CHICAGO — United Airlines offered yesterday a sneak peek of the first Polaris Lounge at Chicago O’Hare, designed to serve its international business class customers.
The lounge, the only of its type offered by a US carrier for business class travelers, is part of a complete redesign of its product on the ground and in the air, featuring a myriad custom seating areas with outlets, private spaces with daybeds and Saks Fifth Avenue-branded blankets and slippers, spa shower rooms, craft cocktails curated by New York-based mixologist Adam Seger and hot meals and food created by Chef Art Smith, who cooked for Oprah Winfrey for 10 years.
United first previewed Polaris at a gala event in New York City in June. Maria Walter is United’s managing director of product development and brand strategy, charged with overseeing the implementation of Polaris.
“Since Polaris was unveiled in June, we’ve undertaken a number of steps behind the scenes to get ready. We’ve had six months of training for our flight attendants,” said Walter. “We’ve worked with Saks Fifth Avenue on the hospitality component of their training. We’ve also been doing dress rehearsals with our flight attendants.”
Polaris is a complete change on how United provisions an aircraft, so flight attendants had to learn new procedures, said Walter. “We do this so when we start tomorrow (December 1), they will know exactly what needs to be done based on tweaks we made,” she said. “For example, we’re repacking our galley carts to accommodate the 2,000 new food items we’ll be serving onboard our flights.”
The flight attendants got hands-on practice to understand where items will be located, said Walter. “We focused on newer things like the dessert and Bloody Mary carts. Our flight attendants need to be ready because our customers will depend on them. It’s been a steep learning curve, but now it’s become old hat. It’s a big change for our flight attendants, but they are excited.”
United’s best customers were a big part of the development of Polaris, said Walter. “We had a Boeing 767 on the ground where we tested hundreds of different concepts, getting feedback and adjusting accordingly to bring the product together,” she said. “Our customer feedback has been tremendous. They’re excited about things like direct aisle access seats and the Bloody Mary and dessert carts.”
The airline has worked with Chef Bill Kim of the Trotter Project for its onboard food, said Walter. “That menu focuses on locally grown fresh food,” she said. “There’s been a lot of care to curate a thoughtful trip for customers.”
There are three pieces to the Polaris implementation timeline, said Walter. “Part one is the service, which starts on December 1 on all our long-haul flights. Part two is the opening of the first Polaris lounge her at O’Hare, also on December 1,” she said. “We will have nine Polaris lounges, with the next three opening in San Francisco, Newark and Houston next year.”
Part three is the new international business class seat, said Walter. “We take the keys to our first Boeing 777-300 in December. We have to do FAA certification flights and that aircraft will be ready for service by the end of the first quarter of 2017,” she said.
That will be the new aircraft standard going forward, said Walter. “Our Boeing 787-10s and Airbus A350-1000s will have that cabin on delivery. We will start retrofitting our 767s and 777-200s next year.”
What became the Polaris project actually started three years ago with the development of a new business class seat, said Walter. “We saw a rapidly changing market. United was the first with lie-flat seats in business class, but our competition was moving ahead with seats with aisle access,” she said. “We hadn’t had a product refresh since the 1990s, so we wanted to look at everything to address the needs of our business class flyer and deliver that.”
As for critics who say United is late to the game with the Polaris upgrades, Walter said that she’s proud of the airline’s long history of innovation, like flat bed seats. “We are bringing all-aisle access in the cabin, and we feel like it’s the best in class offering,” she said. “We’re the first in the US to bring forward a dedicated international business class lounge. We’re excited that we’re not just answering the call, but upping the ante.”
United did a major advertising push for Polaris, including banners in airports and media ads to fill what the airline found was a perception gap, said Walter. “We did thousands of hours of research with our customers. We have industry-leading products but have been quiet after the merger in promoting them,” she said. “Many of our customers didn’t know about the investments we’ve made like switching to Illy coffee and offering better snacks.”
It’s important for customers to know that change is in the air at United, said Walter. “[CEO] Oscar [Munoz] talks about the new spirit of United, and we want to ensure that our customers, especially in our hub markets, see that employees are proud to work here and that we have a great product.”
United also needs to ensure that we have innovative offerings for customers, said Walter. “So many times we do that quietly behind the scenes. For example, we were the first airline to have satellite-based Wi-Fi. We see our competitors advertising things we’ve had for awhile. Our competition and customers need to see what we’re doing.”
Walter said she hopes customers experience three things when Polaris rolls out on December 1. “We hope they feel refreshed. Getting the best sleep is important, whether you’re in our daybed lounge or seated in the sky,” she said. “We want them to feel nourished with the excellent food program we have in place. Finally, we want them to feel delighted and cared for with new amenities that will anticipate their every need.”