Flight Review: United (777-300ER) Business Class From Newark to San Francisco (Polaris Inaugural)
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On any other day, United 539 is an ordinary p.s. (Premium Service) flight from Newark (EWR) to San Francisco (SFO). Today, it's the most significant United flight in years — UA 539, which just arrived at SFO, was the very first scheduled flight operated by the airline's brand-new 777-300ER (77W), complete with the much-improved Polaris business-class seat that we've been hearing so much about.
While the Polaris "soft product" has been flying for more than two months, following its launch on December 1, passengers have only been able to travel in United's aging international business and first-class seats. With today's inaugural, the new 1-2-1 business-class product is now available — for now, flying between Newark and SFO, with international service launching March 25 (San Francisco-Hong Kong), followed by several other to-be-confirmed routes later this year.
Although we had a chance to fly on this exact aircraft during the airline's "preview" flight earlier this week, with handpicked flight attendants, significantly expanded service and just 60 passengers on board, it was hardly a typical experience. Today was our first opportunity to experience the new product on a "real" flight, so I booked my seat as soon as the launch date was announced. (Note that because it wasn't possible to arrange an aircraft tour before today's inaugural, some of the images below were captured during this week's preview flight.)
Booking Business Class
I couldn't have gotten luckier with this flight. When I booked a business-class trip from Seoul (ICN) to New York (JFK) in order to review United's new Polaris service on the upper deck of the 747-400, I purchased an economy return "mileage run" to Taipei in the upgradeable "W" fare class, which actually cost me less than what I would have paid for a one-way flight in business.
My return trip happened to be scheduled for one day before the EWR-SFO inaugural, and I was even booked on the exact same flight (United 539). Once the 777-300ER inaugural was announced, I was able to leverage a schedule change to move to the Thursday flight instead — quite the score!
Since this ticket was originating in Seoul, the fare was quite reasonable as well — $2,064 round-trip, including the outbound segments in paid business class and the return booked in "W," then upgraded to business with a Global Premier Upgrade.
I purchased the flight with an American Express Platinum Card to earn 5x points on airfare. In total, I earned 10,805 Amex Membership Rewards points, worth $205 based on TPG's recent valuation, plus 22,704 United miles ($2,064 base airfare x 11, due to my Premier 1K status), worth $341. In total, after factoring in my rewards haul, my net cost was $1,615, not including the value of the 25,478 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs), enough to get me more than a quarter of the way to 1K.
Check-In and Lounge
I arrived at the airport a little after 5:00am for my 7:00am departure — this inaugural (and almost all other United-operated flights) departed from Newark's Terminal C.
United has dedicated lanes for Polaris passengers, and while I technically wasn't eligible today, there weren't any long-haul flights departing around my check-in time, so those lines were empty.
I took one last look at the seat map — I still had my original pick of seat 9L — and printed my boarding pass for the inaugural, as well as the one for my flight to Taipei.
Then it was time to check out the United Club. UA doesn't yet offer a Polaris Lounge at Newark, though I wouldn't have been able to access it today anyway. Business-class passengers on flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco do get complimentary United Club access, though, which I took advantage of this morning.
The United Clubs at Newark haven't been updated yet, though they're scheduled for a refresh soon, at which point they'll more closely resemble the new lounge at LAX.
The main Terminal C lounge (located just after security) is very large, but typically packed — even more crowded than I found it this morning.
There are a mix of continental buffet items available at breakfast, including cereal, oatmeal and bagels.
There's also a large bar, but it was a bit too early for booze.
My favorite feature is the large room with semi-private workstations — I really hope the renovated lounge offers these!
I also spent a few minutes exploring the terminal before boarding. There are a handful of new restaurants available, including the CBGB Lab (which, unfortunately, has pretty terrible reviews).
All the new restaurants and bars offer iPads at every seat, and you can pay for your food with miles — at a not-so-great rate.
There wasn't much fanfare at the gate (like we'd had on United's true SFO-Singapore inaugural), perhaps due to the extra-early hour (boarding began at 6:10am).
I decided to board around 6:20am, at which point the gate agents were already on to Group 3.
Passengers could board the 777-300ER through two jet bridges — the one on the left brought you through door #1 (at the front of the plane), while one on the right was attached to door #2 (at the beginning of the second Polaris cabin).
The Business-Class Cabin
As you can see in the seat map below, there are two Polaris cabins on the 77W — 28 seats between doors 1 and 2, and 32 seats in the slightly larger cabin just behind, for a total of 60 business-class seats.
Seats are arranged in a staggered 1-2-1 layout.
With this particular configuration, which is unique to United, some window seats are positioned next to the window (odd-numbered rows):
While window seats in even-numbered rows are closer to the aisle:
As for the center seats, some are positioned close together in the center (odd-numbered rows):
While even-numbered rows have seats that are spaced farther apart:
While there isn't a ton of storage space within each seat, there are plenty of options overhead.
Also overhead are individual air vents. This might not seem like a big deal at first, but having the ability to control the temperature in your immediate area is huge. I can't remember the last time I saw individual air vents on a 777-300ER, and boy am I glad that United decided to include them here!
As for the lavs, there's one large restroom located just behind door #2.
There are also three smaller lavatories — a second at the other end of the mid-cabin bar, and two more located just behind the cockpit.
As for that bar I just mentioned... it's nothing fancy, like you'd find on, say, Emirates' A380, but it does offer a nice place to hang with other passengers on longer flights (note that the setup below will only be available on international flights).
As you may have spotted above, I booked 9L, a bulkhead window seat at the front of the second Polaris cabin.
I was pretty happy with 9L — it only had two windows, while some other seats have three, but that was an easy tradeoff for the extra footwell room (more on that below).
Bulkhead seats have a ton of space for your feet, and while storage is limited overall, the wider footwell gave me enough room to store my overstuffed backpack for taxi, takeoff and landing.
Or my latest Polaris bear — and a dozen of his friends:
I was able to capture much clearer photos during the aircraft tour on Monday, so I'll use some of those images as well to share details of the seat.
Pictured below is a center seat in an odd-numbered row. While it's much closer to its neighbor than the seat behind it, the electronic partition provides significant privacy — you can still see your seat-mate's head, but not much else.
Center seats in even-numbered rows also offer a partition, though it doesn't need to be nearly as wide, given the position of the seats. Every seat has a large fixed table — while it looks like granite, it's actually a composite material, since a large piece of stone would be too heavy to install on an aircraft. The table is designed to match the ones that are available in the Polaris Lounge.
There are several lighting options around the seat — one standalone sconce (as seen above), a small push-out reading light, an overhead light and some soft lighting under the footwell.
There's a universal power outlet as well, along with a USB port, headphone jack and wired remote above the table.
These seats also have a unique (and supremely intuitive) recline wheel. To put your seat in lie-flat mode, simply turn the wheel to the right; rotating it in the opposite direction will return the seat to its upright position. Other buttons make it possible to make some granular adjustments as well — one switch lets you turn the light fixture on or off, while the one on the far right (below) activates the Do Not Disturb sign.
I did notice some folks using the Do Not Disturb sign during my flight, including the passenger seated directly across from me.
Of course, these seats go completely flat, and if you happen to catch the 77W on an international flight, you'll have a full suite of bedding to choose from, including a mattress cover and gel pillow (pictured below).
Again, one thing to keep an eye out for is the footwells. They're by no means tiny at any of the seats, but some definitely offer more space than others. For example, here's a 13-inch MacBook Air in a non-bulkhead footwell:
Meanwhile, here's the same computer in the footwell of a seat in row 1:
Storage is limited to the footwell (above), a small side compartment (below) and a narrow shelf below the display, which is just large enough to hold a smartphone or other small accessories.
Overall, it's clear that the airline really paid attention to small details here — down to the stitching and United tag at each business-class seat.
Finally, I just want to add another reminder about economy — it's tight.
United's p.s. flights don't offer Polaris service, so you don't get all the bedding and amenities available on international routes. However, these flights (even on the 757s) do include large Saks Fifth Avenue pillows and blankets. And, for this inaugural flight, each passenger got a Polaris teddy bear as well.
There's also a small amenity kit — essentially a condensed version of what you'll get on international routes.
The p.s. kit includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, eye mask, earplugs, lip balm and hand sanitizer.
While stuffed bears and amenity kits are nice to have, by far the most important amenity for business travelers these days (especially on a weekday transcon) is Wi-Fi — and the internet on this flight was anything but exceptional.
To make matters worse, it's pricey — $20.99 for a full-flight pass, which you'll need, considering it could end up taking the entire five hours to send a few tweets and emails. By comparison, I paid $16.99 for a full-flight pass while flying Chicago to Tokyo, and the Wi-Fi actually worked there.
I even had difficulty connecting to the access point at times, with the below error message popping up each time I tried over a ~30-minute period.
Since I couldn't get any work done over the Wi-Fi, I decided to explore the IFE system. Each Polaris seat offers an 16-inch touchscreen display. While the content itself is identical to what United offers on other aircraft, the screen is much sharper and a bit more responsive.
Currently, you can choose from movies, TV shows, music, games, audiobooks, a moving map and a selection of United content.
There's plenty of content on board — for example, there were several dozen new releases to choose from.
Once you narrow in on a selection, you can view a synopsis, click to play or watch a trailer.
One new feature I really like is the ability to click and drag through the timeline, making it easy to pick up right where you left off.
United also now offers a selection of "relaxation" content, from Headspace, NatureVision and Slow TV.
And Avgeeks will be pleased to see that this aircraft offers "Channel 9" Air Traffic Control audio, however the pilots have to choose to turn it on, which they did not do on this flight.
Unfortunately, the moving map was a bit buggy — it worked for the first half of the flight, but displayed an error message as we were somewhere over the Midwest.
The headphones haven't changed either — they're a bit of a letdown, and while everything sounds alright, you'll want to use your own higher-quality set for a long-haul flight. (United considered adding a much higher quality noise-cancelling option, but those would need to be collected long before landing, as AA currently does on select flights.)
Interestingly, the wired remote United selected is a much older model than what you'll find on the airline's 787-9 Dreamliners. Unfortunately, the new touchscreen remotes have proven to be quite buggy and passengers have found them frustrating to use, so the airline opted to install a simpler option on its 777-300ER.
Food and Beverage
I wasn't quite sure what to expect for this flight on the food and beverage front — sure, it didn't seem likely that we'd experience the same level of service as we had on Monday's preview flight, but this would have been a good opportunity to highlight some of the higher-end dishes on United's most premium domestic route. Instead, it was just the regular p.s. service, served on a tray with three entree choices. All of the flight attendants I interacted with were really friendly, though (and excited for their first flight on the 77W).
A few minutes after boarding, I was offered a pre-departure beverage and chose a cup of sparkling wine.
Then, maybe 30 minutes after takeoff, flight attendants came through with the "appetizer" breakfast tray, which consisted of Chobani yogurt and fresh fruit.
There were also warm biscuits and United's delicious cinnamon rolls — they're fantastic, but I can never not finish the entire thing, so I had to pass today.
For my entree, I opted for the Southwest Skillet, which didn't seem especially Southwestern (the salsa, perhaps?) and wasn't prepared or served in anything resembling a "skillet." I also ordered a Bloody Mary.
The entree was fine, but I don't like this dish nearly as much as the cheesy omelette United serves on occasion.
After breakfast, a flight attendant came by with bottles of water, which I always appreciate having at my seat.
Then, about 90 minutes before landing, we had warm chocolate and vanilla chip cookies. Yum!
I was a bit surprised to see that the flight attendants never ended up setting up any snacks at the walk-up bar — I thought this would have been a good opportunity to go all out and show off the "real" Polaris offerings, but apparently that wasn't on the table today.
United's 777-300ER is a huge step up, as long as you're able to fly in business. However, with seats in a 3-4-3 configuration in the back of the plane, it's a tight squeeze in coach — be prepared to bump shoulders and wrestle for the arm rests a bit more than you're used to on United's other 777s. There are a few choice economy seats that remain comfortable despite the limited 17-inch width, such as the exit row Economy Plus seats in row 39, but if you're unfortunate enough to end up in a center seat in the regular economy section, you might find a 16-hour transpacific journey to be pretty unpleasant.
That said, Polaris is overall an excellent product, specifically on the 777-300ER. And I had a great time on this Newark-San Francisco inaugural.
Is this the world's best business-class product? No, not at all. But I'd argue that it's the best all-around product from a US-based airline — especially when you factor in the phenomenal Polaris Lounge (which is currently only available at Chicago O'Hare).
As for today's inaugural flight — and the continued p.s. service from Newark to San Francisco — five-hour journeys don't get much better than this!
Were you on today's 77W inaugural from EWR?