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United Polaris: First Impressions From an American Flyer

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With the United Polaris soft product launch rapidly approaching on December 1, 2016, there’s been a big fuss over it, thanks to a pretty fantastic marketing push by United. But how does it stack up to the competition? Recently, I had the opportunity to check out the new Polaris business-class seats in person at the United headquarters in the Willis Tower in Chicago as a United Premier Silver elite (thanks to the new SPG/Marriott status match and RewardsPlus).

I had the opportunity to chat with United CEO Oscar Munoz at the Polaris event about the upcoming product.
I had the opportunity to chat with United CEO Oscar Munoz at the Polaris event about the upcoming product.

I have to hand it to United’s marketing department — they’ve certainly done a great job promoting Polaris. I’ve had many friends ask me, “Have you seen the new United suites? It’s like first class! I wonder what American and Delta are going to do to catch up?” Now, I’m an AAdvantage Executive Platinum elite who’s flown American’s business-class seat on every aircraft in its fleet, with the exception of the brand-new Boeing 787-9 that’s just been delivered, so let’s see how it stacks up.

The Competition

First of all, what are US-based competitors Delta and American doing? Well, Delta’s just announced closed-door suites in Delta One.

How good Delta's upcoming closed-door suites are remains to be seen. Photo courtesy of Delta.
How good Delta’s upcoming closed-door suites are remains to be seen. Image courtesy of Delta.

The new Delta One business-class suites will debut on its upcoming A350 aircraft that are scheduled to be delivered in fall 2017, and soon after will make their way to Delta’s fleet of Boeing 777s. What these look like in practice will remain to be seen.

Meanwhile, American Airlines has quite a few different business-class seats. Its flagship plane, the Boeing 777-300ER, features reverse herringbone seats — widely considered to be the best in the industry. The new Boeing 787-9 and Boeing 777-200 retrofits and upcoming Airbus A350 planes going forward will feature B/E Aerospace Diamond seats, also highly regarded. Confused yet? Hold on tight. The older Boeing 787-8 and already-retrofitted Boeing 777-200 planes feature yet a different seat, manufactured by Zodiac, which was unable to meet AA’s supply expectations. The Boeing 767 has a completely different seat altogether, and the Airbus A321T on transcon flights and the recently retrofitted Boeing 757s both feature B/E Aerospace Parallel Diamond seats.

As you can see, American Airlines has an incredibly fragmented business-class product, so for the purposes of this comparison, I’ll be primarily looking at the newest Boeing 777-300ER and 777-200/787-9 seats.

The 1-2-1 premium economy cabin on AA's 787-9. Photo courtesy of American Airlines.
The 1-2-1 business-class cabin on AA’s 787-9. Image courtesy of American Airlines.

The Basics

Let’s get the basics down first — depending on how you look at it, United Polaris will initially be in either a 2-4-2 configuration or a 1-2-1 configuration, with all-aisle access (the window and center seats are staggered so that you can still get out). United claims that its new seats will be 78 inches long and “up to 23” inches wide. As a comparison, American’s configuration on the same Boeing 777-300ER is a more traditional 1-2-1 reverse herringbone, and as a result, seats are considerably wider at 26 inches wide.

united-polaris-seat-config
United Polaris seat configuration. Image courtesy of Untied Airlines.

While it does reduce seat width considerably, this modified 2-4-2 configuration allows United to fit a few more seats in the same space, improving its profitability, and perhaps upgrade chances.

The new Polaris seat will first be delivered on 14 new 777-300ERs, followed by retrofits or deliveries on the 777-300ER, 767-300, 777-200, A350, and 787-10 aircraft. United expects that the first plane will be delivered in December, for service in January. The airline expects that retrofits will be completed in 2-3 years.

The Hard Product

United Polaris is certainly a huge improvement on the old “dorm-style” United business-class seats. On the 777, United managed to fit a whopping eight seats across in a a very outdated 2-4-2 configuration. This meant that only four seats per row had direct aisle access, and those four people have to contend with people climbing over them. As a point of comparison, that very same plane has only one additional seat per row in economy in a 3-3-3 (nine-across) configuration!

United's first- and business-class products may not be cutting-edge, but they'll save you some miles over booking premium-class award tickets on partners!
Yes, this 2-4-2 configuration “dorm-style” seating really is United’s old business class! Image by Zach Honig.

The new Polaris seat improves on this significantly, effectively cutting the number of seats per row down to four, in a 1-2-1 configuration. Everyone gets direct aisle access. Whereas the old business-class seat was completely open and gave you some quality cuddle time with your neighbor, Polaris provides a far greater amount of privacy.

The new Polaris business class seat affords a much greater amount of privacy.
The new Polaris business-class seat affords a much greater amount of privacy.

There are “fancy” elements like a lamp and marble side table, but the rest of the seat feels “plasticky,” and the seat cover itself feels like economy-class fabric.

Each seat features all of the necessities, such as two USB power ports (one conveniently located by the tablet/phone compartment under the entertainment screen), a universal power port, a coat hook, and side table. Sadly, while noise-canceling headphones are provided, they’re not the Bose headphones that American provides to all business and first-class passengers. There’s a privacy divider that can be raised or lowered as well.

Each seat features a little side table, noise cancelling headphones (but not Bose), and convenient power ports.
Each seat features a little side table, noise-canceling headphones (but not Bose), and convenient power ports. Unfortunately, the side table is awfully placed on the middle non-bulkhead seats, and the privacy divider is absolutely tiny.

There’s no question that it’s far superior to the old business-class seat, but here’s the thing: Despite United’s marketing push, it’s still not as competitive as American or Delta’s reverse herringbone seats. They’re wider, with more privacy and personal space.

I not only felt a little cramped in the Polaris seat, but it was awkward. What I mean by that is that the seat is poorly designed. In the photo above, you can see that the side table is so far behind you sitting in the chair that to reach it, you have to perform in-flight acrobatics to reach behind you. Try reaching for something behind you to the right sitting in your chair now — it’s not easy.

Additionally, the “foot cubby” is pretty narrow — and deep. By virtue of this staggered configuration (the seats alternate being close to each other and a little further apart), your feet go under the seat in front of you in bed mode. As a result, you can see that the foot cubbies are really, really deep — it can feel a bit restrictive like a coffin sometimes.

In contrast, American’s 787-8 and 777-200 retrofits get around this issue by staggering its seats front and back, so there’s no foot cubby at all. While AA’s 777-300ER and new B/E Aerospace Diamond seats both do have foot cubbies, they’re far smaller and shallower than the United Polaris seat.

Unfortunately for passengers, the foot cubby underneath the seat in front of you is not only small, but deep.
Unfortunately for passengers, the foot cubby underneath the seat in front of you is not only narrow, but deep.

But, not all seats suffer from these issues. The bulkhead seats not only have a little bit more space for your feet, but also a better side table design. Instead of being behind you to the right, it’s in front of you to the left. That’s not all, though — the privacy divider section is also far larger, providing you with more personal space when the divider is up, or more room to talk to your seatmate if traveling with a companion. In the row behind this one, the privacy divider is tiny and too far behind you.

Some of these points may also apply to non-bulkhead seats in an alternating fashion, but since there were only two rows on display, I couldn’t verify that.

Bulkhead seats and alternating seats have a bit better of a design - the side table is in front of you to the left, not behind you to the right.
Bulkhead seats and alternating seats have a bit better of a design; the side table is in front of you to the left, not behind you to the right.

Unfortunately, these seats now have the opposite issue — instead of the side table being too far behind to you to the right, it’s now too far in front of you to the left. As you can see in the photo below, when you’re sitting or lying in your seat, it’s impossible to reach for that glass of water on the side table because the side of the seat is in the way, unless you can bend your elbow backwards. It’s a shame that small details like this weren’t better taken care of.

Even in the other configuration of seats, the side table is too far to the left and in front.
Even in the other configuration of seats, the side table is too far to the left and in front.

On the flip side, I love the tray table. It’s far easier to use than the pull-out tray tables that flyers are used to — a gentle push and it pulls right out under the entertainment screen. This makes it far easier to stow away, and to adjust the position to your liking. In addition, the tray table includes a tablet holder for when you want to bring your own entertainment — useful!

The Soft Product

Now, United Polaris isn’t just about the seat — in fact, United is marketing the entire experience of Polaris as “from Ahh to zzz…” I expect that the soft product (launching December 1, 2016) will be strong. The airline has already done a “dress rehearsal” on a trans-Atlantic flight for employees.

United currently has a relatively strong soft product — food in international business class is consistently superior to American’s catering — and I hope this will continue. While delicious food was served at the event, it can’t be taken as an indication of onboard options.

United Polaris will feature brand new glassware and cutlery.
United Polaris will feature brand-new glassware and cutlery.

The new amenity kits feature all the in-flight necessities, though they don’t carry fancy branding like Delta’s Tumi amenity kits and American’s Cole Haan amenity kits. The bedding comes from Saks Fifth Avenue, and there will be slippers and pajamas on some routes. The bedding and pajamas feel fairly comfy, though I obviously couldn’t try them on.

United Polaris Global First and Business class amenity kits are distinct, but seem to be pretty much the same apart from the branding.
United Polaris Global First and business-class amenity kits are distinct, but seem to be pretty much the same apart from the branding.

Moving on to sleeping comfort, I actually think one of the neatest parts of the Polaris soft product is the eye mask. It seems weird to show off such a minute detail, but there’s a good reason: The eye masks included in Polaris have spaces carved out for your eyes and nose, making them far more comfortable than the traditional flat masks. American Airlines, take note!

By far the coolest eyemask I've seen - it has space designed to fit around your eyes and nose.
By far the coolest eye mask I’ve seen — it has space designed to fit around your eyes and nose.

The bedding will also be updated, from Saks Fifth Avenue. While I wasn’t able to try it out by lying down, it does feel fairly comfortable. I was told that while there will be light padding available, there will not be enough on each flight for every seat, and it will be on a first-come-first-served basis. That’s disappointing. Therefore, if you find yourself on a new Polaris seat anytime soon, be sure to request your bed to be made up as early on as possible.

United Polaris will feature brand-new bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue.
United Polaris will feature brand-new bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue.

Overall, the bedding does seem comfortable enough. We’ll have to wait until people actually get to try it out on long-haul flights to see though!

United offers a bottom pad in this fully-made up window seat - but only for some!
United offers a bottom pad in this fully-made up window seat – but only for some!

What I Like

So what do I like out of all of this?

  1. It’s a HUGE step up from the “dorm-style” business class of yore, where United squeezed eight seats across.
  2. I am hopeful for the soft product — everything from the bedding to the glassware seems top notch.
  3. The lounges — as a business-class passenger, you’ll have access to exclusive Polaris lounges that can’t be accessed with elite status. They seem quite comfortable, with daybeds.
  4. Consistency — a similar seat will be installed across all new aircraft and the retrofits. In comparison, American has six different business seats, so it’s hard to gauge which one you’ll get.

What I Don’t Like

While there are many things to like, United Polaris falls short in a few areas:

  1. It’s still short of American and Delta’s top offerings in terms of privacy and personal space.
  2. The decor is alright, but feels disjointed. There are “fancy” elements like a lamp and marble side table, but the rest of the seat feels “plasticky” and the seat cover itself feels like economy-class fabric.
  3. Bedding won’t be available for every seat — it should be available to everyone in the cabin.
  4. The design isn’t fantastic — the side table being almost behind on you at every other seat is really annoying.
  5. It’s narrow — it feels constrictive both with the foot cubby, and elbow room. Don’t believe me? Take a look — note the side table location as well:
I'm only 5' 4" - the new seat really does feel cramped compared to American and Delta's offerings.
I’m only 5’4″ — the new seat really does feel cramped compared to American and Delta’s offerings, and the side table is difficult to reach since it’s behind your arm. Imagine The Points Guy sitting in this seat!

Bottom Line

Ultimately, the Polaris seat is worlds better than the former United business-class product. The hard product is nice, but it just can’t stack up to the latest offerings from American and the new upcoming Delta closed-door suite. It’s a shame, but I am hopeful for the United Polaris soft product, from the new lounges to the meal service and bedding.

I believe that United had the opportunity to blow the competition out of the water, but it hasn’t done that. Still, it’s a very solid business class, and I am excited to try it out when it launches. Since we haven’t seen a plane fully kitted out with the seat yet, it’s hard to judge the overall cabin feel, outside of an Oculus Rift virtual reality walkthrough experience that they offered us.

The soft product will start on December 1, 2016, and United is planning on taking delivery of the first Boeing 777-300ER to feature these new seats in December 2016, with revenue flights starting January 2017. The plane is expected to be based in Newark, but there’s no word yet on what routes will be operated by it.

Were you able to attend any of the United Polaris showcases? If so, share your experiences and thoughts in the comments!

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