United Airlines update: Polaris, premium economy and customer service

3 Aug 2019 by Jenni Reid
United B767-300 Polaris seat

Polaris business class

United Airlines announced the launch of its new business class offering, named Polaris after the North Star, back in 2016.

You can read our original piece here:

United unveils long-haul business class seat

Polaris has three components:

The Polaris launch heralded the end of United’s international first class and was much-touted by the airline.

However its roll-out initially proved slow, in part due to delays at seat manufacturer Zodiac Aerospace (now Safran). After a year and a half it was on fewer than 20 aircraft. Customers began to say that it was unclear how they could experience the product.

But this year United is determined to show that it is speeding the process up, and has launched a Polaris tracker so customers can see where its deliveries and retrofits are at.

Currently the seat is on all of its new B777-300ERs and B787-10s (five of which are still to come) and just over half of its B767-300ERs and B777-200ERs.

Polaris business class on United's B787-10

Good news for UK passengers who want a consistent business product came last week, when the airline announced that all five of its daily B767-300ER services between Newark and London Heathrow would feature the new layout from September 15.

According to United’s Senior VP for Worldwide Sales, Jake Cefolia, it was “something that had been marinating for some time.”

“One of the things that has been a perennial topic of conversation is that we didn’t have enough [premium] capacity to serve customers’ needs every day of the week [between Newark and Heathrow],” Cefolia told Business Traveller in a phone interview from Chicago on Wednesday.

This premium capacity has come at the expense of economy seating; the new configuration means that up to 50 are lost on some aircraft. With just 52 economy seats and another 47 in “Economy Plus” (with extra legroom), United says this is “the highest proportion of premium seats on any widebody operated by any US carrier”. Up front in this configuration there are 46 Polaris seats and 22 in Premium Plus, the new premium economy cabin which launched earlier this year.

United Premium Plus seats on the carrier's B787-10

Premium Economy

“We are really excited about premium economy,” added Marcel Fuchs, vice president for international sales, on the same call.

“We are late to the party but we think we can get it right. The cabin only has 22 seats, and it’s very discreet with fantastic amenities. The response so far has exceeded our expectations.”

It’s now full steam ahead, according to Cefolia. The plan is to complete a retrofit every ten days from now until the end of 2020, working through a fleet of more than 120 widebody aircraft.

“We will have it across the board on long-haul by the end of next year. We started last year and it’s now on a number of routes.”

United’s new B787-10s are flying some transatlantic routes, for example Newark to Frankfurt, Paris, Brussels, Barcelona and Dublin.

Asked whether newer aircraft such as the Dreamliners might come onto the London route, Cefolia said: “The 767-300 reconfiguration is not simply an effort to swap around seats. It really is a refurb of the aircraft with new carpet, lighting, seats. It looks and feels like a new aeroplane.”

United Polaris Lounge, Los Angeles - Bar


What London passengers will be waiting longer for is a Polaris lounge.

The plan announced in 2016 was for nine lounges globally by the following year, but there are still only five, all in the US.

In an interview with Business Traveller last August, CEO Oscar Munoz said they were looking to get a Heathrow lounge open in early 2019 – but United’s line is now simply that it is “in planning” (along with Hong Kong and Tokyo), with no estimated timeline being made public.

United Boeing 737-800 in new livery


Cefolia and Fuchs also discussed some of the new technology that they say will improve the passenger experience.

That includes Connection Saver, a tool which scans flights for customers who are making tight connections and calculates whether the flight should be held and for how long in order to inconvenience the least number of people.

Connection Saver accounts for factors such as how long it will take a late customer to get from gate to gate, as well as the impact of holding the flight on other customers’ connections, and can text passengers with directions and time estimates for their connection.

The airline says 150,000 of its customers make connections each day over the summer season, and it plans to expand the tool to all its hubs by autumn.

“There are three things to consider,” says Cefolia.

“One, how many customers are coming in that need to connect, two, when the next opportunity would be for them to get to their destination, and three, what would be the time of delaying the rest of the passengers on the flight.

“All these variables are happening in different places and have potentially different weightings. We were challenging our service providers to make the right decision, but this technology can use an algorithm to make the optimal decision for the greatest number of customers.

“It has had a great ability to get passengers to their destinations. We saved around 20,000 connections during the trial in Denver. One example I like – a group of almost 100 children were travelling to Japan through Denver and running late.

“They would have had a 24-hour delay to their trip, and we don’t know if there would have been the accommodation there for them, but the tool recommended holding the flight and allowed them to make it to their destination. So service providers tell us they love having that support there.”

There has also been an upgrade to the United app, which now sends live boarding time updates, and a new partnership with Clear, announced this week, that will allow frequent flyers to use register to use biometric systems in order to fast-track document checks.

The app will also provide more information in the event of a delay or cancellation, giving various options and allowing passengers to choose between them on the app.

In general the airline is looking to refresh the way it interacts with customers, according to Fuchs.

“Beyond the technical side, we want to engage in a better fashion. Rather than saying ‘your flight is delayed’ we want to explain why. We want to communicate in a less mechanical way and we have made huge investments in that space.”

It has been more than two years since the infamous customer relations disaster in which passenger David Dao was bloodied while being dragged off an overbooked United flight. The whole thing was shared around the world on social media, sparking outrage and criticism of the airline.

“That was a watershed moment for United,” says Cefolia.

“It really emphasised that it’s not just about operating reliably, which we had a lot of focus on. It’s much deeper than that, it’s how you make people feel. It has created a lot of focus on making sure people feel great about their choice to fly United, and we have had countless initiatives around that.”

One is a “core4” training programme targeting not only United’s 90,000 staff, but also up to 40,000 third-party supplier and vendor staff.

Cefolia says they have been seeing “better customer satisfaction results and returning customer counts.”

It’s also one of two key ways to stand out in the busy domestic market.

“It does matter where you’re flying and with what frequency,” says Cefolia.

“We want to be seen as the natural choice. Corporate travellers need to get to the right place at the right time, and we are in those high-demand markets.

“But it’s also about how you feel when you’re in our care, whether it’s somebody to accommodate you and hear your situation or whether it’s onboard.

“It’s the little things, the smile, the greetings by name, and making sure you understand your customer. We have made that a focal point. I really think those are the two big things.”

Read our reviews of Polaris business class on a B767-300 and the Polaris lounge at San Francisco International


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