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United exec details reopening plans for airport clubs, Polaris Lounges

May 05, 2021
6 min read
United Club Zach Griff - 1
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Ten more United Clubs are reopening in the coming weeks, according to the carrier's executive in charge of premium airport operations.

Seven of the 10 outposts are located in United hubs, and the rest are in three of the carrier's busiest outstations. Additional lounges will reopen throughout the summer and fall, bringing the total to nearly 30 locations open by Labor Day.

United will also debut a refreshed food selection for its clubs, including heartier fare like sandwiches and salads.

In an interview with TPG, Alex Dorow, United's managing director of lounges and premium services, detailed the reopening timeline for the United Club and Polaris Lounge network. Read on for the full scoop.

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Domestic lounges to reopen by end of the year

United currently has 11 clubs open across its domestic network, ten of which are located in hubs. (The other is in Honolulu.)

Over the next 60 days, the Chicago-based carrier will gradually bring ten more outposts online, as follows:

  • Chicago O’Hare (ORD) - reopening at Gate C16, followed by locations at B18 and F4 — all United Clubs open by end of June.
  • Houston (IAH) - reopening two more lounges: C South and Terminal B.
  • San Francisco (SFO) - reopening in Boarding Area E (Gate E4).
  • Washington Dulles (IAD) - reopening near Gate C17.
  • Fort Lauderdale (FLL) - reopening near Gate C1.
  • Orlando (MCO) - reopening near Gate 43.
  • Las Vegas (LAS) - reopening between Gates 33 and 35.

By adding more hub outposts, United hopes to immediately address the demand it's seeing at some of its largest and busiest clubs. "We're starting with the locations where we have some of the greatest need, and we're supporting the network growth that is projected here as we enter the summer months," he said.

That's why the carrier has picked Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Las Vegas for the first round of reopenings; the carrier is seeing increased demand for flights to these cities. Cirium schedules show that United's down about 15% in the number of flights from the aforementioned cities in June 2021 compared to the same month in 2019. Networkwide, that number jumps to just over 30%.

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United Club SFO (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

United plans to reopen eight additional lounges by Labor Day weekend, including locations in New York LaGuardia (LGA) and Boston (BOS). "We're going to be really excited to bring those back online shortly" after its first batch of summer openings. Dorow referred to those stations as some of the "largest gaps in our network."

Going forward, United will work with a two-month lead to evaluate reopening the remainder of its domestic clubs. "Each month we're working with our service providers, we're working internally with our resource planning teams, our staffing folks, our training folks to ensure that we're already thinking 60 days out with every rotation so that each month or so we'll be coming out with the next batch of lounges to reopen," Dorow said.

Updated — and complimentary — food service

Until now, United has largely been serving pre-packaged nosh in its lounges. This includes snacks like pretzels, tortilla chips, salsa and instant ramen.

Starting later this month, the carrier will improve its food offerings. Dorow is excited about the new menu, telling TPG "you're going to see a much more robust, healthy variety of food options that we didn't have before."

This includes sandwiches, wraps, salads, fresh fruit, yogurt and overnight oats. Some locations will also feature regionally inspired offerings, like mini hot dogs in Chicago and a churros bar in Houston.

While the carrier is still going to serve everything in individually wrapped packaging, the options are supposed to be much improved, more nutritious — and free.

Unlike American Airlines which just unveiled a new for-purchase food menu for its lounges, United is committed to offering a complimentary selection. "As we reopen, we want to ensure that we provide the right food offerings on a complimentary basis because our customers have told us that food is important," according to Dorow.

The carrier has had "conversations" about what a for-purchase offering would look like, but there are no changes coming right now.

Related: The ultimate guide to United Club access

United is always thinking about the Polaris Lounges

Though United doesn't yet have a firm reopening timeline for its business-class-only Polaris Lounges — Dorow's "babies," in his words — he detailed some of the considerations that the team is talking through, particularly demand for international travel.

"It's really gonna come down to the international regulations of how vaccinated or non-vaccinated travelers are going to be able to flow across borders. And that's something that we are staying very close to," Dorow said.

United's Polaris lounges remain shuttered (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Despite waiting for long-haul demand to recover, Dorow's team is actively crafting plans for how to reopen the Polaris Lounges: "my team has already worked as far ahead as they can to map out what remobilization looks like. All of the timelines, all of the action items that are required."

The process of retraining and onboarding the lounge attendants, servers and cleaners "will really begin in the back half of the year... those lounges take a sizable time to reopen, significantly greater than that of a standard United Club."

Why it took so long to reopen

United has reopened far fewer lounges than its Big 3 competitors. American plans to have 27 locations open by Memorial Day, while Delta's CEO promised to TPG that is entire network will open this summer.

As to why it's taken so long for United to ramp up its club operations, Dorow explained that it's because of how the carrier consolidated its hub operations so quickly.

"Take, for example, Houston or Chicago, where we have a relatively large footprint across concourses, or even some cases terminals. And we effectively consolidated the operation to a portion of the airport. And in working with our operations teams, we ensured that the lounges that we kept open are not only the largest ones... but were also most centrally located to support our operation and the reduced staffing that we were experiencing across our airline in the direst of times," he said.

While Dorow would "love to open all our lounges as quickly as possible," he doesn't have a "magic wand." Instead, the reopening process is "really driven by art and science."

The carrier is working as quickly as possible, but he ultimately conceded, "I'm working within the parameters that my team can deliver against."

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