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United’s inaugural touches down in Brisbane, Australia — here’s what it was like in Polaris business class

Oct. 30, 2022
13 min read
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United Airlines has touched down at its third destination Down Under.

United Flight 96 arrived to Australia's Brisbane Airport (BNE) early Sunday morning local time after a 13-hour, 40-minute trip from United's Pacific hub, San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

Officials have hailed the new route as opening a new chapter for United, cementing its position as the dominant U.S. carrier in the market as it also ramps up a new partnership with Virgin Australia, the country's second-largest airline, and attempts to challenge to the entrenched American-Qantas joint-venture.

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To support the partnership, United is now flying its largest Australia schedule ever. On Friday, the Chicago-based carrier also restarted flights between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and Melbourne Airport (MEL) and between Sydney Airport (SYD) and Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), which had been suspended since the start of the pandemic.

United's Australia network, November 2022. CIRIUM

United takes its inaugural flights seriously — TPG has covered many in the past, and this is the second one that I've personally covered — but this one was particularly special. For this flight, TPG received an invitation to a VIP reception in the airline's SFO Polaris Lounge ahead of the more traditional gate party. In addition, many of leaders from around the company came to take the flight; that list included United's head of network planning, a top MileagePlus executive and the VP of the airline's SFO hub.

The arrival in Brisbane was a major media spectacle itself — with a national Australian TV morning show even covering the flight's landing.

As for my spot on the flight, TPG purchased a ticket round-trip ticket to Australia — the inaugural and a return later in the week — that also included positioning flights to and from IAH, where I'm based. On top of the fare of $1,875.07, 160 PlusPoints were applied to upgrade both the outbound and return flights to and from Australia, as this trip was booked into a discounted T fare, which required more points than what would be needed for higher fare classes.

Here's what the full experience was like flying United's inaugural flight from San Francisco to Brisbane.

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A long stay in the Polaris Lounge

When I arrived in San Francisco from Houston, I headed over to the United Polaris Lounge — a beautiful space in the airport's international G Concourse.

Review: Aiming for the stars: United's Polaris Lounge in San Francisco (SFO)

I arrived very early at the lounge, so I took time to explore — and eat.

Given my long layover in the lounge — about 10 hours — I took advantage of the lounge's shower suites for a quick refresh. Also available are quiet rooms to catch some Z's and complimentary garment steaming services so you can look your best if you're arriving from an international flight and have a meeting. The showers feature Sunday Riley toiletries — a partnership that extends to United's Polaris amenity kits and even its lavatories.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

I also headed over to one of my favorite features of Polaris Lounges — which are among the best airline lounges in the U.S. — the dining room. The menu is often locally inspired for the lounges, which are at all of United's hubs except Denver International Airport (DEN), but one thing is constant: the Polaris signature burger, which I had — and which was good, as always.

More: With new Brisbane route, United underscores importance of its new partner, Virgin Australia

Not one, but two parties

The special VIP reception ahead of the inaugural was held in "The Studio," a section of the SFO Polaris Lounge that can be used for events. The area has a small buffet line as well as an island that was used to serve drinks.

Guests snacked on some premium hors d'oeuvres like shrimp cocktail, a charcuterie board and lamb lollipops. Australian wine was also being poured.

The event was billed by United as an informal networking opportunity and United executives and local dignitaries were working the intimate crowd.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Australian singer Georgia Mae, who is originally from Brisbane, provided some background music and then did a brief solo performance.

Georgia Mae. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

A few executives also gave brief remarks. A big theme of the evening — and one that United has been eager to point to for a long time — is that the airline was the only one that maintained service between the U.S. and Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It allowed Australians and Americans who needed to get home to do so," said MileagePlus president Luc Bondar, who is originally from Australia.

Once the reception concluded, it was time to head to Gate G2 for the more formal gate party.

There were even more snacks at the gate, including Tim Tams — an Australian favorite. Not only was it a treat for passengers on the Brisbane flight, but some passengers waiting to board the United flight to Las Vegas next door also noshed on the goodies.

But the real show-stealer was a koala bear, played by Vincent Passafiume, United's director of customer service in San Francisco. Not to be upstaged, he was handing out Tim Tams, too.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

One of the best parts about covering inaugural flights is seeing how special the moment is for the employees — who get into the spirit and take pictures and selfies, just like the passengers.

The flight's three first officers. ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

The program at the gate party was in many ways a more formal version of the VIP event, with Georgia Mae continuing her performance for a larger audience, along with another speaking program featuring Lori Augustine, United's VP of San Francisco; Patrick Quayle, United’s SVP of global network planning and alliances; Nick Nichles, Australia’s consul general in San Francisco; and Ivar Satero, the director of the San Francisco International Airport.

Like Bondar, Quayle also spoke about how important it was that United maintained service to Australia during the pandemic. He said that United’s one remaining flight at the time — a daily flight between SYD and SFO — allowed heart transplant donor valves to be transported from Australia to the U.S.

“That flight literally saved thousands and thousands of lives, in addition to reconnecting families,” Quayle said to cheers.

Following the ribbon cutting, it was then time to board United’s inaugural flight to Brisbane.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Onboard goodies — and a milestone

Upon boarding N29984, a 2-year-old Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, passengers seated in United’s Polaris business class found the normal (and sometimes overwhelming) complement of Polaris amenities — easily one of the best, most competitive parts of United’s most premium cabin. At each seat was the Saks Fifth Avenue day blanket, as well as a Saks duvet and pillow, and the cooling gel pillow — a customer favorite. United’s Away-branded amenity kit, which debuted earlier this year, was also there. Finally, a plush koala bear was at each seat as was an eye mask and a message on a postcard, which was provided by Tourism & Events Queensland. It reminded me of the earliest days of Polaris in 2016, when each Polaris passenger received a plush polar bear at their seat.

Passengers in United Premium Plus received all of the Australia-themed goodies, as well as the Saks day blanket and the pillow. And, in an upgrade from a normal flight, they received the Polaris Away amenity kits, instead of the smaller Premium Plus ones.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

United Economy passengers received the standard provisions: United’s green, all-in-one travel pillow, as well as a regular blanket. They, too, got special koala bears and eyeshades.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

TPG has reviewed Polaris before on the Boeing 787-9, but a quick refresher: the cabin is arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, with odd-numbered rows featuring true window seats, as well as the “honeymoon seat” in the center section that puts two passengers close together. In even-numbered rows, all passengers are closer to the aisle. In the center section, a motorized divider provides privacy after takeoff for passengers who aren’t traveling together.

I was assigned seat 5F in the center section — and it was actually my first Polaris flight in the honeymoon seat. While you do get quite close to your seatmate at the beginning and end of the flight, the divider worked well while it was up during the rest of the trip. My first choice, however, is always the odd-numbered window seats, though those were long gone by the time my upgrade cleared.

After everyone got settled, special inaugural pajamas were distributed in Polaris — a United tradition — as were menus that featured a message from Quayle on the back.

Then, two fun things happened before departure.

First, the koala reappeared — and hung out for a few minutes on the flight deck.

Then, Capt. Laszlo Jon Horanyi also made an appearance, with a certificate and a challenge coin for Brian Won, a fellow passenger who would cross the MileagePlus one-million-mile mark on the inaugural flight. Won, who lives in Los Angeles and works at UCLA, is an AvGeek and can often be found flying on United’s inaugural flights for the fun of it. We first met in May for the airline’s inaugural to the Azores in Portugal.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Inaugural flights are notoriously difficult to push on time — oftentimes a ground crew is learning a new aircraft, or the gate festivities pour onto the plane, with people taking extra time to get settled. (The three other inaugural flights I took this year all had significant delays.) But since the 787-9 is a familiar sight at SFO and with everything running on schedule, the flight was able to get off the gate just three minutes late at 11:23 p.m. I was impressed.

After a short taxi, we were wheels up from San Francisco’s runway 28L at 11:45 p.m. local time.

Onboard dining and service

I selected the salmon entrée for my meal. Many are hesitant to have fish on a plane, but this year I’ve had excellent business class fish dishes on both United and Lufthansa, so I figured I’d give the salmon a try. Unfortunately, it was quite dry. Perhaps that could be tied to the meal service being interrupted twice due to turbulence, forcing the flight attendants to take their jumpseats and leave the fish in the oven longer than it should have been.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

The salmon was accompanied by an Asian cabbage salad and a prawn cocktail — and to wash it down I selected a California chardonnay. It was the first time I had seen the cold, protein-based appetizer return to Polaris’ service since the pandemic began — and it was a welcome and delicious return. (I was told that these meals are part of a new catering rotation that started Friday, and nothing was special for that evening’s flight, which means the appetizers are back.)

A word about the flight attendants: these were easily some of the best attendants I’ve ever had on United. I learned this crew was hand-picked based on positive customer feedback, and it showed. Given the media attention and presence of executives, I’ve never had bad service on an inaugural flight, but these flight attendants were a constant presence in the aisle for all 14 hours. It was really a top-tier crew.

In particular, Francine was exceptional. She was at my seat within a minute of me waking up from a nap, offering me snacks and coffee. She later offered a warmed cheese toastie and tomato soup as a midflight snack, which hit the spot.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Purser Linda was also an exceptional crew member. At one point, she proactively grabbed a mug of mine that was half full of coffee and said that she’ll get me more since they had just brewed a fresh pot.

For breakfast, I went for the oatmeal, which was satisfying.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

At the end of the flight, Linda brought me — and a few others — a very nice thank you note that was signed by the crew, a gesture some crews do for elite passengers.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

In this regard, the service made the flight truly memorable. And, the party environment — the mingling in the galley among crew, passengers and United employees — made the 14 hours go by quicker than would normally be expected.

Arrival in Brisbane

The flight arrived around 6:30 a.m. local time — but the festivities weren't over.

Once we arrived, Capt. Laszlo invited a few members of the media onto the flight deck for photos.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Then, we went to the aft of the plane for an arrival ceremony, as the cameras of local media clicked and rolled.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

As passengers arrived out of the immigration hall — it took me about 25 minutes — they were greeted by a traditional dance.

ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY

Bottom line

United is now flying to three Australian cities and has high hopes for the new Brisbane flight. Quayle said he hopes to make this thrice-weekly flight daily in the future and, as United has a strong new partner in Virgin Australia and travel demand surges, he has reason to be optimistic.

Personally, I'm stoked to be visiting Australia for the first time, a destination at the top of my bucket list. I can't wait to explore more.

Featured image by ETHAN KLAPPER/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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Go to review

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4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
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Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees