United’s New Business Seat, Bedding, and Lounges Revealed By New CEO Oscar Munoz

Oscar Munoz took the stage at Gotham Hall in New York this morning to talk about their new push at United. It as as much about the culture of the airline as it was about the new product — the “culture of caring” and “new spirit of United” that he acknowledges has been “missing far too long.”

He gave thanks to everyone in the audience but also to United’s “86,000 colleagues” who seem as much the audience in everything Munoz does as the media assembled. More than anything he’s trying to instill pride in the airline’s workforce and hoping that will translate into better customer interaction that bring customers back.

Introducing the product, Munoz says he “challenged the team to be defiantly innovative.” And while I have no doubt this is true, United also emphasized the long research process they went through — they started the new seat process three years ago, and it was locked a year ago, when Jeff Smisek was still the airline’s CEO (although Henry Harteveldt says that Smisek agreed ‘kicking and screaming’).

Munoz acknowledged that international business class customers view sleep as more important than anything else, which isn’t new, but was surprised that it was “almost 2.5x times as important as anything else.” Munoz said that, “Sleep is the new black.”

So the center of their design is the new Zodiac seat (coming from Zodiac UK, with a dedicated product line that United says is on-time for a seat that’s been certified).

The seat will be fully flat with direct aisle access. That puts it a cut above British Airways and Lufthansa, but plays catch up to Delta and American.

New Business Seat Rollout

They call the new product Polaris. United will offer all aisle access fully flat seating with a 6’6″ bed.

Crafted as individual, forward-facing, suite-like pods, each customer’s personal suite will feature a “Do Not Disturb” sign, mood lighting, one-touch lumbar support, several storage areas, multiple surfaces for simultaneous working and dining, a 16-inch high-definition entertainment screen and, for seats in the center of the cabin, electronic privacy dividers.

United’s Boeing 777-300ER will be the first plane with the new seats, and it will be delivered later this year and go into revenue service early in 2017. There will be 60 business class seats in a denser layout than American. It’s less space, but efficient use of space, per seat. But more seats also means a greater chance of upgrades and awards. So, tradeoffs.

The seat allows stowage under the ottoman for taxi, takeoff, and landing. There’s limited additional at-seat storage.

The tray moves into several positions, which is nice.

They’ll be retrofitting existing aircraft but united says that “most of the fleet” won’t have the new product until 2021.

The United Polaris business class seat will first take flight in December on Boeing 777-300ER aircraft and subsequently on Boeing 787-10 and Airbus A350-1000 aircraft, as well as on Boeing 767-300 and 777-200 retrofits.

United’s New Business Class Soft Product

They’re introducing a soft product as well to go along with the new seat.

Flights over 12 hours will be provisioned with pajamas.

[T]he new bedding collection will feature plush duvets, lightweight day-blankets and a large and small pillow for each United Polaris customer. In addition, mattress cushions will be available upon request.

Slippers will be available on all flights, and customized United Polaris pajamas will be available by request on flights longer than 12 hours. Flyers will also be able to request a gel-cooled pillow. New amenity kits will feature ergonomically designed eye shades, calming lavender pillow mist and additional products from Soho House & Co.’s Cowshed Spa.

They’ll offer bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue (gosh, I remembered when their bedding was from Westin..) inclusive of 2 pillows, a day blanket, and duvet. There will also be an optional mattress pad and cooling gel pillow, available on request.

They expect not everyone will want these so won’t provision them at the seat, and while they intend for there to be enough for any passenger who wishes once the product is flying I’d ask for these as early as possible in the flight.

The soft product launches December 1.

New International Business Class Lounges

United is also introducing new Polaris lounges. There will be 9 lounges, complete by end of 2017. Existing Global First lounges such as at Washington Dulles and San Francisco will be converted, so these aren’t all new builds. O’Hare opens first.

The first new United Polaris lounge will open at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on Dec. 1, 2016. Lounges in eight other locations – Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, New York/Newark, Washington Dulles, Tokyo Narita, Hong Kong and London Heathrow – will follow in 2017.

These fill feature preflight dining from a menu, brought to you anywhere in the club as well as a buffet. These are not Star Alliance Gold lounges and United Club members won’t have access (although partner airline business and first class customers will).

United Economy Gets a Downgrade With 10-Across Seating

Continuing the industry trend to do more to compete for high revenue passengers, while cramming more passengers into economy, the new Boeing 777-300ER will be 10-across in economy (as American does now, along with many international carriers like Emirates and Air France).

How Does It Compare?

Asked for the unique selling proposition of their product, compared to United and Delta which already equip substantial portions of their fleet with lie flat all aisle access business class, a United representative mentioned the ‘privacy divider that goes up or down’ for the center seats, a dig at American’s Boeing 777-200 and Boeing 787 seats where the divider is generally stuck in the up or down position. They also mentioned gate to gate entertainment.

Ultimately we’ll see how the service elements work in the air. The new lounges with preflight dining should allow for a shorter dinner service, which customers want on short Eastbound transatlantics from United’s Newark and Washington Dulles hubs.

The seat is a huge improvement for United though I wouldn’t contend it’s better than Delta or American. It’s better than British Airways.

Ultimately this should be good enough so that passengers don’t book away from United’s business product. It will win them some premium business. But it’s simply going to take too long for the average customer to know that whenever they fly United internationally this is what they’ll get.

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. Whenever I fly United’s “Business First” I generally have low expectations. So all these new improvements sound great, but to me the biggest problem is the super inconsistencies of their flight crew.

    I have had amazing flight attendants and awful ones, sometimes on the same flight. But whether they are good or not, halfway through a flight it’s impossible to find anyone. Whenever I fly with an international carrier, their FA are always up and down the aisles (even in economy) to check on passengers and see if you need anything, or in general just being proactive to help the customer. On United I can never find anyone, even when flying in the front. Then, when I finally find them, every time they make it feel like I am greatly inconveniencing them.

    Fix that first, then you can fix the rest.

  2. Are those the same Zodiac seats that AA abandoned because of delivery issues (and the ‘shaking’ problem)?

  3. The business seats are definitely an improvement. But “Polaris”? – just call it business class!

    Ten across in economy isn’t going to be fun. Are the economy seats being changed so they’re more “streamlined”?

  4. OMG!!!! Polaris is a manufacturer of off-road vehicles and snowmobiles. Is that how United sees comfort? Hope Polaris sue them over this name. Anything would make UA business class better. It cannot get worst than it currently is. However, this looks more like an Amtrak train than a business class I would pay what the charge for. UA still doesn’t get it.

  5. One thing to note was the announcement of pretty much retiring Global First with the introduction of Polaris (I suppose it will be cut from every retrofitted plane?).

  6. I bet you also remember when a United award came with a free night (or was it two) at a Westin and a Hertz rental car free day (or was it two?). I think that dates me more than when I tell people I was. a big fan of Blind Faith.

  7. All this hoopla to make an announcement that won’t even be complete until 2021!! United has become so desperate for any good news. This just makes Munoz and their management team look silly. Next thing you know they’ll be making a huge announcement about their new soap in the bathroom.

  8. @ Gary – A step up for sure. I have wide shoulders. How wide are the seats?

  9. Sadly we won’t see these seats on the terrible 757s which fly into all UK cities outside London – despite the exorbitant fares charged on these routes!

  10. I think this is a vast improvement to BusinessFirst. Business class is all about the seat. The lie flat and all aisle access are total winners. The nicer bedding and slippers and optional PJs, are all very nice. Delta isn’t giving PJs to its Asian bound passengers so this is a plus over Delta. The slow installation schedule is the issue. It may not be United causing the slowness, it probably is the seat manufacturer.

    And I disagree that this seat looks like Amtrak. Having been on all the types of Amtrak trains, this new seat is very nice. Not “train-like” at all. Just needs to be installed as fast as possible.

  11. @Beachfan I do… and then those certificates for hotel and car rental discounts they’d mail out every time you’d issue an award

  12. @Lack retrofit will eliminate Global First. United is arguing ‘this is the new first’ and that bed length is the same. I disagree, but United’s first has lagged so long that it’s not all that different.

  13. @SPC not quite the same, and United says they’re using a different production line and aren’t behind schedule. We’ll see!

  14. UA is already all lie-flat and has been for 5 or 6+ years. On AA, out of ORD and many other cities, you still find a LOT of 777-200’s which still have angled seats in business. Yes, their 77W and 767’s have been retrofitted, but those are all recent deployments. You still today in 2016 don’t know if you’re truly getting a lie-flat product on AA if you have a 777 scheduled to operate your flight. UA has had that for years. While it will take a while to roll this out, you still have a guarantee of a lie flat seat, something you don’t still yet have on AA.

    Any details on E+ remaining 9 across? 10 across really is awful, whereas 9 across E+ is really not terrible.

  15. This looks like a great upgrade to the product, and I like that they are considering the lounge and soft products, too. Having flown extensively on UA and other carriers in all classes of service, this looks like a completely civilized way to spend 8-14 hours. This announcement is not at all silly…it is the announcement of a complete revision of business class. The timing is a bit longer than most of us would like, but all airlines announce major changes months in advance. And I agree about the FA’s. I can see the culture changing on my recent flights, but there’s still a long way to go. Maybe the culture change will be complete by 2021 also!

  16. AA’s privacy dividers were supposed to go up/down too and the seats in what was a more compact configuration than the 77W Cirrus were also not supposed to shake. But then Acumen designed and Zodiac manufactured those too. So, there is no telling what Untied is going to get with its equally compact layout.

    Whatever the case, AA’s new SuperDiamond seat is much better than the new United seat.

  17. Great news for those of us forced to fly UA, though with the usual anti-UA spin from Gary. How is efficient use of space a negative factor??

    Obviously the biggest improvement is the aisle access, this will be a huge advantage over BA and LH which are stiff competitors. Like many I was not allowed to “book away” from UA – now I will have no reason to do so. As Oscar notes, the soft amenities are at the bottom of the list (I can’t imagine anyone chooses airlines for pajamas).though the gel pillow and light blanket will aid sleep.

    Although it gets short shrift here, I think the new C/F lounges at international hubs will be a huge positive factor. Many competitors have such crappy lounges in the USA – here you will actually be able to get a meal and relax, hopefully like LH and BA hub lounges.

    This is the first sign of Oscar’s new emphasis on pleasing the customer. I would think Gary would be more positive since all the others have been following the LCCs into the gutter. But I guess you are still bitter about AA switching gears.

    As for the schedule, simply look at how long it took LH to retrofit its fleet. Unfortunately not an overnight process when you need to keep planes in the air…

    Oh, and yes, further proof that I was right about C being the new F. The really bad news, which Gary mentions in passing, is that E+ will be more tightly crammed, making it less competitive and counter to the direction that others are heading. However I predict that too shall change.

    PS 90% of my international FAs in C are fabulous, so I find the complaints not credible.

  18. Congratulations to UA for putting a tinge of color in the cabin. US airlines seem to base their interior design on 50 shades of gray. Still the business class section lags far behind Qatar’s A350, for example, in terms of overall aesthetics. Probably because of subsidized Gulf State competition.

    It is good that IFE will be available gate to gate. It is annoying when business class and first class must stow their video screens 30 minutes before landing.

  19. It looks like UA has decided to compete on quality of product for international business class instead of just relying on having a superior route network and “good enough” seats. A step in the right direction. I look forward to seeing the new amenities in December, though I suspect it will be a while before I see the new seat.

    Improvement in the lounges for international travelers is also long overdue. The difference in IAD and LAX UA lounges and those of the international carriers is just embarrassing.

  20. Overall these are great changes, but 2021 is a lifetime away.

    I hope they keep E+ at 9 across, but I’m not holding my breath.

  21. Will there be a reliable way to know whether or not one is on a plane with a new seat?

  22. I wouldn’t expect these new seats anytime soon except possibly on new A350’s or 777-300 aircraft being added to the fleet over the next year or so. Other than that United has a habit of announcing new products and then taking years to implement them. It took them over 3 years to install wifi throughout the fleet even though they were actively out touting the new wifi being available. In today’s corporate world I wouldn’t believe it until I was actually sitting in the new seat. One day Munoz is in and the next day he could be out and the new seats could be out with him.

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