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There was much ado about the launch of United’s new Polaris Business class last week, as CEO Oscar Munoz shepherded the company away from the cramped era of the 1990s and 2000s and into the modern age of air travel.
But lost in the buzz of lie-flat seats and redesigned airport lounges was a small paragraph buried in the Frequently Asked Questions section of the launch asking what the future of international first class would be for the airline.
The blog One Mile at at Time first noticed the update, citing the FAQ:
In December 2016, when United Global First becomes United Polaris Global First, travelers will see enhancements to amenities, dining and service that will improve the overall travel experience. In addition to receiving the higher-quality United Polaris amenities, United Polaris Global First will still have the elevated amenities and specialized attention you’ve come to expect from our international first class service. As we update our fleet over the next several years to incorporate our signature United Polaris direct-aisle-access seating, we will be phasing out the first class cabin and moving toward a two-cabin experience for international travel.
In short, United plans to let its upcoming Polaris Business Class entirely replace its current international first class product. And in many ways, this moves makes plenty of sense. United’s upcoming Polaris seats will lie flat, have plenty of personal space, and will feature many of the same benefits that the current first class product offers. To simplify the airline’s offerings, Polaris can serve as both business and first class.
Already, other carriers are on a similar tack. Delta exclusively flies with two-cabin configured aircraft on international routes, pairing its Delta One business class with economy and premium economy cabins. American’s 777-200 fleet, which is in the process of its own overhaul, opts to use 45 lie-flat business class and 170 economy seats rather than a three class configuration.
Where the decision may make less sense is in premium routes with a strong demand for first class service. American Airlines still operates multiple routes between London and the United States with first class cabins because of high demand, while most international carriers still maintain international three cabin liveries flying into the United States.
The move also turns away from the strategy that many Middle East carriers have chosen, opting to add fancier first class products such as the Etihad Residence to their portfolios.
Still, the loss of United’s first class product is admittedly softened by the innovation that Polaris will eventually bring. Provided United can keep its seat manufacturer on schedule and the product delivers what is advertised, the full spectrum of United premium passengers will eventually emerge from this transition better off.