United Debuts Its First Polaris Lounge at O’Hare: Great for Business Class Customers, Not So Great for Loyal Ones

American is renovating and rebranding first class lounges and first and business class lounges separate from their Admirals Clubs. You cannot pay to get in. Frequent customers buying memberships don’t have access.

Rendering of New Flagship Lounge Seating, credit: American Airlines

United debuted their new Polaris lounge at Chicago O’Hare in the old club and first class lounge space at gate C18 today. This is a business (and first) class lounge. It is not a Star Alliance Gold lounge and not a United Club.

Again, business class customers of United and their partners have access. They aren’t building single larger lounges. Frequent flyers, even those paying for lounge access, don’t get in.

United Polaris Lounge Chicago, Credit: United

United, Delta, and American are improving their general club lounges. My sense is that American is slow-walking their upgrades, though they’ve improved their food offerings roughly on par with United’s investment and marginally behind Delta’s.

Delta just opened a gorgeous new Seattle lounge, and it comes after a beautiful San Francisco lounge. United’s LAX renovation has brought a new club opened this week with outdoor deck.

It’s not as fancy as the Star Alliance lounge’s deck in the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX – no water feature or fire pits – but it has a nice view of airport operations.

Star Alliance Lounge, Los Angeles

The cost of lounge memberships is going up, most recently Delta’s. Although airlines have made it advantageous in most cases to buy lounge membership via premium credit cards rather than direct purchase.

Delta Sky Club Seattle, credit: Delta Air Lines

There’s a trend towards modestly improving membership-based lounges and substantially improving business class only lounges at least at United and American. As with changes to frequent flyer programs the best service and benefits go to those spending the most on a given trip, not over the course of a year or a lifetime.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Your tone implies some sort of detriment or regression.

    UA has long had first class only lounges that club members or frequent fliers couldn’t access unless in the premium cabin. Just Global Services in biz class were the exception.

    Polaris is no more exclusive (and actually more inclusive) than that concept, while offering a whole lot more.

  2. I’m flying through tomorrow on an Aeroplan award ticket in business class, in on UL and out on TK. Do I get to use this lounge?

  3. @brteacher: Yes, you can. See: https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/airport/lounge/access.aspx

    “A boarding pass for travel in United Polaris business class

    Customers in United Polaris business class may access a United Polaris lounge at connecting airports and their final destination within 24 hours of arrival or departure of their flight.”

    Interestingly, Polaris lounges are also open to travelers in business class on a Star Alliance member airline, but on departure only.

  4. Lounges aren’t that big a deal. Sure, a nice quiet space with some grub is nice, but nothing to get all worked up about. Unless you’re in the Delta lounge in LAX which is a hot, crowded, mess, the experience is usually decent. I would much rather have a job that affords me the ability to see my family every day than one that takes me all over the world spending countless hours and days of my life away from family.

  5. I am flying United business to Zurich dec 26. I leave from Ord-ewr. Then my international flight leaves from ewr.

    Can I get into the Polaris lounge at Ord?

  6. United has completely renovated every lounge at O’hare (they’re all gorgeous, btw) and many others in the system and now offers REAL food, including hot food like soups and lasagna, complimentary. This post implies that the only good improvements are going to business class customers, which just isn’t the case. Many Polaris passengers ARE also lounge members and regular domestic flyers and while Polaris is definitely an elevated experience, that’s too be expected when a ticket costs several thousand dollars vs a few hundred.

  7. I don’t think Delta’s lounges are that great, at least when compared against international business-class — let alone first-class — standards.

    Sure, Delta Sky Club at Atlanta’s international-focused Terminal F is generally nice and quiet (at least outside of red-eye departure times) but the food isn’t that great. Definitely no menu service there. The flagship J.F.K. Sky Club is great but generally crowded. Again, you’re eating off micro-sized plates with plastic knives and forks. Hardly a premium experience, despite spending $5,000, $7,000 or even $10,000 on a business-class airfare.

    As for Detroit or Minneapolis. Give me a break. Minneapolis doesn’t even have a shower. Detroit’s main lounge is super-crowded, except on the weekends or a national holiday.

    San Francisco’s lounge is, in my opinion, better than Los Angeles. L.A.X. is way too small and cramped.

  8. …”Again, business class customers of United and their partners have access. Frequent flyers, even those paying for lounge access, don’t get in….”

    And that’s what separates the Polaris Lounge from the United Club Lounge. I like the idea that Polaris will have restricted access and welcome this change.

    This will also make the United Club lounges in the key gateway cities less crowded. Thank you United!

  9. Polaris was never meant to be a perk for loyal FF members! That’s what the UC and *G lounges are for…

    Polaris was conceived as and was always meant to be the replacement for the current GlobalFirst lounges. Period.

    Just in case the “Thought Leader” has not noticed, UA has been revamping their Club lounges almost everywhere. So, they are not leaving anyone behind, except the competition.

    Almost every airline has had an exclusive lounge for their top flyers/spenders for years. To try to imply that UA is somehow despicable for not opening up Polaris to one and all is just silly stuff.

    I am flying out of ORD for PVG in UA GlobalFirst (‘A’ fare) in a couple of weeks to kick off my 2016 Year-end Asian Escapade(tm), so I am looking forward to experiencing Polaris as it was meant to be: as a high-spending customer, at least for this flight.

  10. I agree with your point regarding loyalty. That said, United has significantly improved its lounges worldwide, with hot food now available at most hubs. That’s as much as you can expect from a membership that costs as little as a few dollars per visit if you travel often. The question of whether to let Star Gold members in is more complex. Lufthansa does it (at the Senator Lounges) and they’re perpetually crowded. The number of travelers in the US is even greater. It probably wouldn’t scale.

    Either way, I’m surprised you didn’t make it to today’s press event, Gary!

    We stopped by and here are our pictures and first impressions:

  11. I flew United Polaris SFO/CDG, on day one!

    Overall, a significant upgrade, but not a revolution quite yet – it will take the new seats, some amount of polishing, and more Polaris Lounges for the vision to be realized. Also, some aspects of the service were disappointing, like the use of trays or the lack of a bread basket. However, the bedding is outstanding. And ultimately, good sleep is what most business class passengers are looking for. United is winning in this department.

    Here is a detailed report:

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