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For months, United Airlines has teased customers with advertisements for its new Polaris class seats, featuring all the goodies international premium customers expect, like direct-aisle access, a high-definition television monitor, and cubbies for storage.
But Zodiac, the European firm that makes those seats, is having fiscal and operational challenges, and its relationship with United is suffering, the airline’s CEO admitted Tuesday.
In guidance issued Tuesday, Zodiac warned investors it was having “industrial issues” in the United Kingdom, and said the problems were causing “significant disruptions and delays.” Zodiac also makes seats in the United States, and that branch is operating normally, but that’s likely little consolation to United, which has said its seats are being manufactured by Zodiac Seats United Kingdom.
“We are not happy. Period.” United CEO Oscar Munoz said Tuesday at the J.P. Morgan Aviation, Transportation and Industrials Conference.
United has a handful of Boeing 777-300ERs that have been delivered in the past three months with the new flatbed Polaris seats. But the airline has not yet started retrofitting existing aircraft. United has said it plans to add the new seats to some Boeing 767s and all Boeing 777-200s, though it has never said exactly when retrofits will take place. It did say in a slide presentation on Tuesday that the first reconfigured 777s should enter service in the first quarter of 2018.
Munoz said he could not offer a more concrete answer about a retrofit schedule.
“We have plans that are dynamic at this point, and [Zodiac] is receiving lots of beneficial support from our management team every single day,” he said. “We are working hard with them and with other suppliers to make sure that we can expedite our plan,” Munoz said.
He said United employees will continue monitor the situation.
“Rather than just be unhappy, we’ve got people on site with the folks there to make sure that we can expedite and accelerate as much as we can,” he said.
This is not the first time a major U.S. carrier has had an issue with Zodiac. American Airlines faced such long delays with its new Boeing 777 and Boeing 787 seat that it moved in 2015 to cancel its contract with Zodiac’s U.S. affiliate. American kept Zodiac’s product on planes that already had it, but the carrier is now putting a competing seat on other aircraft.
United is counting on its new Polaris seats to make it more competitive in long-haul markets. While the seat has many important elements, a key one is that each passenger has unimpeded aisle access. Delta has had all-aisle access on its international fleet since 2014, while American is close to finishing its retrofits.