It’s not often you see an airline CEO scanning boarding passes, but that was the situation at Chicago O’Hare’s gate C10 this week with United CEO Oscar Munoz. The airline was celebrating the debut of its newest Boeing 777-300 aircraft and showing it off to media and invited guests.
What’s so exciting about this new aircraft delivery? It’s the first to showcase United’s much-hyped Polaris business class. While the airline has been offering the Polaris soft product (meals, amenity kits, and blankets) since December, the finished product is a much different experience.
The 777-300ER planes, of which United plans to have at least 14, are operating transcontinental flights between Newark and San Francisco for now. They will begin flying internationally on March 25 between San Francisco and Hong Kong. These aircraft will also pop up on other long-haul routes and will be used as a replacement for Boeing 747-400 planes that United is retiring later this year.
We’ve got the skinny on all the aircraft and product details—before Polaris is rolled out to the general public.
Kicking Back Preflight
United is creating a new lounge product dedicated only for its Polaris customers and Star Alliance Gold premium-cabin passengers of its partners. This redesigned space replaces access to the membership-based United Club and comes with a swanky bar, full buffet, tableside service, lounging pods with chargers, shower suites, and even napping rooms with ambient noise and aromatherapy spray. It is meant to be a substantial upgrade to its general club, and it delivers.
Refrigerators stock bottled water, and there’s plenty of Illy coffee and espresso to perk travelers up before a flight. There’s even a wine storage locker where frequent fliers can store their favorite vintages for their next flight.
Don’t worry about finishing emails in the lounge because Wi-Fi is available for purchase onboard during the flight, too.
Time to Board
The first thing you notice when you board is the colorful branding throughout the plane, including in the aircraft’s entry foyer. Such a spacious entrance for this big plane makes a great first impression (although most travelers passing through business to economy’s 3-4-3 seating layout may not agree). The Polaris cabin seats 60 passengers, making for quite a dense configuration, but all seats have direct access to the aisle, which is paramount for those not interested in hurdling over their neighbor midflight.
Designers staggered the seats so that some angle toward the aisle while others are angled slightly away; this creates excellent privacy. Couples traveling together should pick the two-seat section in the middle (there’s a privacy divider that can be lowered or raised at the touch of a button).
Window seat fans should avoid the even-numbered seats that angle toward the aisle, which have only one window to enjoy the view. The more private, odd-numbered window seats can have as many as three. Also, seats in the center section require a strain of the neck to peer out, so choose carefully.
Another important thing to note is that when the seat is reclined into a fully-flat bed position, your legs slide into a cubby under the seat in front of you. The bulkhead rows seem to have slightly more space for your feet.
The side tables have easy-access power outlets and USB ports, plus small cabinets with a makeup mirror and space to store items. Another cool feature that the airline designed after surveying customers is the handlebar in front of the seat. It makes getting out of your seat easier without disturbing the person ahead of you.
The tray table folds out easily from beneath the large-screen TV (packed with movies, sitcoms, and music), and it has a unique feature: a fold-up handle to support a tablet or mobile device if you prefer watching your own movies.
Let the Service Begin
United has outpaced its North American competitors when it comes to service delivery and presentation, and the Polaris menu does not disappoint. While boarding, travelers are offered champagne in tall flute glasses with a welcome chocolate, and on morning flights, a Bloody Mary cart with all the accoutrements is a sight for sore eyes after takeoff.
As fliers recline their seats into lounge mode and snuggle beneath Saks Fifth Avenue duvets with two pillows and the option for a third cooling gel pillow, cocktails and wine are served. United uses a classy, dual-tiered cart to present all of the beverage options, and it has even created a clever wine-tasting tray stand with places for three glasses so you can sample your favorites.
Polaris uses newly designed cutlery and flatware, including globe-shaped salt and pepper shakers that are models of the airline’s logo and are even encouraged to be kept as souvenirs. It’s strange that United uses trays in business class given the investment in the overall presentation, but it does speed things up a bit. Appetizers and salads are preludes to the entrée, which features five options, including something for vegetarians and healthier eaters.
On my flight, the Asian fusion chicken noodle bowl was out of this world. Think chicken in a creamy coconut broth; it was almost like a Thai curry soup. Dessert includes an ice cream sundae cart, a multi-tiered stand with cakes and sweets, and fresh fruit and cheese samplers. You will not land hungry—that’s for sure.
On transpacific flights, pajamas are a cozy addition to the standard amenity kit stocked with Cowshed toiletries. All long-haul flights will feature a buffet setup so passengers can grab drinks and snacks at any time. Hot snacks like lobster mac and cheese or tomato soup with aged cheddar grilled cheese sandwiches are available on request from flight attendants.
How Does It Compare Overall?
Many airlines offer pajamas, multi-course meals, champagne, and flat-bed seats. Where United stands out is the all-aisle access seats (airlines like Air France and Emirates have configurations with a middle seat in business class) and the sleep-inducing amenities like cooling gel pillows, mattress pads, and slippers. Travelers are not likely to pick an airline based upon the menu, but loyal United flyers will be pleased with the product upgrade. Fliers new to the airline are in for a treat, too.
Fancy a Polaris experience? You can fly the new SFO to Hong Kong route in Polaris for 70,000 MileagePlus miles each way. Domestic flights between Newark and SFO on this aircraft go for 25,000 miles each way in Polaris, and don’t forget that you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United on the spot if you’re short on the miles.