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I’d be willing to bet that a large number of United Airlines executives are baseball fans. When it came time to launch the airline’s new Polaris business class, there were two approaches they could have taken. They could have followed American Airlines’ lead, quietly opening new lounges and retrofitting existing planes without much fanfare — the “surprise and delight” approach, if you will. Instead, they went with a modern day adaption of the 1989 classic movie Field of Dreams: “If you market it, they will come.” Long before the first Polaris lounge opened or the first plane to feature the new Polaris seats completed a single flight, billboards and TV ads were popping up all over the country promising a re-imagined flying experience “from Ahhhh to Zzzzzz.”
In reality, many passengers who booked expensive tickets marketed as “Polaris” still end up flying in a seat like this, United’s dreaded 8-across “dorm style” international business class.
Thankfully United has come a long way since those early days, taking delivery of new aircraft equipped with the sleek Polaris cabin and retrofitting dozens more. However, the disconnect between expectation and reality created a lot of confusion around the Polaris brand and what it actually entails. While all of United’s international business class seats are now branded as Polaris, only some of the carrier’s long-haul flights currently offer the complete experience, including the new seats and lounges. This guide will focus on those routes.
NOTE: Due to the approach that United is taking with this roll-out, the information below is changing constantly. We’ll do our best to update this guide as additional planes are retrofitted and new routes are added.
For more information on the Polaris experience, you can check out the following TPG reviews:
- 777-300ER Polaris Hong Kong (HKG) to San Francisco (SFO)
- 767 Polaris Newark (EWR) to London (LHR)
- 777-200 Polaris Washington DC (IAD) to Frankfurt (FRA)
While the Polaris soft product (food, service, amenities) rolled out a little early, the full experience, including the redesigned modern seats, launched in early 2017 when United took delivery of its first Boeing 777-300ER. United has since taken delivery of all 18 of the 777-300ERs (also referred to as “77Ws”) that is has on order. Along with the airline’s 3 787-10s (out of 14 on order), these are the only planes in the fleet where you’re absolutely guaranteed to get the new Polaris seats. United has designated Newark and San Francisco as its 77W bases, using them to operate the following routes:
From Newark (EWR) to:
- Tel Aviv (TLV) — only flights 90/91
- Tokyo (NRT)
- Mumbai (BOM)
From San Francisco (SFO) to:
- Auckland (AKL)
- Beijing (PEK)
- Frankfurt (FRA) – only flights 58/59
- Hong Kong (HKG)
- Taipei (TPE)
- Tokyo (NRT)
United recently became the first airline to operate all three variations of the 787 Dreamliner when it took delivery of its first 787-10. This was a “first” in several other ways as well: This is the first 787-10 to be operated by any US airline, the first 787 to feature United’s new Polaris cabin, and the first 787 scheduled for daily flights within the United States.
While the 787-10 seats the most passengers of the various Dreamliner configurations, it has the shortest range at only 7,400 miles. United is using its newest jet to give a serious upgrade to some transcontinental routes, launching the 787-10 on its premium Newark (EWR) to Los Angeles (LAX) route, with Newark to San Francisco (SFO) to follow as it takes delivery of more planes. Eventually we’ll probably see -10 expanded to several European destinations as well.
It’s much more of a mixed bag when it comes to retrofitting existing aircraft with the new Polaris seats. You can follow United’s Polaris tracker for fleet and lounge updates, but here’s where things stand at the moment:
- 13/14 767-300ERs have been retrofitted
- 13/51 777-200ERs have been retrofitted
Missing from this list is United’s (relatively young) fleet of 787-8s and 787-9s, none of which have been retrofitted to feature the new seats. This means that some of the most modern birds in United’s arsenal are still sporting an older 2-2-2 layout in business class with limited privacy.
Thankfully United recently announced plans to begin retrofitting its 787s, with the first refreshed plane expected to enter service by the end of 2019. United’s Vice-President of Marketing Mark Krolick says that by the end of 2020 “We should have the majority of the international widebody fleet reconfigured… the only possible exceptions to that would be any aircraft that are slated for immediate retirement.”
In the mean time that means you have some serious guesswork to do to make sure you book the full Polaris experience. You’re good to go if you’re flying a 777-300 ER or 787-10, and if you’re on a 767-300ER you have a 93% chance of finding the new seats on board. The 777-200s are a trickier story, as they’ve been sporadically operating long-haul routes including Chicago (ORD) to Tokyo (NRT) and Washington DC (IAD) to London (LHR). Some routes seem to get the new Polaris seats more consistently, but with only 25% of the 772s having completed the retrofit process the odds are stacked against you.
If you’re willing to take the risk of ending up with the old 8-across business class seat, you should still do your research before booking. Between United’s Polaris tracker, third-party Mainline Fleet Tracking and using ExpertFlyer to search for the new Polaris seatmap, you should be able to minimize the odds of any disappointing surprises.
Cabin Layout and Seat Selection
While the core design elements of the Polaris cabin are identical across the fleet, there are minor variations between different aircraft type due to sizing constraints. We’ll start by discussing the 777s, which make up the bulk of the Polaris fleet.
The new Polaris cabin looks very sleek and is especially blue, due in large part to the aggressive use of mood lighting.
United’s 777-300ERs feature 60 Polaris seats in a customized 1-2-1 configuration, with 28 seats in the front cabin and 32 in the rear.
Meanwhile the retrofitted 777-200s feature 50 of the same seats, with 32 in the forward cabin and 18 in the rear. At 22 inches wide, SeatGuru says that the seats on the 772 are one inch narrower than the 77W, but when TPG Editor at Large Zach Honig flew the first 772 retrofitted with Polaris seats, he said it felt the same as the 77W. Both configurations offer 78 inches of pitch.
Seat selection also follows a similar pattern for both 777 variants. Zach walks through the 4 different ‘types’ of Polaris seats in great detail in this guide, but I’ll summarize the important details below:
Solo travelers will prefer an odd numbered window seat (A or L). These seats are closer to the window and offer much more privacy than the even row window seats, as you can see below (the odd numbered seats are in the front and back, while the even numbered row is in the middle).
If you’re traveling by yourself, TPG Editor-at-Large Zach Honig actually recommends shooting for a bulkhead window seat (1A, 1L, 9A or 9L), since you’ll have more room for your feet and won’t be staring at the head of the person in front of you. Here’s the foot space for a non-bulkhead seat, measured with a 13-inch MacBook Air:
Here’s that same computer in the foot space of a bulkhead seat:
If those are taken, the other odd numbered window seats should be your next plan of attack, though be aware that 7A and 7L on both the 772 and 77W lack a window, as you can see in the below picture.
The same holds true for 12A and 12L on the 772 and 16A and 16L on the 77W.
Couples traveling together should pick seats D and G in an odd numbered row (shown below) so they’ll be able to communicate during the flight. And you never know; you might end up sitting next to United CEO Oscar Munoz and getting the chance to chat!
Regardless of whether you’re alone or with a friend/family member, Seats D and G in even numbered rows are worth avoiding, as they don’t provide any privacy nor do they have any window views to make up for it.
You should also aim to avoid sitting in the front or back of the forward cabin, or in the front of the second Polaris cabin, since these seats are right next to the galleys, lavatories and walk-up bar.
The 787-10 has all 44 of its Polaris seats spread across 11 rows in a single cabin. While the seats are slightly narrower at 20.6 inches, the same principles hold true for seat selection. Solo travelers should opt for an odd numbered window seat, while couples traveling together should pick a center D/F pair in an odd numbered row. If you want to get a better look at the newest plane in United’s flight you can check out Zach’s behind the scenes tour of the 787-10 here.
The retrofitted 767s are a much simpler story. They feature 30 Polaris seats spread over 10 rows in a 1-1-1 configuration. Due to the smaller fuselage of the 767, the Polaris seats here are 24 inches wide and have 75 inches of pitch.
Seat selection on the 767 follows the same guidelines as the 777s. Window seats (A and L) in odd numbered rows are the best choice for all passengers, as there’s no way to sit next to someone you’re traveling with in this 1-1-1 layout. After that my next choice would be a slightly less private even numbered window seat, followed by a seat in the center section.
Instead of opting for a standard reverse herringbone or staggered seat like many airlines, United has an exclusive 5-year license on the design for these seats, so it’ll be a while before any airline can copy the Polaris layout. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into designing these seats, which include storage cabinets, side tables, and personal lamps.
Each seat also features a 16-inch in-flight entertainment screen.
It wasn’t just United’s aging fleet that was in desperate need of a facelift, and part of Polaris includes bringing the ground experience up to modern day standards. This included opening nine new Polaris lounges around the globe.
So far, the first five have opened in Chicago (ORD), Newark (EWR), San Francisco (SFO), Houston (IAH) and Los Angeles (LAX). The new Polaris lounges have been a huge step up from the carrier’s tired old United Clubs and Global First lounges. Each of the Polaris lounges features an open and airy design, restaurant quality a la carte dining, and an aviation-themed cocktail menu.
There are four more locations waiting on Polaris lounges, including United’s hub at Washington Dulles (IAD) and three international locations: London (LHR), Hong Kong (HKG) and Tokyo (NRT). According to the Polaris tracker website construction hasn’t begun at any of these four locations yet, so it might still be a while until they open their doors to premium passengers.
Another difference with the new Polaris lounges is their stricter access requirements. Elite members with Star Alliance Gold designation on their boarding passes don’t get automatic access when flying economy; these lounges are restricted to passengers traveling in international Star Alliance business or first class.
How to Book
As a member of Star Alliance, there are several different programs that make it easy to book awards on United. These include United’s own MileagePlus program, Air Canada’s affiliated Aeroplan program and Singapore’s KrisFlyer program. Since you’ll find Polaris primarily on long haul flights to Europe, Asia, and South America we’ll focus on those destinations.
United MileagePlus miles are relatively easy to earn, both from co-branded cards like the United Explorer Card and by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio. Here are the one-way saver level costs for a Polaris award ticket:
- US transcontinental: 35,000 miles
- US to Europe: 60,000 miles
- US to Japan and North Asia: 70,000 miles
- US to South Asia: 75,000 miles
- US to Australia & New Zealand: 80,000 miles
- US to Southern South America: 60,000 miles
Unfortunately, United doesn’t typically release a massive amount of saver level award space on its long-haul routes. While I couldn’t find even a single saver level seat available on the San Francisco to Hong Kong route, San Francisco to Beijing (PEK) has a fair amount of availability if you’re flexible with your dates. The easiest way to search and book these awards is directly on the United website.
Avianca LifeMiles has risen from obscurity to rapidly become one of the most popular ways to book Star Alliance awards. Between frequent sales on purchased miles and two new transfer partners (Amex Membership Rewards and Capital One) it’s easier than ever before to top up your LifeMiles balance.
If you’re looking to fly United’s new 787-10 on a transcontinental route, it’s cheaper to book through Avianca than United. You’ll pay only 25,000 miles, as Avianca doesn’t add a surcharge for transcontinental flights. Longer flights are attractively priced as well, with one-way Polaris awards costing the following amounts:
- US to Europe: 63,000 miles
- US to North Asia: 75,000 miles
- US to South Asia: 78,000 miles
- US to Australia & New Zealand: 80,000 miles
Aeroplan is another great option for booking United award tickets since you can transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards. Here are the one-way award ticket costs for Polaris flights:
- US to Europe: 55,000 – 57,500 miles (depending on final destination)
- US to Asia: 75,000 – 77,500 miles (depending on final destination)
- US to Australia & New Zealand: 80,000 miles
- US to Southern South America: 55,000 miles
Aeroplan should have access to the same award inventory as United, and you can book directly on their website. While Aeroplan passes on massive fuel surcharges for some airlines, including Lufthansa, they don’t for United. This means that your “free” ticket really will be as close to free as possible, with under $10 in taxes.
While Singapore’s KrisFlyer program has undergone some devaluations in recent years, one positive change has been the ability to book Star Alliance partner awards online without having to call. KrisFlyer points are also incredibly easy to earn because they are a direct transfer partner of all three major transferable points currencies: Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards. Here are the one-way cost for Polaris award tickets booked through Singapore:
- US to Europe: 65,000 miles
- US to Asia: 97,500 – 105,000 miles (depending on final destination)
- US to Australia & New Zealand: 117,000 miles
- US to South America: 50,000 miles
While these costs are relatively higher than United and Aeroplan, especially for trips to Europe and Asia, the ability to mix and match your transferable points (by transferring some Ultimate Rewards and some ThankYou points, for example) is a nice option to have. And thankfully there are no fuel surcharges when you redeem KrisFlyer miles for United-operated flights, so expect to pay less than $10 in taxes.
While there are many things about the way United introduced Polaris that rightfully angered some customers, it’s nice to see an airline investing a significant amount of money to deliver a better onboard experience. Savvy TPG readers were hopefully spared from some of the more unpleasant surprises and knew what airports and aircraft to seek out to get the full Polaris treatment. While it will be a while until these seats are actually representative of United’s long-haul fleet, this product is undeniably a huge step up from the one it replaced. Here’s hoping that you’ll be able to experience the full Polaris product on your next international United flight!
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