO the first Polaris lounge. And if you’re going to convert a not great UC into a wonderful new Polaris lounge you have to shut the lounge completely, gut it and rebuild, take the inconvenience on the nose and get the new lounge in place asap. At SFO they’ve tried doing this piecemeal (half the UC on the international concourse was closed while they worked on the other half). After the overcrowding at ORD they’ve obviously now realized that’s not going to work and are now shutting the UC and delaying the Polaris opening for six months.

      All very well meaning by UA, and based on my singular experiences of the plane and lounge it should ultimately be great. But when is “ultimately”?

  2. 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, they should get their money back. It certainly does not show. At Dulles, the club situation is so bad that even the gates are a quieter and more relaxing place to work or wait.

    In case anybody asks, I’m a United regular and a 1K, so I’ve kinda seen quite a bit in recent years.

    Hey United, if you’re going to roll a product out, then it might be a good idea to have the product truly available. Nothing deters future business more than paying a premium price for what’s advertised as a premium product and then experiencing the reality that United represents to be Polaris.

    1. 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.

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. Danie – You can roll a new seat out without putting a full branding onslaught together. As I said, I would have waited to roll out the full campaign until about next summer. It’s still well before the rollout would be complete, but it would be easier for travelers to experience it in the air and on the ground (when more lounges are rolled out).

    3. 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.

    4. 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.

    5. … 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 …

  6. 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 situation soon as they don’t have the capacity to sub in planes that should have Polaris now and passengers will be disappointed. if it is premium, then anything else should be a downgrade and passengers compensated appropriately, IMO.

    1. 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 Steve Wolf, who was big into getting the amenities on premium class service “just right.” Then I saw the graphic!

  7. 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.

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

  8. “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.

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

      1. 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.

          1. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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?

    1. 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 wide in economy). There is also no storage space aside from a small pocket that could fit nothing more than a phone and something to read. So if you are in a window or center seat, you have nothing with you in your seat, and if you want to grab something out of the overhead bin, you might be climbing over your neighbor. Additionally, in the B777-200, half of the seats are in a rear-facing position, which many people don’t particularly like.

      I flew in these seats on one occasion, and it suited my basic desire to get a few hours of sleep on the way to Europe, so for that reason it was much better than economy. However, I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed the experience.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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.

    2. 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, the 2 middle seats actually aren’t a terrible option since you have some amount of privacy together. See: https://thepointsguy.com/2016/03/british-airways-777-200-club-world-business-class-review

      1. 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.

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

          1. 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.

  11. 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 of the new seats, than having a compromised experience (lacking a lounge, new lie-flat seat, or both).

  12. 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.

  13. 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

    1. MB – Sure, United is behind others in the rollout, but then again the others had much worse products to replace. American had those awful angled flat beds that needed to be replaced as quickly as possible. United may be behind, but it’s not clear if it will be behind others by the time the rollout is done. It should be a very good and competitive product.

  14. 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 on 747s to/from Seoul and London and Frankfurt.

    The 777-300 ER “Polaris” cabin is frankly a bit weird. Very claustrophobic, but some nice touches in the personal space. The plane is huge if you haven’t seen it up close.

    I even had an all PanAm FA crew to relive the old days of Clipper Clubs and 747 SPs.

    There have been some “irregularities” I’ll admit.

    Sunday bowls had shards of glass. (Yes), Missing dessert service. Lack of FastTrack in London.

    Looking forward to Polaris Lounge at SFO. But Amex Platinum Lounge is a nice substitute in the meantime.

    1. 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 seats …. but I was “surprised” to hear nothing. Just another nail in the coffin …..

  15. 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?.

  16. 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)

  17. 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 walking the aisles and ensuring our wine and other refreshments are filled. I read that new employee new contracts bring better culture but I sure haven’t seen it nor my other 1k friends. More hype than delivering on promises. I hope they succeed on both.

  18. 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.

  19. “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!

  20. 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.

  21. 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 could sit down and rest for the next 2 hrs of the flight. Service was poor. I complained about no polaris or blankets and the crew just answered this is what united loads in hkg.
    Well they advertise ord sin in polaris but it is a half lie.

    I have since flown this route several times. Now they load a small domestic blanket and paper type pillow for the hkg sin segment of 895 or the return 896. I spoke to the pusar about this and said from now on i will take my polaris pillow and blankets with me when we transit hkg if cheap united continues to treat their business and first class PAX like this.
    They should change what they adverise about polaris. Only really the new 300eRs should be advertised as polaris.
    When u fly thai or Singapore between say sin and bkk or hkg in business they provide real blankets, pillows and dinning service.
    Probably the unions in the US are to blame for part of this poor service on american carriers.

    Karl. 1k, 3 MMer

    1. … 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 …

  22. 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 …

  23. 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 pretty much everything else they do.

    1. 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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