Questions and Answers About United's New Polaris Business Class
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For more on United Polaris, see First Look at United’s Polaris Business-Class Lounge and Tasting United’s Polaris Appetizers, Entrees and Desserts.
While United's new Polaris business-class seats (which we checked out in detail here and here) won't be available until the 777-300ER launches early next year, anyone traveling in international (long-haul) business class will be able to experience the "soft product" (new bedding, improved food and beverage, refreshed amenity kits, etc.) beginning this Thursday, December 1.
We already know a bit about what Thursday's rollout will entail, thanks to United's FAQs, demo events and the extensive advertising you've probably seen on TV (including the ad below), but many questions still remain — some of which we addressed in a phone call with United earlier today.
Given the interest in our Chase Sapphire Reserve questions and answers post, we're running something similar here. Here are some of our Polaris-related questions, followed by some from our readers. We're still waiting for clarification on some responses and we'll continue to update this post until complete.
Question: What can passengers expect when traveling in Polaris first vs. Polaris business?
Answer: Polaris first passengers will have an additional (soup) course and will receive a more substantial pre-departure snack (described as a "bonbon" for Polaris business vs. a "skewer" for Polaris first). Additionally, Polaris first customers will have a larger seat with more privacy and storage (the Global First seat already in use today) and will have access to United Global First lounges while they still exist (these will all eventually be converted to United Polaris lounges). Polaris first will be phased out as three-cabin aircraft are modified with the new two-cabin configuration and Polaris seat.
Q: How will the in-flight dining experience differ from United BusinessFirst and Global First?
A: United will introduce almost 2,000 new food and beverage options, which will vary depending on the route and departure city. Expect higher-quality meals with fresh, local ingredients from Trotter Project chefs, improved beverage options and hot in-flight snacks, such as lobster mac and cheese (already available as an entree in domestic first class). United's "Polaris guru" Maria Walter, the airline's Managing Director of Product and Brand Strategy, describes these in-flight snack options as "comfort food with a luxury twist." They certainly sound like a huge step up from the packaged sandwiches, bags of chips and plastic-wrapped fruit available in BusinessFirst today.
Q: Will food and beverage be on par with some of the top international carriers, such as Austrian and Singapore?
A: United has clearly made significant investments in its Polaris in-flight food and beverage offerings. Whether or not it can compete with top international carriers remains to be seen, but you can definitely expect improvements over the food and beverage available in BusinessFirst and Global First.
Q: Will online meal ordering be available in the future? In the meantime, will there be enough of each entree available that each passenger will get their first choice?
A: There's nothing to announce on the pre-order front yet, but United has confirmed that it'll be boarding more meals than passengers, and, assuming passengers order based on historical trends, everyone should be able to get their first choice. United conducted test flights with as many as eight different entree options, but the feedback received indicated that customers care much more about getting their first choice than they do about having a greater variety of options.
Q: Will there be any changes to the in-flight entertainment?
A: The new Polaris seats will have a 16-inch HD touchscreen display, so that's a big improvement. Otherwise, the existing equipment will remain in place until an aircraft is retrofitted, but more entertainment options will be available, including a new "channel" dedicated to "sleep and relaxation," with nature scenes and guided meditation. United will also offer content from Norwegian provider "Slow TV."
Q: How is United training flight attendants ahead of the rollout?
A: According to United, "the airline has invested heavily in extensive training for all employees who will help deliver United Polaris. This included training courses delivered by Saks Fifth Avenue, known for their extraordinary program of customer service."
Q: We've already seen some criticism of the noise-canceling headphones. Will those be replaced with Bose headsets at some point?
A: United did evaluate Bose headphones while developing Polaris, but unfortunately these often result in issues with theft, as passengers are more tempted to remove high-value electronics from the cabins. Based on UA's research, customers preferred to have lower-quality headphones that they can use from gate to gate, rather than Bose headsets that must be collected by flight attendants long before arrival, as American currently does on its business and first-class flights. That said, United may offer a higher-quality headset in the future, but it most likely won't be manufactured by Bose.
Q: The Chicago Polaris lounge opens on Thursday. Which lounges are opening next? And when?
A: There will be nine Polaris lounges in total. Houston, Newark and San Francisco will be getting their lounges next, and those three should be open by the middle of 2017. Dulles and Los Angeles will follow later in 2017, and Hong Kong, London and Tokyo should open by the end of 2017, but may not be available until early 2018.
Q: When will domestic United p.s. business (currently BusinessFirst) be updated with Polaris amenities, including improved food and beverage options?
A: All United p.s. flights will have the new bedding (pillows, comforter and a throw blanket) beginning December 1. There's no change planned for food and beverage at this time, however, as United wants to focus on the international product first.
Q: When will the 777-300ER enter service? Which routes can we expect first?
A: The first 777-300ER will be delivered in December, with FAA tests running through January and domestic crew familiarization flights beginning after that. It's possible that you'll find the 777-300ER on hub-to-hub flights, but nothing has been announced on that front. Additionally, United has not confirmed initial international routes, but I've seen Newark reported as the first 777-300ER base, and, based on where United is opening Polaris lounges, Hong Kong, London and Tokyo appear to be top priorities for this product, so it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see EWR-HKG, EWR-LHR and/or EWR-NRT flights launch first.
Q: Which other aircraft will be getting the new Polaris seats and when?
A: United hasn't confirmed roll-out dates for retrofitted aircraft, but we do know that international 777-200s and 767s will be getting the new seats, along with all new deliveries (777-300ERs, 787-10s and Airbus A350s). Unfortunately since the 787-8 and 787-9 Dreamliners are still so new, it doesn't make sense for United to update these right away, so those will continue flying with the 2-2-2 ex-Continental seats for the time being. Eventually they may be retrofitted as well, but there isn't a timeline available.
Q: Should we expect higher business-class fares for flights with the new seats?
A: A non-answer from United on this one: "United will price its services competitively and as always, cannot comment on pricing."
Q: Will there be any impact to award and upgrade availability?
A: United has confirmed that the Polaris rollout won't impact award and upgrade availability — I would interpret that to mean that the airline will continue to manage inventory based on historical data without adjusting for the improved on-board product. Of course if Polaris brings more business to United, it may be more difficult to find award and upgrade space in the future as a result.
Chase R. on Facebook: How will UA indicate aircraft equipped with the new Polaris Seats while searching for flights?
A: It's not yet clear if United will eventually identify the new Polaris seat with a special badge at booking, but throughout 2017 the airline won't be able to confirm Polaris seating until a few days before departure — likely within 72 hours — as aircraft swaps are likely up until that point. While I'd expect routes that have the 777-300ER confirmed will almost always offer that aircraft on the same flights, the configuration will vary on other routes as the existing fleet is retrofitted. All customers will likely see the old seat maps up until a couple days before departure.
Jeff R. on Facebook: Will there be instances where aircraft equipped with Polaris will be used on routes not designated for Polaris class (hub-hub?)
A: The 777-300ER will operate domestic flights initially, so this is definitely possible, though Polaris amenities will almost certainly not be available and the cabin will likely be sold as domestic first, as it is with two-cabin aircraft on domestic flights today.
Art C. in comments: Which hub will the 777-300s be operating out of — EWR, ORD or SFO?
A: United is unable to confirm routes and aircraft bases at this time, but we've heard reports that EWR and SFO may have the 777-300ER first.
Chase R. in comments: Will there be enough mattress pads and bedding for all Polaris passengers?
A: All passengers will have two pillows, a duvet and a throw blanket at their seat when boarding. Due to space constraints and mixed demand, there will be a limited number of cooling gel pillows, mattress pads and pajamas on each flight, but United reps are confident that passengers who request these amenities will be able to be accommodated most of the time. If you're certain you want any of the above items, be sure to request them as soon as possible.
Mike in comments: Will one-time United Club passes be valid for access to the Polaris lounges?
A: Only customers traveling in Polaris or business class on Star Alliance partners on international routes will have access to the United Polaris lounges.
Peter H. in comments: Will Global Services members have access to Polaris lounges even when not traveling in Polaris?
A: According to United, "all Global Services members ticketed for United Polaris will have access to the United Polaris lounge. If Global Services members are not ticketed for United Polaris, they will not have access to the United Polaris lounge. This is to ensure United maintains an experience uniquely dedicated to United Polaris passengers."
Island Hopper in comments: I understand that United considers flights to Hawaii from IAH, ORD, and EWR to be 'international' because of the duration of the flight. Will we see Polaris equipped 777-300s or will the -200 still be employed?
A: From United: "Flights to Hawaii from IAH, ORD and EWR are not classified as international and United Polaris will not be available on these routes."
If you have any more Polaris-related questions, please sound off below!