The End of United Polaris?

In June 2016 United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz unveiled the airline’s new business class product Polaris. It was a new flat business class seat with direct aisle access, the innovation was that they were able to still squeeze as many seats in as their current business class cabins.

There would be new Saks Fifth Avenue bedding, new meals, and some new service concepts including wine tasting flights and drink carts. United also announced new Polaris business class lounges.

At the end of the day United has a new service concept but not many new seats or lounges. They introduced perhaps the best business class bedding in the industry. But their business class itself is mostly the same, with service provided by the same flight attendants. And the soft product is getting cut back.

Though the concept was developed under notorious cheapskate disgraced ex-CEO Jeff Smisek, We know there were cost overruns. And that flight attendants were charged with making sure passengers didn’t take the bedding.

And since launching Polaris the airline brought in a new President, Scott Kirby from American, whose reputation is that if he can’t see the contribution of an investment in a spreadsheet that the investment makes no sense.

So it’s little surprise that Joe Brancatelli writes in his indispensable weekly newsletter (subscription) that according to a United executive he spoke with Scott Kirby “doesn’t believe in Polaris and he knows it hasn’t created a [fare] premium.”

Thus Brancatelli suggests, “The Sun Is Setting on United’s Polaris Business Class.”

I predict death by 1000 cuts. We’ll slowly see the things that were actually innovative about Polaris fade away. Eventually planes will be equipped with direct aisle access seats (though they haven’t even announced a plan to ever put these seats in their Boeing 787s). More lounges should open, but we’ll see what becomes of made-to-order dining and concierge services, or at least there will be a close attention to food cost. And there will almost certainly be cutbacks in the onboard soft product.

Because at the end of the day Polaris was too nice to be United, let alone United under Scott Kirby.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. United has so many issues right now. If they had an amazing product I really wanted to try I might be willing to fly them. But I don’t even consider them for everyday paid flights. They are always so disorganized and hard to deal with. So if they aren’t bothering with a premium product I don’t see the point in flying on them at all.

  2. Sort of agree with Kirby sadly. I can’t ever see myself paying a premium to fly with United. What I would pay a premium for goes beyond bedding and is basically the immaculate cabin and service of the asian and some european airlines. Including professional looking and acting staff which United simply doesn’t hire.

    Meanwhile I don’t care about aisle access and step over the other seat fine. The bed cushion didn’t make these seats much more comfortable for tall people and I end up sleeping in a semi reclined position anyway. I’m happy they don’t parade drinks around because I don’t need the calories. What they should improve are the breakfasts because they’re simply terrible on many routes. They could easily provide a salad or something just as cheap which would be less gross than the offerings for breakfast.

  3. I thought you can still order wine flights, they just don’t use the cart now. Can someone confirm?

  4. I wonder, in general, if Kirby is missing the effect of loyalty in his spreadsheets. Generous accoutrements make customers feel like they’re getting a good deal and make them more likely to pay a premium. It may not be true in these business class amenities but it is a real effect. Since United went from rewarding 200% of miles flown (as 1K) to 11x of spend, my personal travel on United went from 100k+ miles per year for a decade to zero. Now it is about 0-25k but I have no more loyalty. There’s simply nothing to bring me to United other than price and lifetime miles at this point.

  5. Kirby’s horrible logic in the current and looming cutbacks sadly makes a semblance of sense, given the quasi-oligopoly in the industry. Yes, Delta may do relatively better, but American and United can provide inferior service and products while still making good profits. After about 20 years as a 1K – including lots of expensive international business class flights on United – I now concentrate my domestic flying on American and increasingly JetBlue and Alaska and international travel on foreign carriers, with maybe one short-haul economy round-trip every year or two on United up or down the West Coast. But I’m under no illusions that trends among passengers like myself really hurt it.

  6. I found all that bedding a little annoying – a bit like beds in homes that have 50 cushions on them. It’s “padding” both literally, and in the sense that they are trying to cover up other deficiencies.

    And the Polaris lounge isn’t that great. For example, it wasn’t open when I flew in at 5-6 am from South America. The hot breakfast items weren’t very hot. But to their credit, a team of people rushed in with clipboards and thermometers to poke the offending items after I complained.

  7. Kirby is short-sighted in that it takes a long time in the airline industry for consumers’ perceptions to change. You can’t just roll out a superior product for a few months and expect it to reflect immediately in the financials.

  8. Kirbys right. I’m not gonna fly a United any more. Period. Don’t care.

    They expect me to fly a crappy CRJ 200 to connect to an international bu$ine$$. Class flight? Not happening.

  9. Unfortunately, I occasionally have no choice but to fly United. I suppose I could write that sentence with just about any US domestic carrier’s name in it. I find them all lacking. But as someone who willingly pays biz/first fares [preferably best deal I can find on the right equipment], I never cease to be amazed at how jammed each plane I fly is. Oh, there is the occasional more-crowded-in-first-than-in-economy flight, but nowhere near as often as just 10 years ago. They’ve gotten smarter at cutting to the bone and filling the plane. We can bemoan the service all day long, but between government regulation and public appetite for price-over-product, we have turned them into what they are. They’re just Greyhound in the sky. And there aren’t enough of us in the long run to matter. Give domestic route access to foreign competitors, and it could all change. But until then, I suspect my casket will be treated better than economy passengers, and probably domestic biz/first as well.

  10. Of course consumers haven’t been willing to pay a price premium for Polaris in the ~18 months it’s been around…because there is no possible way to have a Polaris full experience at the moment:
    – ORD, you get the nice lounge but the same old planes
    – SFO/EWR, you *might* get a new plane (if on a 77W route), but you have a terrible lounge experience

    And on board of course, the experience downgrades have already started.

    Much like the disastrous merger in the 2011-2014 timeframe, this will be another great “what not to do” HBR case study.

  11. When I worked for Chrysler, Lee Iacocca was explicit: You should have a finance guy as your #2 executive, to keep an eye on the numbers. But your #1 guy always should be a marketer. Because, you’re in business to sell your product. If the bean-counter is #1, you will save yourself into oblivion.

    I suspect that the domestic airlines have never learned this wisdom.

  12. Foreign airlines will only be interested in trans con routes not routes like LAX-SEA, PHX-DFW, etc.

  13. Shocking news about Polaris. Can it get any worse with UA? Sounds like another disorganized organization with 8 figure salary/bonus execs getting paid to do the screwing. Sad. With the U.S. reduced to the ‘big three’ there’s every incentive to not provide a quality service.

  14. hey loser UA-NYC, why don’t u tell us when u and your loser pal spin88 got fired as UA gate agents so we’ll stop pretending anything you say has credibility ??

  15. Just flew to and from from Australia from LAX in UA Biz. Comfy seats and bedding.
    I was struck by the so-so-ness of the food offerings, but mostly by how different the “vibe” is vs. the previous long-haul on ANA. I know it’s a small item, but honestly, refreshing the lavs in-flight wouldn’t kill the FAs who seem to have penty of time to chat and to slam the doors by row 6. It just lends an “I’m mailing this job in.” feel when there are no paper towels and the counter is wet. It’s not a major gripe, but it’s part of the overall perception. ANA, JAL, Cathay — they all refresh the lavs in flight. I
    ‘m looking at Japan in the fall, and thinking about that (and the mediocre-at-best breakfast offerings on United) are making me think about other carriers.

  16. Henry LAX the ultimate UA defender…along with your pals on FT like fly18725. Want to tell us what your relationship is with United? Go ahead and counter anything I wrote, instead of insults that show your meek intellect.

  17. Polaris sounded too good to be true when first announced. Now we see that it was.

    As much as possible — and, admittedly, it’s not always possible¹ — I won’t fly United, American, OR Delta!² Domestically, there are much better options with Alaska/Virgin, JetBlue, and even Southwest! Why bother? And international carriers are far better (in my experience) than the US L3 . . . be it Coach/Economy or Business. I fail to see the point.

    ¹ I’ll confess to being lucky in that I live in the immediate San Francisco Bay Area, with access to three major airports (SFO, OAK, SJC), offering a wide variety of both domestic and international flights.

    ² With the exception of a r/t to MSY last year, I hadn’t flown AA since 2010 (and that was a US Airways flight pre-merger; AA metal since 2009), UA since 2016 (also to MSY), and DL since 2004. Yet I quite happily flew 50+ flights in each of the last two years (both in the US and overseas).

  18. I am letting my Exec BA gold go down to minimum blue, I will now let my UA 1k go down to dust as well. Because both these airlines are turning their premium cabin services into “cargo holds”.
    Whats left ? Join Ethiopian frequent flyer program ? Sad sad sad

  19. United was Never ready for Polaris. THeir inadequate training of attendants, rushed service, lack of detail,was appalling as their advertisement was a hard sell on “ business class reimagined.” On one Polaris service flight from Tokyo to Denver, their lack of attention to detail expanded as my seat would only recline about 6 inches. United was unapologetic when I contacted their customer service, and corporate customer service…They responded that if I did not move back into economy that they considered the seat in business class to be used. THere was only one other seat in biz class and it was marked “ out of use.”j So either their cleaning people broke the seat, or the security people or they did not perform the proper security check that would have entailed completely lowering the seat into a flat position.

    Also, the 4 hour training into Polaris was insufficient as the attendants are more concerned about hurrying up with service and then chatting or going to bed.

    It was a special touch during my last Polaris service that the FL threw a Tera on the tray when I requested tea and then crudely dumped a cup of hot water.

    It could have been great,,,,however, United, Do not expect what you do not inspect.

  20. Just curious… Why does Oscar Munoz appear to be Teflon coated?
    How exactly has UA improved during his tenure?

  21. Perhaps Mr. Kirby is negotiating his planned “golden parachute” from these cuts? Jeff $mi$ek set the benchmark for airline corporate raiding with his own salary and golden parachute, so why shouldn’t Kirby follow? Just another day of boardroom pillaging in the US airline industry. If the foreign air carriers can continue to be kept out of the US, the average airline passenger will take crappy service for granted. Nothing to see here, so pony up $$$ for airline tickets, and move along, sheeple passengers.

  22. UA miles are easy to get using Chase, and their award flight availability tends to be good to my destinations, better if you have more flexibility. That said, I’ve taken them business class around the world twice in the past couple of years, with only one flight on United. Melbourne to LAX (787) was an odd flight – you board around 10 AM, have dinner and go to sleep. I was so jet-lagged coming from Africa that suited me fine. Very little booze on that trip because of the hours. Only one FA wasn’t worth dealing with, the others were good. And I like the PJs. There’s no point in comparing to Asian or Middle Eastern airlines. And no point in them trying to come up to those standards.

  23. When United announced Polaris I was hopeful that I would be finally able to fly United business class to Europe (or maybe even Asia!) from IAD in a comfortable product. Total bait and switch. Even if on schedule, Polaris will be outdated and not competitive once it does reach the market. Right now for me the best use of United miles from IAD to Europe is on SAS, Austrian, and Aer Lingus.

  24. The transportation industry shares many parallels in its fish to downgrade and embrace mediocrity. “Bean Counters” have their place in the organization, but have no concept of how to conceptualize, implement, monitor, and ensure consistently acceptable customer experience, particularly at the premium level of service/class.

    As well, industries dominated by monopolists, such as the US3 and Amtrak, have no need to even superficially approach customer experience. Also interesting is how the Board of Directors in the US3 and Amtrak are oblivious to the reality of customer service, and its impact on loyalty and revenues.

    Today, Amtrak offers no premium long distance trains, and no longer even markets any such pretension. In its beginning, Amtrak falsely advertised “We’re Making the Trains Worthwhile to Travel Again.” That only became a renown oxymoron.

    Thankfully, we have sufficient lift capacity to Europe from ORD on foreign carriers. We can only hope for relief in domestic flying if the corrupt system of government in Chicago does not exclude Jet America and Alaska from the proposed terminal expansion at ORD.

    However, in essence, without sufficient competition, we have experienced how those providing transport services have no incentive to rise to a higher level.

    Therefore, we are inevitably condemned to the mediocrity of service inherent from the mediocrity of their C Suites.

  25. Stopped paying to fly United 8 years ago after many years of being my prime carrier. In the process of spending off all remaining mileage on Chase Mileage Plus and shifting to COSTCO Visa. I’d rather get the cash back and fly with whom I want to pay. Am scheduled for a Polaris flight this summer and I fear the disappointment but take solace knowing that will be my last one. I too fly mainly foreign airlines. They may also not be as grand as they used to be but they treat you like they are happy to see you as opposed to wanting to act as a sky ranger, customer dragger and puppy killer. My greatest fear is having to rely on the brain dead and poorly trained to save us in case of a catastrophe.

  26. Doesn’t really matter since I’ve never found availability in international business class with United saver miles. I do much better with AA and Delta.

  27. I’d rather fly united internationally in E+ than in C….. too many disappointments in United’s international premium cabins. At least in Y, you get pretty much what you expect. Just get me from Point A to Point B in one piece…. because any time they try to do more than that, they seem to screw it up too often. I’d rather go away thinking about the deal I got on come coach ticket than feeling screwed on their C tickets.

  28. What’s different about Polaris vs AA Biz?

    Basically an extra blanket, an optional pillow and pad.

    The meal service standard is about the same, though UA has done a better job with the main course than AA – that’s a legacy from CO.

    AA biz pax get Flagship access, which is basically what Polaris pax get if the lounges existed. There’s even table dining on the terrace at Kennedy.

    The seat is higher density – more efficient than AA biz.

    Really not much to cut other than some pieces of bedding you have to ask to receive and the name.

  29. I’ve relocated my family around the globe multiple times using United BusinessFirst and then Polaris when it came online. I’ve found in pretty much every case the FAs have been professional and very kind to me and my kids.

    That being said I’ve not been able to discern much difference between Polaris and the old BusinessFirst, so I’m not too torn up by United stepping back Polaris. Would have been nice to get a full Polaris experience though.

  30. First, naming your J product with a specific brand is silly. Just call it (something) Business or Business (something).

    Polaris? That’s the name of my grandpa’s four wheeler.

    Second, Kirby joining UA from AA has given this EXP something to be happy about with all the AAdvantage devaluations lately… that Kirby is no longer there to keep driving them into darker places! Go, Kirby, go! Lol

  31. @Sexy_kitten7 Based on my friend’s FB photo 1 min ago, the wine flights and cute holder are still in existence. Whew!

  32. This is sad because much of the problem was United’s botched roll-out. Of course a product that is hardly ever really available will not be able to achieve a premium. Self-fulfilling prophecy. What a screwed-up airline….

  33. Sometimes, when I think about the sad state of our current crappy, oligopolist airlines, it reminds me of how when back in the day (before the proliferation of cable tv, VCRs & Blockbuster, and certainly everything else that came after that allowed for movies to be viewed in the comfort of ones’ own home), seating in movie theaters often was in much narrower rows (and in some instances even smaller seats, too! ) than we now have with the far more spacious stadium style seating of today…

    …or how the floors at those movie theaters of my youth were often very sticky, if they were really cleaned at all, versus most theaters of today that usually are better maintained…

    …or how the concession stands, while overpriced then as they are now, usually had a much more limited selection than we have today at most multiplexes when we go to the movies…

    …and that’s because back then, if one wanted to see a movie, the cinema was the ONLY game in town, so they knew they could get away with crappy seats, less upkeep, and fewer, price gouged snacks & sodas to munch on…

    Then came cable tv, VCRs, movie rentals at stores like Blockbuster, and the torrent unleased by the fiber optic technology and the internet like we have today…

    So, with COMPETITION our movie theaters had to up their game and offer way more than they had to in the past when they ruled the roost.

    Same applies to our oligopolist airlines who now more than ever DESPERATELY NEED MEANINGFUL COMPETITION!

    If not, then then the far less desirable option may be necessary: reregulation.

    Because they sure can’t seem to resist the temptation of exceptional greed, indifference and arrogance that ALWAYS accompanies industries that lack competition that think, behave and act like monopolies or oligopolies as our airlines certainly do now.

  34. If United expected Polaris to start paying off within two years, that seems pretty silly. It’s going to take a time for people realize that United’s service is finally better. Of course, as others have mentioned, since the vast majority of planes don’t even offer Polaris seats, it makes it hard to choose United over competitors (and on international routes most would happily go with a foreign carrier).

    An even worse move seems like it would be killing Polaris while they’ve spent a bunch of money on it but before they get any return…

  35. United’s trouble starting with it’s communication and launch of Polaris. I’ve never experienced Polaris as promised. The service has consistently been good. But I’ve only once had the chance to actually experience the Polaris lounge once since it’s only offered in Chicago. Premium requires consistency and it’s something United fails at.

    As for United’s Elite program. We are over entitled. We believe in competition and believe that our treatment should be consistent regardless of the fare we pay on a particular day. Other than onboard premium service quality which really has gotten much better the only consistency I’ve observed is in reducing the quality of the treatments of elites.

    But that’s o.k. United as a business has a right to set the rules of their program just as we have the right to choose other carriers. United has done a great job of encouraging me to fly United only when it is the best deal. So I book the least expensive premium Atlantic travel I can find on whatever airline I can find. That’s involved everything from Turkish Airlines to Delta.

    Where in the past I would have been able to pay more for United flights or go out of my way to fly the airline instead I’ve gone in the opposite direction to whatever airline has the lowest premium fare. How this helps United’s bottom line is beyond me. As long as I get to board early and have a good seat that gives me rest why should I care what the logo outside the plane says.

  36. @EndlosLuft —> “United’s trouble starting with it’s [sic] communication and launch of Polaris. I’ve never experienced Polaris as promised.” No one has — off the top of my head, I cannot recall a rollout as f’d up as this one. However . . .

    “We believe in competition and believe that our treatment should be consistent regardless of the fare we pay on a particular day.” I’m not sure that’s true (unless I’m misunderstanding you). I don’t expect ANY airline to treat me the same when sitting in First/Business, versus when flying in Coach/Economy. What I do expect, however, is that the treatment WITHIN a particular class be consistent — e.g.: if I’m flying Business, I expect to be treated the same as every other passenger in Business, regardless of whether I’ve paid for a full-fare Business ticket, a discounted Business ticket, or booked a Business class award ticket. Either way, I’m flying in Business, period. Now, when it comes to being an elite, I can understand things like getting priority boarding, or a “fast pass” through security screening; free baggage check-in, lounge access, etc., etc. (Perhaps even a pre-flight drink.) But from the time the cabin doors are closed until the time they open, I expect all passengers flying in ________________ to be treated the same.

    “United as a business has a right to set the rules of their program,” and no one has suggested otherwise, have they? They also have the right to change the rules at the drop of a hat (barring some corporate by-law or Federal statute to the contrary), and I don’t think anyone is disputing that, either. But right now, no other airline is as good as “failing to deliver” than UA — whether it’s failed promises, failed programs, or the failure to deliver an animal to its destination ALIVE.

  37. @Jason Brandt I meant it in the sense of that if I’m spending more than 10K on an airline just because I happen to be on a single flight that was bought at discount by whomever my upgrade list benefits treatment in terms of frequent flyer benefits shouldn’t go out the window. They should look at my previous years spend and predicted future spend for the year to figure out how to treat me.

    United also has a problem with their mileage earnings. I earn so much more money now with for example my Chase credit card then actually flying any individual airline … who cares about United’s frequent flyer program. There is no more stickyness. And that someone who gets a less than $100 a year credit card gets boarding group 2 is absolute pure insanity in terms of asking them to care about loyalty.

  38. It was all so different before everything changed . . . and I’m not sure how any airline can handle your benefits based upon some arcane algorithms designed to predict future spend, when one is just as likely to say, “Screw this!” and fly WN or — as you wrote above — “I’ve gone in the opposite direction to whatever airline has the lowest premium fare.”

    Now it is true that, in some ways, the credit cardholder is the new “elite.” That said, while I do have two co-branded airline credit cards, neither one earns me any elite status. Indeed, I have only ever held elite status on one carrier — VX (and through that, now on AS), and that was based on actual flight segments, not credit card perks. One of the cards, BofA’s AS card, gives me free bags and one companion flight per year. The other, with an airline I used to fly more often than I now do, I have only to keep my miles from expiring and once they’re spent, I’ll close that account.

    Like you, most of my airfare spend goes on Chase (or Citi), and I see little reason to “chase” (no pun intended) after FF status.

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