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Behind the scenes with United Airlines' new business class

Posted September 25

What makes business class a premium experience?

Is it the reclining bed, the restaurant-standard food, the high-quality service -- or all of the above?

As more airlines move to eradicate first class, business has become the benchmark by which an airline is judged.

Over the past four years, United Airlines has been revolutionizing its business class -- rebranded Polaris, in honor of the North Star -- ensuring it can compete with the best of the best.

It's been a difficult year for United, following the media storm surrounding the video of a passenger being dragged off one of its planes, but it's hoping these new developments will get the brand talked about for the right reasons.

CNN Business Traveller has had exclusive access to United's team as Polaris goes from dream to reality, taking business class to new heights.

Battle for business class

United's old business class was one of the most densely packed business classes going -- but in the upgraded version, every passenger will have aisle access -- while still maintaining space efficiency.

United brought in British design company Acumen to work out this logistical challenge.

"By slightly staggering and angling the seats, one in line and one slightly angled on the aisle -- that gives you [...] that access," Acumen CEO Ian Dryburgh tells CNN.

But this ideal positioning is useless if it's not backed up by a comfortable and luxurious seat.

"We needed to make sure we were providing our best customers our best possible experience," says Mark Krolick, United's vice president of marketing.

United gathered its frequent flyers together to pick their brains -- working out how to provide the best amenities, bedding and food.

The focus group highlighted the importance of storage and comfort.

Despite initial production difficulties meaning the seat manufacturers Zodiac Aerospace fell behind on the delivery schedule, the finished seat ticks the boxes.

MORE: Scents on a plane: Why the aviation industry is waking up to fragrance

Food glorious food

There are entire blogs dedicated to the highs and lows of airplane food -- getting it right is essential to delivering a premium product.

United organized menu workshops in 16 cities and five continents -- determined to discover what made customers tick.

Once food was mastered, the company assembled the perfect accompaniments for their dishes.

"The flight attendants will serve three red or three white wines for each customer to taste," says Susan Carter, senior manager, gallery planning and beverage provisions.

On an "early morning flight you can have your choice of a Bloody Mary or Mimosa."

MORE: Airline food tips

Dress rehearsal

So how does an airline ensure its ambitions get off the ground and take to the skies?

Pretending to fly to Paris, of course, via a dress rehearsal.

"This is the first time that all the planning and processes that we've been developing behind the scenes are really put to the test," says Maria Walter, United's product development manager.

"This has been a three-and-a-half-year labor of love for United."

Staff ensured the meals were presented correctly, the new amenities worked and that passengers had a comfortable and pleasant "flight."

Not everything worked -- a bespoke Polaris ice cream bowl had to be abandoned after it cracked.

Meanwhile, extra pillows were discarded when it became clear passengers had nowhere to put them.

The airline is also still experimenting with a new lounge experience to go hand-in-hand with the relaunched Polaris.

MORE: The world's best airport just got even better

Battle for business class

As Polaris gets off the ground, the other major airlines are also revolutionizing their business class cabins -- the competition is becoming ever tighter in the race to the skies.

Delta, Qantas, Cathay and Qatar airways are among those either redesigning products or introducing whole new concepts.

Delta is experimenting with creating cabins -- for the ultimate privacy. Meanwhile Qatar Airways has introduced double beds in business class.

Its a race to the top -- but it'll take time for airlines to refit their entire fleet.

What do all the new concepts have in common? Reliance on passenger feedback -- frequent business travelers will determine who wins the battle for business class.

"The entire team fundamentally understands that hard product and all its components and all of the fanfare is at best fleeting with regards to customer satisfaction," says Oscar Munoz, CEO United Airlines.

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