United Airlines will follow this week’s opening of its new Polaris lounge at San Francisco with three more upscale lounges at Newark, Houston and Los Angeles across 2018.
However, the next wave of premium Polaris lounges – including Washington, London, Hong Kong and Tokyo – aren’t expected until 2020.
Australian Business Traveller sat down with Alexander Dorow, United’s Director of Premium Services, to find out more on the airline’s Polaris rollout roadmap.
Newark Polaris lounge to open “early June”
“We're expecting Newark to be done by early June,” Dorow says, “and you’ll have the most unbelievable view over the tarmac – the aircraft are literally up to the glass!”
“In every Polaris lounge that we're building, the commanding view is one of the important things.”
Newark’s Polaris lounge will be “very similar in size” to its sprawling San Francisco sibling.
“Newark is slightly smaller, square-footage wise, but it actually has more seats than (San Francisco) and the reason for that is it's built over one level.”
The Polaris lounge will occupy the footprint of the United Club at Terminal C3 “plus additional adjacent space on either side,” Dorow says.
“We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time studying every aspect of the customer who travels through our Newark hub, looking at our mix of local versus connecting traffic, where are customers typically connecting to and from, how long is their layover… and we’re building all aspects of the lounge around that.”
Houston to host a ‘boutique’ Polaris lounge
While San Francisco and Newark play the size card, the new Polaris lounge at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport – due to open “late summer” – will be “a little smaller than our other locations… I call it our ‘boutique hotel’ of a lounge”, Dorow says.
The Polaris lounge crowns the top floor of Terminal E, taking over that space from the current United Club.
“The lounge used to have an entry level, a main second level and then a third level above it,” Dorow explains. “The entire third level is now the Polaris Lounge, above the United Club and with sweeping views over the tarmac and runways.”
Dorow says the staircase which used to connect the second and third floors has been closed and built over – “you'd never even know it was there” – with an elevator to whisk Polaris passengers between lobby and lounge.
“We wanted to create a lounge that was really private, and it feels like you're stepping into somebody's residence.”
“It has little areas that are quiet and away from the rest of the lounge, private resting suites that look out over the tarmac, shower suites, and a buffet that we’ll be calling The Bistro.”
Polaris LAX lounge opens November
United’s fifth Polaris lounge is slated to open in November at Los Angeles Terminal 7, Dorow tells Australian Business Traveller, ‘and is much more of an intimate space.”
“The Los Angeles Polaris lounge is built into what was our former Global First Lounge, but we also took over all of the United management office spaces that we had to essentially double the size.”
The resulting lounge is a ‘bow tie’ in shape, built around either side of the terminal’s central rotunda, from which “you can actually look up and see part of the lounge, actually where the dining space is going to be.”
“The bar will look very different than what you see here in San Francisco or in Newark – it really feels like you're in California, especially in Southern California, with the unique tiles that are indigenous to that area. We want the lounge to feel really ‘homey’ to our customers who call Los Angeles home.”
Dorow says the “distinctly LA” vibe will embrace a strong focus “on wine and spirits which is attributed to the California clientele, more so than any of our other hubs.”
Washington DC Polaris lounge for “late 2019, early 2020”
It’ll then be a long year from the opening of the Polaris lounge at LAX to the sixth member of the Polaris portfolio at Washington’s Dulles airport in the late 2019 or early 2020 timeframe.
“We're working through designs for that space right now,” Dorow reveals.
“It’s a very exciting, a very different Polaris concept than what you're seeing right now. We are really going to focus on the dining experience for our customers later in the day because of the amount of transatlantic service that we have.”
Polaris lounges at London, Tokyo, Hong Kong in 2020
From 2020 the focus will shift to United’s international network, Dorow says.
“We’re already beginning plans for our international locations, and we're looking at our entire network, not just necessarily where we have lounges today but understanding what's the next hot market for us and where our customers want a United product.”
The Polaris lounges at London, Tokyo and Hong Kong will all involve expanding and reconfiguring United’s current lounge footprint at each airport.
“All of those locations today feature a United Club and a Global First Lounge,” Dorow says, “so what we're working through right now is how do we size those to ensure that we have the right amount of space.”
“For example, our Tokyo lounge is one of the largest that we have (when measured) in square footage and we're going to wholly work within our footprint.”
“The same is true for London Heathrow and Hong Kong lounge, where we will reconfiguring the existing space.”
However, Dorow stresses that each Polaris lounge will continue to be shaped by the specific travel patterns and needs of its customers.
“Our lounge in Hong Kong was built in an era when we had connecting flights beyond Hong Kong, to Ho Chi Minh and to Singapore for example. Now that's changed – thanks to some of our new ultra-long haul flights as well as our joint venture partnership with ANA, we no longer utilise Hong Kong in that way. “
“So we want to make sure that what we put in that lounge is aligned with the customer who arrives in the evening and departs in the morning.”
Likewise, the Polaris lounge at London Heathrow Terminal 2 will be “a very different experience again, and bespoke to the market that we serve. Our international product won't be one-size-fits-all.”
However, one trait which all Polaris lounges will share is an exclusive access policy which restricts entry to business class and first class travellers – frequent flyers from United’s MileagePlus scheme and their Gold-grade equivalents from other Star Alliance partner airlines will be redirected towards the decidedly less-swish United Club lounges.
David Flynn travelled to San Francisco as a guest of United Airlines