SAN FRANCISCO — Since its 2012 merger with Continental, United Airlines had been considered the underachiever of the U.S. legacy airlines – and that’s being kind. Employees, shareholders, and customers were underwhelmed at the company’s performance, to say the least.
Beginning under the auspice of CEO Oscar Munoz, United has embarked on a renaissance to get its mojo back. The airline has made significant strides across the board in labor relations, profitability, network optimization, its management team, and most importantly to its customers: improvements in operational reliability, on-time performance, misplaced bags, and onboard products.
Incremental customer friendly steps debuted last year, such as a new domestic First Class product, website, and app. In the back of the plane, free snacks like the Biscotti Battling Stroopwaffel and Illy coffee were introduced to positive acclaim.
Even though the company’s lean and turbulent years, the international network has been a consistent crown jewel. United Airlines’ extensive long-haul network is considered by many metrics the largest and most competitive route system of all the U.S. carriers. Its long-haul inflight product, however, has been anything but competitive and consistent.
By nearly every measure from hard to a soft product, United’s Business and Global First products have been the U.S. industry’s premium laggards with American and Delta’s having long surpassed them. It’s 8-abreast Business Cabin on the 777s, and lack of any sort of flair, have been particular pain points. “Generic” would be an apt description of the former product.
Ironically, United is able to use its “Johnny Come Lately” position to its advantage, giving the airline an opportunity to attempt to leapfrog – particularly its domestic competitors while redefining the philosophy of what constitutes long-haul flying.
To truly be competitive in this uber-competitive universe of domestic and international players, United aspired to find its true North Star.
Last June, the airline announced the introduction of its new premium international cabin. Polaris became the new brand’s moniker with the service’s emphasis placed upon sleep and rejuvenation. Showing a little moxy and no small amount of innovation, the airline took the additional step of harmonizing the ground and inflight experiences together for a “lounge-to-landing” offering, with both custom lounges and cabins designed to work in concert as a seamless product.
The pivotal importance of re-imaging its long-haul product comes at a time when American Airlines raised the bar with its well-received Flagship First and Business Class, adding to that Delta’s coming upgraded suite based DeltaOne product, the arms race from international competitors, and even Star Alliance and Joint Venture partners like Lufthansa, ANA and Air New Zealand.
United had no choice but to respond and raise the ante – going beyond incremental improvement and doing something transformative. Something big.
The staggered ramp-up began as United commenced Polaris operations on December 1, 2016, for the new product, but in a paired downstate, featuring just the new inflight amenities and catering, as well as the first Polaris lounge at Chicago O’Hare. The new hard product would have to wait until the arrival of its new Boeing 777-300ER christened “The New Spirit of United” – the first of 14 the airline expects to receive by summer of this year.
“We are naming the plane “The New Spirit of United” I took the executive privilege to name the aircraft,” United CEO Oscar Munoz said during the world debut of the full Polaris offering yesterday, in which Airways was invited.
The Polaris hard product will eventually be rolled out to United’s existing long-haul international fleet of 767-300ERs and 777-200s beginning with 14 and 52 respectively this year according to Ed Russell of FlightGlobal. The 787-8 retrofits will begin in 2018, as well as the new 787-10s and Airbus A350-1000s the Chicago-based airline has on order. Provided of course the A350-1000 order ever materializes into actual deliveries.
What’s the answer to the all-important timetable to the full fleet and lounge cutover? “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 Polaris experience. It’s an aggressive schedule but fluid. We want this to be the best business class experience in the sky which will take time,” said Mark Krolick, United’s VP/ Marketing.
United sent a strong message reverberating throughout the industry with the confident move of operating a special media-only preview flight with one of its 777-300ERs, (N2331U • MSN 62642 • LN 1453), which was positioned from San Francisco to Chicago O’Hare just the day before with crew training aboard an empty plane just for purposes of this flight.
Talk about chutzpah! Our flight would operate from Chicago O’Hare to its new base in San Francisco under flight number 2153. Following the 777-300ER’s domestic route proving between San Francisco and Newark beginning on February 16, the full Polaris product will launch in earnest on March 25 between San Francisco and Hong Kong. The 777-300ERs will replace the elderly Boeing 747-400s, which will end their career for United by the end of this year. Likely future Polaris 77W long-haul destinations between San Francisco and Seoul, Beijing, Taipei, and Tokyo. But these haven’t been confirmed. The next route confirmed will operate between Newark and Tel Aviv beginning in May.
Following the 777-300ER’s domestic route proving between San Francisco and Newark beginning on February 16, the full Polaris product will launch in earnest on March 25 between San Francisco and Hong Kong.
The 777-300ERs will replace the elderly Boeing 747-400s, which will end their career for United by the end of this year. Likely future Polaris 77W long-haul destinations between San Francisco and Seoul, Beijing, Taipei, and Tokyo. But these haven’t been confirmed. The next route confirmed will operate between Newark and Tel Aviv beginning in May.
Likely future Polaris 77W long-haul destinations between San Francisco and Seoul, Beijing, Taipei, and Tokyo. But these haven’t been confirmed. The next route confirmed will operate between Newark and Tel Aviv beginning in May.
A Branded, Harmonized Experience
Our Experience began at the first Polaris Lounge located adjacent to Gate C18 at O’Hare. The striking, spacious, and soothing lounge features an impressive entrance-way light sculpture by English artist Wolfgang Buttress that takes inspiration from a map of Chicago. Each Polaris lounge will have an art installation by Buttress unique to that location.
Just after entering, I was welcomed with a pre-departure drink at check-in. This is not a one-time only thing; champagne and wine are offered to all guests as they arrive.
The first impression of the 12,700-square-foot lounge is that it takes advantage of the natural light, which has positive effects on the circadian rhythm (aka our internal biological clocks), thus minimizing the excessive sleepiness and a lack of daytime alertness in travelers who cross several time zones (take that, jet lag!).
The area has plenty of private work pods and opens seating areas with plenty of power plugs and USB ports for electronic devices, as well as day pods in which travelers with long layovers may rest privately.
Just entering to the corridor where these day pods and showers are located, the roof twinkled like the night sky, another fiber optic art created by Buttress. Once inside one of the pods, the soothing running water sounds give a zen-like ambiance, which combined with the appointed private spas and showers give travelers a well-deserved rest.
These shower rooms have two-sided closets, where an attendant can pick up and return clothes passengers would like to have refreshed and pressed before continuing with their journeys.
Food options Polaris preflight dining menu, all served in a boutique restaurant setting. This allows passengers to dine before boarding if they wish to maximize their rest while onboard. Today, the culinary choices on the buffet included buttermilk fried chicken, baked shrimp Ziti pasta, chicken potpie, and multiple salads. This is a decided step above food offerings from other U.S. Carrier lounges.
Some significant surprise and delight differentiators are at the bar where the menu includes a series of specialty cocktails. One of these club’s special cocktails is called the “Paper Plane” and even comes served with a tiny paper airplane.
For high-value Global Services passengers, the Polaris Club has introduced private wine lockers stocked with spirits of that person’s choice. This, for the time being, is at no additional cost.
“The Polaris theme permeates the lounge experience. 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. We have initialized a full concierge service within a 48-hour arrival. We have supplied laptop chords, car rentals, and hotels,” says Kallan Miller, manager United Clubs.
Indeed the staff’s training and visible excitement and passion for their product and the new United was very perceptible.
By the end of the year, Nine Polaris lounges will be open around the system, including key domestic and international markets: London Heathrow, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Newark/New York, Houston, Tokyo Narita, Washington Dulles, and Hong Kong. Most other Polaris lounges will be upgrades to United’s current Global First Lounges, which have become obsolete as the airline is currently removing its first class product from its fleet.
In Flight: Reaching for the Stars
Once ushered to gate C10, the ribbon cutting ceremony took place with Oscar Munoz taking the lead. He also became a gate agent, taking the passenger’s boarding pass at the Gate.
“This truly is about our new values. We fly right. We fly together. We fly friendly. We fly above and beyond,” Munoz said.
Once onboard, myself and other fellow journalists and bloggers that joined me in the flight were able to take a look at United’s newest flagship, and just as Munoz mentioned before, the details and overall quality of the product is above and beyond.
This flight was going to be a special one, with only 70 passengers onboard and 12 cabin crew and three pilots. The normal flights will be staffed with 12 – 13 cabin crew. Captain Bo Ellis, who is United’s Chief Pilot at Chicago O’Hare, and Captain Gary Peterson as the First Officer, commanded the flight.
The Polaris cabin is configured in two separate cabins, with 1-2-1 direct aisle access, now the accepted benchmark for long-haul premium travel. The 60 seats produced by Zodiac and designed by Acumen Associates and PriestmanGoode are 23″ wide with 78″ of the pitch.
The all-forward facing suite-like pods feature mood lighting, one-touch lumbar support, several storage areas, a 16” HD IFE screens powered by the ubiquitous Panasonic eX3 suite, paired with the company’s eXConnect for the in-flight connectivity.
The seats also offer universal AC power, two USB ports, electronic privacy dividers, and a “do not disturb” electronic sign —perhaps one of the most distinctive characteristics of this product. The blue ambient mood lighting provided a halcyon feeling throughout the cabin, though if the twinkling night sky found in the lounge had made it on the aircraft à la Emirates that would have been an added bonus.
The lighting and tasteful, high-end materials do indeed exude upscale calm, reflecting the same ambiance as in the lounge, offering a seamless experience, or as the marketing materials of the airline say “From Ahhhhs (to express awesomeness) to ZZZZZ’s” (to describe its comfort).
The Panasonic IFE system proved to be very responsive, with a high-resolution display, and perhaps the most informative and complete airshow that I’ve ever seen. The suite offers hundreds of movies, games and audio options… including the distinctive Channel 9, in which the conversation between the air traffic controllers and the cockpit crew can be heard.
Leaning even further into the Polaris sleep philosophy United’s IFE’s feature a unique channel focused on relaxation. The programming features soothing nature scenes and meditation scenes.
The Polaris difference has made as much an impression on the staff as it has the customers. “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.”
Lake also highlighted the impact of Polaris in the airline “Polaris has been a positive effect on our crew. This service has made us very proud and is trickling throughout the entire airline.”
Polaris is all about details. From the tasteful blue and aluminum finishes with a marble side table to a slot in the table to fit tablets standing upright, with a forward facing USB port, just wonderful details one after another.
The Zodiac seats have a three-point safety strap. The cheerful Flight Attendants show passengers individually how to use it. My initial impression is that it’s very firm, but comfortable, with lumbar adjustment functionality. All around the space, the delight is in the details, with a private cubicle for storage and Pullman-like lamps, which enhance even more the sophisticated and elegant touch.
Perhaps one of the most relevant details is a grab bar, located just above the IFE, which eases the egress to the suite.
Once settled in our suites, passengers were offered a flute of champagne and a delicate piece of chocolate. This set the stage that we weren’t embarking on the dated premium products of United’s past. The IFE full system was immediately accessible from the beginning.
In keeping with redefining the service, instead of finding amenity kits already at our seats, they were offered to us personalized by the Sak’s 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 eyeshades and a calming pillow mist.
In this flight, every seat in the cabin had a Polaris white teddy bear, and full Sak’s bedding awaiting us. The branded Sak’s bedding itself is a departure featuring a gel-cooled pillow to regulate your own temperature along with two blankets. This gives the guests more control of their own experience.
Bespoke monogrammed Polaris branded pajamas and slippers are available on all flights. This clearly isn’t your father’s United.
Our pushback started at 14:56, and after a 14-minute taxi, we whispered down the runway. It’s been reported that United has applied an extra sound insulation to reduce the noise, but possibly the de-rated takeoff and a light load helped to make this one of the quietest 777 takeoffs I’ve ever recalled.
Once aloft, the first order of business was a wine tasting. In this United exclusive, instead of just the traditional drinks trolley, the catering begins with a wine tasting served in a silver wine sampler service item with 3 positions. Think of it as a “wine flight” on an actual flight. An added benefit, this gives the cabin crew another way 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 as a pre-flight drink either a Mimosa or a Tito’s Handmade Vodka Bloody Mary.
According to the airline, these details were years in development and painstakingly obsessed over. “We wanted to create a branded experience. We designed everything in the lounge to compliment what is in the air. People wanted to sleep but they didn’t want to give up anything and give people more time to sleep,” Krolick said.
“We tested a product concept where everyone was made out to be a movie star but it came down to a very practical ‘I want a good meal and good sleep’. This differentiates us. Most customers, mainly from Chicago, who have only experienced two of the pillars (the onboard and lounge) have responded very well. Those not flying from Chicago, have only experienced one pillar (onboard) and yet they have responded well. Once they experience all three pillars with the full hard product and seat it will only get better.” Krolick concluded.
United entered into a first-of-its-kind relationship with Saks Fifth Avenue. The carrier invested heavily in a training program designed in partnership with Saks for cabin crew working Polaris, and the New York-based firm will provide custom-designed bedding: plush duvets and day-blankets with mattress cushions available on request.
Even lavatories have become premium cabin showplaces, but not so for United. In one of the few disappointments, the redesigned lavatories are a bit of a letdown. Unlike other Premium such installations, they are normal size with no special finishes or adornments. This probably has something to do with the size of the two Polaris cabins.
But for the most part, the reaction was effusive even for the most discerning critics. “What stood out is good design is in the details. 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 devices, there is adequate in-seat storage. It’s very ergonomic,” said prominent airline analyst Henry Harteveldt.
“I have avoided flying United for the long haul for a long time. It had all the appeal of a military barrack but this is refined, tasteful, but not opulent. It is very on brand.”
Harteveldt even sees advantages to Polaris. “In comparison to United’s JV and Star Alliance partners, Lufthansa business class doesn’t have the direct aisle. This brings them fully competitive with Air New Zealand and it brings them closer to Singapore and ANA.”
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 Chef Bill Kim of Chicago restaurants Urbanbelly, bellyQ and Belly Shack and Chef Jesse Dunford Wood, chef-owner at Parlour in London. The menu changes out seasonally and is adjusted by virtues of its destination. Meal delivery service optimized from five down to three passes down the aisle to make it more efficient, though the same number of courses remains intact.
For our flight, the menu was as follows:
Starters & Salads
A 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, strawberry pumpkin seed. The salad was incredibly crisp and flavorful offset by the spicy shrimp. A nice touch was the flight attendant personally offering to dash the salad with freshly ground pepper.
Braised short rib, Asian Fusion chicken soup, Portobello mushroom and caramelized onion ravioli, seasonal salad with grilled chicken.
No steaks on a plane for me! I opted to eat healthily. I selected a delicious, moist, succulent Seared Turbot Stu Basil Beurre Blanc, mushroom risotto with fava brand, cherry tomato. Fish can be arid out altitude but mine was exceptionally moist and the Risotto teemed with taste. Personally, it all dispels the trite notion of bad airline food.
I somehow disregarded the healthy part when the dessert trolley came to a calling. There was an International cheese assortment, signature sundae, and I chose sweet treats of mini apple pie, salted caramel bar, assorted dessert cups and hearty ports.
United also offers a ‘à la carte Menu’, in which cold bites such as fresh seasonal fruit, sweet and salty snacks and assorted sandwiched, and hot bites such as lobster mac and cheese, tomato basil soup and instant noodle soup are available at any time.
There’s also a buffet in the 2nd galley where baguette sandwiches and small noshes are served self-service.
Though our demonstration flight was concentrated on Polaris, we along with other members of the scrum checked out the cabins where most of the new 777-300ERs would experience the new aircraft. Unsurprisingly, it’s not quite “Seventh Heaven” back here.
While things are noticeably upgraded in the pointy part of the plane, United has followed the industry-wide trend toward densification in the economy with a tight 3-4-3 ten abreast configuration, even in Economy Plus. Economy Plus’ 102 seats have seen their seat pitch and width reduced to 34” and 17.5” from 35” and 18.5” respectively from the current 777-200 fleet, while the Economy cabin’s 204 seat’s pitch has diminished to 31” from 32”.
Seth Miller of RunwayGirlNetwork.com bought out his ruler and measured a stingy width of 16 5/8” with a narrow armrest. This is nearly acceptable if no one is sitting next to you, but borderline claustrophobic if you are stuck with a neighboring passenger.
On a positive note, a new personal seatback inflight entertainment system is fitted at every seat, the cabin’s mood lighting provides a soothing setting, and the aesthetic of the new yet tighter seats feels projects a more contemporary image. For better and worse, United’s 777-200 international fleet will follow in the contrails of the 777-300ER.
Unlike American and Delta, United has made no announcements about introducing a true Premium Economy cabin… yet. “I think United will have to have the premium economy to compete in the market,” Harteveldt said. United confirmed Premium Y is “under evaluation”.
Throughout its history, United has leaned toward the staid and workaday. Sure there were glimmers of glam with its legendary Royal Hawaiian service, “Fly the Friendly Skies” campaign, The Connoisseur Class of the 1990s, and standout.P.S. transcontinental product from the early millennium. But United has never been the first airline that came to mind when it came to passenger experience innovation.
With Polaris, United chose to shoot for the stars and do something bold. They really had no choice but to respond. Though our experience was a nearly perfectly orchestrated demo flight, it’s pretty safe to assume that with the introduction of Polaris, United has “The Right Stuff” to excel and raise the bar in the long-haul.
Frequent flyers and bloggers such as Zach Honig concur: “I have been on a lot of United flights. The biggest impression is the privacy and personal space. Overall, the catering is an improvement. Maybe there could be more innovation in catering, but you’re more likely to get your first choice.”
“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, I wouldn’t avoid it in contrast to 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 U.S. based carriers. Overall, This is better than Lufthansa and some of the Star carriers.”
With Polaris, United needed to make a moon shot. The first impressions are positive that United has found its North Star with Polaris, for a successful launch.
Editor’s Note: Airways will be reporting from the inaugural revenue flight of the United’s Boeing 777-300ER from Newark to San Francisco on Thursday, February 16, 2017.
Disclosure: United Airlines provided travel for this review, but as always our opinions are independent and remain our own.