United Polaris = Overpromise, Underdeliver

UPDATE (Mar 2018): Polaris is basically dead. Honestly, I'm sad I was right about this. As time has marched on I think we're seeing an answer to my final paragraph in this story: the future of international travel is looking a lot more like Spirit or Ryanair and less like ANA or Emirates.

UPDATE (Feb 2018): I put down these thoughts a year ago about United Polaris. One Mile At A Time just posted an update on United Polaris, and sadly there's still only one Polaris lounge in the world and the rollout of the Polaris seat on their existing planes is going even slower than projected. Furthermore, many of the promised soft amenities (wine flights, pillows) are already being cut back. Sigh…

United is pouring millions of advertising dollars to tell the world about their new Polaris Class. Essentially they're ditching long-haul international First Class in favor of a "Business Class Plus" experience and giving it a catchy name. Very seldom have I had so many non-plane geek friends bringing up a new product with me the way I have with Polaris – so kudos to their marketing department for reaching a whole new audience with this vision.

But there are a few problems:

1. The nice new seats from the commercials won't be fully installed until 2021

Yes, that's right, you can book a Polaris flight right now, but the only Polaris thing about your flight will be new catering, the bedding, and the amenity kit. You'll still have the same old seat, same old interiors, and same old lounges (unless you're flying through Chicago where the lone Polaris lounge is).

The first plane with the Polaris interior has been delivered from Boeing, but it's still on training runs and won't be in regular service until nearly a year after Polaris was announced. (And did I mention that on the Polaris 777s, they're shoving in an extra seat per row in Economy?)

And pity the poor uneducated Polaris enthusiast who just randomly buys a United international Business Class ticket after seeing the commercial and ends up in their ratty 2-4-2 seating config on their 777s...

United's current 6-abreast 777 Business Class

2. The seats look nice but aren't exceeding their domestic or international rivals

Delta's new ONE product has closing-door suites, as does JetBlue Mint. I'd say the Polaris seats are comparable to the new American Airlines Flagship First... maybe a bit more innovative, but they're more densely-spaced than American's seats.

Polaris (left), AA's Flagship First

If you've ever seen Singapore's Suites Class, or the Etihad Apartment (let's not even mention The Residence!), then you'll know that the Polaris seats are a league below their international competitors' First Class products.

They come out a bit more favorably against international carriers who don't offer a First Class above their Business Class cabin. I'd say the seats are generally on par with EVA Airlines Royal Laurel Business Class, or JAL's 787 Sky Suite.

Etihad's First Class Apartment

3. Enthusiastic, committed staff are crucial, but I'm not hopeful on that front

We all talk a lot about seats, but for me, if I have a flat bed and Wi-Fi the rest of the stuff is just gravy. So why do I always try to fly international carriers instead of American ones on competing routes? The staff. With very few exceptions, the staff on foreign carriers are much more friendly, helpful, and actually diligent at performing their duties than their American counterparts.

United is going to be leaning heavily on their staff to make Polaris feel posh for the next 5 years while the planes and lounges are being slowly rolled out and that's just not one of their strong spots.

4.  Their lounge opening dates keep getting pushed back, and then pushed back yet again, and the lone Chicago Polaris lounge is already overcrowded.

They're doing a bad enough job keeping their own staff and operations in order, now add in local contractors and layers of airport governmental bureaucracy on top of that and it's no wonder the second Polaris lounge isn't going to open until 2018 2019...

Conclusions and conjecture

At first glance this rollout doesn't make much sense, but the longer I think about it, this is what I think its main goals are:
  • Bamboozle people. Lucky has a hilarious story about a Forbes reporter who reviewed United's old First Class seat and totally thought it was the new Polaris one (Forbes had to pull the story once the public pointed out the error). If you can fool Forbes' reporters and editors, you can probably fool some portion of the public.
  • Keep United frequent fliers excited about the airline. People saving their miles for premium cabin flights must by definition have a longer-term strategy towards travel. Just knowing that the new Polaris experience will available in the medium-term might be enough to keep them excited about sticking with United Mileage Plus. Many younger/tech companies have travel portals that let employees choose their own airlines and flights, so employee captivity isn't what it used to be.
  • Create a halo effect for the whole United brand. If they can convince the general public that they've genuinely created an amazing new class of service, then it might convince people that their Economy class and airport experience has also been thoughtfully redesigned as well. Sadly all they're likely to find there are the aforementioned narrower seats and the "invention" of Basic Economy fares where you get no carry-on luggage and you're in boarding group 23. But United's been courting the bloggers left and right, and they've been cooing and blowing kisses in exchange for all of the exclusive access and attention.
  • Stall. JetBlue is rumored to be launching transatlantic service. Norwegian is rapidly expanding their operations across the Americas, so is WOW. British Airways is slashing costs and amenities to compete on price, Lufthansa is removing a huge chunk of its international First Class seats... The international travel landscape could look very different 5 years from now and having such a slow roll-out of the product might let them alter their plans if they decide that the future is more like Spirit and less like ANA.


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