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Why Polaris Is United's Dying Star
Thursday, November 8, 2018 -- Polaris, United Airlines' dying star of a business class, continues to flicker and fade under the weight of more and more service cuts.
Conceived by one United regime known for idiotic cost-cutting, birthed too soon by the next as a desperate virtue-signal and bastardized by a third who's never seen a service flourish he couldn't kill with a spreadsheet, Polaris is coming and going before most business travelers even get a chance to fly the entire product.
This week we learned that United management, now controlled by president Spreadsheet Scott Kirby, will cheapen the food and service delivery for Polaris customers. Effective February 1, Polaris entrees will be pre-plated rather than offered mise en place at your seat. The reason for the change? United needs to lighten the workload of flight attendants because there'll be fewer of them to do the work. Polaris cabins will be stripped of one flight attendant per flight.
I can't feign outrage over pre-plating entrees. In-flight food is mostly dreck and there isn't much difference between dreck plated in a corporate kitchen and dreck spooned out by a bored flight attendant working from a cramped service cart. But reducing cabin staff will hurt in-flight service and it's just the latest of a metaphoric million cuts that have dimmed Polaris since its deployment in December, 2016.
The Bloody Mary and Mimosa carts, once a morning signature of Polaris, are gone. So, too, are the wine flights that were a standout of the original Polaris service. United's ever-temporizing, always-rationalizing bosses like to stress that you can still get a Bloody Mary and wine flights are available on request. But not proactively offering them does cut costs because out of sight is out of mind. And ever since the airline's initial wine purchases came in 300 percent over budget, management has worked to slow consumption while making believe that nothing has changed.
The Polaris soft product has been cut along the way, too. Fewer pillows are stocked, fewer are pre-positioned at your seat. Items such as blankets, duvets, slippers and pajamas are inventoried and you now are sternly warned on menus that items must never been taken from the aircraft. Every pillow and every blankie is the corporate property of Spreadsheet Scott.
Ludicrously, though, almost none of this matters because United has never even bothered to outfit the vast majority of its hub airports and international aircraft with the hard product that was supposed to define Polaris and uplift its image.
When chief executive Oscar Munoz introduced Polaris in June, 2016, he focused on exclusive, proprietary airport clubs. The Chicago/O'Hare flagship Polaris Lounge would open in December and he promised eight more in 2017. Guess what? Only three others--in Newark, Houston and San Francisco--have ever opened. Another, at LAX, is still promised for this fall. The other four exist only in a grayed-out limbo on the Polaris promotional page.
The four open Polaris lounges are good enough when they aren't overwhelmed with flyers desperately trying to convince themselves that United is good at something. But even they are an example of United's rob-Peter-to-placate-Paul mindset. Heavily renovated and expanded as they are, Polaris lounges aren't new. They were all pulled from the roster of existing United Club locations. That has meant fewer lounges, less space and much more crowding at key hubs for United flyers who buy into the United Club network. For every business class traveler who feels United is offering the bare minimum with a Polaris lounge before a high-priced international flight, there's an infuriated United flyer stewing on a plastic chair inside a crowded, disheveled United Club.
Yet all of this pales compared to United's incredible slow-walk of Polaris seating. When Munoz introduced the new Polaris seat, it was an improvement over the substandard, mismatched, outdated offerings flying on the messy fleet resulting from the United-Continental merger. They were good enough, but hardly state of the art.
But no matter. United has virtually abandoned putting the seats on the planes. United's own "progress tracker" shows that only 37 of 104 aircraft have the new chairs. Nearly half of those (17 Boeing 777-300ERs) are newly delivered aircraft. Only 20 of the 86 planes in the United fleet when it introduced Polaris have been reconfigured. Only five of the remaining planes are in the process of getting the new seats.
In retrospect, all of this should have been expected. Polaris has always been the bastard child that none of the managers passing through United's revolving C-suite really wanted to own.
The product eventually introduced as Polaris already was under development in September, 2015, when Jeff Smisek was fired as chief executive. Smisek didn't want to spend on a new business class, you understand, but the United-Continental merger was an operational disaster and he was being derided as an empty suit interested in his own enrichment. So he and chief revenue officer Jim Compton begrudgingly approved a new business class. But the marching orders were very clear: More flash than substance. Don't waste valuable floor space when you create a new seat. Make it "fun," but keep it cheap.
This cheap-but-cheery concept was what Smisek's successor, Oscar Munoz, inherited when he arrived. But just weeks later, Munoz, a railroad executive who knew nothing of airlines, suffered a heart attack. He returned in March, 2016, after a heart transplant. In June, desperate to show he was in control and making United better, he touted the introduction of Polaris at a high-profile event in New York. It was his decision to deploy the soft side of the product--the food, beverage, pillows and blankets--in December, months before even the first United aircraft got the new Polaris seat.
Less than 90 days after Polaris' unveiling in June, however, Scott Kirby arrived as United's new president. Unlike Munoz, Kirby, American chief executive Doug Parker's former running mate at three separate carriers, knew a lot about the airline business. And what he "knows" is that being good, even giving the appearance of being good--which is what Polaris was designed to be--doesn't translate to profit. Spreadsheet Scott believes in "natural share," a concept that suggests passengers will fly you because the airline has a sort of predetermined right to your business. Spending more to be better is a waste of money. Do only what your competitors do and you'll get yours.
Kirby always despised Polaris. He doesn't think it contributes to the bottom line or rewards United with a fare premium. As he has wrested operational control of United from the befuddled Munoz, Kirby has slashed what Polaris already offered and slowed capital investment in new Polaris lounges and aircraft retrofits. United's decision this week to cut Polaris staffing has Spreadsheet Scott's fingerprints all over it. The justification United management gave flight attendants for the reduction was simple: Delta and American put fewer flight attendants on their international flights, so why should we do more?
To be honest, the slow death of Polaris isn't truly complicated. We can talk staffing and management and competition. We can argue wine flights and entree plating. We can even discuss Spreadsheet Scott's "natural share" theory.
But the bottom line on all this is the bottom line: Even as oil prices rise and fares remain comparatively flat, airline profits are at or near record highs. Kirby's old boss Doug Parker has even been quoted as saying airlines would never lose money again. So why make Polaris good--or spend money to execute the cheap-but-cheery vision envisioned by skinflint Smisek?
Spreadsheet Scott believes you'll fly United regardless of whether he pre-plates entrees or offers a mediocre flight of wines in-flight. Polaris is a waste of time and money because he owns you. And even if you want to prove him wrong, where you gonna go?
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