United Unveils New Polaris International Business Class
When United invited us to an event at Gotham Hall in New York City, we knew a big reveal was in store. After all, since CEO Oscar Munoz has taken charge, we've heard quite a bit about changes in the works, but we had yet to see any new hard products. Well, the carrier didn't disappoint; today Munoz and company pulled the curtains back on a new international business-class product called Polaris.
The Polaris Seat
This new premium cabin will be first available on United's 777-300ERs starting in December, and it will subsequently roll out to the carrier's 787-10 and A350-1000 in 2018, as well as the upcoming Boeing 767-300 and 777-200 retrofits. The Polaris branding will apply to all of United's international business-class cabins — not just specific aircraft or routes — as well as the onboard food and drink experience and the ground experience courtesy of new lounges (more on those later).
Polaris does look like a significant step up from United's current international business-class cabin — especially that dreadful 2-4-2 on the 777-200! Seats will be in a 1-2-1 layout, and all of them will offer aisle access. Plus, they're designed as suite-like pods, offering more privacy and even featuring a "Do Not Disturb" sign that passengers can toggle on and off. The partition between the two middle seats can also be lowered, which is handy if you're traveling as a couple.
In explaining the airline's approach to the new Polaris experience, Munoz said that United spent a good deal of time researching what business-class travelers want, and the carrier found that a good night's sleep was the top priority. To that end, Polaris cabins will feature lie-flat seats with "up to 6'6 of bed space." United worked with Saks Fifth Avenue to create custom bedding including duvets and both a large and small pillow. You'll also be able to request a mattress cushion and a gel-cooled pillow (the latter of which sounds intriguing).
Also on the "good night's sleep" front, United will be offering slippers and pajamas on Polaris flights longer than 12 hours. Anyone who's ever received sleepwear on an international carrier like Lufthansa or Thai Airways knows that this can definitely be a treat, and it looks like these will be light and comfortable.
The slippers are a nice addition on the comfort and sleep front, as well.
TPG Associate Editor Emily McNutt and I tested out the seats and found them to be very comfortable. Having flown a 777-200 in the 2-4-2 configuration yesterday, I was impressed by how roomy they felt in comparison, especially in lie-flat mode. The seat control functions are also a new and welcome change with the seat. Instead of an outdated button to convert the seat to lie-flat position, there's a scroll that allows you to manually determine how reclined you want to sit.
Each Polaris seat will also feature a 16-inch display for enjoying the IFE, plus mood lighting and "one-touch lumbar support." Overall, the new cabin is decidedly more modern-looking than current United international business-class cabins, and the pod-style layout is reminiscent of Etihad's A380 and Garuda Indonesia's 777-300ER.
The new amenity kits look to be equipped with all the essentials — dental kit, eyeshades and earplugs. Inside will also be Cowshed-branded products, which is a UK-based brand that features organic plant and oil-based ingredients, like a pillow mist and moisturizer.
While domestic business class will not fall under the new Polaris brand, passengers on p.s. transcontintental routes will enjoy Polaris perks including the new amenity kits, updated bedding and the revamped dining experience (but not the new lounge access) starting in the second quarter of 2017. The carrier will start by testing Polaris on domestic flights (to work out any service kinks), and will formally launch it on international routes to Asia and Europe around March 2017.
The New Onboard Experience
United's Polaris cabin will feature a new approach to food and drink as well. Some changes are small (you'll get a "gourmet chocolate" in addition to a pre-departure drink), while others — like the new menus — are more significant. The airline's working with The Trotter Project and a variety of acclaimed chefs to develop seasonal in-flight menus, and United's "master sommelier" is curating a new and improved wine selection. Passengers can even enjoy flights of wine, which fortunately means there will be more than just one red and one white option onboard.
Additionally, United will offer mid-flight snacks such as lobster mac and cheese on daytime flights longer than eight hours and all flights longer than 12 hours. (I actually tried this dish on a flight from Houston to Ixtapa several months ago and was impressed with the quality.)
The New Lounge Experience
To complement the upgraded international business-class experience on board, United will be opening nine new Polaris-branded lounges in the following locations: Chicago O'Hare, Hong Kong, Houston, London Heathrow, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, Tokyo Narita and Washington Dulles. The first lounge will open in the airline's headquarters of Chicago (ORD) on December 1, 2016.
Polaris lounges will offer private daybeds and showers, plus hot meals served in a restaurant-style setting. In other words, expect a significant step up from the standard United Clubs. In some locations, United will be upgrading existing lounges, while in others the Polaris lounge will exist alongside an older United Club.
A United rep confirmed that both out-of-pocket and award prices for Polaris seats won't be different than current business-class reservations. So luckily travelers won't have to pay a premium for the updated in-flight experience. A round-trip business-class Saver award from the US to Japan will cost you 130,000 miles, while a round-trip business-class Saver award from the US to Europe will cost you 115,000 miles.
Polaris is a significant revamp of United's business-class cabin, and this new product means a new ground experience and improved onboard food and drink as well. Based on our first look, it's safe to say that this is a welcome change for United flyers who book international premium-cabin travel going forward. You can bet that the TPG team will be testing this product out as soon as possible.