With its new Polaris business class service, United Airlines has learned a powerful lesson: Sometimes, in the airline business, simple is best.
Polaris had considerable promise in June 2016 when United CEO Oscar Munoz took the stage at a New York theater to describe a complete re-thinking of business class. Over a multi-year period, United would introduce a proprietary all-aisle access seat and build dedicated lounges in key markets.
On board, starting that December, it would provide Saks Fifth Avenue bedding and pajamas for longer flights, and introduce new service elements, including a bloody mary cart. On the ground, flight attendants would greet customers with a champagne flute and a chocolate.
It was never going to be fast to retrofit aircraft and build lounges, but it is taking longer than expected. United has more than 150 wide-body jets, and so far fewer than 20 have new seats, and a substantial percentage may never get them. Meanwhile, United has one Polaris lounge, in Chicago, though three should open soon.
That’s old news. But recently, flyers learned United is tweaking what’s onboard. United has already removed one of the Saks Fifth Avenue pillows from each seat, and some insiders tell Skift the airline has quietly made cost-cutting moves to food quality and bedding quantity.
Now, United confirms blogger Gary Leff’s report that it will take away two items Munoz trumpeted in 2016 — dedicated Bloody Mary and wine carts, and the special tray and glasses for wine tasting. Flight attendants will still make make any drink; if customers ask for a Bloody Mary or three glasses of wine, that’s OK. But United will retire much of its service pageantry.
It’s easy to blame United for its slip-ups. But the real mistake is not that United’s lounges and seats have been delayed, or that it’s altering its service or product. What’s stranger is that executives thought their Polaris promise was possible in the first place.
United misjudged what was possible on an airplane and across a worldwide route network. Munoz, who had taken over as CEO less than year earlier, was new to the industry, although he had been a United board member. With United facing reputation challenges after its last leader resigned in disgrace, he wanted to make a splash, promising amenities more appropriate for a hotel or private club.
It sounded good in commercials. But the problem is that an airline is not really in the hospitality business. It’s a transportation provider, and it needs to act like one. Rather than thinking big, Munoz should have thought like the railroad company executive he once was — a leader who made CSX freight trains run on time.
Some niche airlines, mainly in Asia and the Middle East, can execute over-the-top ideas, but the best European and American airlines focus not on luxury but on basic concepts delivered as promised. Had United introduced a comfortable new seat, while quietly improving its service and food, passengers would have been delighted.
Munoz takes much of the blame, because he made the final decisions for Polaris. But the first Polaris error pre-dated Munoz. Working with designers at Acumen, a London-based consultancy, United created its own business class configuration. But while it’s lauded by passengers and bean counters — it’s denser than most, allowing United to sell more seats — Zodiac Aerospace, the company that makes the hardware, has had trouble delivering it.
Bespoke seats have been a problem for many airlines, with manufacturers often failing to deliver them on-time. About two years ago, American Airlines had so many issues with its propriety seat, called Concept D, it fired Zodiac and switched to a standard model from one of Zodiac’s competitors. Now comes a rumor that British Airways may ditch plans to create its own seat in favor of something already on the market.
Airlines may think they’ll gain a product advantage by designing their own seat, but other than truly innovative products, such as Qatar Airways’ QSuite, that’s not usually true. Passengers often like seats from Delta Air Lines and Air Canada — two carriers that use a standard product and tweak it to their specifications. And many travelers cheered when American dropped its special seat in favor of the same model used by Air Canada.
Service was Impossible to Deliver
Still, while seats are an issue, the Polaris experience was a bigger error. On paper, the enterprise probably seemed brilliant, a chance for United to leapfrog its competitors in the United States and abroad. But almost from the beginning, flight attendants complained. They were being asked to do more work, but United didn’t give them more resources.
Many said it took them too long to push carts down the aisle, making mimosas and bloody marys for passengers who might not have wanted them had they not seen the trolly. Meanwhile, customers waiting for a gin and tonic didn’t like how the leisurely cart-pushing spectacle delayed their drink’s arrival.
Perhaps this was not a major issue on the 18-hour flight from Los Angeles to Singapore, but it has been problematic on routes like Newark to London, when business travelers prefer to eat quickly and sleep. “The wine tasting and bloody mary carts were a waste of time,” one flight attendant told Skift in an email.
A United spokesman put it differently, but the idea was the same — travelers don’t want a long, drawn out service. “Based on customer demand and customer feedback, we learned they want more time to rest and the whole process was just lengthy,” United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said in an interview. He acknowledged flight attendants also found the process arduous. “We always listen to flight attendants, and they definitely have input on these things like this,” he said.
Before United introduced the new service flow, it practiced on fake flights, and apparently, the Polaris experience worked well enough. But in real life, flight attendants just couldn’t make it work, and while it’s tempting to blame them, that’s not fair. Their priority is safety, and they spend far more time drilling evacuation procedure than anything else.
“A lack of emphasis on real, hands-on, honest-to-goodness, let’s make sure everyone’s on the same page to deliver a consistently excellent service, makes for an often sloppy, disjointed, lackluster Polaris experience,” said the flight attendant, who has worked at United for more than 20 years.
You could blame United for failing to train flight attendants, but even that’s not reasonable. United has crew bases worldwide and there’s a limit to often they can bring in flight attendants for service training. Like or not, most airlines are publicly-traded corporations, and they must be efficient with their resources, especially since most customers choose the lowest fares.
Travelers Will Be Fine
Bloggers might complain, but these Polaris changes are not that important. Perhaps some flyers select an airline based on how the booze cart looks, or whether they’ll get two pillows rather than one, but many more high-value customers choose carriers based on schedules, frequent flyers programs and prices.
As long as an airline meets minimum premium cabin parameters such as a decent lounge, flat-bed seats with aisle access, and edible food then most travelers are fine. The Bloody Mary carts and the wine tastings look sharp in television commercials, but they’re window dressing, compelling for a first-time traveler, but less intriguing to customers who matter.
What most flyers want is not luxury, but consistency. In North America and Europe, three airlines do it well — Air Canada, Lufthansa and Delta Air Lines. They don’t necessarily have the most plush seats, and perhaps don’t serve the best champagne.
But when customers fly those airlines, they know what to expect. Even if they won’t be wowed by Bloody Marys crafted seat-side, they appreciate knowing the product will match the last time they flew.
As Air Canada President Ben Smith once told Skift: “The customers that choose our business cabin don’t like to have surprises.”