United Polaris seat

The United Polaris seat will officially launch this Thursday, on the airline’s EWR–SFO route, and its first international flight will be on March 25, from San Francisco to Hong Kong. Image: Kristina Velan

APEX Insight: United’s first Boeing 777-300ER made its inaugural flight yesterday, carrying press to experience the Polaris seat in flight for the first time. APEX Media spoke with Acumen to discuss how the design consultancy collaborated with United, PriestmanGoode and Zodiac Aerospace to fine-tune the airline’s new business-class seat.

“[At United,] we fly above and beyond. It drives us to reimagine things like a business-first service,” said United CEO Oscar Munoz as he welcomed press to the United Polaris seat preview flight on board the airline’s first Boeing 777-300ER. The aircraft, dubbed the “New Spirit of United,” made its inaugural flight from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to San Francisco International Airport yesterday. This marked the first time the Polaris seat was experienced in flight: While United’s new business class launched in December of last year, the seat will officially launch this Thursday, on the airline’s EWR–SFO route, and its first international flight will be on March 25, from San Francisco to Hong Kong.

The United Polaris long-haul business-class seat is based on a product concept by Acumen Design Associates, licensed exclusively to United Airlines in North America. APEX Media spoke with Acumen to discuss the story behind the seat and learn how the design consultancy collaborated with United, PriestmanGoode and Zodiac Aerospace in its development.

A Spark and a Sketch

According to Daniel Clucas, senior designer at Acumen, it all began when Acumen’s founder and CEO Ian Dryburgh put his ideas on paper four years ago. “It started off with a sketch that Ian did on the train on the way home, where he came up with the radical idea of combining an inline with angled seat,” explained Clucas.

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The concept for United’s Polaris seat was born when Ian Dryburgh, Acumen’s CEO and Founder, sketched his idea during a train ride. Image via Acumen Design Associates

The strength of this creative spark was its optimal use of limited cabin space. “If you really know where a passenger needs space, and you can understand how to use those spaces effectively, you can do great things,” said Clucas. Acumen was confident enough in the design to further pursue its development as an internally funded program, before approaching United.

It was the space efficiency of Acumen’s design which encouraged United to select an off-catalogue seat. “It was the only product that they had seen that would match the seat count that they currently had, but offer all-aisle access and a much more premium passenger experience,” explained Anthony Harcup, associate director at Acumen. “Normally when you go from a step-over product to an all-out access product, something’s got to give. You’ve either got to give up seat count or you have to compromise the offer to some degree. But this is such an efficient preservation of living spaces, and access to the seat, that it made the decision very easy for [United].”

United Polaris seat Acumen

Image via Acumen Design Associates

Getting It Right

PriestmanGoode created the specs for the look and feel of both United Polaris seats: the one featured on United’s domestic Polaris service and the Acumen design used on the international long-haul fleet. Acumen collaborated with PriestmanGoode to optimize the Acumen-patented design so that it harmonized with United’s fleet-wide Polaris experience, ensuring passengers would enjoy the same high standard of comfort whether they were flying short- or long-haul.

“Every time we’re presented with a different aircraft type, and a different set of station lines for the product, it’s Acumen’s remit to optimize the product,” said Harcup. “That means changing the pitch very slightly, it might mean changing the angle of the angled seats very slightly, and modifying some of the dimensions just to make sure that we’re always maximizing the passenger offer, and maximizing the amount of seats that we can get into the cabin.”

Fine-tuning was particularly important for the Polaris program because the variable cabin space between the Boeing 777 and Boeing 787 required adjustments to the dimensions of the seat. These affected the location of in-flight entertainment screens and dimensions of privacy screens, to ensure a consistent feeling of comfort for passengers regardless of which type of aircraft they were on.

United Polaris seat Acumen

Image via Acumen Design Associates

Acumen credits United for taking ownership of the program as it evolved, working hand-in-hand with the design consultancy throughout the process. “During our research, we discovered that there are four main things that business-class passengers want: all aisle access, forward-facing seats, privacy and storage. So we made sure to hit on all four of those with the United Polaris seat,” said Peter Wolkowski, senior analyst, Onboard Product Development, at United.

“It’s been very heartening, really, and quite self-assuring, the fact that [a company] of our size can patent an idea and change the commercial framework of an industry with one idea,” said Harcup. “It’s something that we’re really proud of, and something that we’d like to continue doing.”

Marisa Garcia was once locked in a hangar in Oberpfaffenhofen while fine-tuning Gandalf’s new seats. Seriously. The firemen got her out. Writing is less confining, but she has lovely memories of those hands-on days.