More Cuts: United’s Polaris Service Is Increasingly “On Demand”

Filed Under: United

The rollout of United Polaris has been rocky, to put it mildly. The airline started rolling out their new international premium cabin experience in December 2016, though the execution has left a lot to be desired:

United has made several changes to Polaris service delivery lately. Basically they’re making the service increasingly on demand, so that you’ll only be offered various service elements specifically if you know to ask. To me their motive is clear. If they don’t proactively offer things then fewer people will request them, since many people don’t know about these things being offered.

Over time the demand will decrease, and then United can decrease provisioning or cut an amenity altogether “due to customer feedback.” That’s not how United views these changes, though. I’ve received corrections to my stories in the past from United when I suggested that these were cuts, so I guess I should mention that United says that’s not the case. Instead, United says that these changes are not cost cutting initiatives, that they continue to invest in the Polaris product, and that they’re simply continuously listening to customers’ feedback and evolving parts of the United Polaris service to ensure an enjoyable inflight experience.

I’ve already covered some of the changes that United is making to Polaris service this year:

Wandering Aramean notes the next “enhancements” that United is making to Polaris, as of May 1, 2018:

  • Pre-flight beverages will be served as pre-poured sparkling wine, orange juice and water offered from a silver tray, with other beverages available upon request
  • Mid-flight snacks will no longer be proactively offered; passengers can request them when desired
  • Polaris First no longer gets the soup course

For pre-departure beverages you used to be asked what you want, while now you’ll only be offered champagne, juice, or water, though you can ask for something else. Most people won’t know that they can ask for other things, and this will keep costs and consumption down.

By not offering mid-flight snacks proactively, the number of people consuming them will be reduced, since many people won’t know that United has substantial snacks. Over time they’ll be able to reduce how many of these they have to load on a flight.

United is in the process of eliminating international first class, though it’s strange that in the meantime they’re eliminate the soup course, which was one of the few things that differentiated first class from business class. Given that first class is on the way out, I don’t view this as a huge deal, though.

Bottom line

When United Polaris was first announced, it was all the hype. It looked as if United was actually going to do something special. United’s new Polaris seats are good. United’s single Polaris lounge is great. Unfortunately everything else has been less impressive, from the pace at which planes have been reconfigured with the new seats, to the pace at which new lounges have opened, to the service cuts.

I don’t get the point of offering so many items that are “hidden.” Either offer a service or don’t. By May, pre-departure beverages of choice, mid-flight snacks, wine flights, bloody marys and mimosas, mattress pads, gel pillows, pajamas, and slippers, will all only be offered to people who specifically know to ask. C’mon now…

Individually none of these changes are a huge deal, but combined they really add up. If United wants to claim that pre-poured pre-departure beverages streamline the service, I can respect that. But are they removing the mention of gel pillows, pajamas, mattress pads, and slippers from the menu due to customer feedback? Are they no longer proactively offering mid-flight snacks due to customer feedback? I’d love to sit in on one of their focus groups…

  1. Zero Polaris equipped routes from Chicago. They continue to fly there oldest aircraft as well. They opened up a nice lounge, but I buy tickets for the in flight experience first not second.

    I’m glad AA got more gates and hope they expand further then United. AA has it’s warts (which US airline doesn’t) but United is by far the worst.

  2. Why is Oscar CEO? What has he done that allows someone else to do his job (Scott Kirby)? He isn’t Elon Musk, Steve Jobs or Jack Dorsey to deserve this.

    Things aren’t better under Oscar and will only get worse with Kirby.

  3. Amazing that United is still hell-bent on continuing their race to the bottom. Delta still serves soup in business class (though it’s usually some off the wall concoction and never just a nice simple consomme). I guess it’s the thought that counts. American continues to improve their operation; albeit at a snail’s pace, but they are improving.

    And then we have United. With so many things going for them; a fantastic route system; a well-deserved reputation within the airline industry for excellent maintenance and pilot training; good hub facilities, etc. they still cannot seem to get it together. It’s like they don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. They’re rudderless at the top (Oscar needs to go), and with Scott Kirby chipping away at everything that could differentiate United from its U.S. brethren, I don’t see where things are going to improve anytime soon.

    So, like many others, I stay away from United.

  4. I don’t fly United much but the game plan is textbook myopia:
    Hedge funds and huge institutional buyers rush in while the (air travel)economy finally gets their act together, use the bean counters to extract every penny to hit quarterly EPS targets for exec bonuses, run up the stock, exit said stock, leave bagholders(individual investors who arrived late) in a poor longer-term position.
    Rinse, repeat.
    United seems to have excellent code share partners among the Big 3, nice routings etc…
    Watching them being run into an iceberg is so typical.
    Are Oscar and Kirby short the stock?

  5. FYI, the United Polaris “Lounge Tracker” now says that the Polaris Lounges in SFO, EWR and IAH will open in “Summer 2018”, LAX in “Fall 2018” and IAD, LHR, HKG, NRT as “Future Locations”. It specifically says that SFO, EWR and IAH are “under construction” but the rest as “in planning”.

  6. Personally I think UA should focus more on improving their on-time departures/arrivals and having wifi on all their flights (as I’m sure customers would have mentioned those in their feedbacks) than the soup course or gel padding what not. I do agree though that it’s sly of them to have them available but only for those ‘in the know.’

  7. Let the United Board know how you feel about United leadership! Passenger dragging, dogs dying, cutting FA bonuses. It’s a pathetic culture, passenger and employee experience are dead last in United leaderships eyes. Do they expect to cut there way to increased profitability. At some point they become regarded as a third tier airline (they are already by me). Let the board members know how you feel, no way that these people would run there own organizations the way they let United do so.

    @barneyh @insler_todd

  8. United biz class service is a joke. If you have no status, you’re not allowed to use the lounge at your departure city if you’re connecting on a domestic flight, and if you arrive on an international flight, you’re also not allowed in a lounge. What a joke! I’ve stopped booking biz class awards to Asia on United because for my 70-80k miles for a return trip, I don’t even get a lounge for my connection. I don’t see how passengers on other *A carriers aren’t rebelling against this idiotic policy.

  9. United is last in my opinion out of the big 4 (American, delta, United, Southwest) and this just amplified that fact. They’ve got some of the oldest fleet of planes, diminishing service, and has a PR nightmare event almost monthly or quarterly now. Sheeesssshh

  10. @Lucky

    How would you recommend that I request the amenities from United for my grandparents who are flying Polaris from SFO to TPE?

    I have already made requests for them to get a wheelchair and an asian vegetarian meal and even called in to verify those requests but United has been known to drop the ball on these simple requests in the past.

    As my grandparent do not speak any English, I was thinking I would write a note on a paper for them to give to the flight attendant to request they be given the amenities like the duvet, gel pillow, mattress pad, etc. I’d probably try to see if the check in agent could do anything about it too but I guess outside of this there’s probably not much more I can do.

  11. Okay I’m done with them. I travel for
    LHR- LAX at least twice a month and am a Global Services Member. I accepted the seat (787 2-2-2) wasn’t as good as Americans but it was reasonably comfortable and I found some of the little touches that Polaris brought were more than compensatory.

    These latest cuts remove most of those so, thankfully I can choose my own flights, so I’m off to someone else. Probably American.

    It’s so insulting to read that these are being branded as enhancements to help us enjoy more sleep. Why does removing a choice of pre departure drinks help me sleep better?? C’mon!

  12. @ Andy — Unfortunately a note with it written in English is probably the best method. Isn’t it ridiculous that this is what needs to be done to get the advertised service?

  13. I find when on a “Polaris” (real 777-300ER or not 787 etc) plane any route always ask for mattress pad, slippers and gel pillow. They generally have them but don’t even bother to advertise. Kinda sad you have nag the FA to get them. Generally I find I ask two or three times then you get them with a snarl. Mattress pad on the old side by side seats is essential since the old seats have some serious valleys… I agree the new ORD lounge is great and the real Polaris on the 777-300ER quite nice but this is a pretty awful roll out…more of a slow-out. Do they even have a project plan??

  14. @ Andy, @ Robin: I too hate having to request pajamas or the gel pillow 2 or 3 times, and you still don’t get anything. On my last ICN flight I again got NOTHING after asking multiple times. When the CO ‘flight leader’ came around, I told her about it. She just shrugged, gave me a look of indifference, and said “oh, we already handed them all out”. Arghh.

  15. @lucky

    it is very ridiculous and quite frankly I have little confidence they will follow the requests either way. i think if they follow through on the request for the wheelchair and the asian vegetarian meal i should consider it a win.

    it was with high reluctance that i booked my grandparents on to United Polaris but unfortunately there was no availability for Eva.

  16. Oh and don’t you worry. United will be dragging people off airplanes kicking and screaming again in a few months

  17. So, when I requested cooling gel pillow, mattress pad, and pajamas a few weeks ago, the flight attendant seemed to be annoyed and she said she was busy with departure preparation (while she was having casual conversation with her colleagues.) I was just trying to request before they run out…and it’ll get worse when they cut back the supply.

    The mid-flight snack is already ‘on-demand’ as I had to ask what they had…which they did not know until they checked in the galley…grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup, and one more thing usually.

  18. Let’s not forget that when United announced Polaris in 2016 it said the “majority” of its long-haul fleet wouldn’t have the “new” Polaris seats until 2021. Well, obviously, they’re behind schedule. By contrast, it took Delta about 4 years to put direct-aisle access, lay-flat seats on all of its long-haul aircraft. (The exception being the 757, which is 2×2).

    Me thinks United is waiting to do premium-economy and Polaris at the same time, hence the delays.

  19. @Lucky: I take issue with your comment “United’s new Polaris seats are good.”
    Granted they all have aisle access but the “entry” to the window seats is very narrow. On my one trip in Polaris, I found the seats to be confining and claustrophobic — Shoulder room was tight. This all is a consequence of squeezing in as many seats into the biz cabin — effectively 6 across.
    I find the reverse herringbone seat found on many other airlines more spacious and comfortable.

  20. The best enhancement United can make at this point is to fire Scott Kirby. There is nothing that he does that isn’t pure greed.

  21. You always show photos the new, mostly non-existent Polaris cabins in these posts. Why not show the real Polaris hard product with the eight across seating? The whole Polaris thing is nothing more than lipstick on a pig.

  22. I’m not seeing all the fuss about the move to “on demand” services. If you know you want something, you’ll ask for it. If you don’t care enough to know what’s available, you won’t be terribly upset not to get something you weren’t aware of. To me there are many, many other things that United has been doing that are more worth being upset about than this.

  23. Americans are dumb and posers. United knows this. You ain’t flying on your own dime. You are flying on your company’s dime. You will do what your company will tell you to do. So you are not the customer. Your company is the customer. Stop being a poser. United needs to keep your company happy. Not you! And if you are flying on your own dime on United, then you are too dumb to complain and be taken seriously. So shut up!

    Oh and all that independence and do your own thing, that was the high school phase. Americans are no different than Russians and Chinese. Follow the company policy.
    The only difference you are given more freedom to bitch about how you are THE man as long as you fall in line afterwards.

    Now go get me some coffee.

  24. The American Way:
    – spend 90% of your money on marketing and PR, hype and brand the shit out of something
    – spend the other 10% actually delivering
    – slowly get rid of all you wanted to deliver as you ran out of money
    Wait a few years.
    Rinse and repeat.

  25. @DaveS – Read the comments above. “On demand” really means pestering gruff FAs until they tell you they’re already out of everything you requested.

  26. Offering proactively is how you get word of mouth. If it’s secret, people aren’t going to get off the plane and text everyone about what a great flight they had and how many unexpected surprises they experienced.

  27. I remember 6-7 years ago I booked a friend from Europe on a SFO-ZRH (on somehting like that) on United First. When I asked him how it went he literally started laughing. He said the service and food was completely horrible in every way.

  28. This whole Polaris adventure is like one of those movies where the guy hooks up with some psycho bitch…and we all know the ending.

  29. Hey Lucky, I just logged into my UA account and noticed a buy United Miles with up to 60k bonus. Not sure if it’s targeted but thought I would pass that along.

  30. “If you have no status, you’re not allowed to use the lounge at your departure city if you’re connecting on a domestic flight,”

    Hell, you can’t even use a lounge if you are originating and ending in a domestic flight, even if you are flying premium on certain routes, if you don’t have status. Say, flying ORD-IAD in “First Class” and no status? Well, no lounge access for you. Yeah, it is becoming a joke of an airline…

  31. @DaveS: In addition to what @tda mentioned, it’s not just that things that were once proactively offered are now “on demand”, it’s that they’ve also removed mention of these “on demand” items from any printed, on-board literature. Whereas letting pax know something is available on demand via printed menus is one thing, it’s entirely different to have items available but with no information about them – essentially keeping them a secret. That’s the rub.

    It’s especially egregious because, as Lucky mentions, most pax won’t know about these items before boarding, there’ll be no mention of these items during their time on the plane (unless they see someone “in the know” with them), and then with reduced requests for these items United will claim pax simply didn’t want them.

    Bottom Line At Back: Not knowing about the items and not wanting them are completely different things in the real world, but United will use them interchangeably to legitimize removing them as a service while still claiming they’re serving their customers with “enhancements”.

  32. You will never change an cheap airline until the the « cheap management mentality » is still in place. US carriers don’t care about passengers!

  33. BTW most of the items are in the bins at the front of the cabins either side of the middle seats. I just helped myself a few times before departure when they “forgot” my request.

  34. @Andy
    I usually fly UA 869/862 (quarterly for since 1999) from SFO-HKG.
    The Chinese don’t mess about when grabbing and hoarding all of the amenities so have them queue in Group 1 at the first sign of a line forming which is usually 15-20 minutes before boarding. Since they are seniors they may be allowed to go before Group 1 and Global Services which will help a lot.
    They will have to clear a secondary screening on the jetway sometimes (that’s the SOP in HKG) so plan for that delay and tell them not to carry on lots of baggage or other things that will slow them down.
    I usually ask the FA for the gel pillow, mattress pad, and pajamas immediately upon boarding. It’s simply the best strategy. Once other passengers realize these amenities are available, it usually starts a chain reaction off and much of them run out.
    I have written multiple letters to UA expressing my disgust at having to queue so early and then ask for amenities that are standard on other airlines. Their response? Muted, at best.
    They disgust me.

  35. @Dan Alleva: If this keeps up, eventually United may have to drag people -onto- airplanes kicking and screaming.

  36. In the eyes of the UA flight attendants, they are not being paid one dime more to handle all of the Polaris perks, so they have little incentive to do it.

    Polaris and its “Promoters” are idiots, including Oscar “de nada” Munoz.

  37. @Bob
    I know a lead agent at SFO and she said Polaris is going to open in June.
    I doubt it will be earlier, given how the bureaucracy in the Bay Area works.
    April would be great, but that’s a week away.

  38. @ Marissa – exactly…pretend you are looking for overhead bin space and really you are looking for the United Polaris “stash”. 🙂

  39. United is not happy until YOU are NOT happy.

    Positives about United:
    (1) The search engine for award flights is good for determining availability;

    (2) No fuel surcharges on partner airlines;

    (3) United is in the largest airline alliance.

    Negatives about United:
    Nothing! United is PERFECT!!!*

    *Just kidding. United SUCKS.

  40. So just to clarify, it is United’s assertion that customer feedback led to them removing the comfort items from the menu and discontinuing the bloody mary cart?

    I want to meet those customers. I would dare United to introduce me to ONE single customer who provided this feedback.

    And this is why at 942,000 lifetime miles I stopped flying with them unless no reasonable option exists.

  41. Ahh the continuing misery of playing on a US carrier. Its no wonder they never get into the top 10 of any major/important airline awards. I struggle to find a redeeming factor with a US carrier.

  42. Don’t worry about lounge access at EWR, by the time you get through checking in, security line, rude angry staff, you won’t have time for the lounge. (Lasts weeks experience) why aren’t they well mannered and pleasant?

  43. Good timing with this post.

    I’m flying United Polaris to Frankfurt on Wednesday.

    Can’t wait ….

  44. Lol I have never been proactively offered a mid-flight snack anyway. Plus the crews on the EWR flights often do the pre-poured sparkling wine, OJ, and water anyway.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if UA soon does away with the open bar pre-departure, as other carriers don’t do this.

  45. @Eric S
    Hit a million then quit them. That’s what I’m doing at 1.3 million Lifetime Miles. I’ve got 1.3 million Mileage Plus miles banked and with the free Star Alliance Gold bennies, I’ll never see a bad seat for the rest of my life.

  46. How would you feel if you went to a restaurant, and all the best dishes aren’t listed on the menu?

    It makes no sense how it’s “good for the customer” to not even have it written anywhere about the Polaris amenities available. Only hardcore frequent flyers and/or readers of this site will know about it then.

    My main airport is IAD so I end up on United quite often just because I prefer a direct flight. I guess I’ll ask for the gel pillow as soon as I board on my IAD-AMS flight in a few weeks. It’s on a 767-400 so at least I avoid the 2-4-2 layout that is on all the 777-200s flying out of IAD. I’ve actually avoided United direct flights from IAD to Asia in the past just because of the 2-4-2 layout, and taken a connecting flight on Air Canada instead. No way I’m going to be stuck in a middle seat on a flight that long, in paid business class!

  47. I frequently fly TLV-EWR or TLV-SFO either 77W or 787. The mid-flight snack is a joke and at least in the last couple of flights, it was already on demand. In fact my wife always lough when I packed with me some food to a longhaul biz flight with United. I flew a few times biz with LX/OS/LH – much different approach, particularly OS longhaul flights.

  48. Ditto Bob when you say: @ Andy, @ Robin: I too hate having to request pajamas or the gel pillow 2 or 3 times, and you still don’t get anything. On my last ICN flight I again got NOTHING after asking multiple times. When the CO ‘flight leader’ came around, I told her about it. She just shrugged, gave me a look of indifference, and said “oh, we already handed them all out”. Arghh.

    REMEMBER – all UA F/A’s have to graduate from their SCHOOL OF ENTITLEMENT.

  49. LOL, so, wait, not only do the US3 offer lower quality coach products, but, they are even going cheap on their premium product now?!
    No wonder the ME3 and top Asian airlines are always in the top 10! That’s not how you compete internationally lol.

  50. Yaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwnnnnnnn! Oligopoly = poor service = constant service realignments = more blog posts = more engagement = more revenue for blogs = bloggers never complaining about the market forces, but merely grumbling about individual airlines

  51. No mention of the quality of the amenities kit – something I look forward to in Business Class. I’ve had better in Economy. In February went to Europe in Polaris and was very disappointed. It was a tin can with mostly advertising materials – “cards about the 727” , lotion products with discount promotion, etc. Slippers were on the menu to request going but not on return 3 weeks later (The slippers are nice, however compared to other airlines.)

  52. Have you heard any truth to the rumor that the dine-on-demand concept in the ORD lounge is going away? My dad was flying in Polaris last week and claimed that the sit down service wasn’t offered.

  53. I just got back from a trip to Tokyo on United’s SFO to HND flight n Polaris. The flight is about 11hrs on a 787 dreamliner. I asked for pajamas as was told that pajamas are only available on flights over 14hrs.

    I can report that pajamas are, or at least were, available on UA1 to Singapore. Not having these features advertised clearly caused my expectations to not be met on the Tokyo flight, I was disappointed.

    Also, there is a new seat configuration… Side by side facing the same direction. This new layout made it impossible for me to get out and go the the restroom for the ~8hrs that my neighbor was sleeping. Pro tip: DO NOT take the window seat.

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