United Is Cutting Service In Polaris

Filed Under: United

Great news, folks! United is reducing staffing in their international business class cabin and making the food worse, and they’re doing this for two reasons:

  • They’re doing this in order to listen to customer feedback
  • They’re doing this in order to be able to hire more flight attendants

Good logic, eh?

In all honesty, here’s what you should expect as of February 1, 2019:

  • Entrees will no longer be plated onboard, but rather will be pre-plated, which will eliminate the need for a galley flight attendant position on some planes; this is bad news, because a meal plated onboard can actually look restaurant-quality, while I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pre-plated airline entree that didn’t look like a casserole of mush
  • United will be reducing staffing on some longhaul aircraft so that they’re matching the lowest staffing levels offered by their competitors

A meal plated onboard (on United)

A pre-plated meal (on American)

United’s new Polaris service concept was first introduced in December 2016, and since then they’ve made several adjustments to the service flown, both good and bad.

While I can appreciate that what passengers want most is proper rest, that shouldn’t have to come at the expense of being served a meal that has been plated within the past few hours.

To fully appreciate just how backwards the logic is, here’s the note that was sent from United’s head of inflight:

United Flight Attendant team,

As I mentioned in my note the week before last, I hope you had a chance to watch our Earnings Live presentation last month, or catch the recap on Flying Together. I also hope you take pride in your part in driving the great results that Oscar and Scott highlighted. For the first time in many years, we are a growing airline and producing positive results — both operationally and financially.

As we’ve talked about since announcing our growth plan earlier this year, growth only works if we can do it efficiently. You’ve already seen us make changes to streamline the Polaris service flow and address feedback from our customers that they value rest above all else. For example, we reduced the number of three-tiered carts and folded our Bloody Mary offering into the general beverage service. Those were important steps, but there is more work to do.

That’s why, starting February 1, 2019, we will begin replacing galleys and our Catering team will plate entrees ahead of time, further speeding up the meal service and eliminating the need for the mid-galley position on certain international widebody flights.

This decision was made after months of effort during which we listened to our customers and analyzed our competitors’ staffing levels. For example, we added an incremental position on the 777-300ER, when load factors warrant, matching American. However, on the 787-8 and -9, American operates with one fewer Flight Attendant than United. Similarly, Delta has one fewer Flight Attendant on some of its 77 and 767-400 flights. We’ll be matching their staffing level on these aircraft, along with removing one Flight Attendant in the economy cabin on international 757 routes to operate more efficiently and align with our peers.

Based on the conversations I’ve had with many of you who regularly bid the international premium cabin, I know this is difficult news. However, this is a necessary step for us to stay competitive and continue growing. Ultimately, our inflight team will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of that growth – in fact, we’re in the process of hiring more than 2,000 additional Flight Attendants to meet our needs in 2019.

You can expect to hear more about these changes as we get closer to February 1. Again, thank you for your effort and understanding.



To recap:

  • Yay, United is doing better than ever
  • United is going to make the food presentation in business class worse and reduce staffing
  • This is because customers asked for it
  • Oh, and it’s also good for flight attendants, because United is going to hire more flight attendants (even though fewer flight attendants will be needed to operate a given flight

This is such backwards logic, especially directed at the flight attendants. It’s one thing if the airline were on the brink of liquidation and they said “in order to maintain your jobs we need to reduce staffing,” but to suggest that an airline performing well reducing staffing leads to more flight attendant jobs is… rich… not unlike Scott Kirby and Oscar Munoz when they get their bonus checks for the cost cutting that they’re driving. šŸ˜‰

(Tip of the hat to View from the Wing)

  1. Bad and misleading post. United is just matching their competitors to increase profits for their shareholders. If you want better service, consider international carriers and PAY business class fares (not upgrades).

  2. @ David Jenkins — a) I’m not sure what’s bad or misleading? b) maybe the reason there are award seats and upgrades on some US airlines is because their products aren’t that great? Chicken and egg thing, you know?

  3. This explains why I actually got very nice and attentive service on a 757 in international economy last year. They hadn’t yet cut to the bone. It was good enough that I mentioned it to multiple friends as something that impressed me and recommended that they consider United for international flights (most of these folks pay cash and thus only fly economy).

    Guess I won’t be doing that again!

  4. Pitiful. “We can create more profits by sucking more where our competitors suck.”

    That’s a sorry strategy, but it’s a US big three carrier, so it’s not surprising.

  5. Fire Scott Kirby already. He just will not let the airline have any sort of advantage in customer service and wants to drive it down to the lowest common denominator.

  6. “Consumer be damned” seems to be the new mantra for most major corporations, airlines inclusive. There’s no longer even an effort made at keeping up the pretense of interest in what customer needs/wants/choices may be – the lies are blatant, and the corporation always knows best. Think of Apple getting rid of the headphone jack on its phones; a company with a market cap greater than the GDP of several developed nations could offer at least one mobile phone with a headphone jack built in.

  7. Genuine question, nearly all of these announcements include a line about ‘listening to our customers’ Now I know that’s obviously marketing rubbish, but can they just blatantly lie like that? I fly fairly often (nowhere near as much as you Lucky) but still. I have never once had anyone ask me anything, heck I’ve only ever had one post flight survey! In 20 years of flying. Just interested if people are actually being asked by airlines or if by: ‘customers are telling us’ they actually mean that Oscar Munoz once took a United flight in 1997 so he counts as a customer?

  8. It isn’t inconsistent to say they’re listening to customers at the same time as taking something away. Listening to customers can be doing research to figure out what is and isn’t important to them. That may have revealed that most customers don’t care strongly whether their meals are pre-plated or plated on the aircraft

  9. This is a shame, I found Polaris’s food to be excellent, especially compared to a return flight on AA.

  10. @Bjam – I am surprised you’ve never been surveyed. I feel like I am surveyed to death. Every flight I take is followed by a survey. So is every hotel stay, car rental, etc.

  11. Sheesh, that statement is cringe-worthy. How dumb do these execs think their employees are?

    I hate “business speak” that’s used to disguise the truth and make everything sound palatable. Employees trust more and thrive better when they feel the higher-ups are transparent, direct, and honestā€”not when it sounds like a PR company vetted every sentence.

  12. That statement is written by arrogant people who think that everyone else is stupid; yet, who are themselves so dumb as to think that this idiocy will convince people that this is a great move and not a race to the bottom. Imagine if Morton’s said “gee, we’re going to lower the quality of our steaks to that of other restaurants. Like Denny’s.” Not that United is anything like Morton’s, but you get the point.

  13. I’m guessing that the change should be starting “February 1 2019” otherwise you will have a “back to the future” situation.

  14. Isn’t this the same joke of an airline that at one point made you ask for gel pillows, slippers, wine flights and mattress pads in Polaris? “Matching other carriers” lmao, this is pitiful.

  15. Business class food is gross no matter how you slice it. Now just one more reason not to eat that over-salted, mass-produced, low-quality slop. If any of us were ever served that garbage at a restaurant, there is no way we would eat it. Not sure why we consider it “premium” when served on a plane. Better to eat on the ground IMHO.

    I’ll just take a scotch and an Ambien on my next international flight, thank you. At least United still has Glenfarclas and SFA bedding…

  16. They then need to ramp up the refit of all planes to Polaris. If theyā€™re going downhill in soft product atleast ensure we have a decent seat to sit in

  17. @Sam – I agree. It just gets worse and worse all the time. My main courses on two TATL J flights last week were inedible. I canā€™t recall a decent meal in the past two years.

    It appears the airlines either canā€™t fix the food and/or are unwilling to. In either case, when buying J is solely for the bed – nothing more.

  18. Everybody I know who actually pays for business class (ie, people going to europe for work whose companies pay $5000 or more roundtrip…. and I know lots of people in the DC area who routinely pay $8000-$13000 roundtrip for their weekly Monday- Thursday/Friday London work trips) eats beforehand, gets on the plane and goes to bed. And they’re happy with United in the DC area. That’s who’s really paying the bills on these flights, not those on upgrades or full out redemptions. I flew UA to London a few weeks ago and that seemed to be the way the majority of the cabin was – skipped dinner and went to bed. I slept well, even in the non-new-Polaris seats, and had a productive day when I got to London. Perfect flight.

  19. I routinely buy J tickets for work, and this is going to suck. I doubt that any of these changes are actually going to speed up meal service (something I do care about). If anything, the flight attendants are going to be in even a worse mood, and will snap at you if you ask anything that’s outside the scope of their meal service workflow.

    Even with the current staffing levels, I keep getting: “Can’t you see I’m serving other customers?” “We don’t give pajamas until after take off. We’re busy right now.” “You need to be patient. That refill can wait.”

    I can only imagine how the morale will be now.

  20. I’m all for it. The last Polaris flight I had it took 3 hours into the flight before the dessert came around. That’s fine coming back from Europe, but when most of the cabin asks for Executive Dining option to get sleep going to Europe and it still takes over 2 hours, it doesn’t work. As for the growth, they are taking on planes and adding routes faster than they can add flight attendants, the October synergies from the first month as “ONE UNITED” isn’t cutting it, so yes, they’ll have to cut positions in order to increase the schedule more quickly. I guess I just don’t see it being a big deal. It wasn’t overly amazing service to begin with and I probably won’t even tell a difference on the next flight.

  21. More backward logic: somehow the award seats are the reason United is incapable of providing top notch service. Yet somehow the airline is still very profitable.

    I never tire of laughing at the “I deserve something but you don’t, even though you followed the business model provided” attitude of some readers on travel blogs. šŸ™‚

  22. United became better over the past few years. I guess it has peaked and the downslide has commenced. Fortunately I am able to be in first class/business SFO-EWR and no more overseas travel. I’m 78 and no longer give a damn.

  23. On delta they reduced a language position and a regular position and are letting under qualified speakers fly senior flights instead of having qualified speakers onboard

  24. Thank You so much for bringing this to light!

    You can’t imagine how disheartened we are at them choosing to again reduce staffing and the product. It also equates to a reduction in pay. As of today we are compensated additionally for the extra work per missing FA, now that’ll end as well.

    Tired. Disenchanted. The lowest moral I’ve ever seen in all my years.

  25. American has fewer business seats on their 787-8 (28) and 787-9 (30) than United has on their 787-8 (36) and 787-9 (48) so it would seem to make sense that they have one fewer FA….If you do the math as per pax rather than per cabin United now has significantly lower staffing than the competition….

  26. As far as reducing staff on an aircraft, FAA mandates there is 1 flight attendant for every 50 passengers, no more & certainly no less.

  27. As far as reducing staff on an aircraft, FAA mandates for every 50 seats on a plane there must be 1 flight attendant.

  28. I am flying EVA business next two weeks to Brisbane via Taipei and EVA rep called me to pre order my choice of meals with lobster selections..my first pre order meal of EVA and hopefully its not pre plated.
    Hope they still serve Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2004, and Krug champagne onboard.

    Try comparing these choices to Polaris????

  29. @Lucky that picture of a plated main course from United highlights that the problem is not really plated onboard vs. pre plated, the problem is that the food on United is terrible, and the FAs don’t really care to make an effort to plate it. You might actually find that some dishes will look better once the FAs are not involved in the plating.
    PS. What. Is it with the lemon slice that UA FAs always throw on everything? Often speared with a cocktail pin….

  30. What I find most offensive is even mentioning American. Exactly what we all hope United will become. Also the fact that Polaris has a long way to go before it is fully rolled out and by that time all of the amenities will be cut.

  31. @Jason and others extolling the benefit of eating on the ground and then immediately sleeping aboard. Minimizing dinner service on TATL flights out of DC may be a good thing but remember United operates a much larger number of flights that depart at other times from other airports.

    And about the FAA staff mandate– that’s a safety requirement and has nothing to do with on board service levels.

  32. where is Debit to blame the White, scumbag republicans for this one? Im glad my polaris flight is before this deadline. @Lucky, wtf do I have to ask for to get the full service on my flight again? sad….

  33. Have they ever wonder why people rather go to sleep, then going through the dinner experience? There is nothing to look forward to (ask something extra and get snapped) and the food is pretty much the same in most of the routes that I fly.

  34. On long haul I like sleep #1. but a close #2 is decent food and lots of beverages. being part Scottish I fly economy. I am talking about more than one bottle of water on the seat, and more than one or two water runs by the crew on a 8 hour flight

  35. No need to wait till Feb 2019. The effect is already seen. Just landed from FRA to IAD on polaris. Menu gives 3 choices, but when asked for seafood, the answer I get is ” sir there are only 3 plates and already 10 people have requested”. The effect, only paper meal choice, so much for s paid ticket and not upgrade.
    Also, no one came during flight to check the passengers. So, yes, there is no need for flight attendants because, once the “food is served”, you are on your own. The service is horrible.

  36. Would it be possible that UA have actually researched their premium loadings and realized that the majority traveling Polaris are either non- rev staff or upgrades ? In my experience flying UA internationally that has certainly been a standout when asking crew

  37. Just one more of the many reasons to not fly United. After seeing multiple instances of customer abuse and experiencing first-hand their bad behavior I will Never fly on United again. I have paid more to avoid United because the small saving is not worth the trouble.

  38. why, why do they want to become mediocre and bad? why not strive for greatness? is it truly ALL about the money? have they no sense of pride in their company to want to do better?

    this is so sad.

  39. RC,

    No need. You white Republican males are now conditioned to think you are scum. Just the game you have been playing on non- whites for decades.

    But in any case white Republican males are subhuman scum. There!

  40. @schar
    The reason is that the vast majority of passengers choose their airline based on schedule, network and price (in some order). Hard product and soft product donā€™t play that big a role.
    Also – yes, it is mostly about the money. Like most companies.
    Regarding the on-board plating, personally i Have never been a fan. I find the food pretty mediocre, whichever way it is plated, and if you are a germophobe like me, you dont want to see the playing of the second meal. Pretty disgusting.

  41. Make 1k more expensive, make business class less attractive. Hmm, UA Seem to be driving business class travellers over to foreign carriers.

  42. Bigger problem isnā€™t just presentation, but inability to warm different parts of the dish differently. Sad.

  43. Having flown Polaris, the only truly worthwhile components are the hard product and the Polaris lounges. The FAs on my recent EWR-MUC (763) flight terse, nearly to rude, and the reaction I got when I asked for a mattress pad was worse than what I get from my mother in law when I suggest she get off my sofa for a minute.

    The only thing that wasnā€™t decidedly better on my LH flight MUC-DEN (350) was the seat and its only downside was lack of direct aisle access.

  44. What is that AA ‘meal’? It looks disgusting.

    Junk like that we don’t really have in Asia as customers would outright reject it.

  45. For Passengers that have special food requests like hold the sauce or sauce on the side or exclude the meat, shrimp, etc. These type of request can NO LONGER be accomplished inflight as the food will be preplated on the ground.

    Less flight attendants on the plane means the service will take LONGER in all cabins which means the lights will be on longer in all cabins.

    I’m pretty sure passengers did NOT want slower and less service throughout the flight and less sleep due to the lights being on longer.

  46. Way to plan to position yourself in 3rd of the US int’l carriers who already are behind most int’l carriers in service. Why stop at pre-plating? Just serve it to them in the TV dinner tray economy style. United management should want UAL to be the best, not just line their own pockets. They’ll never be able to guarantee rest on a flight unless they create a silence on board policy which would probably also translate to a no kid policy onboard so they should focus on what they can control… great service.

  47. Honestly I’ve just assumed that US airlines always went with minimum staffing levels on every flight at this point.

  48. So let me get this right: they introduced the Polaris product, and are steadily cutting everything from it that makes it a Polaris product as opposed to just run of the mill business class? So that they eventually end up with the same thing, but with a fancy name and a higher price?

    I just don’t even know what to do with the statement they released. It reads like nonsensical Kafka logic. “We’re reducing staffing to hire more flight attendants” literally makes no sense. And which customers are asking for them to reduce service and the products offered onboard, exactly?

    I just…wow.

  49. @Uaflyer When I fly business or first, I absolutely will not take FAs being snappy with me. I just remind them that I paid more than their monthly salary for my seat, and tell them that talking to me in a rude manner is unacceptable. Now, I don’t swear or raise my voice. I just say it very matter-of-factly. Maybe I’m just a jerk, but I refuse to be talked down to by someone with a much lower education level and lower status than myself. My money provides them with a job. I’ve been threatened with removal more than once for requesting the FA’s name so that I can file a customer service complaint. It’s hilarious how quickly one becomes a “threat to the safe operation of the flight” when they threaten to file a complaint.

  50. Some of these comments are so outrageous. Jesse: most United flight attendants have bachelors degrees and a huge percentage have a masters. I can assure you most flight attendants make far more a month than you paid for you upgrade fare ticket. Your comment sounds like you didnā€™t even obtain a GED.
    Educate yourself Jesse. Flight Attendants with over 14-15 years easily make six figures. Let me assure with over 23,000 FAs, over half have 15 years.

    Iā€™m a 30 year flight attendant, I am puzzled by Unitedā€™s choice to lower staffing levels and lower food quality. You donā€™t get JD Power awards by have equal service and quality to competitors; you provide better.

  51. @Amber I wasn’t talking only about United. I’ve actually never flown United, since they don’t serve the routes I frequent the most, and I generally avoid American-owned carriers on principle. I was replying to another poster who made a comment about snappy FAs.
    So, a lot of FA’s have degrees. Great. Still not the same as my level of education. (I guess you enjoyed your GED comment. I at least got a chuckle out of it.) But that is beside the point. I like how you decided to sneak in some drivel about an “upgrade fare ticket.” Sure, some of my premium travel is paid using miles, but a majority of it I pay out-of-pocket. What’s the problem? Either way, my main point has nothing to do with their education level or how much they are paid. You are avoiding the key point: rude flight attendants. And American-owned airlines tend to have the rudest FAs, in general. If I pay a premium for a premium product, then I should be treated like a premium customer. Bottom line. Is it so difficult to refill my drink or bring a snack with a smile, rather than acting like my request is unreasonable and a personal insult?

    I will say that a majority of my experiences with FAs are pleasant, and I was targeting the minority of them that are rude. They work in a service-oriented job, and fulfilling (reasonable) customer requests should not be a problem. Premium cabin passengers provide a significant percentage or airline revenue, and that should not be forgotten. Further, FAs should NOT resort to intimidation tactics in order to avoid a customer complaint. That is a clear abuse of perceived power, and American FAs are the worst of the lot in this regard.

    I will say that I usually do not look down on any person, and generally I am kind and respectful to everyone, regardless of their position or status in society. I’ll never make such comments as I made in my previous post without any reason. That being said, I will not tolerate being talked to like I am nothing. My biggest personal flaw is that when someone is rude to me, I respond by being an even bigger jerk. Not the best way to handle things, sure. I get that.

  52. Jesse
    I agree with you. When I fly to Europe I try my best not to fly an American flag carrier. The FA’s at best act like they are doing you a favor. In Europe even the low cost carrier FA’s are polite and civil and realize they are service oriented.
    I use to work in field service, I treated all customers with respect and was polite. I could care less if they had one machine, or a thousand. I did my best to treat the customer that they are the most important person in the world and that the issue they were having was personal and I would do my best to fix it.
    I miss the pre Obama administration days where we had 10 major airlines and had FA’s that treated us like humans.

  53. I travel United from Australia to the US about 4 times a year and would never pay for a business ticket with them. the main meals I have had when upgraded were no more than economy on a larger dining plate. If I was to pay I would be going Qantas or Delta who I have traveled in business and find them way superior.

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