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Want to make sure you're flying real United Polaris? Ask ExpertFlyer

Feb. 06, 2020
10 min read
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional fleet information. It was originally published on Jan. 24, 2019.

United has come a long way since the early days of the Polaris business class launch. Initially, the carrier seemed to be investing more heavily in marketing billboards than in actually getting its game-changing new premium cabin into service. A painfully ironic case in point: When a former TPG staffer experienced one of the worst flights of his life (for reasons well beyond the fact that he was seated in United's outdated business class), he was told to wait under this Polaris ad in the United Club for a manager to come speak to him.

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Ironically, we sat under this advertisement
(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.)

The disconnect between expectation and reality created some real disappointment, especially for business-class passengers who shelled out thousands of dollars only to be seated in the infamous eight-across, "dorm-style" cabin. But at this point, with roughly 100 Polaris-equipped planes in its fleet, United is doing a much better job delivering on its hefty marketing promises.

Even though all United business-class tickets are now marketed as Polaris, it takes a little bit of research to make sure you're actually getting the full experience. Today we're going to give you some strategies to help with that very goal.

Guaranteed Polaris

Let's start with the good news: If you're flying on one of United's 21 777-300ERs or 11 new 787-10s, you are absolutely certain to get the new seats. With China and Hong Kong flights currently grounded, the 77Ws typically appear on the following long-haul routes from Newark (EWR) and San Francisco (SFO):

(Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.)

Meanwhile, the 787-10s are currently being used for premium transcontinental service between Newark and Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco, in addition to a number of international routes:

(Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.)

If, on the other hand, you're flying on one of United's 777-200ERs, 767-300ERs, 787-8s or 787-9s, you might not be as lucky. Today we'll focus on this mixed part of the fleet, and talk about the tools you can use to increase your odds of flying in a modern Polaris cabin.

Check the seat map on ExpertFlyer

ExpertFlyer (which is owned by TPG parent company Red Ventures) is one of the most powerful technological tools that award travelers have at their disposal, and learning the ins and outs of this search engine is an important step towards advancing your points and miles prowess. If you're not familiar with ExpertFlyer, you should start by reading this beginners guide. While ExpertFlyer can be a great option for actually finding award inventory, we're going to use it to check the seat map of a few different United flights so you know how it can help in your search for Polaris.

You don't need an encyclopedic knowledge of different aircraft models to do this research, as the pattern is same for every long-haul aircraft in United's fleet: 777s and 787s with the new Polaris seats have a 1-2-1 layout in business class, while those with older seats do not. If you notice a flight with a business-class cabin in a 2-2-2, 2-1-2 or the dreaded 2-4-2 configuration, you'll likely wind up with the pre-Polaris product.

Let's use UA881, United's daily nonstop flight from Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) as an example. This flight is operated by a 777-200ER, and we know from United's Polaris tracker website that 37 of the carrier's 51 772s have completed the retrofit process. This means that you have an almost 75% chance of scoring an updated onboard product.

Related: The 9 best credit cards for flying United

ExpertFlyer offers a number of different search options, but you'll want to make sure you've selected the seat map search before filling in the info for your chosen flight. Check the box for business class and click Search.

On the results page (which may take some time to load), you'll see the bad news: on a number of future dates, including Feb. 19, 2020, UA881 appears to be operated by the old eight-across configuration, a far cry from the sleek Polaris seats.

What you're hoping to see instead is the 1-2-1 configuration shown below:

This tells you, at the very least, that this flight is currently scheduled to be operated by a Polaris equipped jet, but as we'll talk about in a minute even that isn't a 100% guarantee.

Gamble at your own risk

Just like there are certain planes (777-300ER and 787-10) that guarantee you the full Polaris experience, there are ones (787-8 and 787-9) that almost guarantee that you won't get Polaris seats, at least not yet. In between those two extreme ends of the spectrum (with the 767-300ERs and 777-200ERs), there's a whole lot of gray area.

We can see from the Polaris tracker that 27 of the 38 Boeing 767s have been retrofitted vs. only one of the 12 787-8s. This means that on a given route, the exact same plane type may have a different seat configuration from one day to the next. Unfortunately it gets even more complicated. United isn't retrofitting its domestically-configured 772s, only the international ones. As a result, it's critical that you do your own homework.

You can look at any of United's routes operated by a 787-8 to see just how variable it is, but let's use UA35 from San Francisco (SFO) to Osaka, Japan (KIX) as an example. At the time of writing, this route has had the new Polaris seats for just one of this week's three flights, with the old 2-1-2 configuration for the rest.

It's up to you to decide how much you care here and how much risk you're willing to take. If your primary concern is locking in a lie-flat business-class award seat on a specific date to a fixed destination, the old planes will get the job done just fine. If, on the other hand, you're only looking to fly the most up-to-date product, you simply can't be certain that that you'll get a plane with the new Polaris seats. If you board the plane to see a stunningly blue Polaris cabin, kick back and enjoy it, but understand the odds currently aren't in your favor with these types of plane.

Related: The ultimate guide to United Polaris

And of course, even if your flight is scheduled to be operated with an updated aircraft, there's nothing preventing a last-minute equipment swap. This brings me to my next suggestion and yet another functionality in ExpertFlyer that can help ...

Setting equipment change alerts

While some people like surprises, I'd much rather know exactly which plane I'll be flying before I leave for the airport (as well as its tail number, recent flights, safety record and more, but I can be a bit nerdy like that). You have two great ways to keep an eye on your reservation and know in advance if your flight is getting a serious upgrade or downgrade.

The first is AwardWallet. I love using this tool to manage all my travel reservations, as it keeps me from making stupid time zone mistakes or not having an important confirmation number in front of me when I need it. I load all my flight and hotel reservations to my account, and it automatically alerts me if there are any changes to my seat assignment.

While not a perfect indicator, a change in seat assignment often corresponds to a change in aircraft type. Case in point: I booked Qatar's fantastic Qsuite from Shanghai (PVG) to the Maldives (MLE) via Doha (DOH), and I specifically reserved a middle pair of seats with a double bed for me and my girlfriend. The flight I booked from Doha to Male was operated by an A350-900 featuring Qatar's excellent reverse herringbone business class seats but not Qsuite. A few weeks after booking I got a notification from AwardWallet telling me my seat assignments had changed from two middle seats to two window seats in different rows.

Thanks to Award Wallet, I was able to change my seat assignment back to the double bed I wanted!

I quickly logged into ExpertFlyer and, lo and behold, the five-hour regional hop to the Maldives had been upgraded to an A350 with Qsuite! I quickly changed our reservation back to a middle pair of seats, but without AwardWallet's help, I might have missed this important change.

Of course if you're especially worried about an equipment swap (because you're flying an airline with a non-homogenous fleet), ExpertFlyer is once again your best tool. If you scroll down the homepage, you'll see a box on the left with all the different types of alerts you can set. One of them is a new aircraft alert.

Simply fill in your flight information and ExpertFlyer will send you an email if it detects a change in your scheduled aircraft type.

Unfortunately, this isn't foolproof, as United's 767-300ERs and 777-200s are all listed the same way ("763" and "772", respectively). Nevertheless, this can be a great feature to let you know if your flight has been changed from a guaranteed Polaris flight to one that requires a roll of the dice.

Bottom line

United has come a long way towards making the Polaris product actually representative of its long-haul fleet, but it still has a ways to go as well. For now, your best indicator of whether you'll be getting the full Polaris experience is still the aircraft on which you're flying. Unless you're on a 777-300ER or 787-10, all of which feature the new Polaris seats, there's still a chance you'll get the old seats.

Zach Honig contributed to this post.

Featured image by Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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