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Best of Airways — Polaris: United is Finding its True North Star

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Best of Airways — Polaris: United is Finding its True North Star

Best of Airways — Polaris: United is Finding its True North Star
July 12
11:05 2017

By Chris Sloan • Airways Magazine, May 2017


After the 2015 ousting of Jeff Smisek amid a federal corruption probe and his replacement by Oscar Munoz, the carrier had embarked on a renaissance to get its mojo back. 2016 was a positive year in terms of network optimization, labor relations, overall improvements in operational reliability, on time performance, misplaced bags, and onboard products.

The so-called ‘Friendly Skies’ were redefined in Economy Class with the return of free snacks and coffee on board, the introduction of a Basic Economy fare set to debut this spring, a new domestic First Class product, and—last but not least—a new International Business Class.

Recently, U.S. competitors American Airlines’ (AA) Flagship First and Business Class, and Delta’s (DL) DeltaOne product (soon to be upgraded again on the upcoming Airbus A350s) have raised the bar, and United’s Business and Global First have fallen behind in terms of competitiveness and consistency. ‘Generic’ would be a suitable adjective to describe these cabin products.

However, United is now using its Johnny-come-lately position to its advantage by launching its new Polaris International Business Class. Announced in June 2016, the new product redefines United’s long-haul flying under a ‘culture of caring’.

“Travel, now, is like going to the dentist. So we wanted to look at how we could make everything, from the lounge to the landing, a better process,” Oscar Munoz said at that time.

The airline named its product after the brightest star in the Ursa Minor constellation, and just as ancient navigators used Polaris to find the true north, the airline is now finding its northern track, by harmonizing both ground and in-flight experiences together into a seamless ‘lounge-to-landing’ offering, while emphasizing passenger sleep and rejuvenation.

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United began to introduce its Polaris product in stages. The first unfolded last December, with fresh inflight amenities and catering, and the opening of the first Polaris lounge at Chicago O’Hare (ORD).

The hard product would have to wait until the arrival of the first of 14 Boeing 777-300(ER) wide-bodies (The New Spirit of United • N2331U • MSN 62642 • LN 1453), intended to replace the carrier’s elderly 747-400s by the end of this year.

Polaris will eventually be rolled out to United’s existing long-haul international fleet. Fourteen Boeing 767-300(ER)s and 52 777-200(ER)s will begin receiving the new cabins this year, while the 787s’ retrofit is set to start next year. The 787-10s and Airbus A350-1000s on order (if delivered) will also feature the new product.

“There’s no possible way to do a hard cutover to Polaris, but we don’t have an exact timetable for a full fleet and ground experience. It’s an aggressive but fluid schedule. We want this to be the best Business Class experience in the sky, and this will take time,” said Mark Krolick, United’s Vice President, Marketing.

Last February, Airways had the chance to take a look at Polaris during a special media preview flight from O’Hare to San Francisco (SFO).

On February 16, United introduced the 777-300(ER) into service with a flight between San Francisco (SFO) and Newark (EWR). At press time, the full long-haul Polaris service was set to debut on the SFO–Hong Kong (HKG) flight of March 25. Seoul (ICN), Taipei (TPE), and Tokyo-Narita (NRT) are thought to be the next Polaris 777-300(ER) destinations but, at press time, only EWR–Tel Aviv (TLV), beginning in May, had been confirmed.

A Branded & Seamless Premium Experience


The striking, spacious, and soothing Polaris Lounge adjacent to Gate C18 at ORD features an impressive entranceway light sculpture inspired by a map of Chicago and commissioned to English artist Wolfgang Buttress. Each Polaris Lounge will have an art installation by Buttress unique to its location.

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Just after entering, I was welcomed with a pre-departure drink at check-in. This was not a one-time only thing. Champagne and wine will be offered to all guests as they arrive.

The 12,780sq ft lounge takes advantage of natural light, which has beneficial effects on one’s circadian rhythm (also known as our internal biological clocks), thus minimizing the dislocations of jet lag.

The area has plenty of private work pods equipped with power plugs and USB ports to keep electronic devices at full charge. But perhaps the greatest novelty is represented by four private day pods in which travelers with long layovers may rest privately.

These private pods create a zen-like ambiance with soothing running water sounds. Travelers may also sign up for a private spa and showers to make their rest more enjoyable. The shower rooms have two-sided closets, from which an attendant can pick up and return the clothes that passengers would like to have refreshed and pressed before continuing their journeys.

This boutique concept is also reflected in the restaurant, where those passengers who wish to maximize their in-flight rest time can dine before boarding. The multi-course dining option features a menu developed by award-winning chef Art Smith.

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The meals are perfectly paired with a beverage of choice, including wines, spirits and handcrafted cocktails designed by mixologist Adam Seger. Needless to say, it’s a decided step above the food offerings found in other U.S. carrier lounges.

The modern bar offers a rotating menu of local and imported beers, as well as specialty cocktails. One of these is called the ‘Paper Plane’ (our favorite!); an aviation-inspired bourbon cocktail served with a tiny paper airplane.

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For select frequent international Business Class travelers, the bar offers private wine lockers, stocked with the spirits of that person’s choice. For the time being, these come at no additional cost.

“The Polaris theme permeates the lounge experience,” said Kallan Miller, the manager of United Clubs.

“The lighting and seat textures are harmonized together on the ground and with the onboard product. We focused on an elevated service. The Ritz-Carlton Executive Leadership program was applied to the lounge staff, and we have initialized a full concierge service up to 48 hours before the arrival, connecting or departure service. We have supplied laptop chords, car rentals, and hotels.”

Indeed, the staff’s training and their excitement and passion for their product and the new United were very perceptible throughout the event.

United claims that by the end of 2017, nine Polaris Lounges will be open around the system, including key domestic and the airline’s most important international markets: London-Heathrow (LHR), Frankfurt (FRA), Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco, Newark/New York, Houston (IAH), Tokyo-Narita, Washington-Dulles (IAD), and Hong Kong (HKG).

Most other Polaris Lounges will be upgraded to United’s current Global First lounges that, together with the carrier’s First Class product, are currently being phased out, bringing together a unified product.

Above and Beyond the Northern Star in Flight


Once ushered to gate C10, the ribbon-cutting took place, with Oscar Munoz leading the ceremony. He also acted as gate agent for Flight 2153 to SFO, taking the boarding passes and meeting passengers before the flight.

“This truly is about our new values,” Munoz said. “We fly right. We fly together. We fly friendly. We fly above and beyond.”

Once onboard, we were able to take a look at United’s newest flagship. At first sight, the level of care of the details and the overall quality of the product was evident, a living testament to Munoz’s statement.

This flight was going to be a special one, with only 70 passengers onboard, 12 cabin crew and three Pilots. The flight was commanded by Captain Bo Ellis, who is United’s Chief Pilot at Chicago O’Hare, supported by Captains Gary Peterson and David Schroeder.

The Boeing 777-300(ER)’s Business Class cabin is configured in two separate areas, with 60 seats arranged in a 1-2-1 direct aisle access—the current accepted benchmark for long-haul Premium travel—and the suite-like seat pods, designed together by Acumen Associated and PriestmanGoode, are 23” wide with 78” of pitch.

Each of the all-forward facing suite-like pods features mood lighting, one-touch lumbar support, several storage areas, a 16” HD IFE screen powered by the ubiquitous Panasonic eX3 suite, paired with the company’s eXConnect for in-flight connectivity, universal AC power, two USB ports, electronic privacy dividers, and a ‘Do Not Disturb’ electronic sign—perhaps one of their most distinctive characteristics. Pullman-like lamps lend even more sophistication and elegance to the setting.

“What I am most proud of is the seat. It provides you with your own little area. It’s intimate and there are options for our guests,” said Dennis Lake, International Flight Service manager for our flight. “The wow factor is having a seat that can be customized to be exactly what you want, your own space.”

The truth is that Polaris is all about details, from the blue ambient mood lighting, which provides a halcyon feeling throughout the cabin, to the tasteful, high-end blue and aluminum finishes and marble side table. It does indeed exude upscale calm, reflecting the ambiance found in the lounge.

The Zodiac seats have a three-point safety strap. The cheerful FAs individually showed each passenger how to use it. In general terms, the seat seemed very firm but comfortable. I became aware of more details, such as a grab bar, located just above the IFE, which eases the exit from the suite, and the slot in the table to keep tablets upright.

These differences have made as much of an impression on the staff as they have on the passengers. “Polaris has had a positive effect on our crew,” Lake said. “This service has made us very proud and is trickling throughout the entire airline.”

“What stands out is the good design that is in the details,” said airline analyst Henry Harteveldt, who was also on board the media flight. “The vanity mirror, the seat grab bar, the fact that you can watch your video on takeoff and landing, the color scheme, the finishes, the slot for your tablet and device. There is adequate in-seat storage. It’s very ergonomic.”

Once settled in our suites, we were offered a flute of Champagne and a delicate piece of chocolate—a big improvement over the dated Premium products of United’s past.

The Panasonic IFE system proved to be very responsive, with a high-resolution display and perhaps the most informative and complete airshow map functionality that I’ve ever seen.

The suite offers hundreds of movies, games, and audio options, including the distinctive Channel 9, in which the conversations taking place between the ATC and the cockpit crew can be heard.

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And, leaning even further into the Polaris sleep philosophy, United’s IFEs have a unique channel focused on relaxation. The programming features soothing views of nature and meditation scenes.

Time to Fly with Polaris


We pushed back at 14:56 and, after a 14-minute taxi, we whispered down the runway. It has been reported that United has applied extra sound insulation to reduce the noise; however, it is possible that the de-rated takeoff and light load helped to make this one of the quietest 777 takeoffs I can recall.

Once aloft, the first order of business was a wine tasting. In this United exclusive, instead of the traditional drinks trolley, the catering begins with wine served in a silver wine sampler service item with three positions. Think of it as a ‘wine flight’ on an actual flight. An added benefit of this is that it gives the cabin crew another chance to interact with the passengers.

I chose a red wine sampler of Colby Red blend 2014, Kir-Yianni 2015 Paranga Red Blend, and a Columbia Crest H3 2014 Cabernet, accompanied by the obligatory nuts in a ramekin. United’s sommelier is earning his gastronomic keep with these selections.

Passengers flying Polaris in the morning can choose either a Mimosa or a Tito’s Handmade Vodka Bloody Mary as a pre-flight drink.

In keeping with redefining the service, instead of being found already at our seats, the amenity kits were offered to us personalized by the Saks Fifth Avenue-trained cabin crew. The airline co-branded with Soho House & Co’s Cowshed spa for the amenity kits, which are packaged with ergonomically designed eye shades and a calming pillow mist.

On this flight, every seat in the cabin had a Polaris white teddy bear and full Saks bedding awaiting us. The branded bedding itself is a departure, featuring a gel-cooled pillow, to regulate your own temperature, along with two blankets. Bespoke monogrammed Polaris-branded pajamas and slippers are available on all flights.

According to Krolick, these details were years in development and painstakingly obsessed over. “We wanted to create a branded experience. We designed everything in the lounge to complement what is in the air”

In one of the few letdowns, the redesigned lavatories are normal size, with no special finishes or adornments. This is probably related to the large size of the two Polaris cabins.

An army travels on its stomach, and a long-haul plane is no different


The upgraded branded Polaris catering service is provided by the Trotter Project and its celebrity chefs, including Chefs Bill Kim—of Chicago restaurants Urbanbelly, bellyQ, and Belly Shack—and Jesse Dunford Wood, chef-owner at Parlour in London.

The menu changes seasonally and is adjusted depending on its destination. The meal delivery service has been optimized from five to three passes down the aisle, in order to make it more efficient, though the number of courses remains the same.

For our flight, the menu was as follows:

Starters & Salads:

Chilled appetizer of Thai-style lemongrass shrimp and green papaya salad with mango. This starter was restaurant-quality and the cabin team accommodated my request for seconds.

For the greens, the selection was baby spinach, orange, red seedless grape, and strawberry pumpkin seed. The salad was incredibly crisp and flavorful, offset by the spicy shrimp.

A nice touch was provided by the Flight Attendant personally offering to dash the salad with freshly ground pepper.

Entrée:

Braised short rib, Asian Fusion chicken soup, Portobello mushroom and caramelized onion ravioli, seasonal salad with grilled chicken.

I selected a delicious, moist, succulent Seared Turbot Stu Basil Beurre Blanc, mushroom risotto with Fava-brand cherry tomato. Fish can be arid at altitude, but mine was exceptionally moist and the risotto oozed with taste.

Personally, I found that it all dispelled the trite notion of bad airline food.

I somehow disregarded the healthy options when the dessert trolley came a-calling. There was an international cheese assortment, a signature sundae, and my choice: sweet treats of mini apple pie, salted caramel bar, assorted dessert cups, and hearty ports.

United also offers an à la carte menu, in which cold bites—such as fresh seasonal fruit, sweet and salty snacks, and assorted sandwiches—and hot ones—such as lobster mac and cheese, tomato basil soup, and instant noodle soup—are available anytime.

There’s also a self-service buffet in the second galley, where baguette sandwiches and small noshes are available.

Final Impressions


Throughout its history, United has maintained a staid and sober stance. Sure, it showed glimmers of glamor with its legendary Royal Hawaiian service, ‘Fly the Friendly Skies’ campaign, Connoisseur Class of the 1990s, and standout P.S. transcontinental product from the early millennium. But United was never the first airline that came to mind when passenger experience innovation was mentioned.

With Polaris, United has chosen to shoot for the stars and do something bold. Though our experience was that of a nearly perfectly orchestrated demo flight, it’s pretty safe to assume that, with the introduction of Polaris, United has chosen to shoot for the stars and do something bold. United has availed itself of the right stuff to excel and raise the bar in long-haul.

And the analysts concur; as Harteveldt said, “I have avoided flying United for long-haul for a long time. It had all the appeal of a military barrack but this [Polaris] is refined, tasteful, but not opulent. It is very on-brand.”

Harteveldt even sees Polaris pulling ahead of its established rivals in some respects.

“In comparison to United’s Joint Venture and Star Alliance partners, Lufthansa’s Business Class doesn’t have direct aisle. This makes them fully competitive with Air New Zealand and it brings them closer to Singapore and ANA.”

Zach Honing, Editor in Chief of The Points Guy, concurs; “Compared to competitors, there’s more privacy in this cabin. For soft product, it’s far better than American’s Business Class.”

“As for the hard product,” he added, “I wouldn’t avoid it, in contrast to the past. I’d be perfectly happy in these seats, even if they are a bit narrow. United is leading the way when it comes to US-based carriers. Overall, this is better than Lufthansa and of some of the Star Alliance carriers.”

With Polaris, United Airlines needed to make a moon shot. Based on these strong first impressions, it seems that the Chicago-based carrier has found its North Star for a successful launch.

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About Author

Chris Sloan

Chris Sloan

Aviation Journalist, TV Producer, Pursuer of First & Last Flights, Proud Miamian, Intrepid Traveler, and Did I Mention Av-Geek? I've Been Sniffing Jet Fuel Since I was 5, and running the predecessor to airwaysmag.com, Airchive, Since 2003. Now, I Sit in the Right Seat as Co-Pilot of Airways Magazine and airwaysmag.com. My favorite Airlines are National and Braniff, and My favorite Airport is Miami, L-1011 Tristar Lover. My Mantra is Lifted From Delta's Ad Campaign from the 1980s "I Love To Fly And It Shows." chris@airwaysmag.com / @airchive

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1 Comment

  1. MBBoston
    MBBoston July 17, 19:53

    Let’s make no mistake: Polaris’s DNA comes from Continental–not United. Continental was by far the more innovative carrier and absolutely the more highly-rated in customer satisfaction pre-merger. Continental’s BusinessFirst was a well-regarded premium class for years.

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