Flight Review: United (777-300ER) Polaris Business Class From Hong Kong to San Francisco
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To The Point
United’s brand-new business class is finally available on international routes, delivering a much-improved experience on the airline’s longest flights. The pros: tons of privacy, very comfortable seats, industry-leading amenities. The cons: limited storage, major Wi-Fi issues.
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This week, I completed my third and fourth flights on United’s new 777-300ER (77W). In total, I’ve now logged nearly 14,000 miles in the airline’s best-ever business-class seat, including a media preview flight, the p.s. inaugural flight from Newark (EWR) to San Francisco (SFO) and Monday’s first flight from an international airport (Hong Kong to SFO) followed by my second 77W p.s. flight (from SFO to EWR). With roughly 30 hours of Polaris time, I now know the new product inside and out.
Note: While business class is a huge improvement on the 777-300ER, United’s 3-4-3 economy section is tight and should be avoided if at all possible. It’s also critical to distinguish the Polaris service — now available on all long-haul international flights — from the Polaris seat, which you’ll only find on these four 777-300ERs:
- N2331U – Delivered in 2016 and used for February’s 77W media flight
- N2332U – Delivered in 2016 (the aircraft I flew this week)
- N2333U – Delivered in 2017 (now flying p.s. and to/from HKG)
- N59034 – Delivered on March 23, 2017 (not yet used for passenger service)
All other United aircraft — including the 787 Dreamliner, 747-400, 777-200, 767-300, 767-400 and 757-200 — offer a variety of business- and first-class seats, none of which are even remotely similar to the product you’ll see in this review. If you’re flying on one of these planes, you’ll be traveling in United’s older business-class seat, but with new and improved catering, bedding and other amenities.
Booking United Polaris
This HKG-SFO 77W inaugural seemed like the perfect opportunity to redeem my extended Premier 1K upgrades, which were due to expire at the end of April 2017. I booked an open-jaw flight in the upgradeable “Q” booking class for $1,648, bringing me from Newark to Melbourne, Australia (via Los Angeles), on the outbound and Hong Kong to San Francisco to Newark on the return.
Since I booked a revenue ticket, I earned a total of 19,853 elite-qualifying miles, $1,521 Premier-Qualifying Dollars and 16,731 redeemable miles, worth $251 based on TPG’s most recent valuations. I also earned 5x points on the flight by paying with an Amex Platinum card, for a total of 8,240 points, worth $157. In total, that’s a $408 return on my $1,648 purchase, bringing the net cost down to $1,240 — pretty fantastic for a round-trip international business-class flight. Had I chosen to book travel with The Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN, I would have redeemed 82,400 Membership Rewards points to book this revenue flight, after the 50% points rebate.
Theoretically, I could have also chosen to redeem 70,000 United MileagePlus miles for the Hong Kong to San Francisco trip (including SFO-EWR), but I haven’t been able to find any dates with low-level availability — the only option is to book at the standard rate of 175,000 miles, which could be a good deal when revenue fares are especially high. If you’re paying cash, expect to spend at least $5,120 for the round-trip flight from SFO to HKG, or $6,370 if, like me, you’re beginning and ending travel in New York.
Check-In and Airport
I began my journey in Macau, which involved taking a Cotai Water Jet ferry directly to the SkyPier at Hong Kong International Airport (HKG). I departed on a 7:15am ferry, which required arriving at the ferry terminal no later than 6:15am to check my bag.
I claimed my bag upon arrival at HKG, and proceeded to the check-in counters just a few feet away.
United has a dedicated check-in agent at the HKG SkyPier. There wasn’t a separate line for Polaris customers, but there was only one other ferry passenger in front of me, so I was through in just a couple of minutes. The check-in agent helpfully pointed out that the HKG-EWR nonstop flight would get me in earlier, but (correctly) guessed that I’d selected the SFO connection in order to join the 77W inaugural — of course, I decided to stick with that.
Since I wasn’t going through immigration at HKG, the agent handed me a voucher for a $120 HKD (~$15.45) tax refund, which I collected just after the security checkpoint.
Then, it was just a short train ride to the main airport terminal.
Followed by a second train to the gate area.
The United Club
Roughly 45 minutes after arriving on the ferry, I made it to the United Club near gate 60, which is where the inaugural Polaris flight would depart from a few hours later.
While the HKG United Club isn’t luxurious by international standards, it’s certainly a step up from its US counterparts when it comes to food and beverage options. Note that Hong Kong will be getting a United Polaris Lounge within the next year, and an Amex Centurion Lounge later in 2017.
In addition to cold items, like oatmeal and cereal, there were several pastries available, as well as breads and bagels, along with a toaster.
Asian specialities were limited to the simple steamed buns below, and a noodle dish that looked like it may have been sitting out for a while.
There was also a self-serve bar, but it was too early for anything but coffee at that point.
The United Club offers a variety of seating areas, including an open-air section near the balcony.
And a section with tables and chairs around a small television.
As I mentioned, the lounge is right next to gate 60, so I had a decent view of the 777-300ER during my short visit.
After a few minutes with United, I decided to explore another lounge option…
The Thai Royal Orchid Lounge
Business-class and Star Alliance Gold passengers can also choose to visit the Thai Royal Orchid Lounge, just a short walk from the United Club, so I went to check that out as well.
The agent scanned my boarding pass and waved me in. I was quite pleased to see that the lounge was almost completely empty at the time.
The Thai lounge has different food and beverage offerings, so it’s worth checking out if you’re not thrilled with what you find at the United Club.
There were fresh salad items, steamed buns and a few other snacks available.
There was also a self-service bar, just as I found at the United Club down the hall.
The main seating area was of a similar size, but with more colorful furniture. And with only a half dozen guests in the lounge, it was much quieter, too.
After a few minutes there, I headed back over to gate 60. I was hoping to find some pre-boarding festivities — perhaps even a celebratory cake — however, the inaugural flight recognition was limited to this Polaris banner, where passengers were holding up a picture frame that commemorated the flight.
With not much going on at the gate, I was eager to get onboard.
Polaris Business-Class Cabin
I ran through the business-class seating options in this post last month, so I’ll be keeping this section short.
While I’d opted for an odd-numbered window seat (9L) on my last 777-300ER flight, I was traveling with a friend and wanted to try a center seat on this trip, so I grabbed 1D (and 1G).
The crowd was a mix of journalists (including a small CNN crew) and regular paying passengers, so there was a bit more commotion during boarding than you might expect on a “normal” flight. There didn’t appear to be any airline executives on board, however.
I really like the lighting scheme — flight attendants kept the Polaris cabin fairly dark during boarding, with dim lighting and all the window shades closed.
The cabin was very blue as a result, which made capturing photos a bit challenging, as you can see below.
The lighting scheme meant more natural-colored light over the window seats during boarding and throughout the flight, so that’s a consideration if (like me) you’re planning to capture your travel experience.
I also headed back to the economy section to check out that 3-4-3 seating once again. While this arrangement might be acceptable for a domestic flight, I would do my absolute best to avoid it on the long trek to/from Hong Kong.
Still, there are some economy seats worth mentioning that offer more comfort than others, such as those in row 39 (above) and the paired seats in row 50 (below). See this post for more details if you’ll be traveling in economy on this aircraft.
I also like the economy mini-cabin (rows 19-22), but do note that you’ll have a clear view of the Polaris experience you’re missing out on up front.
Finally, the economy and business-class lavatories are similar. An economy lav is pictured below, and while business lavatories are a bit larger, they’re all fairly compact.
Now, back into the blue abyss…
As I mentioned above, I selected two middle seats for this flight — 1D for myself and 1G for my friend. These seats are very close together, but there’s a motorized partition that you can raise for privacy in case you’re seated next to a stranger. The crew had all of these partitions raised during boarding, which should help you avoid any potential awkwardness after pressing the button to separate yourself from your seat-mate. We kept ours down during the flight, but the button placement meant I accidentally bumped the controls at least a dozen times during our 12-hour journey, causing the partition to pop up unexpectedly throughout the flight.
I also found myself bumping the seat controls more often than I would have liked — especially the recline dial (below).
While I love many things about the Polaris design, I really wish the seats offered more storage. There’s a decent-size compartment below the footrest (especially at bulkhead seats), a narrow shelf beneath the entertainment screen and a small cabinet to the side (pictured below), but there isn’t a great place to, say, tuck away a laptop when it’s not in use — I chose to leave mine exposed on the side table, instead.
These seats offer tremendous privacy, though — if you choose odd-numbered window seats (that are positioned closer to the window) or odd-numbered center seats, you’ll only see other passengers when you lean far forward or walk down the aisle.
They’re also very private when in bed mode, so you won’t have to worry about making eye contact with your next-door neighbor as you drift off to sleep:
With no Polaris first class on this plane, all passengers receive a business-class amenity kit, just like the one shown below. I explored the contents in an earlier post, so be sure to check that out to see what you’ll get.
Besides the amenity kits, all Polaris passengers receive Saks Fifth Avenue bedding, including a large and small pillow, a comforter and a light blanket. There are also gel pillows and mattress covers available, along with slippers and pajamas on United’s longest international flights (such as Hong Kong-San Francisco). I love the new amenities, but there’s a lot of “stuff” to deal with, and not much room to store it. I ended up using the bulkhead surface to store some of these items at various points during the flight, but that obviously impacts the cabin aesthetic.
I covered the IFE in a bit more detail in this post, but given our flight time of nearly 12 hours, I had much more time to check it out on this trip. Each seat has a 16-inch HD touchscreen. While the contents are identical across United’s international fleet, I find this IFE display to be a bit sharper with more responsive controls. Unfortunately, there are still a few kinks to work out, though.
First, this particular aircraft seems to have an issue with thumbnail images — none of them would load at any seat on this plane, despite the crew attempting to clear that up with a reset. Also, while I was able to view the map shortly after boarding, it wouldn’t load later during the flight, despite many attempts to pull it up.
Thankfully, the video content worked fine throughout the flight — the picture was sharp and the brightness controls made it easy to tweak it to match the ambient light.
I also like that United opted for an older wired controller, rather than the new buggy touchscreen model you’ll find on the 787-9 Dreamliner (but not the 787-8). Each seat offers a headphone jack, a universal power outlet and two USB ports — one next to the device tray (above) and a second below the power outlet (below).
Given that I was hoping to publish this review during my layover in San Francisco, I needed to spend much of the journey uploading images and building this post in WordPress via the in-flight Wi-Fi. That wasn’t in the cards, however. The good news is that the Wi-Fi was reasonably priced — $25 for the full flight, or $7 for an hour of use.
If you buy a timed plan, you can pause the service as often as you’d like — if you’re just syncing email that one-hour plan could get you through a full long-haul flight.
Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi performance on this aircraft was terrible. Like, the worst I’ve experienced on any aircraft ever. It’s very disappointing for a brand-new plane, that’s for sure. Apparently the Wi-Fi supplier, Panasonic, is to blame here. From casual discussions with other folks in the industry, it sounds like this is a known issue with Panasonic’s Ku-band satellite Wi-Fi specifically, though I’ve had a much better experience on some of United’s other planes that use this same service.
While I was expecting to experience a blackout while flying over mainland China, I wasn’t able to connect at all until about two hours before our arrival — that meant nine whole hours without any connectivity. And when the connection did work, the performance was exceptionally poor. I attempted dozens of speed tests, and once I finally got one to load, the upload bandwidth appeared to be nonexistent. As a result, it took several minutes to successfully send each email or instant message, though I did manage to get a couple of websites to load (eventually).
United does seem to be aware of the problem — I was issued a refund for my Wi-Fi purchase automatically, which I definitely appreciate.
Additionally, the airline provided the following statement/explanation:
We are working with Panasonic to upgrade the inflight Wi-Fi system on all of our Panasonic-equipped aircraft, which we expect will significantly improve Wi-Fi performance. This process will begin later this year and be done on a rolling basis.
Known issue or not, there are going to be a lot of disappointed United flyers until it’s resolved.
Food and Beverage
With the internet offline, I had plenty of time to experience United’s new Polaris catering. And it was a very good thing that I didn’t have to balance work with the various lunch courses — it took a whopping three hours to complete the service.
I was offered a pre-departure beverage (PDB) shortly after boarding. I chose a glass of Champagne, which was served alongside a piece of chocolate in United’s specially designed PDB cup/plate combo.
I’m glad I requested that pre-departure beverage, though — the first serving, which consisted of mixed nuts, sparkling or still water and a wine tasting, didn’t appear until an hour into the flight.
I requested a white wine tasting, which consisted of the following:
- Skouras Moscofilero 2015 (Greece, about $12 on the ground)
- Robert Weil Riesling Tradition 2014 (Germany, about $19 on the ground)
- La Chablisienne Chablis 2015 (France, about $14 on the ground)
I liked the Riesling best, but I wasn’t a huge fan of any of the whites on this flight. I also requested a red wine tasting… which consisted of:
- Bouchard Pere & Fils Reserve Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2014 (France, about $19 on the ground)
- Kir-Yianni Paranga Red 2014 (Greece, about $11 on the ground)
- Benziger Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (California, about $16 on the ground)
Those weren’t quite doing it for me, either, so I passed on a refill.
About 45 minutes after the wine cart came through (now 1:45 into the flight for those keeping track), my appetizer tray appeared:
The appetizer course consisted of a salad, two pieces of bread and a scallop with cauliflower puree. The salad was fresh, but the scallop was a bit tough and the bread wasn’t warm enough (which unfortunately seems to be the norm following the Polaris switchover last December).
Since I wasn’t a fan of any of the wines, I asked for a Tsingtao beer with my entree instead.
I chose the roasted chicken thigh for my main course, which was served with a red bean curd sauce, rice, bell pepper, bok choy, mushroom and water chestnut. It was very flavorful and the chicken was tender.
My friend ordered the pan-fried sea bass, which was served with a cream sauce, squid ink pasta, green beans and carrot. This was a very interesting dish — the pasta was a bit bland and the carrot was way overcooked, but the fish was seasoned well, without being too salty.
Another 45 minutes or so later it was time for the cheese course. Unfortunately, they ran out while I was in the bathroom, but I was offered an in-flight apology voucher, which ended up netting me 10,000 MileagePlus miles (likely based on my Premier 1K status). That more than made up for the inadequate catering in my opinion!
And there were plenty of other desserts to choose from…
Naturally, I wanted to try it all — for research purposes, of course! The tiramisu was great, and the macaron was soft and chewy. I wasn’t a big fan of the apple pie, but I was beyond stuffed at that point.
I also ordered an ice cream sundae with “the works,” which consisted of crushed nuts, hot fudge, caramel, strawberries, cherries and whipped cream. Home run!
It was time to rest after that adventure, so I requested a mattress pad and gel pillow and reclined to the full-flat position. The crew distributed water bottles at some point during my nap, which I always appreciate, since I typically wake up very thirsty during a long flight.
I heard that the flight attendants had also set up the self-serve bar area between meals, which I had every intention of visiting (for a photo). Unfortunately, I slept through that entire snack bar run, so all I have to share is this picture of the space during the main meal service. Sorry!
I did manage to sneak in a “snack” of a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup just before breakfast. The sandwich isn’t going to win any awards, but the soup was spot-on.
Then, about 90 minutes before landing, it was time for breakfast — I went with the frittata, which was served with a tomato, chicken sausage and potatoes. The breakfast service also included a croissant, fresh fruit and yogurt. Everything was tasty, with the exception of the not-so-great croissant.
Just before landing, a flight attendant came by with farewell chocolates, which are offered on all Polaris flights and make a great snack later in the day.
United’s “real” Polaris business class is only available on four planes right now. With 60 seats on each 77W, only three of those aircraft in service and Hong Kong being the only international destination so far, by my estimation that means just 240 passengers are able to experience this new product each day (and only about half that number on an international trip). So, if you’re flying business class on United, you’ll almost certainly be traveling in an older lie-flat seat.
That said, if you happen to catch the 777-300ER (and you’re not stuck back in the 3-4-3 coach), you’ll be in for a treat. With the added privacy and the variety of seating options (due to the staggered configuration), this is my favorite business-class seat offered by a US airline at this moment. The Polaris seat will likely be outdone by the new Delta One suite once that launches later this year, but even then I wouldn’t hesitate to travel in business class on United’s 77W — with one exception…
United desperately needs to correct its in-flight Wi-Fi issue. At this point, functioning Wi-Fi is expected on every long-haul flight operated by a US-based carrier, and the airline clearly lists it as an amenity on this aircraft:
The airline’s statement above indicates that this issue won’t be resolved for at least a few months, so if internet access is a must — and why wouldn’t it be on such a long flight? — you may need to select a different aircraft or airline until Panasonic and United are able to offer reliable in-flight connectivity.
For more on United’s new business class, see:
- Touring United’s First 777-300ER With CEO Oscar Munoz
- Flight Review: United (777-300ER) Business Class From Newark to San Francisco
- Where to Sit When Flying United’s 777-300ER: Polaris Business Class
Have you flown on United’s 777-300ER? Tell us about your experience, below.