Executive Traveller exclusive
United Airlines plans to crown its Airbus A321XLR jets with an all-new Polaris business class seat expressly designed for the long-legged single-aisle jet.
The fully lie-flat seat will take its cues from the airline’s current Polaris flagship product, which debuted in December 2016 and now features on the bulk of United’s international fleet.
“We are looking at a completely new product that’ll be on the aircraft,” confirms Patrick Quayle, United’s senior vice president of international network and alliances.
“It will be comparable to what you have now with Polaris, and it will be called Polaris,” he tells Executive Traveller. “We’re also going to put Premium Plus, our premium economy product, on there.”
High stakes in trans-Atlantic skies
The single-aisle Polaris seat will spearhead United’s entry into a trans-Atlantic arms race for business travellers and premium leisure flyers when its A321XLR jets take wing from the end of 2024.
“The current Polaris business class seat has received a number of awards and our customers score it very, very high,” Quayle reflects – but being designed for the twin-aisle Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft, it can’t just be dropped into the A321XLR cabin “because obviously the geometry on the narrow-body aircraft is a bit different.”
“So we have taken concepts from that original Polaris seat, what works and what out passengers like, and we’ve tried to apply that to a narrow-body (aircraft).”
“We have a seat that we’ve been working on and I'm really excited about that… I don’t want to say too much… I would just say it is a Polaris business class seat that works well on the narrow-body aircraft.”
In a three-class layout of lie-flat business class, premium economy and economy, such as United envisages, the Airbus A321XLR can accommodate around 180 passengers.
As to the jets themselves, Quayle says United expects to receive “just a handful of them in 2024, but they really come en masse in 2025… and we will use the A321XLR exclusively for the North Atlantic as well as Latin America”, Quayle says.
“So you will see something like New York to Bogota, but equally they could go New York to Edinburgh, New York to Glasgow or places like that.”
Boeing 757s are going, going, gone
These modern fuel-efficient jets will let United retire its ancient gas-guzzling Boeing 757s, which are on average some 20 years old according to aviation data specialist Cirium – although the Boeing 767s, all of which have been upgraded with Polaris business class seats, will largely remain safe from the XLR axe.
“I don’t see this as a 767 replacement, it's more of a 757 replacement as well as a growth mechanism,” Quayle explains – although he says it will also nudge aside the Boeing 767 on some routes.
“There are some markets where, because of range, we’re flying a 767 on it. But if the 767 is a little bit too big, those type of routes can be replaced with an Airbus 321XLR.”
“And in addition to existing routes where the A321XLR will replace older aircraft, it will open up plenty of new destinations in Europe that we’re quite excited about, because the aircraft has more range as well as better economics.”
A rich and competitive route
The scenario of single-aisle jets plying one of the world’s richest air travel corridors, targetting destinations both established and fresh, will be a hot spot on the post-pandemic travelscape.
JetBlue fired the first shot in August 2021 with the launch of flights between New York and London on its A321LR, which boasts 24 stylish Mint business class suites crowned by a pair of spacious Mint Studios.
A direct Boston-London service is slated to follow this year, and the challenger has also name-checked Western Europe cities such as Amsterdam, Dublin and Paris.
Thirteen A321XLRs are headed for JetBlue’s hangars from the end of 2024, and the airline has flagged their potential to open routes into central and Eastern Europe.
High stakes in trans-Atlantic skies
United will also be going up against American Airlines, which is US launch customer for the A321XLR with the first of 50 jet deliveries from 2023.
Like United, American is plotting new A321XLR business class seats which President Robert Isom described in July 2021 as being “a lie-flat business class”.
Systems partner Thales has revealed these seats will be fitted with 17-inch 4K displays paired to an oversized 5-inch touchscreen handset controller, while every seat from tip to tail will allow Bluetooth audio streaming to the passenger’s own headphones or earbuds.
Isom has previously said American’s A321XLR focus will be on opportunities in the transcontinental market, Western Europe and possibly South America.