United is back in the game: deciphering the United Polaris ground services

The cat is out of the bag. Yesterday morning in New York, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz unveiled with great fanfare the airline’s long awaited — and widely expected — complete overhaul of business class service.

United has traditionally offered a premium product that lagged behind competitors — a weakness that was partially offset by the combined strengths of the airline’s network and its frequent flyer program. While the legacy United business class seat was innovative when it first came out — United was the first American carrier to offer lie-flat seats in business class — the delays in roll-out, soon combined with the challenges of the merger with Continental, gave competitors a chance to rejuvenate their products and leapfrog the former world’s largest airline.

The introduction of United’s new premium service, dubbed United Polaris, puts United back in the game with a competitive offering backed by numerous investments in the soft and hard products.

We will go over the highlights of the Polaris product with a focus on the ground experience.

United Polaris: a complete premium experience with an emphasis on branding

United positions Polaris as a complete end-to-end experience both in the air and on the ground. The experience includes:

  • United Polaris lounges at the airline’s nine major hubs, exclusively for United Polaris passengers, featuring hot meals, showers, and private relaxation and work spaces.
  • Highly private forward facing lie-flat seats with direct access to the aisle, mobile privacy dividers, a Do Not Disturb sign, and a side table designed by Acumen Design Associates and PriestmanGoode and manufactured by Zodiac Seats United Kingdom.
  • On-demand entertainment system with individual 16 inch monitors, noise reducing headset, a tablet holder, and power at every seat.
  • Full bedding by Saks Fifth Avenue including a mattress pad (available on demand), duvet, day blanket, and two pillows.
  • Slippers and a memory foam pillow, as well as pajamas (available on demand, only on flights longer than 12 hours.)
  • Enhanced catering with chocolate truffles, a new dessert selection, wine flights and new custom designed china, flatware and linens.
  • A self-serve area on Boeing 777-300 aircraft.

The new seating layout will be dense. Technically, Boeing 777 aircraft will be outfitted with 60 Polaris seats in a 2-4-2 configuration, though passengers will enjoy the perception of a 2-2-2 since every seat has aisle access. The new Polaris seat will offer less personal space than the reverse herringbone configuration favored by competitors such as Air Canada and American on select aircraft. But United’s seat appears to feel more private and secluded, and is a major upgrade over the current product.

The dense configuration helps preserve the current ratio between economy and business class seats. A few months ago, United’s CEO hinted at the fact that the airline valued its upgrade program — while upgrades are anything but guaranteed, maintaining a healthy number of premium seats will help United continue to offer awards and upgrades to its most frequent flyers.

United Polaris business seat | © United

United Polaris business class seat | © United

Several aspects of the new service were widely expected. The introduction of all-access seats was an obligatory step to close the gap with the competition. Improvements in catering are already ongoing, both on domestic and international routes. As for the ability to dine on the ground, United’s recent “surprise and delight” program, which offered invitations to Global First lounges to MileagePlus 1K members flying in Business class, was a possible preliminary step in that direction, or at least an acknowledgement that the United Club catering did not meet the bar.

What we did not foresee, however, was the extent of United’s new focus on the ground experience with the creation of a brand new lounge network, as well as the strong branding component.

United Polaris will replace the United BusinessFirst and Global First brands — unclear product names that reflected the Continental heritage and the airline’s challenges in assimilating two different product lines. With domestic service branded as United Business and United First, international service branded as United BusinessFirst and United Global First, and service to Canada and Mexico branded as United Business while it was in fact identical to United First, United’s branding was astoundingly complex and unappealing. The rebranding as United Polaris for international service is a step in the right direction.

United Polaris business cabin | © United

United Polaris business class cabin | © United


The branding will span the ground and the onboard experience, with a common visual identity and design language that is a first for the airline, and in itself a differentiator. Elements of the new seat will be found in the new lounges, in an effort to immerse customers into an end-to-end experience — a strategy that reminds us of Lufthansa’s approach over the years.

United Polaris to debut on December 1st, 2016, with a slow global rollout to follow

United Polaris will launch on December 1st, 2016, with the opening of the new United Polaris Lounge at Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and the launch of service upgrades network wide, including catering enhancements.

Don’t expect to fly in the new seat just yet, though. The new flat-bed seat will debut on the airline’s yet-to-be-delivered Boeing 777-300ER in January 2017, as well as on new aircraft on order including Boeing 787-10 and Airbus A350. It will however take multiple years for the existing fleet to be retrofitted. United will prioritize the current three-class Boeing 777 and 767 aircraft, phasing out the current Global First seats in the process. (In the meantime, the Global First experience will be aligned with the overall enhanced business class experience — the only major difference will be the width of the seats.)

United Polaris business seating | © United

United Polaris business class seating | © United

Boeing 747 aircraft will not see a retrofit, as they’re scheduled to be phased out within the next two years. As for United’s brand new Boeing 787-8 and 787-9 aircraft, the airline is obviously in no rush to retrofit them. For the foreseeable future, United’s flagship aircraft will preserve its comfortable but dated configuration. Ironically, this means that United’s longest route, United 1 from San Francisco to Singapore — a flight over 16 hours long — will continue to feature former generation seats.

The pace at which United manages to perform upgrades will be a major decisive factor in the success of the project. Prior to the United-Continental merger, the roll out of United’s first flat-bed seats (dubbed Internal Premium Travel Experience) was plagued with delays, with customers complaining about frustrating last minute aircraft swaps and rapidly decaying old seats due to lack of maintenance.

The United Polaris Lounge: amenities and access rules

The nine new United Polaris Lounges will exclusively serve United Polaris customers, as well as Star Alliance premium passengers departing on international flights longer than six hours. Concretely, this means that United Club members and Star Alliance Gold members will not be admitted unless they are ticketed in business class. Polaris lounges are Star Alliance business class lounges, but not Star Alliance Gold lounges.

United Global First lounges will be phased out shortly. United Clubs will continue to operate worldwide for members of membership programs and Star Alliance Gold members.

The more restrictive rules will allow United to offer an elevated level of service to their premium customers — while it may not be a popular position, we’ve long argued that membership based access, which costs the most frequent travelers as little as a few dollars per visit, isn’t compatible with the notion of a true premium product. Membership based lounges are mostly an American exception (although Air New Zealand also operates a membership program) and it’s no surprise that US domestic lounges lag sorely behind their foreign counterparts.

United Polaris Lounges will feature a new design which allies elements of the United Club signature décor with warmer tones and a more elegant vibe. Hardwood floors, soft lighting and elegant finishes make for a posh experience in a modern environment.

Bar at the United Polaris Lounge | © United

Bar at the United Polaris Lounge | © United

The design places an emphasis on privacy. Solo travelers will find modular private workspaces outfitted with USB and power outlets, wireless charging, and pull-out tables. Weary travelers will appreciate the individual relaxation booths with day beds. United’s renderings are enticing, with spaces reminiscent of Lufthansa’s day rooms at Senator Lounges. Of course, patrons will also find more traditional lounge seating as well as a full bar, for a more dynamic vibe.

All Polaris lounges will feature shower suites, a major upgrade which singlehandedly changes our perception of United’s ground product. Delta and American are far ahead of United when it comes to the availability of showers on the ground. United seemed to have missed a major opportunity when they opened a brand new lounge at San Francisco airport Concourse E without showers. The Polaris lounges will rectify the course.

Relaxation pods at the United Polaris Lounge | © United

Relaxation pods at the United Polaris Lounge | © United

Modular workspaces at the United Polaris Lounge | © United

Modular workspaces at the United Polaris Lounge | © United

Here is a summary of the differences between the United Club and the United Polaris lounge:

United Club
United Polaris Lounge
Access rules
United Club one-time pass holders
United Club members
Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge Worldwide members
United Premier Gold members flying internationally
Star Alliance Gold members (other than MileagePlus)
Star Alliance Business Class passengers on international flights
tick (no guests)
tick (no guests)
Star Alliance First Class passengers on international flights
tick (+1 guest)
tick(+1 guest)
United Polaris business class passengers
tick (no guests)
tick (no guests)
United Polaris first class passengers (while still available)
tick (+1 guest)
tick (+1 guest)
Snacks, soups and salads
Hot food
At specific locations only (ORD, LHR, HKG), with future expansion at hub locations
House alcoholic beverages
Premium alcoholic beverages
For sale at domestic locations; complimentary at international locations
Shower suites
At specific locations only (IAH, EWR, LHR, HKG, NRT)
Power outlets at every seat
At most locations
Private workspaces
At some locations
Private relaxation and napping spaces

In a nutshell: United is creating a new type of lounge, and you can’t buy or trick you way in—a premium ticket is the only key.

While this represents a significant paradigm shift for United passengers who have long enjoyed cost-effective ways to get lounge access (through credit cards, miles, or foreign Star Alliance status), the strategy is hardly unique. American Airlines has also announced the opening of Flagship lounges exclusively for premium passengers. Singapore Airlines runs a superior lounge exclusively for business class passengers at Singapore airport, while Star Alliance Gold passengers have access to the lower key KrisFlyer Gold lounge.  Along the same lines, Ethiopian airlines reserves their best lounge at Addis Ababa airport for premium passengers.

One thing is certain, though—lounge access rules aren’t for the faint of heart. Even within Star Alliance, there is little alignment. While United, Singapore Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines favor business class customers, the Lufthansa group has the opposite approach: the Lufthansa and SWISS Business Class lounges (for business class passengers) are not as well appointed as the Senator Lounges (for Gold members.) Confused? We provide a handy summary of access rules for every lounge in our index, or you can search for a lounge based on your credentials.

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The United Polaris Lounge: locations

The first United Polaris lounge will open at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on Dec. 1, 2016, in the space currently occupied by the United Club and United Global First Lounge by gate C16. The United Global First Lounge will close permanently as of June 16th, 2016. During construction, the adjacent United Club will remain partially open, but select areas will be closed and the showers will be unavailable. Global First passengers will benefit from a temporary space within the United Club.

United Club members and premium passengers may continue to use the United Club by gate B18 (a newly renovated location featuring hot food), B6 (currently under renovation) and in Terminal 2 (recently remodeled.)

United Club - Chicago O'Hare (ORD) Gate C16

United Club – Chicago O’Hare (ORD) Gate C16

Eight other locations will follow. United will prioritize domestic lounges in 2017, with international lounges opening in 2018—typically, foreign locations already feature enhanced amenities, so the switch to the Polaris concept is less urgent.

In rough order of planned openings:

  • At San Francisco international airport, the United Polaris Lounge is slated to replace the United Club in International Terminal G, an expansive space with grand views over the tarmac. Slated to become the largest United Polaris Lounge system wide, the San Francisco location will expand beyond the current footprint of the United Club to incorporate the Singapore Airlines SilverKris Lounge and EVA Air Evergreen Lounge, which will subsequently close. Both lounges belong to fellow Star Alliance members, whose passengers will receive access to the United Polaris Lounge. This amounts to a substantial upgrade for Singapore Airlines and EVA passengers: the EVA Lounge is extremely dated, while the Singapore Airlines lounge uncharacteristically modest compared to its international counterparts. Construction of the Polaris Lounge started in November 2016. The current United Global First lounge will be converted into a United Club in 2017. Additionally, a second United Club will open by gate 93 in 2018.
  • At Newark airport, United hasn’t identified a space yet, but the current United Clubs, which suffer from chronic crowding, are scheduled to be renovated soon. The Polaris Lounge will open in 2017.
  • At Houston airport, the United Polaris Lounge will be located on the top floor of the United Club in Terminal E. We are hoping that showers remain available for United Club members at the United Club Terminal C South. The Polaris Lounge will open in 2017.
  • At Los Angeles airport, the United Polaris Lounge will replace the United Club on the mezzanine level, by the rotunda near gate 73–which, incidentally, used to be a Global First Lounge. The footprint of the club will be significantly expanded in order to meet the requirements of a Polaris Lounge. The club will open in 2017—long after the opening of the new United Club in Terminal 7, which will feature an open air deck.
  • At Washington Dulles airport, the United Polaris Lounge will replace the current United Global First Lounge. The current Dulles lounges are United’s worst system wide. With the twenty-some year old “temporary” terminal getting a new lease on life in absence of an agreement to move forward with the construction of a new terminal, it will be interesting to see how United manages to transform the venerable space. The Polaris Lounge will open in 2017.
  • At Tokyo Narita airport, the United Polaris Lounge will be located above the United Club, in the large space currently occupied by the United Global First lounge. The United Club was recently refreshed with new furniture and carpeting, and with many intra-Asia flights being phased out, the lounges should feel quiet and spacious. The Polaris Lounge will open early 2018.
  • At Hong Kong airport, the United Polaris Lounge will take over the current United Global First Lounge. The adjacent United Club has just been refreshed and features showers and hot food. The Polaris Lounge will open early 2018.
  • At London Heathrow, the United Polaris Lounge will replace the current United Global First Lounge, which is currently United’s best lounge worldwide, and already features virtually all elements of Polaris Lounges, including gorgeous shower suites, a full service restaurant, and private recliners. The Polaris Lounge will open early 2018.
United Global First Lounge - London (LHR)

United Global First Lounge – London (LHR)

Open questions

A number of open questions linger.

  • Guest policy. It is unclear if guests will be permitted at the new Polaris lounges. While it would be unrealistic to expect business class passengers to be able to invite guests, historically Star Alliance Gold members have been able to invite one guest into United lounges, and United Club members have been entitled to two guests at domestic locations. We speculate that Star Alliance Gold members will be permitted to invite one guest. (November 2016 update: United has confirmed that Polaris First Class passengers will be able to bring one guest. The Star Alliance Gold guest policy is still unknown at this time.)
  • Access rules at connection points. Will Polaris passengers enjoy Polaris lounge access when connecting at a hub with a Polaris lounge, on the domestic portion of their itinerary? For example, would a passenger flying SFO-ORD-ZRH and back be able to use the Polaris lounge in San Francisco, then in Chicago on the way back? We sure hope so. (November 2016 update: United has confirmed that Polaris passengers will have access to Polaris Lounges at all connection points within 24 of arrival or departure of their flight.)
  • Access for Global Services members. United’s top spenders have traditionally been able to use Global First lounges when traveling in United BusinessFirst, and Lufthansa First Class lounges when flying in United Global First. These privileges won’t apply anymore with the demise of Global First service, so it’s unclear if the airline will perhaps extend Polaris lounge access as a courtesy when traveling in Economy. (November 2016 update: it appears that Global Services members will not have access to Polaris Lounges unless traveling in business class.)
  • Arrivals services. United has stayed mum on arrivals services. The carrier used to beat the competition with partnerships with local hotels at a wide range of European destinations, allowing passengers to freshen up and enjoy breakfast upon arrival. The service, which was a legacy of Continental’s BusinessFirst service, was discontinued less than two months ago. The take back seems to go against the overall investments, though the service is unlikely to make a comeback. United maintains Arrivals Lounges in London and San Francisco, and premium passengers also have access to the Lufthansa Welcome lounge in Frankfurt and the SWISS Arrivals lounge in Zurich. (November 2016 update: United has confirmed that Polaris passengers will have access to the Polaris Lounge at their destination. However, unlike dedicated Arrivals lounges, Polaris Lounges are typically located inside security, which makes access upon arrival practically impossible without a connection. International inbound passengers typically go through customs and immigration upon arrival, and therefore would need to re-clear security in order to use a lounge, which requires an onwards boarding pass.)
United Arrivals Lounge - San Francisco, CA (SFO)

United Arrivals Lounge – San Francisco, CA (SFO)

Bottom line

United Polaris is a very promising product, with a strong focus on the ground experience, and a branding component that hints at major shifts at United and the promise of a better end-to-end experience. United’s announcement is a solid response to American’s lounge makeover and the revival of Flagship lounges. Let’s face it: we’re pretty ecstatic. United has a real chance to make a splash with the combined introduction of the new premium experience and new aircraft.

The demise of United Global First has been a long time in the making and, while disappointing in some regards, it is very much in line with market trends. Delta doesn’t offer first class, and American is slashing capacity. Besides, United’s product was not competitive and the airline made little effort to market it. By focusing on a single experience, the airline can re-deploy its resources more efficiently — as the conversion from Global First Lounges to Polaris Lounges higlights.

Nevertheless, there are several possible culprits on the horizon. As we pointed out above, the timeline for the complete rollout of the product is still somewhat of an unknown, with no planned retrofit for Boeing 787-8 and 787-9 aircraft at this time. Customers will experience an inconsistent product, at least initially. Then, there are aspects of catering that United has historically had a challenging time mastering, such as the wine service. The idea of wine flights sounds promising, but it comes from an airline that is unable to provide a wine list and lists options as “white” or “red.” It also remains to be seen if all elements of the service are maintained over time, or if cuts creep in.

Finally, the service will be as good as the front line employees. Staffing levels, training, and dedication will have a direct incidence on the perception of the product regardless of its intrinsic qualities. Despite United’s best efforts in improving catering at United Clubs lately, the airline’s lounges still lag behind the competition in terms of upkeep and cleanliness. Building a premium brand takes more than marketing – it is a concerted effort by thousands of people. But United appears to be off to a good start.


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