Scuppering more signature soft product hurts United Polaris

It’s no secret that the rollout of United’s Polaris has been… let’s be kind and say sub-optimal. First, the seats are delayed, which of course isn’t directly United’s fault but should probably have been planned for, since it’s 2018 and even the world’s best business class is hitting quality problems and installation delays. But fewer than twenty United aircraft have currently been equipped.

Seats well into their second decade simply don’t cut it, and Fauxlaris (old seats with new soft product) is a problem — one that perhaps I was willing to overlook in favour of what was to promised nine months after the unveiling of the new branded cabin, but we’re rapidly approaching two years since United showed off Polaris and hasn’t stopped advertising it since.

The promised lounges still haven’t been built, or in some cases even designed, leaving passengers stuck in United Clubs that are often an improvement on previous facilities but that aren’t provisioned for a real international business class. The showcase wine kept running out, because apparently nobody thought that when proactively offering a new wine flight service an airline might need to buy a bit more than previously.

The signature sundae bowls started cracking, and nobody wants a topping of glass shards with their ice cream. The unique but, frankly, impractical plastic welcome bubbly glasses were scotched. United said good night to one of the pillows that made up Bedding Mountain, since nobody thought to design duvet or cushion storage into the seat. And now the drinks cart is going, with no more signature wine trolley, and no more bloody mary or mimosa service.

There’s always been something whimsical and child-like about a good ice cream sundae on the plane. Image: John Walton

Sure, proffering a boozy breakfast or a bottomless bubbly brunch will incur extra costs. Passengers can still ask for a bloody mary, mimosa or wine tasters, although the reality of the varying levels of initiative and enthusiasm in providing customer service by US airline crews is infamous. There’s certainly an argument that, by having a standard, specified process, it makes it more likely that a soft product experience will in fact be delivered in a way at least somewhat close to the way it was designed.

The soft product in the old cabins lacks moodlit elegance, but gave a bit of a zhoozh to a tired product. Image: John Walton

Nixing the relatively elegant carts also takes away some of the whimsy and fun that Polaris helped to inject into a bottom-of-the-barrel brand that sorely needed an uplift — as United’s numerous PR disasters since the unveiling showed only too clearly.

Sure, the cocktails will be available, but it’s just like everyone else now. Image: United

If on-demand inflight entertainment and connectivity are the bread and circuses opiate for the masses in increasingly tight economy seats, then mimosa carts and sundaes are the let-them-eat-cake for the pre-merger United 777 business class, which remain in an unacceptably narrow 2-4-2 layout with zero aircraft upgraded.


The crux of the matter is that branded cabins like Polaris are about more than just the seat. The major problem with Fauxlaris a year ago was the old seats, which vary between barely okay (ex-Continental style Diamond) and terrible (ex-United bespoke forwards-backwards).

The new service and concept mitigated that to an extent. Without the Polaris soft product glitz, there’s nothing there to make up for the fact that the remaining seats are verging on two decades old.

Moreover, even the new Polaris is affected by the cuts in soft product. Seats age, and even those that are Crystal Cabin Award finalists can only ever be a snapshot of the state of the art years previously, since design must account for certification, quality assurance and production time.

If hard product delays and soft product cuts continue, United risks the state-of-the-art Optima seat behind Polaris never even managing to be an industry-leading product delivered to the majority of its longhaul business class passengers.

United’s wine flight concept was smart and fun, adjectives which rarely applied to the airline’s brand. Image: John Walton

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