United Continental (NASDAQ:UAL) has alienated lots of customers in the last few years. Repeated IT snafus, subpar reliability, and poor employee morale have all contributed to the loss of loyal fliers to rivals like Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL).
However, it didn't help that United's international business class seats have been substandard. This put the carrier at a huge disadvantage in competing for lucrative corporate travelers. Last week, United announced a big makeover for its international premium cabins that could help it start to win back some of these high-value customers.
United's business class problem
In the past few years, airlines -- both domestic and foreign -- have invested huge sums to upgrade their offerings for business travelers, especially on long-haul routes. It has increasingly become standard on international flights for every business class (or first class) seat to convert into a fully flat bed and have direct aisle access.
United was the first U.S. carrier to move to 100% full flat-bed seats in international business class. Yet it has been a laggard in terms of seat width and aisle access.
Since April 2014, Delta Air Lines has offered direct aisle access and fully flat beds for every business class seat on its international widebody fleet. Even on its narrowbody 757s used for transatlantic flights, Delta has a slightly staggered configuration that makes it easier for premium passengers sitting in the window seat to step over the traveler in the aisle seat.
By contrast, for most business class seats on United's international flights, you will either need to climb over someone else to get up, or another passenger will need to climb over you. Many of United's 777s even have an eight-across business class configuration with two "middle seats" per row. United also has a high proportion of rear-facing business class seats.
This doesn't meet the standards that business class passengers expect. Given that business class seats often sell for $5,000 to $10,000 round-trip for international flights, customers are right to expect more. United's deficient business class seats have probably contributed to Delta's growing market share in New York, a key business market that United dominated five years ago.
United aims to catch up
United's new Polaris business class -- which the carrier unveiled last week in New York -- could help United match or even beat Delta in terms of the quality of its international business class service.
The Polaris class will feature custom-designed "suite-like pods," with each seat converting into a 78-inch flat bed. All of the seats will be forward-facing and have direct aisle access.
The Polaris seats will offer more work space and storage space than United's current business class seats. However, the main focus of United's design effort was enabling customers to sleep better. In addition to the seats being larger and more private, United is also upgrading the bedding in partnership with luxury chain Saks Fifth Avenue.
United is also upgrading its in-flight menu and building new business-class lounges at nine key airports around the world. The lounges will include amenities like showers, private daybeds, and an upscale restaurant.
United Continental CEO Oscar Munoz said it was important to refresh the entire business-class experience. He even hopes to motivate flight attendants to provide more attentive service by signing a new long-term labor contract that will provide them with long-awaited raises, as well as through additional training.
A slow rollout
United's Polaris business class sounds like a big upgrade over what United offers today and at least on par with Delta's business class product, called Delta One. However, it will roll out fairly slowly.
The new Polaris seats will debut on United's first 777-300ER in December. It will also come installed on the carrier's 787-10 and A350-1000 fleets, both scheduled to enter service in 2018. Additionally, United has announced plans to retrofit over 100 older 777-200s and 767-300s with the Polaris seats.
Even then, United's 767-400ER, 787-8, and 787-9 fleets would still lack direct aisle access for business class window seats. If customers respond well to the new Polaris seats, United should strongly consider putting them on all of its international widebodies. Only then will it be able to provide the consistency of experience that business class travelers expect.
Adam Levine-Weinberg owns shares of United Continental Holdings, Inc. and is long January 2017 $40 calls on Delta Air Lines, Inc. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.