United won’t stop Polaris, Premium Plus retrofits after all

Sep 26, 2020

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The pandemic will have many lasting changes on the airline industry.

Though the adjustments are far-reaching, perhaps the most noticeable for aviation enthusiasts (like me) are the early fleet retirements.

The coronavirus — and the associated drop in demand for flights — is killing jumbo jets like the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747. (In fact, the last Airbus A380 ever was just assembled earlier this week.) Plus, airlines are now consolidating and simplifying their fleets. American is retiring the Boeing 757 and 767, Delta is bidding farewell to the Boeing 777. The list goes on.

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United is in a unique position though. The Chicago-based carrier retired its 747s in 2017, leaving its long-haul international fleet with an assortment of more economical Boeing wide-bodies: the 767, 777 and 787 Dreamliner.

And while UA hasn’t announced any fleet retirement plans during the pandemic (yet), the airline did stop its Polaris and Premium Plus retrofit program for existing international jets.

In May, United confirmed that it was indefinitely halting all cabin retrofits across the fleet. Although these international jets had some serious downtime, the carrier clearly prioritized conserving cash.

While it was assumed United would eventually resume the retrofits, some United customers undoubtedly feared a permanent or long-term halt to the cabin update.

Now, four months later, we’ve got some great news for United flyers. The airline will indeed flip the switch back on.

A United spokesperson confirmed that the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner fleet will ultimately receive the Polaris and Premium Plus retrofits. There isn’t a specific timeline yet, but the airline has confirmed that the project is no longer paused indefinitely.

United Polaris business class was first introduced in 2016. At the time, the airline started taking delivery of new planes with these top-notch biz pods.

Related: Ultimate guide to United Polaris

Along with the new planes, the airline launched a years-long retrofit process of the existing widebody fleet. Plus, United started building business-class-only Polaris Lounges at its largest hubs for its long-haul biz flyers.

Then, in 2018, the carrier decided to add a premium economy cabin, dubbed Premium Plus, to its long-haul jets.

Fast forward two years later, and about 80% of United’s international wide-body fleet has been equipped with the new Polaris product.

United is already halfway done converting the “baby Dreamliners” (787-8) to the new Polaris and Premium Plus configuration. Six of the 12 jets have the cabin.

In January, I had the opportunity to catch a ride on the first retrofitted 787-8, and I was impressed. The 28 business-class pods are split across two cabins. In fact, the two-row Polaris mini-cabin offers eight of the most private seats in the entire United fleet.

Related: United’s retrofitted 787 is better for everyone — except those looking to upgrade

The 21 Premium Plus seats are spread across three rows in a 2-3-2 configuration. Meanwhile, the 194 coach seats are arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration, split between 36 Economy Plus and 158 United Economy seats.

While it’s great news that United is committed to putting Polaris on its 787-8s, these planes represent a small proportion of the carrier’s overall long-haul fleet. As mentioned, there are just twelve of them in the fleet.

Plus, these baby Dreamliners aren’t scheduled to fly that many of the carrier’s long-haul flights. According to the latest October schedule data from Cirium, just 201 international flights will be operated by the 787-8, roughly 11% of the total. Meanwhile, the carrier’s 32 787-9s will fly 817 flights — or nearly 50% of the total. (United has just nine 787-9s retrofitted with the new cabins).

Hopefully, United’s recommitment to Polaris is just the beginning. As lucrative corporate travel returns in the years to come, flyers will expect the latest and greatest cabins.

Time will tell whether United will deliver on that expectation across its entire international fleet.

All photos by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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