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Seatless in Seattle: Production Delays Hamper United Polaris 777 Fleet Roll Out

Well, United Airlines’ (UA) much maligned handling of their flagship new Polaris Business Class product has hit yet another snag, on a long, winding road of snags.

First it was introducing the concept way before any one aircraft would be even remotely ready for the retrofit – in fact, thus far no older aircraft have recieved the upgrade. Only new 777-300ER deliveries have the hard product (the Polaris suite) and those guys only started arriving in the past few weeks. As such only select flights within the United States (Newark-San Francisco, Chicago-SFO) and a sole international flight (SFO-Hong Kong) feature the new seat. Supposedly London, Singapore, Tokyo and Sydney will see the new product soon – but when is anybody’s guess.

Secondly, it was rebranding to Polaris before the new seats even came into service with a new upgraded soft product (extras, amenities, catering, drinks) so it produced confusion for people booked into Polaris getting some sort of hybrid service. Not the suites advertised, but the Polaris ever present in all the service items. Factor in that basically half of United’s fleet is in the pre-merger configuration and the other on pre-merger UA’s, it’s just a mess.

Consistency is not key at United, apparently. 

But now the airline has hit a new problem. It seems that the brand spanking new 777-300 fleet – most of them still sitting on the tarmac in Boeing’s Seattle headquarters, are having some seat installation issues.

The Scoop:

Megan McCarthy, a spokeperson for United, has confirmed to news outlets that the airline is facing some delays in the installation of the new Polaris seats on the next two 777-300ER’s to be delivered to UA. While described as “short delays”, it’s not clear what the time frame is for the new seats to be fitted into the aircraft. McCarthy mentioned that Chicago based United was working closely with Boeing up in Seattle and is also in constant contact with Zodiac Aerospace, the France producers of the bespoke seat. 

The new ‘complex’ seats are facing installation issues but are also facing production issues in the company’s assembly line Wales, where they are made. They were being addressed ‘as quickly as possible’ though what means is anyone’s guess. So far no timeline has been placed but even a delay of one or two months would hurt United quite badly, especially with such a long (at this point one year) lead in to this much vaunted product. United had intended to deploy Polaris on their lucrative Trans-Pacific routes as the current product lags far behind their competitors, so time is of the essence currently.

It should also be noted that while United haven’t covered themselves in glory with their roll out of Polaris, Zodiac is also not absolved of blame here. The airline interior product producer (seats, lavs, bars and other custom made structures) has been plagued with design faults, delivery delays and safety regulation issues for the past few years – despite being one of the most reputable and largest producers in the market. Just ask the fiasco with American Airlines’ roll out of their new own new Business Class seats, also tasking Zodiac with the job.

This could (read: will) spell bad news for United, as the same producers have been tasked with refurbishing the airline’s current 767 and 777 aircraft as well as the newly incoming 787-10 and A350 fleets, a process that’s expected to take till at least 2022 to complete (ironic as the product will most likely be a bit obselete by then).  

And UA has made clear they are not pleased with the current situation and latest hiccup in the Polaris launch. Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz told investors at a JP Morgan event:

“We’re not happy, period. But rather than just be unhappy, we’ve got people on site with the folks there to make sure that we can expedite and accelerate as much as we can”

Zodiac declined to comment on the United Polaris issue. Hmm.

United is encountering some troubles introducing their Polaris Business Class product on theit new aircraft. Photo Credit: WikiMedia

The Takeaway:

Listen, there’s no two ways about this. It’s bad news for United, for the Polaris brand that UA has hyped for the better part of one year now and it’s also very unfortunate for frequent fliers and passengers booked to fly on the new Polaris seat in the near future. 

It’s even worse news for Zodiac who has been badly stumbling along of late with high profile deadlines not being met. 

It’s also sad for those new 777’s just sitting idle in Seattle. That’s alot of lost revenue and United will surely seek compensation from both Boeing and from Zodiac for this latest delay.

But worse yet, as United trips along in attempting to install (an admittedly) nice, bespoke product – the roll out continues to be a disaster and takes away from the massive amount of money UA spent on marketing Polaris (did anyone see Time’s Sqaure over the holidays? That wasn’t cheap for United). That must have been a fun investors event that Munoz attended in New York when this new set of delays were made known.

Furthermore, the delivery and re-configuration schedule for United aircraft was already very conservative – when you’re already trying to play catch up, it’s really unfortunate if you fall further behind your intended timeline. While UA is attempting to install a Business Class product that essentially matches what Delta has offered for years and what American has already recently introduced, Delta is already in the process of introducing a new next generation Biz product that features new custom stitched leather seats, closed door suites with doors and new bone china and enhanced catering.

United is already lagging and the doors have barely opened yet.

Was anyone even really excited about Polaris to begin with? Sure, the new soft product does look like a marked upgrade from whatever the dross United was dishing out before – but again, it’s been upgraded only to the extent that it matches what’s already on the table by both Delta (for a long time) and American. Now Delta has upped the ante again, and United is still trying to run up on a down escelator.

Is Polaris really a game changer and/or decision maker for anyone out there? With this latest delay, looks like us United fliers will be stuck with non-direct aisle access in Business Class for some time yet. Blargh. 

Featured Photo Credit: United Airlines

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