United Airlines aims to roll out its new Premium Plus seats and open a Polaris lounge at Heathrow next year, as it seeks to train staff to be more “caring”.
During a visit to Heathrow last week, chief executive Oscar Munoz spoke to Matthew Parsons, editor of Business Traveller’s sister title Buying Business Travel. He described the moves as part of a journey towards a “new spirit of United” that began a year and a half ago – a period that coincides with the violent removal of David Dao from United Express Flight 3411, and the subsequent video that went viral.
The new Polaris cabin has been a long time coming, but a new one is being rolled out at a rate of one every ten days, through new aircraft and reconfigurations of existing planes, until 2020. Munoz defended the slow roll out, saying. “You just don’t do it overnight, because you’ve got to fly. Nobody has that many excess planes sitting around.”
Meanwhile, planning is underway for a new “Polaris experience” in the UK, meaning a new lounge. United opened one in Houston on June 29, following similar facilities opening in Chicago, San Francisco and Newark/New York.
So is Heathrow coming? “The answer is a resounding yes… hopefully the first half of the year,” Munoz said. “They are ‘fantabulous’ – I’m making up words! But you walk in, and literally your jaw drops, and we’ve done it of course tastefully, but more importantly with the customer in mind.
“We’ve listened to our folks, the way the seating is arranged, whether it’s private seating, group seating, there’s dinner if you want to sit down for dinner, and buffets. When you walk in as a customer, you say ‘this is special, I feel special, I want to come back.’”
United must now decide which passengers will have access, as Heathrow already features a United first-class lounge. “There’s always a conundrum of who gets in, who doesn’t get in, so we’re trying to balance it so we make sure everyone has something,” Munoz said.
Premium Plus launch
The airline is also in the “early stages” of launching its Premium Plus class, as it works with partner airlines over how the product will be aligned. Munoz said he hoped it would be on sale by “the first quarter of next year”. “It’s approximate, I’m giving myself some time there, but we want to make sure we get it right.
“Generally we’re going to be aligned with our alliance partners, both Lufthansa and Air Canada, then across the Pacific, ANA. They all have that product, and we want to start matching on all those routes. We have the seats, and products, ready, but we need to iron out the soft things, the china, the linen, and all the special touches that Premium Plus is going to be able to do.”
Meanwhile, following a fresh order for four new Boeing 787 Dreamliners at a list price of £1.1 billion at last month’s Farnborough air show, Munoz said the aircraft was ideal for today’s business traveller. “You just feel better, the lighting, the air, on top of that, the fuel efficiency, the range… all that makes sense and it’s a beautiful product. And that goes nicely with our Polaris aspect, with sleep being at the centre of that.”
‘It’s OK to be caring’
Following every chief executive’s worst PR nightmare in April last year, when security officers removed a passenger from a plane at O’Hare International Airport, Munoz is focusing on educating staff about the new “core4” training programme, which focuses on four characteristics: caring, safe, dependable and efficient.
It will be a big task, as he is targeting not only United’s 90,000 staff, but also up to 40,000 third-party supplier and vendor staff. “We used to think, ‘well, they’re not really us’. Well, they’re not, but they are. Because a customer couldn’t care less what colour or stripes they’re wearing. So I always count them in,” he said.
“Core4 is meant to provide a template and logical words for our frontline folks. First, you always have to be safe… but what we’ve also introduced is this word caring. After safety, how can you then understand that that person in front of you is human, has human needs, and has chosen to fly with us. If they have something manageable that you can help with, you should think about doing it.
“So it’s OK to be caring, where historically we didn’t do that… this is a new United.”