United unveiled its new international business class cabin Thursday, a revamping that it hopes will help it win back coveted corporate travellers who may have turned away from the carrier as its performance struggled in the wake of its bumpy merger with Continental.
The new Polaris business class will ferry passengers travelling on long-haul intercontinental flights starting December 1, 2016.
In an interview, United's CEO Oscar Munoz said that the upgraded service, from a new custom designed seat to exclusive airport lounges, marks the carrier's biggest product overhaul in a decade. It also builds on a series of other moves, from upgrading the overall fleet, to bringing back free snacks in coach, meant to restore confidence in the airline.
In order to win "back the trust of not only our employees and our customers . . . we have to make some serious investment,'' Munoz said. "And we've been doing that . . . You've got to put your money where your mouth is.''
Business travellers and others who buy seats in the front of the plane play a vital role in bolstering an airline's bottom line, potentially accounting for 25 per cent to 45 per cent of a flight's revenue, according to travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt. United hopes this new offering will boost its share of that segment of the travelling public.
"That is of course the obvious intent,'' Munoz said. "I want to win back customers and have that revenue share perk up. But at the same time we want to provide a win for the customer, and that's the reason for the focus on sleep.''
The Polaris experience is designed to be as restful as possible, from the lie-flat seats inside suite-like pods, to the "Do Not Disturb'' signs to the lavender pillow mist and gel-cooled pillows available if a passenger wants one. Flight attendants will receive special training and expedite the serving of meals to ensure passengers can rest without interruption.
And before takeoff, international business class fliers can grab a shower or a nap inside one of nine new lounges, the first of which is scheduled to open at Chicago's O'Hare on December 1. Unlike typical airline clubs, including United's, which are open to members who pay an annual fee, buy a day pass or anyone with a first or business class ticket, the new lounges will be exclusively for those travelling in the Polaris cabin.
Many of the offerings, whether it's the pyjamas that passengers can request on flights lasting more than 12 hours, to the lie-flast seats or the seasonal in-flight menus, can be found on other airlines. But Munoz says that United's emphasis on rest, along with heightened service and perks will add up to a distinctive experience.
"The individual components may be like others, but at the end of the day, it's the way you deliver the product that has us excited,'' he says. "We're going to make sleep a very big priority .. . It's the collective experience we're selling from the lounge, when you first arrive, all the way to landing.''
The new offering could also help United better compete with international carriers like Etihad and Emirates, which are known for their luxe service, and have been expanding their presence in the US. Those overseas carriers are engaged in a battle with several major US airlines who argue that they receive unfair subsidies from their Gulf-region governments.
"It clearly provides the frequent traveller an option,'' Munoz says. Referencing an Emirates ad in which actress Jennifer Aniston is dismayed to learn that there's no shower on a different carrier, Munoz added that "we're never going to put Jennifer Aniston in her personal shower. That's just not the way the model works in the US. We're doing this to improve the level of experience for our customers period and that should compete well against other carriers here and other carriers anywhere.''
United's image has taken some hits since its merger with Continental in 2010, a transition that has been marred by technical glitches and lackluster financial returns. While it's on time performance improved last year, rising to 78.15 per cent of arrivals according to the US Department of Transportation, United has consistently trailed several carriers including its network peer Delta in recent years. It also lags behind its major competitors when it comes to unit revenues and operating profit.
There has been leadership turmoil as well. Jeff Smisek, who preceded Munoz as CEO, stepped down in September amid a corruption probe. And Munoz suffered a heart attack shortly after assuming his new position. After undergoing a heart transplant in January, Munoz returned to the helm in March only to have to deal with a proxy war on the airline's board of directors that was eventually settled.