Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Your New Business-Class Seat Isn’t Ready, But Here’s a Pillow: United has been marketing its improved Polaris service for over a year, but has been slow installing seats and upgrading airport clubs

The Wall Street Journal
By Scott McCartney
Updated Dec. 6, 2017 9:37 a.m. ET

The biggest delay for airlines isn’t your flight or your luggage. It’s their long-promised new business-class seats.

United Airlines trumpeted its new Polaris business class in June 2016 with a roadshow to let top customers try the new cocoon-like lie-flat bed and a promise of nine fancy new Polaris clubs at key airports by the end of 2017. Airports are covered with Polaris ads. New Polaris-labeled pillows, bedding, meals and china are in all the international business-class cabins.

The only thing missing? The seats. Eighteen months after the launch, only two planes have been retrofitted with Polaris seats. A third is scheduled to enter service by the end of the week. The airline has received 14 new Boeing 777-300s with the seats, so the current tally on Polaris comes to only about 10% of United’s long-haul international fleet.

Polaris Clubs have come no faster. Only the one at Chicago O’Hare has opened.

“Marketing and the reality are often not the same thing. They simply haven’t delivered on it very well,” says Corey Terrell, a 6-foot-5 senior information technology manager from Charlotte, N.C., who travels to China frequently on United and looks forward to the Polaris seat that stretches out to 6 feet, 6 inches.

Airlines are quick to announce new luxury seats to attract marketing buzz and give the appearance to customers that they’re catching up with rivals in the white-hot fancy-seat race, where carriers from Asia and the Persian Gulf continually innovate. Two months after United’s Polaris hoopla, Delta one-upped its rival with an announcement of business-class suites with sliding privacy doors.

But many are slow to deliver. In 2012, American Airlines announced new lie-flat beds for its business class and even ran promotional videos on planes. The first seat didn’t actually fly until 2013, and American completed its retrofit only this year. It took Delta six years to complete its upgrade to all lie-flat seats with aisle access in 2014. Then in 2016, Delta announced its suite, 14 months before it actually had its first flight on a newly delivered Airbus A350.

Last month, Lufthansa announced it would roll out a new business-class product in, um, 2020. A spokeswoman says the announcement was meant as a “sneak peek.”

Carriers say international business-class seats are complicated and much more difficult to get into airplanes than coach seats crammed closer together.

Business-class seats have thousands of parts and can each cost $100,000 or more. Think of them as high-end sports cars. They get scrutinized by an airline’s best customers, who pay as much as $10,000 or more for a trip and often find themselves regularly eating, sleeping and living in the seats. Once installed, it’s difficult to tweak designs. One small flaw can lead to bad reviews and lost revenue.

With airlines around the world frantically upgrading and leapfrogging each other, seat manufacturers have run into delays. American switched to a different manufacturer after delays. United ran into delays with the same seat maker, Zodiac Aerospace , but says Zodiac is now on track.

United knew when it announced Polaris in 2016 that it would be years before large numbers of customers were actually sleeping in Polaris seats.

“Maybe that was not as clearly defined a year ago as it should have been,” says Andrew Nocella, United’s chief commercial officer. “But we’re going to take the necessary time to do this right.”

The main issue with its slow rollout has been design, United says. Polaris was announced when a basic concept was completed, but a prototype seat has to be constructed for each type of aircraft, since cabin dimensions and seating layouts are different. Mr. Nocella says to expect “many, many more” of the seats this spring.

To blunt the delays, United began using the Polaris “soft product”—big pillows, blankets, china and other amenities—on all its long-haul international flights. With that, it began calling its business class Polaris. You don’t book business class on United international trips, anymore, you buy a Polaris ticket.

The seat did arrive in February, a couple months behind schedule, aboard a new Boeing 777-300.

When they do get to see it, customers like the Polaris redesigns. Ben Stolt, a computer hardware engineer based in Austin, Texas, rode in a Polaris seat on a new 777-300 flight between Newark, N.J., to San Francisco last June. Then his connecting flight to Shanghai was on one of the old United seats, some of which he finds not much wider than coach seats. He picked that itinerary just to get a few hours with the new seat.

“When they actually get these planes retrofitted with these new seats, it’ll be nice,” he says.

Mike LaRosa, who develops shared workspaces at hotels and office buildings around the world, was “blown away” by the Polaris club in Chicago.

“Finally, something to get excited about after all those mindless, stupid ads I see at O’Hare,” he says. The club isn’t all that different from top clubs offered by foreign airlines, but it’s comparable, he says, and that’s a huge change in the U.S.

“I can finally get a shower in O’Hare,” he says, and he has been impressed by the service. On one trip, he forgot a needed USB cable and a United agent brought a box of different cables and gave him the one he needed.

Mr. Terrell, the tall tech manager who travels frequently on United, hasn’t experienced the Polaris seat yet. He appreciates the new Polaris gel pillows, which keep heads cooler, and the fancy bedding, but “most of that stuff is window dressing,” he says. It’s the seat that makes the difference flying 14 or 16 hours.

“They are trying to sell tickets now based on a product that doesn’t exist,” he says. (Gel pillows and mattress pads are available only in limited numbers, and you have to ask a flight attendant when boarding.)

Mr. Terrell is also frustrated by paying an annual lounge membership fee, then finding large sections of clubs, or whole clubs, closed for renovations for most of the year, leaving remaining space overcrowded and even unusable.

United says the club construction delays stem from a realization that the Polaris designs United had were too small, based on crowds at the Chicago Polaris club. So the airline opted to redraw plans and build bigger clubs. Some will open in 2018, including those in San Francisco and Newark.

Original article can be found here ➤

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

United customers could have accessed the wow business class seat in American at least two years ago. United, a dollar short and a day too late. Will never fly them unless it's the last option.