Monday, June 13, 2016

United Polaris: A Step Forward For an Airline Behind the Times

United recently unveiled a new business class experience, called Polaris, focused on sleep 
While Polaris is a major upgrade over United's current business class offering, which features an industry worst 2-4-2 configuration on the airline's  777-200 aircraft along with uninspiring service and amenities, it is hard to differentiate the new business class service from those currently offered by its competitors. 

United Polaris

Delta's Delta One branded business class features many of the same amenities found on Polaris that have become standard for international business classes, from direct aisle access and lie flat seats to custom bedding (Delta uses Westin while United uses Saks Fifth Avenue).   

American Airlines business class product on its 777-300ER and –200ER aircraft is also very similar to Polaris with lie flat seats and direct aisle access along with updated inflight dining amenities.  

With Polaris, United isn't unveiling a revolutionary business class luxury product that tops the competition but instead is catching up to the superior products of the other U.S. airlines.  
In the last five years, the U.S. legacies have invested heavily in their onboard products from fleetwide Wi-Fi to improved business class products. All except for United. 

United has spent the last five years plagued by problems ranging from terrible on-time numbers, multiple episodes of software glitches causing thousands of flight cancellations, and lackluster customer service all stemming from United's fiasco of a merger with Continental in 2010. It also doesn't help to have multiple C-Suite executives embroiled in a corruption scandalUnited's troubles also extend to its onboard products. 

United's current suite of onboard business class products are uninspiring and lack direction. Currently there are three versions of United's international business class product: Continental's old BusinessFirst, tulip United's old business class, and post merger United's new 777 business class. Continental's BusinessFirst product, which can be found on some of United's 767 and 777 aircraft, were introduced in the mid-2000s and are configured in a 2-2-2 arrangement. While the seats are lie flat, the lack of space, privacy, and direct aisle access leaves them miles behind current offerings from other airlines. 

However, the old Continental BusinessFirst seats are luxurious compared to United's infamous 2-4-2 configured business class seats (Note: American Airlines used to have a 2-4-2 configuration for its 777 economy class seating).   

As a way to create space in the cabin for First Class Suites while maintaining its business class capacity, United was forced to introduce 8 across seating in business class, cramming its highly prized business passengers in like sardines. 

United's old 2-4-2 Configured Business Class Cabin

It was a poor choice by United management as airlines around the world, and even in the U.S., have been emphasizing privacy in the business class seat while doing away with the unprofitable first class. It wouldn't be United's only business class blunder. 

In 2014, United was the first airline in North America to take delivery of the 787. Instead of using the 787 as a launch aircraft for an improved business class, United decided to introduce a bland 2-2-2 configured business class product. It was an opportunity missed. By 2015, Smisek was ousted with Munoz being named as his successor.  

Munoz has brought fresh leadership to United focused on regaining consumer trust. So far Munoz has been able to improve United's operational performance lifting the airline to 3rd in on-time arrivals out of all the U.S. airlines 

Polaris is Munoz's first major product announcement as CEO and could possibly be the biggest of his tenure. 

A major aspect of Polaris is the continuity of the business class product across every aircraft of United's fleet. Continuity will hopefully transform into consistency – both operationally and in the level of service experienced by passengers, something United has been lacking since its merger with Continental.  

With Polaris, United now has a product that can effectively compete with the other U.S. legacies. However, the roll out of Polaris will be conducted at a slow pace which will only magnify the outdated nature of United's business class product.  

The introduction of Polaris, along with better operational performance and new leadership, signals a new era for post-merger United. While the stains of the 2010 merger will take years to fade, Polaris represents the potential of a more unified and coherent United. 

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