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Since United Airlines operates globally, flying as far as Sydney, Singapore, Paris, and Xi’an, China, the carrier often uses a soft cutover when it changes services it offers passengers.
Even with items as simple as the recently-changed economy class cocktail napkin, United has used old and new versions simultaneously. It has done the same for business class amenity kits, switching over time, rather than at once. That means less waste, and it also ensures it’s not a disaster if new items fail to reach caterers in Beijing or Hamburg by a specific day.
But that’s not the case with United’s new Polaris Business Class, which launched Dec. 1. Every flight departing after 12:01 a.m. local time needed new napkins, silverware, plates, stemware, table cloths, food menus, blankets and mattress pads, and lots of other items passengers might not notice. The longest flights required slippers and pajamas, too.
United overhauled its food, as well. United claims it created 96 new appetizers, 48 new salads, and 240 new entrees, all of which had to be ready to board aircraft before Thursday’s flights.
That made introducing Polaris a far greater logistical challenge than the typical service change at United or any other airline. And it’s part of the reason United established a 24/7 command center employees can call with questions and concerns.
“I’ve never seen a change of quite this magnitude,” Maria Walter, United’s managing director of brand and strategy, said in an interview. “It is much easier for us to do a soft cutover. But we felt like that would not be the right approach for United Polaris.”
Few airline products have been as hyped as Polaris, a pet project of new CEO Oscar Munoz, who took over in late 2015.
United has put considerable effort into research — it said it spent 12,000 hours querying employees and customers about what they wanted — and executives hope the new product will help United regain the high-value customers it has lost in recent years to competitors, many of which offer more comfortable seats and more luxurious amenities.
“This is the most significant product change that we have had in over a decade, if not a generation,” Walter said.
But managing customer expectations is an issue, too.
Flight attendants have had some training, but they’re the same employees that sometimes struggled with service on pre-Dec. 1 flights. And while United is building lounges for Polaris customers at key airports, as of Dec. 1, only one, in Chicago, is open.
Moreover, though United has started running ads touting its new Polaris seats, the seats remain the same. That means many customers will still fly on Boeing 777s with eight seats across, or four more than Delta Air Lines has on the same plane.
United will not fly its first aircraft with the new, four-seats-across, Polaris configuration until early next year. At first, the new seats, all with direct-aisle access, will only be on a handful aircraft, and it may take five years before a substantial portion of United’s long-haul fleet has them. And the seats, while an improvement over today’s models, will merely match what many other airlines have, rather than surpass it.
Walter said United knows it must communicate to passengers that, at first, the biggest changes will come not in seats or lounges, but in service.
Before each flight, passengers will receive an email before telling them what they can expect. A customer departing Chicago will be told about the Polaris lounge, while one leaving from Los Angeles will not, since that lounge is not open.
“We are trying to talk more directly with customers in a more targeted email way,” she said.