Unveiled: United’s new Polaris Business Class and Lounge
Last night I did something admittedly a bit geeky–I went to an event at the airport to check out United’s new business class product. I had scored a ticket to the event from a United, but I was honestly not sure if there was going to be much to check out. In the end, I am very glad that I went!
Time for an upgrade
United’s current business class configuration is, well…awful. It is confusingly named BusinessFirst–but it is obsolete and not a competitive product even compared to other US carriers. As far as I know, United is the only airline in the world that forces its business class passengers to endure a 4 across business seat configuration in the center aisle of its 777s. Additionally, the cabin layout is very awkward with many of the seats facing backwards so you are looking directly at another passenger.
Here is a picture of an empty BusinessFirst cabin–not much more room than economy.
The configuration allows United to cram a lot of seats into the cabin, at the expense of its passengers:
As you can see the majority of the BusinessFirst seats do not have direct aisle access and when the cabin is full you really get to know the other travelers in your row very well.
Needless to say, the product is not very highly reviewed and United was likely losing business to other airlines with a better product. Given the choice between these tight seats where you are wedged in like sausages and almost any other business class lie-flat product, why would anyone choose this?
Luckily, United has completely redesigned and reimagined their business class offering.
The New Polaris Experience
I was not sure exactly what to expect last night at Dulles, but I was very impressed! After a long day at work I ventured to Dulles via metro and bus service and arrived to the terminal with my ticket in hand. I initially was not exactly sure where the event was going to be held, but it was right in the main ticketing/check in area, towards the back near the TSA checkpoint. United had erected walls around the event, and had someone checking names at the entrance so it remained exclusive and you could not see anything unless invited.
Queuing to check off guest names and welcome people to the event:
As I entered the Polaris area I immediately liked the way United set up the event. The area was set up to replicate what the new Polaris lounge will look like with a bar, tables, and self serve food.
Once past the lounge area, there were several different stations detailing the features of Polaris. In the center of the room was a mock-up of the seats themselves in a center aisle configuration. There were 4 seats total, so you could get a good feel for how they would look and feel on the aircraft.
This was my first stop after picking up a glass of Malbec. I wanted to check out the seats! Employees were there discussing the features of the seats. Some highlights included: completely lie flat seats that accommodate travelers who are up to 6 foot 6 inches; a do not disturb button; direct aisle access for all seats; plenty of storage areas; a 16-inch monitor; adjustable lighting; a sliding tray with iPad stand; and a center partition that can be raised or lowered depending on whether or not you know your neighbor. All seats will also have noise canceling headphones in case you do know your neighbor but just want to drown them out for a while.
The left and right aisle seats also all have direct aisle access and the inner window seat especially offers a nice amount of privacy.
As you can see from the above picture, United significantly upgraded the bedding for Polaris. United partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue to create custom bedding for Polaris. Passengers have their choice of two different blankets–a quilted duvet and/or a lighter throw blanket. Mattress cushions are also available. A particularly nice feature is United will offer a cooling gel memory foam pillow instead of (or in addition to) the Saks Fifth Avenue pillows you’ll find at your seat. This memory foam pillow was very comfortable!
The amenity kits are also upgraded and include Cowshed products, socks, tissues, earplugs, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a really comfortable formed eye mask that gives you space above your eyes. Also, on long-haul flights greater than 12 hours United will provide passengers with a set of pajamas. Personally, I think that United should provide these to passengers on any international flight, but I digress.
After checking out the seats, bedding, and amenity kits, I decided to sample some of the food. There were several different selections including Indian butter chicken, lamb kabobs, salads, sushi, and gnocchi. While the food was decent, it was not anything special. I did not go back for seconds. However, the onboard dining options seem very promising.
United promises several different dining options. First, a chef-redesigned, traditional multi-course inflight dining experience. Second, if you want to maximize sleep on the flight, you can choose to enjoy a seated meal in the United Polaris Lounge before your flight. Finally, an Express Dining service on a single tray with your full meal all at once, at a time you choose. Additionally, United will offer self-serve snacks and beverages during the flight that you can grab at your convenience.
There were several interactive touch-screen computer stations set up that went through all of the features, but you can check out the same thing here: Explore Polaris
United also offered a virtual reality walk through of Polaris which was really cool! I sat in a chair with a virtual reality headset on my head and was able to tour a Polaris lounge, board the aircraft, check out the seats, etc. It really felt like I was on an airplane.\
United gets it right
I really only have positive things to say about the Polaris event and the product itself. United obviously realized that their current business class was not very good and it appears that they really listened to frequent flyers when designing the new product. It is comfortable, spacious, easy to use, and offers good amenities. However, the product itself is only half of the equation. Will United’s service improve to match the upgraded product? United could have the nicest business product in the sky–but without better service and attention to detail from the cabin crew, customers may still choose another airline. Based on my past experiences flying United, service has often been average at best and was not even close to airlines like SWISS, Lufthansa, Cathay, Korean, etc.
Overall, the evening was great–thanks to United for the invitation! I am looking forward to trying out Polaris when it debuts in early 2017.