As business class gets better, United Airlines axes first class

By David Flynn, October 26 2016
As business class gets better, United Airlines axes first class

December marks not only the launch of United Airlines' all-new Polaris business class but the beginning of the end for United's first class.

Fly Polaris in the air, enjoy Polaris on the ground
Fly Polaris in the air, enjoy Polaris on the ground

The Star Alliance member will phase out its 'Global First' offering in favour of the new business class design, which sports many of the creature comforts once reserved for the airline's highest-paying passengers.

Fully-flat beds, large video screens, direct aisle access from every seat, upmarket meals and even bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue are all part of the Polaris package.

Read more: United Airlines launches new 'Polaris' business class seat

It's an evolution which has painted first class into a corner and in United's case, into extinction.

New jets – starting with the Boeing 777-300ER on which the new Polaris seats will arrive in late December 2016, and followed by the Boeing 787-10 and the long-range Airbus A350-1000 – will no longer boast an exclusive first class cabin nestled into the nose.

"Phasing our first class"

Existing aircraft with United's Global First at the pointy end will see those seats ripped out and replaced by business class as part of the rolling Polaris upgrade as United moves towards a streamlined two-tier layout split between business and economy.

"As we update our fleet over the next several years... we will be phasing out the first class cabin and moving toward a two-cabin experience for international travel" the airline says.

In the short term, United will even rebrand its Global First cabin to become Polaris Global First and combine the new Polaris-class  meals and service with "the elevated amenities and specialised attention you’ve come to expect from our international first class service."

First class lounges also for the axe

Most Global First lounges will be shuttered and transformed into dedicated Polaris lounges, although it's believed that in some cases – including San Francisco – a larger and more centrally-located United Club will be "Polaris'd" while the old first lounge is converted into a United Club.

Polaris lounges will also be the exclusive domain of business class travellers on United and its Star Alliance partners, with top-tier frequent flyers booked into economy relegated to the United Club.

Each Polaris lounge will feature a tended bar
Each Polaris lounge will feature a tended bar

While many airlines have been winding back on first class, United is among the first to abandon its most-premium cabin.

Competitor American Airlines offers international first class only on its Boeing 777-300ER fleet and some 777-200 jets which have not yet been refurbished with the airline's own new business class seats.

And while Delta Air Lines tops out at business class, its next-generation seats – slated to debut on the Airbus A350 from late 2017 – edge closer to first class suites with sliding doors to turn the seat into a private cocoon.

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David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 May 2012

Total posts 137

As the World of First Class travel shrinks, how long will it be before some airline executive sitting in a marketing boardroom announce's a "new plan" for a radical make over of air travel - by launching "first class". I'll give it five years before it all comes back again!

I doubt this.

Business Class has become so good that the only way to have a competitive, international-grade First Class is to have private suites and extremely good lounges/ground service. This systemically favors airlines with one main hub (or two at most), and typically only on routes to an allied partner airline's hub with similarly good ground services.

Basically the costs of offering a First that is sufficiently differentiated from Business are simply too high for most airlines. 

In my opinion, First Class will continue to shrink. It will be a limited offering on trunk routes and/or by single-hub airlines. It is a niche market that is only viable on some routes/for some airlines. 

That said, I think Qantas will expand the routes it offers First on when/if it gets 777X jets. 

But as for United, like all the US legacy airlines it is poorly suited for First. It has 6 international hubs within the US alone, and the demand for First seems like it would be dispersed between those hubs rather than concentrated at one or two of them. Plus Lufthansa, ANA and to a lesser extent Singapore Airlines probably absorb all of the demand for First anyway (since United frequent flyers can use their points on Star Alliance airlines). And then there's Emirates and Etihad, who both have First Class on US flights.

Polaris will be perfectly adequate for United and it should be absolutely competitive with the best Business Classes. What I am surprised about is that United hasn't done a Premium Economy cabin, but that's a different issue.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

13 Nov 2015

Total posts 15

Delta does this already - Delta First domestically is only marginally better than sitting in the front row of Jetstar!

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

19 Feb 2014

Total posts 445

United really didn't have much to "boast" about its executive "First" class anyway.

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 1193

The death of First Class is pretty understandable.  It is basically a class for people who don't have to pay for the tickets.  Most employers are even getting leery about J Class these days with lots demanding flights under 9 hours in Y.  My employer is basically Y everywhere and, if necessary, they'll give you an extra day to recover when you arrive.

In a few years, most airlines will have retired F class.  The ME3 will keep it but it is more of an ego thing there rather than a business decision.  For everyone else, the rise of the J product and the incredible space used by top-line F products just doesn't make sense.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer - Chairmans Lounge

01 Sep 2011

Total posts 416

Oh you mean to tell me an American carrier actually had something called first class?? I would never have guessed it.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

06 Oct 2016

Total posts 162

Objectively, the only place First Class fits these days is in the A380, and then it is purely as a function of total payload and weight distribution!

13 Nov 2015

Total posts 49

While J seats are much improved I can tell you from my experience that a true F class is still distinctive.  I flew JAL F and walked back to the J cabin and was surprised how cramped it was.  The thing with F is space, exclusive cabin, check-in, cabin service, and security (at Narita JAL has a F only security room).  For 30 years the rise in corporate, shared private jets has taken the high rollers out of the commercial F cabins.  Take Europe, only LH, BA, LX, Alitalia, AF offer int'l F.  Compare that to 14 or so carriers in Aust./Asia.

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