8 ways the United Polaris long-haul experience has changed

Dec 12, 2020

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Every airline has made significant adjustments to the travel experience due to the pandemic.

While I’ve already documented some of my pandemic-era domestic flights, like in JetBlue’s refreshed Mint and United’s transcon Polaris product, Thursday marked my first international flight with United in nearly a year.

Some aspects of the business-class experience, like the seat itself, were just as I remembered. Others weren’t.

So, while not everyone is comfortable traveling right now (and should discuss possible risks with their healthcare provider), what follows is how the international Polaris business-class experience has changed, as seen from my ten-hour hop from Newark to Tel Aviv.

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Online check-in doesn’t save you time

Due to pandemic-related border closures, checking in online is no longer an option for many international United flights.

After attempting to retrieve a mobile boarding pass, the app said that I needed to see an agent at Newark. For a second, I thought that meant I’d be receiving SSSSpecial treatment.

Turns out, United has set up dedicated check-in counters for specific international destinations. The Tel Aviv counter was located on the third level of Terminal C, all the way to the west.

Agents there checked everyone’s entry permit, as well as isolation and health declarations. After completing the check, my boarding pass was printed and marked as “verified.”

As I was heading to security, I noticed a similar procedure for other United flights, including to Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador.

All this to say, be sure you have all your documents ready, especially when you’re trying to enter a country that’s largely closed to foreigners. And be prepared to wait for an agent to help you check-in.

Polaris Lounges are still closed

Long-haul Polaris flyers are eligible to access the carrier’s business-class-only premium lounges… when they’re open. Unfortunately, citing the significant downturn in business travel, United has shuttered these luxe spaces. (American’s Flagship Lounges are closed, too.)

I knew this going in, so I specifically arrived at the airport much closer to departure than I normally would have.

I did briefly stop at the sole United Club at Newark that’s still open, on the upper level near Gate C74.

After presenting my boarding pass, the friendly attendant offered me a drink voucher that could be used for any of the premium liquor choices.

A range of pre-packaged snacks, including Doritos, beef jerky and muffins, was available, though none looked particularly appetizing.

Soft drinks and non-alcoholic beverages were served at the bar. Interestingly, there were cans of Illy cold brew chilling in an ice bucket next to the bar. This is the first time I’ve seen them on offer, so hopefully, this trial becomes permanent one day.

Before long, it was time to head to the gate.

United’s Newark to Tel Aviv flights all depart from the same location, C123. Why?

Israel mandates a secondary screening for all passengers before boarding the plane. As such, United has designated the C123 gate area as the “holding pen” for the Tel Aviv-bound passengers. (It used to be C138.)

After entering the gate area, my bags were swabbed and an officer searched for metal on my body using a handheld detector. Once clear, I sat patiently in the gate area but made sure not to use the restroom, which was located outside the secure area.

Had I left, I would’ve needed to reclear the secondary screening process.

Related: Which airline lounges in the U.S. are currently open?

Gone are the day blankets

The first thing I noticed when I entered the Polaris cabin was the plethora of amenities waiting for me at my seat.

This included all the usual goodies, including a Saks-branded plush pillow and comforter, as well as a firm gel pillow and amenity kit stocked with Sunday Riley products.

Savvy flyers will know that there’s even more on offer. I asked a friendly flight attendant for the remaining items — pajamas, a mattress pad and a pair of slippers.

The only thing missing from the pre-pandemic Polaris experience is the Saks-branded day blanket. That’s been indefinitely removed from the carrier’s international business-class flights. (Domestically, United has replaced the comforter with the day blanket, a big downgrade especially on red-eyes and flights to and from Hawaii.)

Food is served differently

Gone are the multi-course meals with a decadent dessert trolley to top it all off.

Instead, all Polaris meals are served on one tray, with the plastic seals intact.

Instead of a printed menu, flight attendants came through the cabin to discuss the choices — chicken, pasta or fish. (Without a physical menu to reference, it was hard for the flight attendant to communicate what exactly was on offer.)

I selected the grilled salmon, which was served with a roll of bread, mixed nuts, side salad and a cup of vanilla gelato. There weren’t any pre-departure beverages offered, though a full assortment of liquor was available once airborne.

While United has temporarily suspended serving special meals networkwide, the carrier will continue offering pre-ordered Kosher meals on Tel Aviv routes.

Dinner was delivered just as we leveled off at cruising altitude. After unwrapping each dish, it was time to eat. I briefly lowered my mask, finished my meal and went right to bed.

While some might prefer a more elaborate service, I quite enjoyed the speed of the express dining, allowing me to maximize sleep on this quick hop to Tel Aviv. (The pilots shaved off nearly an hour from the scheduled ten-hour and ten-minute block time.)

About an hour prior to landing, flight attendants came around with a pre-arrival snack consisting of United’s buy-on-board mezze platter.

Before the pandemic, there used to be a choice of plated breakfast options before arrival. Serving pre-packaged buy-on-board food could be considered a downgrade, especially if you like airplane breakfasts. Me? I rarely eat either, so I don’t necessarily mind the change.

The crew rests in Polaris

When I glanced at the upgrade list before departure, I noticed that two seats were listed as blocked, so I did some research to uncover why.

Turns out, the last two window seats on the starboard side of the cabin are reserved for the crew to use during breaks.

In “normal” times, flight attendants sleep in the secret crew rest, located all the way at the back of the coach cabin one level above passengers.

On the Dreamliner, the crew rest sleeps six flight attendants in a very tight and cramped space. To promote distancing between the crew, United saves some Polaris pods to help alleviate crowding in the crew rest.

So, if you notice a flight attendant catching up on shows while resting in a Polaris pod, now you know why.

Related: What it’s like inside your plane’s hidden ‘crew rest,’ where pilots and flight attendants sleep

No Hebrew-speaking flight attendants

Every time I’ve flown on a long-haul flight operated by a U.S. airline, there’s always been at least one flight attendant who spoke the language of the destination country.

Thursday’s flight was a rare exception. All public-address announcements were made in English, with no Hebrew follow up. Aside from the safety video which played in both English and Hebrew, the only other Hebrew I heard was spoken by Israeli passengers.

I asked the purser what happened to the Hebrew-speaking crew members and she chalked it up to recent furloughs.

U.S. airlines shed 9.1% of their workforce between mid-October and mid-September, according to recent data released by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. When the CARES Act expired on Sept. 30, so too did its provision that carriers were prohibited from layoffs or furloughs.

On Oct. 1, dubbed “Terrible Thursday,” United furloughed over 13,000 staff, which clearly seems to have included many bilingual crew members.

New pillows for coach flyers

Despite the pandemic, United has made one unquestionable upgrade to the long-haul coach experience. The Chicago-based carrier began trialing a new and improved pillow for those sitting in the back on flights to Tel Aviv.

The multi-purpose pillow is designed to be used in one of three ways: like normal, worn around your neck or folded on itself for lumbar support.

With a very light load, I snagged one of the new pillows and brought it to Polaris with me. While I wouldn’t voluntarily trade a Saks-branded pillow for one from the back, coach flyers will likely notice an improvement. Hopefully, the carrier decides to expand the offering to all long-haul coach flights soon.

The seats are available on even more planes

While the Polaris pods (thankfully) haven’t changed, the carrier is using the downtime during the pandemic to make them available on even more routes.

In recent years, United has flown a mix of Polaris and legacy business-class products on international routes.

Since the pandemic, however, the carrier is working to offer a “consistent” experience with the new Polaris pods on most long-haul routes, according to Patrick Quayle, United vice president of international network and alliances. In fact, United just recently hit a major Polaris milestone in its retrofit program: all international Boeing 777-200s now sport the “good seats.”

On the Newark-to-Tel Aviv route, United is exclusively flying its newest plane with the latest cabins, the Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner. As for its smaller -8 and -9 Dreamliners, UA outlined a timeline for completing interior retrofits — by summer 2021 and summer 2022, respectively.

Bottom line

As carriers implement anti-coronavirus measures, several elements of the end-to-end travel experience have changed.

In United’s international Polaris cabin, the check-in process is no longer fully online, Polaris Lounges are closed, the food service has been streamlined, flight attendants rest in business-class pods and more.

Nonetheless, despite these modifications, United Polaris remains a great way to fly internationally.

All photos by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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