United’s once high-flying, heavily promoted and flashy Polaris business class seat broke out in 2016 as a bold upgrade in business class flying. But since then, the carrier has implemented several changes and cutbacks.
For those flying United on upgrades or points, the nice new seat is the big attraction. But for business travelers forking over $5,000 round trip, these little cuts add up, especially when compared to business class offerings on other airlines.
A United spokesperson characterizes these as “changes” versus cuts in its service. “Changes and adjustments are an expected part of any big product rollout,” he said, “and that’s what we are seeing here. There is no impact on the customer experience. As a matter of fact these changes come as a result of customer feedback.”
Here are five changes or cuts that United has made since the airline introduced the service in December 2016.
- Expectations. Two years after the flashy new seat was rolled out, it is still only on a fraction (about 20 percent) of the aircraft in United’s long haul fleet. As of this week, only 37 United jets are flying with the new Polaris business class seat: 17 B777-300ERs and 14 B767-300s and 6 B777-200ERs. (That’s 37 out of about 230 planes in United’s long-haul fleet.) So if you book a “Polaris business class” ticket on United, it’s still much more likely that you’ll get the old forward/rear facing seats than the new ones. United says that it’s “adding at least one aircraft with United Polaris seating every 10 days from now through 2020,” but for some reason that does not seem fast enough. You can track the Polaris seat rollout here.
- Beverages. One of the most unique, most talked about and highly promoted elements of United’s Polaris service were mimosa and bloody Mary carts and “wine flights” that flight attendants rolled down the aisles on morning flights. The concept was great in theory, and worked from a promotional standpoint, but it was not practical. Apparently it slowed down meal service and was noisy for travelers who just wanted to get onboard and sleep. Also insiders say that passengers were drinking too much and running up a higher booze tab than the airline expected. United pulled the show last May but says passengers can still get a bloody or glass of wine by asking for it. United also cut out the salted caramel chocolate served with Champagne during boarding, but replaced that with more desserts. United says that the chocolate came off because customers were too busy settling into seats to enjoy it.
- Staffing. Last week United informed flight attendants that it would be cutting one business class flight attendant per plane starting in February 2019. To help take the strain off the remaining flight attendants, United will board business class meals “pre-plated” instead of having a flight attendant take the time to do so. (For plated meals, the food elements are stored and heated in small foil ramekins, then placed on the plate with a garnish in the galley, which makes the meal appear to be fresher and restaurant style.) It remains to be seen what the new pre-plated meals will look or taste like, but anything that’s assembled in an industrial kitchen won’t look as pretty or fresh.
- Bedding. When United first rolled out Polaris business class, passengers were greeted with a big pile of Saks Fifth Avenue branded soft goods on each seat including 2 pillows, blankets, duvets, amenity kits, etc. While it was visually pleasing, fliers complained that there was not enough storage space in the seat area for all the stuff (and the plastic bags it came in). So United pulled the pile and made most of the cushy comfort items available on request only. Based on customer feedback, United recently made the popular and unique gel pillow available to all Polaris passengers.
- Snacks. When Polaris launched, flight attendants rolled a formal snack presentation on a cart down the aisle. Now, passengers can read about snack offerings via a hang tag on water bottles and make requests to flight attendants or pick something up from a display in the galley area.
One bright spot in the Polaris rollout has been the spectacular new Polaris Lounges that have opened over the last two years in Chicago, San Francisco, Newark and Houston. A new lounge was promised at LAX “in the third quarter of 2018” but it has yet to open. United no longer talks much about Polaris lounges slated for London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Washington Dulles– all of which are now “in planning.”