Flight Review: United (747) Polaris First From Chicago to Tokyo
TO THE POINT: United's really stepped up its game with Polaris, which will only improve with the airline's seat retrofit and 777-300ER rollout. The pros: much improved bedding, higher-quality food and beverage, pajamas and other amenities. The cons: the first-class experience is almost identical to business, so you're essentially paying more for a slightly bigger seat.
From Asiana and Singapore to Lufthansa and Swiss, United Airlines faces some very stiff competition when it comes to long-haul premium-cabin travel — even from its own partners. Fortunately, the airline's brand new Polaris business class will go a long way to improving its (honestly not so great) reputation, especially once the new seats launch next year.
While it'll be a few months before passengers start flying the new (modified) 1-2-1 business-class seats on intercontinental flights, as of yesterday you can now experience the Polaris "soft product" on all international routes that previously offered BusinessFirst (now United Polaris business) and Global First (now United Polaris first). United's phenomenal new Polaris Lounge is now open in Chicago as well.
Yesterday, I flew Polaris first from Chicago to Tokyo. I'll be flying Polaris business on the way back to see how the two compare, but the service appears to be virtually identical — the only real difference is an extra appetizer (soup) course during the main meal, turn-down service (which I certainly wouldn't miss if I didn't have it) and larger seats in first class. All Polaris passengers can request mattress pads and pajamas, they have the same entree choices, very similar amenity kits, in-flight service and more, although first-class passengers always get their first pick of entree, while there might not be enough to go around in business.
Booking United Polaris First Class
While Polaris is also available to Europe (which would have been a much more manageable trip), I wanted to try a longer flight, which features extended menus, pajamas (only available on flights 12+ hours in length) and more time to experience the service. I settled on first class for the trip to Asia and business for the return, just based on availability. I flew United 881 to Tokyo, spent a few minutes in the Global First lounge at Narita and then continued on United 79 to Seoul (on board a 737-800).
In total, the flight cost 80,000 United miles plus about $20 in taxes and fees. (Fare class experts may notice that the connecting flight was booked as a "standard" award. I was originally booked on Asiana but I wanted to try United's 737 service within Asia (for the novelty of it, perhaps), so I asked to be moved to that flight when I checked in at the airport. I just ended up in the "ZN" fare class, it appears, though no extra miles were required.)
Check-In and Lounge
Given that I was staying at the in-airport Hilton at O'Hare, I decided to check in the evening before in order to maximize my lounge time in the morning. As a Polaris first passenger, I incorrectly assumed that I could check in at the Global Services area, as I've done that when flying out of Newark in the past. The agent didn't give me a hard time, but she did make it clear that only Global Services members can use that check-in location — Polaris passengers have a special check-in area, but that wasn't apparent until the next morning.
Given that I already had my boarding pass from the night before, I headed right to the TSA PreCheck line, which was crowded but speedy. I then walked underground from the "B" gates to the "C" gates, which is where the Polaris Lounge is located.
I covered the Polaris Lounge in great detail here, so be sure to check out that review to see what the experience was like.
After four (yes four!) hours in the lounge, I headed back through the tunnel and over to my gate, B17.
I managed to board early to take some pictures of the cabin before passengers came on board. It's important to note that the crew was aware that I was a journalist there specifically to cover Polaris. While we always try to review products anonymously when possible, given that I had attended a Polaris tasting dinner on Tuesday and the lounge preview on Wednesday, airline execs were well aware that I was on this flight to Narita. Though I honestly don't think it made much of a difference once I was on board. (It's worth noting that United "Polaris experts" were also on my flight, and other flights yesterday, to monitor the service.)
Normally, I'd start off with a cabin tour, since I was able to board early, but I had already photographed United's 747 extensively during a domestic trip earlier this year. See that post for more on the 747.
The First-Class Cabin on United's 747-400
United's 747 consists of three cabins: first class in the nose, business class behind Door 1 and on the upper deck, and Economy Plus/economy in the rear. Main-deck first-class seats are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, while business-class seats are in a very cozy 2-4-2 configuration (as you'll see down below).
First-class seats are spacious, though not at all private. The center seats are ideal for passengers traveling together as there isn't a center divider.
Meanwhile, window seats are the best pick for anyone traveling alone.
United's first-class lavatories are severely lacking. They're super cramped — I've actually seen larger lavatories in economy on the 737-900ER.
The issue with handing out pajamas is that passengers need to change into them, which is really tough to do in such a small space. I managed, but only after accidentally banging body parts into the walls a dozen or so times.
Meanwhile, back in the cabin...
Business class is a crapshoot on this plane. These are the same 2-4-2 "dorm style" seats that United has on some 777-200s, and they're definitely not great, as we concluded in our review. If you're flying Polaris ahead of the 777-300ER launch or aircraft retrofit, you'll be better off selecting a flight operated by a Dreamliner, 757-200, 767-300, 767-400 or a 777-200 with 2-2-2 seats. The other issue with this layout is that there's almost no personal storage space at the seats, which presents quite a challenge will all this extra Polaris bedding.
Nothing has changed in the economy cabin. Each passenger gets a small economy pillow and a lightweight blanket.
First of all, you've probably noticed the stuffed polar bear. There was one on each first and business-class seat at boarding — they're apparently available on the first few Polaris flights, so if you're flying before the weekend is through there's a chance you may get one.
Moving right along...
I selected seat 1A, which is just behind the nose. It's my favorite seat on the 747 (as it likely is for many).
Each of the 12 first-class seats is 22 inches wide, with 78 inches of pitch. Business-class seats are 20 inches wide on this plane, by comparison, but 23 inches wide on the 777-200s that offer seats in a 2-2-2 configuration. So on some of United's planes you'll actually end up with a wider seat in business than you will in first on the 747.
There's also a 15-inch touchscreen display, and a large fixed ottoman.
Each seat has a few storage compartments, but the only one I tend to use is the one built into the armrest, which is where my polar bear (and my laptop and charging cables, etc.) rested for the entire flight.
There's a dated wired controller, which you can use to select content, turn on the overhead light and activate the flight attendant call button.
The seat controls are pretty basic on this plane, but they work well. Next to the controller you'll find a headphone jack, a USB port (and disabled ethernet jack) and a multimedia port for displaying your content on the built-in display (I've never seen anyone actually do that).
The seats recline to a full lie-flat position. Here's mine just after my turn-down service, with a mattress pad, comforter, a light blanket and a "gel-cooled" Polaris pillow.
There's also an AC power outlet, but both my USB port and power outlet were not working on this flight (apparently that red light is a bad sign).
And, thankfully, each window seat has three adjustable air vents. They're quite powerful, though, so you'll probably only need to use one.
Until the new seats are available, Polaris is all about the "soft product," which includes new Saks Fifth Avenue bedding (below), amenity kits and food and beverage.
Frequent flyers will probably be excited to see that there's a brand-new amenity kit, which is more substantial than any I've received from United in the past.
It's larger than the business-class kit, but that also means it'll take up more space in your bag. Note that the first-class kit has the "global first" branding, which has actually been retired.
Inside you'll find amenities divided between four compartments. While this might be helpful for finding exactly which item you're looking for (perhaps?), the design takes up a fair amount of interior space, so the kit doesn't seem as easy to repurpose as it had been in the past.
There's a lot of stuff in there. The new eye shades will likely be a hit, since they have cutouts for your eyes, making them a bit more comfortable to wear for long periods. (Stay tuned for a comparison with the business-class amenity kit.)
Another very popular item will likely be United's new Polaris pajamas, which are available on flights 12 hours or longer.
You get pajama bottoms and a top — there seem to be two sizes: small/medium and large/extra large.
I actually found them to be very comfortable. They're quite lightweight as well, which is helpful if you're thinking about bringing them home, since they won't take up too much space in your bag. I'm guessing they'll shrink significantly if you put them in the dryer, but that remains to be seen.
All this "stuff" poses a challenge given the limited storage space, even in first class. Your best bet is probably to put the items you're not using in the overhead bins, but it'll be too easy for yours to get mixed up with another passenger's.
And here's that gel-cooled pillow I was talking about. Fantastic!
One area where United one-ups some top competitors is with Wi-Fi. It wasn't particularly speedy on this flight, and it did cut out a few times, but it worked very well for email and instant messaging. $16.99 is a very reasonable price for a 13-hour flight, too, so there's nothing to complain about there. United also offers streaming entertainment (from a server on the plane, so it's high-def and quick to load).
Here's an example of the speeds I was experiencing when the Wi-Fi was at its best. Definitely not phenomenal.
As I mentioned, first-class seats have a 15-inch touchscreen display (the same is available in business class).
The system is fairly responsive and the selection is good, but glare seems to be a huge issue on this plane in particular. The brightness is also lacking a bit, so it's hard to see some content unless the cabin is completely dark.
There was a good selection of new releases, along with new and older action, comedy, drama and international films.
As of December 1, United is also offering special "relaxation" content.
One provider is called NatureVision TV, which offers calming nature scenes — the kind of thing you might see on a bank of demo televisions at an electronics store, perhaps.
There's another channel called Headspace, which offers a few short programs demonstrating different meditation techniques.
I had a really hard time disconnecting from my environment enough to get very much out of the meditation programs, so I ended up moving on pretty quickly.
As for the audio, while I was hopeful that United might be considering adding Bose headsets, that's apparently not in the cards. The current headsets offer mild noise-cancellation, and they actually performed better than I remember in the past. The sound was good, but they aren't very comfortable to use for long periods of time.
Food and Beverage
This is where Polaris really shines — in theory. United has revamped much of its food and beverage menu, though there don't appear to be any changes to the spirits and soft drinks (below).
Everything else has changed significantly, however. United is introducing nearly 2,000 new menu items, including some 50 starters and 100 entrees. They vary from one route to the next and will be swapped in and out over the months to come, but you'll definitely notice the change on your next Polaris flight. (This post will give you an idea of what to expect on board if you're flying within the next few months.)
The first tweak is with the pre-departure beverage. Drinks are delivered individually on special trays, alongside a piece of chocolate.
The plastic Champagne flute is secured to the tray, so while it might look like it could topple over at any moment, that's unlikely to happen. It's a pretty slick design. United is now serving Ayala Brut 2007 Champagne, which appears to retail for about $40 a bottle. I found it to be perfectly drinkable.
A few minutes after takeoff, a flight attendant came by to set up my tray for the main meal — note the brand new tablecloth.
Then, the first beverage service was wheeled out.
United has completely revamped the wine list, and the process for dishing it out, too.
Perhaps my favorite new Polaris feature is the wine flight, which is offered on afternoon and evening flights. You can taste three different reds or three whites — or, in my case, all six!
I'm not an expert when it comes to wine, but I did enjoy everything I tasted on the flight. These wines are clearly an improvement, and the new presentation is quite a bit of fun.
I was also served mixed nuts with a "cocktail snack."
The snack consisted of a skewer with a grape, fig and blue cheese. Everything was pretty tasty, though the nuts are exactly the same (and a bit too salty in my opinion).
Next up was a chilled appetizer plate, which included tamago (Japanese omelette), chicken teriyaki, edamame jelly and red onion. I was also served a piece of garlic bread and pretzel bread, which I normally love. However, for some reason the bread hadn't been heated — the butter wasn't even melted inside the garlic bread.
The chilled appetizers were very good, though, and the flight attendant came by later with slightly warmer bread. (While there has been some training, this was the first day of Polaris for the flight attendants, too, and they did a phenomenal job considering.)
I really like the new salt and pepper shakers!
The third course was a small bowl of butternut squash soup with leeks. This is actually the one course that isn't available in business class, but it's really nothing to get excited about.
Next up was the salad, which consisted of kale, mesclun greens, fennel, pepper and pomegranate seeds (notably, croutons were absent, but I didn't miss them). The salad was served with a choice of balsamic or honey peppercorn dressing.
The salad was forgettable, but it was nice to have some greens mixed in.
For my entree, I selected the Asian Fusion Chicken Soup, which I also tasted earlier in the week at Chef Bill Kim's restaurant bellyQ. It was much better there, but still good on the plane. The coconut base gave the soup a lot of flavor but I was a bit disappointed in the noodles, which weren't "udon," as listed on the menu.
Then, the sixth course (yes, we're already up to six courses) was the standard cheese plate. The cheeses were all quite tasty, as were the grapes, but the components looked very cramped on this tiny plate.
Then the adventure continued with a dessert course. There was ice cream and a dessert sampler — we'll call this courses seven and eight.
The dessert sampler actually consisted of five separate options — including the three "assorted dessert cups" below. Since there weren't enough for everyone to try all three (which I was entirely okay with given how stuffed I already was), I tried the lemon meringue cup, which was very good.
I also ordered a sundae with "the works" — strawberries, caramel, generic chocolate candy circles (these resemble M&M Minis), whipped cream and a cherry. It was by far the best sundae I've had on a plane. I really like the new bowls, too.
I also tried (a tiny bit of) apple pie (which wasn't quite warm enough) and the salted caramel bar (delicious!).
After the meal, flight attendants offered Dasani water bottles, which I always appreciate.
Then, later in the flight, the regular "BusinessFirst" snack cart was available in the galley, featuring wraps, sandwiches, fresh fruit, instant noodles and a basket of other items.
Those "other items" included gummy bears, popcorn and chips, among other treats.
I was much more excited to try the new hot items, though, which I'd been hearing so much about. I ordered the tomato soup and grilled cheese, since I had enjoyed that combo so much at the Tuesday night tasting.
I also ordered a glass of Pellegrino, which is a new addition on United (thank goodness!).
Doesn't that sandwich look incredible? Unfortunately it didn't taste nearly as good as I had been expecting. It wasn't quite warm enough, and the cheese had separated as well — it ended up on only one side of the bread. And part of the fun is dunking the sandwich in the tomato soup, which is only possible after tearing off a piece of the sandwich, since the soup is served in a narrow mug. (The soup itself tasted great though.)
A couple hours later and it was time for breakfast. That's when things got a little weird...
I had ordered the chicken katsu, since I prefer savory meals over sweet ones. However, the chicken was served on the same tray as a strawberry yogurt and fresh fruit. I also had a choice of a croissant or a cinnamon roll (at that point I was committed to this strange mix of breakfast items, so I went with the cinnamon roll).
Honestly, I think this is an easy fix. Rather than serving everything at once, the fruit, yogurt and roll should come out first, followed by the entree (either savory or sweet) a few minutes later. It was overwhelming to have all that food in front of me at once regardless.
After breakfast we were just about an hour out from Narita, and it was time to change out of my PJs. Which meant going back to the tiny lavatory, which by this point was in pretty poor shape. On Korean Air, the flight attendants checked the lavatory every few minutes — even though there were only two of us traveling in first class. That just doesn't happen on US-based carriers, and there's nothing worse than having to change clothes in a super cramped, dirty airplane bathroom.
Then, just before landing, a flight attendant came through with a small box of chocolates, with Polaris branding on the top. I didn't have any room in my bag, so even though I was stuffed I still managed to have a bite. And they were very good.
It's definitely a thoughtful gesture, but I would have been even more impressed if the presentation had matched what I received at Tuesday's tasting dinner. Now that was memorable.
This Polaris flight has me very excited for what's to come. The new lounge is out-of-this-world great (for a US-based airline), but the on-board experience still has significant room to improve. I think United's doing a very good job with what it has to work with, but until the 777-300ER launches, and UA updates its older aircraft with the new seats, I don't see any reason to fly United over just about any of its partners.
Will you be going out of your way to fly United Polaris?