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Star of the show

The new United Polaris business class cabin is a key component of a new look for United Airlines that goes well beyond the aircraft itself, as Ian Harbison discovers

Nigel Goode, Designer and Director of PriestmanGoode, says the project started about three and a half years ago, around the time of the 2013 AIX show in Hamburg, when the company was retained by United to develop a new look for the airline. Daniel Cuellar, Senior Manager of Onboard Product Development at United Airlines, adds that the commitment was initially established after the merger of United and Continental in 2010. The project began with aircraft in different configurations across the two fleets, at a time when the airline had just returned to profitability and could start to invest in improvements.


The initial aim was to develop a ‘cabin vision’ covering all classes in the narrowbody and international fleets. However, the brief was extended to include lounges and check-in as well as other onboard areas, such as new tableware, glassware and amenity kits. United, he says, is probably one of the first airlines to be bold enough to emphasise its brand throughout the entire journey in this way.


When the two airlines merged, the new colour scheme retained the United name on the fuselage, with the globe logo from Continental used on the tail. The latter has proved to be the source for much of the design inspiration, with the curve of the Earth and the latitude/longitude lines and squares being used in a wide variety of ways.


Another reason behind the development of United Polaris is the airline’s intention to phase out its international First Class. This meant the new business cabin had to be luxurious enough to not drive those passengers away, while also providing an improved environment for the existing Business Class customers. All new aircraft deliveries will have a two class C/Y configuration and the aircraft retrofit programme will provide the opportunity to convert in-service aircraft to the same layout. In the meantime, the front end becomes United Polaris Global First, with passengers receiving cabin service elements from the new concept, as well as having access to the lounges alongside customers in Star Alliance international first or business class flying on flights longer than six hours. Goode notes that airline lounges operated by US-based airlines are often open to a much wider range of qualifying passengers than elsewhere; as such United’s move was to develop a product aimed at customers who were paying top fares and deserved exclusive treatment. Some of the amenities will also be introduced on the airline’s US transcontinental p.s. Premium Service flights from mid-2017.


The first part of the programme was realised in September last year when United unveiled the PriestmanGoode designed 21.1in Zodiac Aerospace 6850 seat for domestic First Class. The seat is to be fitted on more than 200 Airbus A319s, A320s, and Boeing 737s and 757s. Features included E-Leather seat covers in signature navy and champagne; a patented-design tray table with tablet holder; an articulating seat bottom for greater comfort when reclining; an adjustable headrest; in-seat universal AC power outlets; additional in-seat storage, including two seatback pockets and side stowage for laptops and tablets; dedicated beverage holders; and cocktail tables with a granite finish chosen from List.


Business Class

The next stage in the project was the development of a brand new Business Class cabin, however, there was an unexpected twist. Cuellar says United were looking at a layout that not only offered aisle access for every passenger, but was also density neutral; meaning the same number of seats were to be fitted into the existing layouts that currently only have step over access. The reaction from the seat manufacturers was incredulity but, completely independently, Ian Dryburgh, Chief Executive Officer of Acumen Design Associates, suggested a cabin layout that combined in-line seats with angled seats. Further research established that he had struck gold – minimising redundant space, it offered a 78in long bed and provided increased privacy and stowage with full aisle access for every passenger. The company also made two vitally important decisions: to apply for patent protection worldwide, and to make a cold call to United headquarters in Chicago to explain the concept. Ali Ersan, Associate at Acumen, explains that the patent application was an important step for the company, taking it from being a design company to becoming an innovations company. The cabin concept is now a licenced commercial product.


Six months later, the team were invited back to United, taking with them a small scale cardboard model and a LOPA. With interest sparked, there was a constant dialogue and the airline supplied valuable information that was incorporated into the final concept.


Cuellar says the airline asked Acumen for LOPAs on the various aircraft types that were involved and the concept continued to deliver on its promises. In autumn of 2014 it asked for another plywood/styrofoam mock up. This was shown to frequent business class flyers in Chicago and received an overwhelmingly positive response. As a result, early in 2015 a formal agreement was reached between United and Acumen.  >>

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