I had the chance to spend some time with the new United Airlines Polaris business class product. They held an event for frequent travelers at Dulles Airport that I was invited to by my friend David.
There were some knowledgable folks walking us through the seat itself and the soft product and a variety of foods to sample. Here are my initial thoughts:
Polaris Bulkhead Business Class Seat
The seat is much more evolutionary than revolutionary. There were two rows of seats set up for us to try out. Due to the staggered configuration, I would have preferred a 3rd row of seats to get a better idea of the differences.
The first row appeared to be a bulkhead configuration (even though they were numbered 1A and 2A). One of the seats was set up for passengers to experiment with controls, positioning, etc. I found the tray table innovative, in that it didn’t actually have to be pulled out from storage. It slid underneath the monitor in front of me and was quite sturdy. The material design of the table was similar to the new United domestic first seat, though without the lack of stability.
The location of the outlets, including multiple USB ports near the passenger and the monitor, are consistent with other new business class seat offerings and I’m sure appreciated by customers. The remote control is a little bit out of the way since the arm rest area doesn’t actually have any storage underneath. The most convenient way to reach for it was with my opposite hand (using my right hand when the remote was on my left). There’s plenty of space to park items easily for the fight attendants since the table/shelf is directly adjacent to the aisle.
Along with the standard controls there’s a rocker switch that fully reclines the seat as you hold it, allowing for a variety of small adjustments. My legs were fairly far underneath the bulkhead, similar to the Austrian Airlines business class seat I tried out recently. I didn’t find it uncomfortable, rather it’s a good use of space.
The orientation of the first row is straight ahead as opposed to angled. Based on the back of the second row, I would expect the third row (and all odd numbered rows) to be the same orientation (though not spacing) as the bulkhead. But, that’s why I really would have liked to see a third row using the middle foot-wells that wasn’t a bulkhead.
I’m 5’9″ tall and had no issues fitting in the seat both sitting and laying down. David is 6’4″-ish and didn’t look comfortable, though he said he thought he fit okay in the shoulders and legs. Fully extended, his feet were touching the end of the seat with his head at the top of the headrest. He said he was fine laying on his left side, the natural orientation of the seat with a left-hand opening to the aisle. He didn’t think he would be able to lay on his right side comfortably.
Keeping in mind that these seats are most definitely prototypes, the arm rest did not fully recess into the seat like most current seats do. Given the change in pitch the seat makes when fully reclined, I could see that being the case upon deployment. That being said, I do think they could engineer a fix that might minimize the issues for travelers who aren’t string beans like me.
Ultimately, I think seat selection will be important for passengers. The bulkhead seats seem to have more room, and travelers who prefer sleeping on their left or right side will want to choose accordingly.
Polaris Non-Bulkhead Business Class Seat
The only row of non-bulkhead seats they had was configured with the foot-wells angled towards the aisle. This gives the passenger an orientation more towards the aisle as well.
The table/shelf area I have my elbow on in the picture above is the only stationary flat surface in the seat. This means the flight attendant will be reaching over you to set things down and clear plates if you don’t have your tray table extended. The tray table here is exactly the same as the bulkhead seat, sliding out from under the monitor.
There’s a standard storage area for headphones, toiletries and small items near the stationary table. Same thing happens in the non-bulkhead seat with the remote control. It’s located a bit further away requiring a bit of a reach. The other concern here is that you’re dragging the cable for the remote control through the table area where you’ll likely have drinks/snacks/other items. That’s a bit of a pain.
This seat had a working demonstration of the privacy screen in between the two seats. It’s easy to operate and a welcome addition to the seats, though when you’re sitting back in the seat you can’t see the passenger next to you even with the screen down.
The arm rest on the non-bulkhead seat fully recessed into the frame of the seat. That makes me think that the arm rest on the bulkhead seat that didn’t fully recess is either a bug or something that can be fixed.
Overall Thoughts On The Seat
Both seats show a shoulder belt likely needing to be worn for take-off and landing. I’ve seen that pop up in a handful of seats lately, including (I’m pretty sure) the American Airlines 787 seat.
The seat itself is a nice seat, not overly progressive. It’s much more of a cocoon than the existing version of United business class seats. Business travelers and people traveling alone will definitely appreciate the privacy versus the current generation of seats, especially the folks that dread the 2-4-2 configurations still flying on some planes.
Pillows, Blankets, Etc
The standard setup as described will be two pillows, a day blanket and a duvet. Customers will be able to request onboard both a seat-top mattress pad and a “cooling, memory foam pillow” (both pictured below.
I included my hand in the picture of the memory foam pillow so folks would have some sense of size. The memory foam pillows are smaller than the regular pillows, more the size of the old domestic first class pillows, if you still remember those. That’s not surprising, given that on bigger planes they’re going to need a lot of storage for mattress toppers and pillows to satisfy potential requests.
I really like the two blankets approach. I’m not the biggest guy in the world, but I like to be completely under a blanket (literally only nose and eyes poking out, yes I’m sure I look funny) and the vast majority of business class blankets aren’t long enough to cover me. Two blankets definitely solves that problem.
Headphones, Amenity Kits, Slippers
The headphones look pretty standard. If they were available for a demonstration, I missed it. I was informed the slippers are fleece-lined. I don’t think I’ve ever worn slippers on a plane, nor do I recall being handed a pair. The amenities are all Cowshed products, which I’ve seen pop up here and there. And, the eye mask is actually pretty darn good. It’s not as good as my Bucky Blinks version, but the best one I’ve seen an airline hand out.
It wasn’t 100% clear that we were testing actual menu items. There were some signs that the food was inspired by the chefs involved in the menus, and the staff weren’t clear on whether we were trying actual items to be rolled out in the air. There were obvious choices that likely won’t be, like the fresh nigiri sushi.
There was a variety of cuisine, including Italian, Indian, and that big sushi display.
And, cupcakes. Mmmm, cupcakes.
The wine choices they served were respectable choices, including Nicolas Feuillate Champagne. Some folks will scoff that there’s no Dom or Krug, but I wouldn’t expect any domestic US airline to be upping their game that much. The Nicolas is a reasonable, tasty choice given the budget United was likely working with.
Oh, and I really do hope the balsamic syringe makes it onboard!
I came away impressed with the overall presentation, though I chose to skip the virtual reality portion.
The hashtag for the event was #DreamPolaris. I don’t think we get all the way to dreams, but it’s a solid effort. It’s a good seat that United should roll out quickly. The talk is that soft goods will start appearing at the end of 2016, but the real candy for frequent travelers is in the new seat itself. After quite a few years of United not meeting expectations, I was adamant with some friends who attended the event that I’ll withhold judgment until I actually fly the product. Until then, I still expect there could be changes, given the 5-year timeline to roll the product out across the entire fleet. And, the surprise arrival of Scott Kirby at United could certainly mix things up as well.
While I was initially skeptical that Scott would leave the upscale Airbus 321T in place that American Airlines uses for transcontinental routes, he surprised me a bit by not touching it. He has worked pretty hard to make sure elites aren’t getting upgraded into those seats by increasing the places that American is selling discounted upgrades. And, of course, there was the recent change to start charging more miles for those transcons without telling customers.
The likely end result here is a better product for frequent travelers with less (and more expensive) access using miles or upgrade instruments. If you want to hang out in this seat, you’re more likely going to need to buy a business class ticket.
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