The One Best Thing About United’s New Polaris Business Class

The more I think about United’s new business class seat the more I like it. It’s not my favorite business class seat in the world. It’s not even my second favorite business class seat. But United will have a lot of these new seats in their aircraft — the first Boeing 777-300ER comes with 60.

My only disappointment is how long it will take to retrofit existing aircraft: it will be 2021 before the bulk of the fleet has them.

Before Star Alliance airline ANA introduced its ‘First Square’ they offered a first class shell seat (‘New Style’). A decade ago it replaced a recliner seat that went fully flat (‘Super Style’).

When ANA moved from the flat seat recliner to the newer shell, they reduced first class capacity from 12 seats (2 rows of 2-2-2 seating) to 8 seats (2 rows of 1-2-1 seating).

And that meant the end of ANA first class awards for awhile. The earlier 12 seat configuration meant a lot of excess seats, and 2 first class award seats on pretty much every flight.

It wasn’t the most luxurious seat, but ANA’s service and catering were phenomenal, and I actually lamented the improvements because a better product that I don’t have access to does me no good at all.

ANA awards are tougher to get than they were 10 years ago, but not nearly as tough as when they first introduced each new product. I’ve been fortunate to fly ANA in first several times since then.

Ironically at the time it seemed like at the time the only international first class I’d regularly see was Lufthansa’s, since they had 16 seats upstairs on their Boeing 747s.

Of course they have since cut first in half, and now only make first class awards available to partners on a general basis within 2 weeks of flight.

So while I can appreciate the best products in the world (Etihad’s The Residence is truly something to behold), I appreciate most very good products that are attainable.

It’s not necessarily in the business interests of airlines to always have substantially more seats left over for upgrades than they can sell. But having some at least some of the time is valuable because it means not running out of those high priced premium seats and it means offering a value proposition for loyalty programs that are themselves drivers of profit (Delta gets $2 billion a year just from American Express for their SkyMiles credit cards). People need to want the miles, and for that they need to be able to use the miles for something valuable.

One of the first things American Airlines did after US Airways management took over is increase the number of seats per aircraft. For instance,

  • Boeing 737-800s went from 150 to 160
  • Boeing 777-200s from 247 to 260
  • MD80s from 135 to 140

In fact American then even decided to go to an even higher density Boeing 777-200 configuration for retrofits with 289 seats. They get there by reducing the number of business class seats.

Along with word of how few premium seats there will be on American’s new Boeing 787-9 and Airbus A350 aircraft it’s clear they want to take care to only have premium seats that are likely to be sold. They want everyone to pay for exactly the product they get.

That makes upgrades and awards tough. So in comparison I’ll take United’s seat over American’s if it turns out the greater number of business class seats at United means I can actually book them sometimes using miles for awards or upgrades.

Takeaway: The best airline seat is the best one you have access to.

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. I think they’re being arbitrarily mean by only offering pyjamas/sleep suits Polaris passengers on flights longer than 12 hours…. tacky! Why not ALL passengers – cheap and mean!

  2. Bad name, Polaris? Sounds like a rocket or a snowmobile. BusinessFirst was a very distinct brand name for over 20 years. Again, don’t replace what already worked well. Changing the features, hard and soft is great, but don’t destroy your brand recognition. To me, this is just more of United fumbling around trying to figure out what might work. Just because Delta changed theirs doesn’t mean United needs to do the same. BusinessFirst was class leading in many ways, for many years. The name is catchy and worked. BusinessElite for Delta never had that catch and DeltaOne does. But just blindly following Delta is not helping United.

  3. Four years to fit the entire fleet with this new J class? Tell you what, by the time the retrofit their entire fleet, their J will be considered dated. In this day and age, it seems there is a refresh every 5 years.

  4. BusinessFirst is both stupid and confusing. Thank goodness they are retiring it. Polaris is goofy but at least United is trying.

  5. Totally agree that Business First is among the worst branding attempts in aviation history. It is confusing and generic simultaneously. Polaris is ultimately meaningless and perhaps a bit flowery but is distinctive. But the name really does not matter, the product does. United is attempting to make real, positive changes across the entire service spectrum when it comes to the new business class. That should be applauded.

  6. This article is disjointed. The headline is about United’s new business class, but a good part of the article and most of the pictures are about ANA’s First Class.

    Regarding the name, I with they would just call it United Business. Polaris? What’s that? BusinessFirst was a stupid name that left a lot of confusion; was it business or was it first? At times it could have been argued it was neither.

  7. The Manafacture of Polaris seats is Zodiac Aerospace that was in R&D in Santa Maria, CA. I worked on the project, and quite because there quality is jeopardize passengers with no crash test to prove that they will hold up to high turbulentschool, and they use cheap material and vendors, I couldn’t and wouldn’t be part of there scam selling poor seats, lay down, now they are building the product in Zodiac in the Uk, because there requirements pass the quality with diffrent and lower levels of quality and the Polaris cost is 6,000 a seat, and now they make a profit and the polaris is paid for on one flight, why don’t they reduce the cost and be audited by FA . Oops they can’t now since it’s produced in the Uk.

  8. I tell you what was considered 1st class about 40 years ago was CUSTOMER FIRST. Don’t expect to see that ever again in the airline industry, greed seems to always win. It use to be fun to fly, now it’s way to exspensive and rude.

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