First look: United’s inaugural Palma de Mallorca flight, the first-ever nonstop from the US
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
For many Americans, a relaxing, sun-soaked beach vacation is summer’s top bucket-list trip. For others, it’s a European getaway.
According to United Airlines‘ network planning team, there’s a group of travelers looking for a combination of the two: a beach vacation in Europe.
That’s why the carrier is launching the first-ever nonstop service from the U.S. to Mallorca — one of the Balearic Islands off the eastern coast of Spain. (United is also launching a new service to Tenerife, in Spain’s Canary Islands, on June 9 to cater to a similar demand segment.)
The expansion is part of a push to open up new and previously unserved markets to Americans. For years, Mallorca has been a leisure hotspot for Brits and continental Europeans thanks to its pristine turquoise beaches, delectable Meditteranean cuisine and sunny climate. The island essentially combines the two main types of leisure travel: exploration and relaxation.
Among American travelers, Spanish cities like Madrid and Barcelona have always been infinitely more popular than the country’s islands. United, however, is convinced there’s a market of U.S.-based travelers looking to visit some previously uncharted territory while still enjoying a leisurely beach-style vacation — at least this summer.
The island is also a good alternative for East Coasters looking for a beach resort that isn’t in the U.S. or the Caribbean.
United’s big Europe push aims to capitalize on the incredible pent-up demand for trips to Europe, many of which have been postponed for two years due to the pandemic and ensuing travel restrictions.
While some travelers will head to familiar cities, others are presumably looking to escape the crowds and take the road (or air) less traveled. Now that most COVID restrictions have been lifted, it’s all eyes on Europe for America’s largest transatlantic carrier.
Will United succeed in convincing enough Americans to visit Mallorca? Only time will tell. At least the airline’s inaugural flight to Mallorca on June 3 was a success.
Want more airline-specific news? Sign up for TPG’s free new biweekly Aviation newsletter.
The battle of the clubs
I arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) much earlier than I needed to, and well before the pre-flight festivities were supposed to begin.
I hadn’t been to the Newark Polaris Lounge since it reopened, so I figured that I would work from the lounge for the afternoon. Entrance to the Polaris Lounge is limited to those flying in long-haul business class on United and its Star Alliance partners.
While I had originally locked in a 60,000-mile business-class saver award for this inaugural flight to Palma de Mallorca, I ended up rebooking my ticket just days before the flight when United released upgrade space for those cashing in PlusPoints, United’s upgrade currency. TPG purchased a one-way coach ticket for roughly $1,100, and I then redeemed 40 PlusPoints to instantly confirm the bump to biz — a better overall value than redeeming 60,000 MileagePlus miles.
After multiple rounds of extensions, I have plenty of expiring PlusPoints in my account. I’d rather burn through those first, before my MileagePlus miles, since the latter do not expire (and have more partner redemption options).
When I arrived at the lounge, I was fortunate enough to snag a phone booth, but many other passengers weren’t as lucky on a busy Thursday afternoon.
In fact, the Polaris Lounge was packed to the gills. While it may indeed be a “sold-out summer,” many of these passengers were dealing with rolling delays and cancellations. I overheard plenty of folks complaining about being stranded for more than six hours after missing their international connection.
Thunderstorms are always a risk in the summer, and United’s Northeast operations were derailed on both Wednesday and Thursday due to inclement weather.
There was a wait for everything in the lounge. Getting a seat at the restaurant took more than 30 minutes. The showers and quiet suites had hour-long waitlists. There was even a 15-person line to speak to one of the agents for travel assistance.
I personally stuck to my little nook in the phone booth and had no problem enjoying the afternoon working from the lounge.
I did make one “field trip” before the flight to United’s new club near Gate C123. Ever since the airline opened the new one-of-a-kind space on May 19, I’ve heard reports from readers telling me that it’s consistently been overcrowded.
Much to my surprise, I actually found the United Club to be more pleasant than the Polaris Lounge. There were plenty of available seats, and there wasn’t even a line for the showers or agent assistance.
Perhaps I visited right before or just after a departure bank, but the club was definitely not nearly as packed as I expected after hearing multiple complaints.
While I spent the afternoon lounge hopping, the real party started in the evening just about two hours before departure.
When I arrived at Gate C136 at 7:30 p.m., the inaugural festivities were just getting underway. The four pilots and seven flight attendants were milling around the speaker podium as a flamenco musician began his set.
Palma passengers, as well as those departing to Lisbon and Athens at nearby gates, crowded around to get a close-up view of the action. Some snapped pictures and captured videos, while others went straight to the refreshment tables.
The airline partnered with OTG to provide a few snacks and drinks to celebrate the flight. Water bottles, Illy cold brew and latte macchiatos were available to drink; then, there were carquinyols (traditional Catalan versions of biscotti) for a nosh.
Passengers also received United-branded passport holders, which were stocked with a commemorative postcard celebrating the inaugural.
With Spanish music, festive balloons and refreshments, it felt like a real party. Both the crew and passengers were visibly excited about the inaugural, even if many of the latter had no idea that this was United’s first flight to Mallorca.
The festivities continued with celebratory speeches. Jordan Bykowsky, United’s director of customer service at EWR, talked about the importance of expanding connectivity at Newark.
Alex Dorow, managing director of international alliances, then took the podium to explain the route’s significance. “We want to ensure that we are always leading the way, and launching new destinations like Palma, is a great way to be able to showcase that to you,” he said.
United’s senior vice president of international network and alliances, Patrick Quayle, joined the inaugural, but he didn’t deliver pre-flight remarks. Quayle’s flight from the airline’s Chicago headquarters was one of the many on Thursday that was delayed due to weather. In fact, United delayed the inaugural by about 45 minutes so that Quayle and other connecting passengers could make the flight — ConnectionSaver in action, if you will.
While the formal party stopped once boarding began, the excitement continued among business-class and economy passengers on the plane.
On this route, United’s flying a Boeing 767-300 that offers a leisure-focused configuration with 30 Polaris business-class pods and 184 coach seats (as opposed to the “high-J” variant that features a whopping 46 Polaris pods and a 22-seat Premium Plus cabin.)
Most travelers appeared to be familiar with the Polaris pods. There were a handful of United employees in the forward cabin, and several of the paying passengers were frequent flyers.
I selected one of the favorite seats on United’s 767-300, pod 3A, which is adjacent to the window and offers additional privacy since it’s separated from the aisle by a side table and storage compartment.
This certainly wasn’t my first time in Polaris (and if you need a refresher on the product, be sure to check out TPG’s complete guide), but it was unique in terms of the goodies waiting at my seat.
Of course, there was the standard Saks Fifth Avenue-branded duvet, pillow and cooling gel cushion. There was also a commemorative inaugural flight certificate that was designed to replicate a baggage tag with the PMI airport code written on it, similar to what the airline provisions for its other flagship inaugural flights.
There was even a pair of Polaris pajamas on my seat (and a mattress pad available) — two amenities that were stocked especially for the inaugural. (These are usually reserved for United’s longest flights.)
Even coach flyers enjoyed a special amenity package, including a commemorative flight certificate, a pair of Polaris pajamas and a business-class amenity kit.
Former TPG editor-at-large, Zach Honig, and his fiance, Emily, joined in on the inaugural fun. We all booked our tickets together months ago when United put the flight on sale. The United employees enjoyed reconnecting with each other before, during and after the flight, and so too did “the Zachs.”
The last time we traveled together on an inaugural was for JetBlue’s new Mint product last summer, so it felt like a homecoming of sorts.
Inaugural in more than one way
The focus may have been on United’s new route to Palma, but there was something else to inaugurate on Thursday: new Polaris amenities and onboard service.
United announced on Wednesday a new partnership with popular luggage brand Away that includes new amenity kits for business and premium economy cabins. Just one day later, every flyer — including those seated in coach — had a brand-new Away hard-shell kit waiting at their seat.
I was impressed both with the kit itself and the contents inside. The Away-branded hard-shell pod is quite stylish thanks to its dark blue color and ridges. It’ll undoubtedly become a hit with fans of Away luggage, much like Delta’s Tumi amenity kits did back in the day.
I expect most flyers to bring the cases home and reuse them to store chargers and other loose items.
United offers the most well-stocked amenity kits of the major U.S. airlines, and the new Away-branded kits build on that reputation. I found a pack of Sunday Riley hand lotion and lip balm in my kit, along with an eye mask, ear plugs, toothbrush, pen, tissues and socks.
In addition to the new amenity kits, United also debuted its revamped three-step Polaris service flow on Wednesday, and I was one of the first passengers to experience it on the Palma inaugural.
Service began on the ground with a choice of either sparkling wine or still water. Commemorative menus were waiting at each seat, but, unfortunately, they didn’t list the drink options. (As part of the three-step service, menus are officially back in Polaris, though it remains to be seen if a “standard” menu includes a drink list.)
The purser (and Spain native), Carlos, took meal orders while we were still parked at the gate.
Once we passed through 10,000 feet, the crew immediately sprang into action. The beverage cart came rolling down the aisle just minutes later, and I received a drink along with a ramekin of warm nuts — step number one in the revamped service procedure. A linen cloth made my table feel more posh.
Roughly ten minutes later, another flight attendant brought a single tray of food. This included quinoa salad, Moroccan vegetable pastilla (my chosen entree) and a pretzel roll with butter. There were no hot towels, nor was there a pick from a bread basket (though a pretzel roll would’ve been my first choice anyway).
That said, I appreciated the speed of the service and the fact that United eliminated some of the unnecessary service steps for such a short, sub-seven-hour transatlantic hop. For longer flights (and those departing during the day), the new service flow may feel a bit rushed.
I was impressed with both the variety and the quality of the food options, especially compared to United’s pandemic-era meal service, which always felt uninspired and tasted bland, to say the least.
After staff cleared my plates, the purser brought around a tray of desserts. The options included a small cheese plate, an egg tart or a lemon sorbet — a far cry from the three-tiered dessert trolleys that were rolled down the aisle in pre-pandemic times.
After dessert, Quayle came through the cabin and distributed a gift to each passenger: a pajama shirt with the commemorative inaugural certificate/bag tag emblazoned across the front. United designs a special shirt for each of its inaugurals, and as an aviation enthusiast, I always look forward to adding these to my collection.
I briefly dozed off for an hour or two after dinner, and then it was time for breakfast — there’s not enough time to sleep and eat (twice) on a seven-hour transatlantic hop. I was still too full from dinner to enjoy the meal, so I just took a picture of the apple ricotta crepes.
Meanwhile, the egg dish was described as “bland and watery” by Honig. It also didn’t have the fried avocadoes, which were listed on the menu, he said. The potatoes and the yogurt topped with goji berries were his highlights.
To improve the dish, United should separate the turkey bacon pieces, Honig suggested, as they were stuck together in his breakfast dish.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but the crew operating this inaugural was one of the best I’ve ever had with United.
Each of the seven flight attendants was courteous, professional and enthusiastic. United didn’t hand-pick this crew, but rather it ran a lottery across its Newark-based flight attendants for those employees who wanted to staff this inaugural. Clearly, they chose some of the best because the service was exemplary.
Welcome to Palma!
Shortly after breakfast concluded, I changed back into my street clothes, while United’s Quayle put on a suit and hopped into the cockpit jumpseat for a prime landing view.
While Quayle’s views were undoubtedly better, the scenery on approach wasn’t too shabby from the cabin windows — we came in over the island and then did a 180-degree turn to land on runway 24L. I spotted some golf courses and what appeared to be mountain biking or hiking trails crisscrossing some of the island’s mountains.
I was expecting a traditional water cannon salute after our smooth landing, but there were no airport firetrucks in sight.
Instead, we pulled up to a remote stand, where there was a throng of media and other invited guests eagerly awaiting our arrival.
Once they pulled up the air stairs, the Palma station manager welcomed us and thanked us for choosing United. Shuttle busses were waiting at the bottom of the stairs to take passengers to the terminal, but not before receiving one final gift: a small amenity pouch courtesy of the local tourism board.
I joined the local Spanish media in witnessing the arrival festivities, which included a ceremonial photo shoot, some speeches and revelry around the inaugural.
It was immediately clear that United’s arrival in Palma is a big deal for the local market. The locals are clearly proud to have landed a new nonstop connection to the U.S., and the airport authorities rolled out the red carpets for our arrival.
“It’s an honor to represent the 75,000 United employees and to land on this fantastic island,” Quayle told reporters.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first questions local media asked Quayle revolved around the flight’s performance and whether it’ll come back in 2023.
Quayle didn’t spill the beans, but he shared that he and the team are closely monitoring demand trends before making a call about whether the flight will return for another season.
“Performance in summer of 2022 will dictate whether we fly more days a week or a longer season for 2023,” he said. Only time will tell how United’s big transatlantic expansion works out, but at least the first-ever flight from the U.S. to Mallorca is — successfully — in the books.
Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy
Welcome to The Points Guy!
Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card account anniversary. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points) at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program.
- Limited Time Offer: Earn 125,000 Marriott Bonvoy Bonus Points after spending $5,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 8/31/22.
- 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy™ program.
- 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
- 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
- Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
- Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points) at a participating hotel. Certain hotels have resort fees.
- Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
- Terms apply.
- See Rates & Fees