Thoughts From My First United Polaris Experience
I’ll be completely honest: I haven’t been a big United Airlines fan over the years. It really started to go downhill in 2012 when I redeemed miles for an award on Swiss Airlines and something went wrong with the ticketing, which used to happen A LOT with United on partner awards. I was denied boarding and had to scramble to book on another carrier at my own expense. I was stonewalled by customer service and even senior management, and it was clear to me United didn’t really care about frequent flyers (I was United Platinum back then — from a status match, but still). Later that year I had a hair-raising experience with United’s (or, should I say Continental’s) gate agents at Newark and it made me think I’m better off sticking with American and Delta — imperfections and all.
However, over the past couple years, and most significantly with new CEO Oscar Munoz, United has tried to turn things around. This past year, I’ve flown United numerous times — Auckland (AKL) to San Francisco (SFO), Newark (EWR) to Brussels (BRU) and even a couple transcontinental p.s. flights. Most have been average-to-moderately enjoyable (except for that time United downgraded me from a paid first class ticket to economy on a regional jet because they downgraded the aircraft days in advance and decided not to tell me until I arrived at the airport).
Zach Honig is our resident United expert, so I let him cover that beat in general, but I was interested to check out the buzz around this new Polaris product. Was it really an innovative product, or simply United playing much-needed catch-up?
This week, I got to be the first passenger on the new plane...
...and, I also got to fly it from Chicago (ORD) to SFO on Monday's preview flight. I can say it’s a huge improvement and a product that I would enjoy flying — especially on routes where the competition lags, like Newark (EWR) to Tel Aviv (TLV).
In short, it’s a smaller seat than American’s 77W or Delta’s A330/777LR, but it’s well designed and comfortable. Where the product really shines is in the soft product — the mattress pads, duvets, multiple pillows, pajamas, enhanced food offering, exclusive lounge and (hopefully) better service. Here’s a rundown of what I liked and didn’t like about the new product:
1. The Seat
One of the biggest highlights of the new Polaris product is the seat itself, a Zodiac seat exclusively designed for United. It's 6'6" in length (maybe a touch longer because I'm 6'7" and just barely fit), so it isn't the largest product out there. But for 99% of the population, it'll be more than comfortable — especially since the blankets and mattress pads are wonderful (more on that later).
Each seat has aisle access, and the odd-numbered rows are the best because they're most protected from the aisle — and they're great for traveling couples. If you don't want to see the person next to you, you can raise the electronic partition and keep it up — even for taxi, takeoff and landing. Rows 1 and 9 have larger footwells due to the bulkhead. My size-14 feet fit comfortably, and I could rotate them with ease — even in the non-bulkhead seats.
2. Design Elements
It's the little things about a seat that can make all the difference. In United's Polaris cabin on the 77W, there are some great design elements that simplify and enhance the customer experience. Some are visual, like the white Carrera marble-like composite as the side table. And then there's the functional, like the bar that's located just above the in-flight entertainment screen so you can hoist yourself up from the seat and don't have to yank the person in front of you — it's brilliant. (See United CEO Oscar Munoz put the bar to use in the photo below.)
3. The Lounge
The Polaris Lounge at Chicago O'Hare (ORD) is in a different league from your average United Club, and it's a place I'd actually want to hang out. There are both buffet and a la carte dining options from famous Chicago chef Art Smith (try the fried chicken!). There are private pods you can reserve and even laundry service they do for you while you're in the shower. The lounge is only for Polaris customers and those traveling in first or business on a Star Alliance partner, so hopefully it won't experience the overcrowding that most airline lounges suffer from.
4. Air Vents
One feature that's commonly left out of many wide-body aircraft is air vents. For passengers who warm or cool quickly, it's so vital to be able to control your own section of the cabin. I was happy to see that United included individual air vents on the 77W. There's something so nice about being able to adjust your environment — however small it may be.
5. The Food
Although we were only on a four-hour flight, United offered full meal service and everything was top notch. I highly recommend the Korean chicken noodle soup, which was so good that I drank the broth!
And the lobster mac and cheese and bite-size desserts were both great.
6. Large Footwells
One small point that could make a huge difference, especially for tall travelers like myself, is which seat you get when it comes to the footwell. The footwell in the bulkhead row of seats is significantly larger than that in other seats throughout the cabin. You can see the difference in the pictures below with my laptop as a comparison point in non-bulkhead and bulkhead footwells on the left and right, respectively.
If you have the choice, pick a bulkhead row for the footwell compartment.
7. Spacious Bathroom
The Polaris cabin is split up into two sections. At the nose of the aircraft, there are two lavs and in the middle of the cabin there are two more. The one bathroom in the middle of the cabin on the port side is very spacious, something I love as a tall traveler. If it's available, I recommend using this lavatory on the 77W.
8. Solid In-Flight Entertainment
Because the flight was only four hours and there was plenty to do while we were in the air (like chowing down on the delicious food), I didn't have much time to play with the in-flight entertainment system. However, the time that I did get to play with the 16-inch touchscreen was great. I was impressed with the IFE interface and the workability of it, which is a huge perk on long-haul flights.
9. Great Amenity Kit
One of the highlights of the Polaris product is the amenity kit. The Polaris amenity kit not only has some great contents, but its packaging is very appealing and can definitely be reused. Inside, you'll get an eye mask, dental kit, pen, socks and Cowshed products, which were very nice. The kit was a nice surprise, as it contained more than just the lotions, toners and cleansers I'm used to seeing. Plus, all Polaris passengers get a very comfortable set of pajamas on the longest long-haul flights (most to Asia and the South Pacific).
10. The Cabin Amenities
One final major pro of the Polaris experience is what you'll experience in the cabin. The updated blankets are extremely comfortable, and the mattress really feels like you could be sleeping in your bed at home. Plus, there are cooling gel pillows so you'll fall asleep comfortable and wake up extra refreshed. I loved the experience.
1. No Storage
One major drawback of the Polaris cabin, in my opinion, is the severe lack of storage. There's virtually no storage, including no place to put a laptop or book — just a small cubby that fits the amenity kit. If the seat could be updated in any way, I'd hope for more compartments to store my stuff.
2. Tight Squeeze
If you choose to sit in an odd-numbered row, be warned that the space to access the aisle is pretty tight. Because your counter space is closer to the aisle, there's a mere 9 inches to get through. So if you've got a lot of junk in the trunk (like me), you might find it to be tight getting in and out.
3. Room for Beverage Improvement
I already talked about how impressed I was with the food service, but if there's one part of catering that I think could be improved, it's in the wine and Champagne department. On our short flight, we were served Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut, which was specially stocked (and a little disingenuous, in my opinion, because I got excited for a minute that United was ramping up the beverage component). However, that won't be available on regular long-haul Polaris routes. I'm still waiting for a US carrier to take the lead on Champagne.
4. Poor Control Placement
The placement of seat controls are extra important — one slip of a finger or arm and you could be on your way to full recline. The control panel for the Polaris seat is located right where I was resting my elbow, so I ended up hitting it several times, moving my seat when I didn't want to. This also happens to me on AA's 767 where the controls are near the tray where I put my elbow and laptop. I do like the knob to move the seat back and forth, but maybe more if it were placed somewhere you may not hit it. Not a huge issue, just an observation.
United's 77W and Its Future
Overall, I was very impressed with United's new Polaris product. United's 777-300ER is a great addition to its fleet, and the Polaris product is something the carrier should be proud of. Compared to the Boeing 777 variations offered by its domestic competitors, United offers not only a competitive seat, but a superior soft product that make it something I'd be excited to fly long-haul in the future.
During the preview flight festivities at ORD, I had the pleasure of meeting United's CEO Oscar Munoz for the first time. He approached me and knew about TPG because his son and friends are big fans — he actually mentioned how amazed he was at how obsessed with points they are.
While Polaris is a marked improvement in United's offerings, it's clear that this is the vehicle in which Munoz is trying to rehabilitate United's pride in the product, which he hopes will result in better customer service. He's got an uphill battle, but he's keenly aware. And unlike past United CEOs who were outwardly hostile to passengers and press, this is a new era of United and everyone there — from Managing Directors to lounge workers — was really excited about it. I really do hope that translates into a better customer experience across the board — even those flying in coach, which I admit is tight at 10-across.
I've avoided United because I abhor seatmates and especially middle seats in business class. In the past, the food has been uninspired and the customer service has been lackluster, to say the least. So, however skeptical I was of it, this new product is good.
The employees seem proud, but United has a lot of other issues to fix before I would switch loyalty, especially adding more lie-flats on its domestic routes and offering better customer service — like my issue in Austin when I was downgraded to coach on a paid first-class ticket with no advance notice.
But, that being said, I am definitely looking forward to trying out Polaris in the wild (though I would definitely avoid the tight 10-across seating in economy!). I'm eyeing Newark (EWR) to Tel Aviv (TLV) since it's a planned Polaris route and I've never been to Israel. Overall, I think that it's a great improvement for United and I applaud the carrier for really innovating here!
Stay tuned to TPG for more United Polaris coverage in the days to come!