A First-Class Farewell: One Final Flight in United Polaris First
United's Polaris product comes in many shapes and sizes. There's the "real" Polaris seat, of course, available on all of the airline's 777-300ERs, in addition to eight 767-300s and three 777-200s. But beyond that, it's a bit of a hodgepodge.
If you can't get a seat on one of the planes mentioned above, your next best bet for comfort would be a Polaris first seat on United's older 3-cabin planes — United's phasing out long-haul first class soon, but the original end date of June 20 has been pushed out, to August 20 as of now.
After 3-cabin first class, you want the old Continental biz seat, in a 2-2-2 configuration on the 777-200 and 787-8/9, or a 2-1-2 configuration on all 767-400ERs and select 767-300s.
Last (and certainly least) is the 2-4-2 "dorm-style" business class on United's 777s that also offer a first-class cabin, in addition to a handful of domestic-configured 777-200s that, in a disappointing move, are being used on select flights to Barcelona (BCN), Dublin (DUB) and Madrid (MAD).
Fortunately for business travelers, that 3-cabin configuration is on the way out, being replaced with a 2-cabin arrangement that features the new seat. As part of that process, the airline's 8-seat first-class cabin will soon disappear entirely — before that happens, I wanted to work in one more review.
Since United began to phase out long-haul first class, saver award availability has been impossible to find. I kept checking, and checking, and checking, but in the end we ended up settling on the least expensive one-way itinerary we could find — nonstop from Chicago (ORD) to Shanghai (PVG) for about $3,500. Had saver awards been available, the one-way flight would have run me 90,000 miles, or I could have booked a flight to Europe for 80,000 miles, instead.
TPG's still eligible for Amex's 50% Pay With Points rebate, since he has a Business Centurion Card, so we booked the flight using 175,000 Membership Rewards points. That had the added benefit of getting me significantly closer to my Premier 1K requalification, earning 14,112 Premier Qualifying Miles and $3,439 Premier Qualifying Dollars, in addition to a whopping 37,829 redeemable miles, worth $530 based on our most recent valuations. Not a bad return!
Airport and Lounge
While I've passed through Chicago O'Hare plenty of times since the Polaris Lounge opened in December 2016, this was the first time that I had access since my Day 1 review. To celebrate, I took the very first flight out of Newark (EWR) that morning, at 5:20am, which got me into Chicago around 6:45am.
As it turns out, the Polaris Lounge doesn't even open until 7:15, so I stopped by the new(ish) United Club next door.
The place was packed. I left right away and decided to wander the concourse, instead.
I returned to the Polaris Lounge at 7:15am on the dot, just as an agent was opening the door.
My first stop was the self-service buffet.
I took a moment to take in the view — there was a 777-200 parked just a few feet from the breakfast spread.
There were a few small plates to choose from, with both hot and cold items.
I definitely would have gone for a toasted bagel with smoked salmon, had I not realized what was waiting in the next room...
As part of a recent expansion, United added a full-service dining room, located around the corner from the bar.
The sit-down dining area has a restaurant feel, with tables and booths to choose from. This part of the lounge was very, very cold, though.
I was promptly seated and offered a menu, with a small selection of a-la-carte items.
Oddly, I noticed that the booth wasn't all that clean, even though the lounge had just opened up — clearly I was the first person to sit there that day.
I ordered a charcuterie platter to start, but my entree of smoked salmon and a potato latke arrived first. The latke was especially greasy, but I think the smoked salmon pairing works well in general.
Then the appetizer appeared a few minutes later.
After a quick meal, I headed over to the relaxation area to take a shower. I really love the Polaris Lounge shower suites.
Before I left to head to the gate, I asked one of the two customer service agents to print my Etihad boarding pass from a PDF. That request was promptly met with a flat-out "no." When I clarified that I had a PDF to print, I was again told "no," but the other agent overheard and stepped in, explaining that I can send the document to a printer near the shower area.
She even followed up to make sure it printed successfully. While I really appreciated the second agent stepping in to help, I would have preferred if the first agent I spoke to would have taken a moment to think of a solution rather than immediately dismiss my request.
Soon enough, it was time to board my final United international first-class flight.
Cabin and Seat
United's older 777-200s offer a small first-class cabin just behind the cockpit, with two rows of seats in a 1-2-1 arrangement. While these seats are a bit more spacious, I prefer the newer reverse-herringbone business seats found on a handful of carriers, such as American and Cathay Pacific, given that they offer much more privacy.
First class is a huge step up from the "Polaris business" cabin on this plane, however, where you'll find seats arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration.
There's even less privacy here — were it not for the lie-flat function, these seats would be more appropriately marketed as premium economy. Fortunately, they're on the way out, though they'll continue to be offered on domestic and regional 777-200s.
Quite relieved that I wouldn't be spending 14 hours in that "dorm-style" biz, I headed back to my seat, 1A.
One huge advantage of first class over biz is the storage space — United's old 2-4-2 business seats offer almost no storage at all, while the first-class seats have a ton.
The largest compartment is located to the side of the armrest — there's enough room in there to accommodate a small bag, plus all of the linens and other amenities United hands out to Polaris flyers.
A smaller compartment above can accommodate headphones, a smartphone, tablet or other small items, while a compartment along the window side can fit a phone, camera and other pocketable gadgets.
The seats lie completely flat, of course, and while the controls weren't the most sophisticated, they're quite responsive, and straightforward to use.
There's also some storage space beneath the ottoman, but oddly you're not allowed to have anything there during taxi, takeoff or landing.
The one lavatory felt anything but "first class," though — it was tiny, and quite dated.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
United now offers its standard Polaris service to customers in both business and first class — even though my ticket cost about $750 more than a seat in biz, I ended up with a nearly identical amenity kit, the same pajamas, comforter, catering, etc.
The amenities are quite nice, though — I especially like the pajamas United offers on its longer international flights, and the pillow and comforter are very comfortable. Note that United removed the list of amenities from the menu, and flight attendants don't mention what's available, so you'll need to know to ask for pajamas and a mattress cover if you'd like them for the flight.
With far superior systems available on international carriers, the IFE is in desperate need of an update — there's a large variety of content, but a 15.4-inch screen is hardly adequate for international first class.
The wired remote had seen better days, too, which makes sense given that these seats were just a few months away from being retired.
And United's headphones are absolute garbage — I'm really not a fan, but fortunately I always travel with my own set as well.
One feature I love is Channel 9. United's offered its exclusive live air-traffic-control feed for years, and though it's up to the captain whether or not to offer it on any given flight, it's always fun to tune in when it's available.
There were plenty of other entertainment options to choose from as well, including a large mix of new-release films...
...and dozens of TV shows.
While there was Panasonic satellite internet onboard, I was very disappointed to learn that the Wi-Fi was inoperable. A flight attendant announced that Wi-Fi access would be intermittent, but implied that the inconsistent service was due to our routing. Later I learned that the Wi-Fi wasn't expected to work the entire flight, and the aircraft had even been written up for having inoperable internet. The flight attendant was fairly dismissive, too — when I pointed out that I had hoped to get work done at one point, his response was "Look at it this way; if it doesn't work, you get a free day." (Unfortunately that's not how it works.)
I was planning to get quite a bit done during our 14-hour journey, and couldn't connect even once, despite probably 100 attempts throughout the flight. I asked the purser about compensation, which he issued directly via his flight attendant app. As a Premier 1K member I was offered my choice of 3,750 miles or a $75 travel voucher — I felt that both were entirely inadequate given the length of the flight and cost of my ticket. When I mentioned that the amount seemed a bit low, he responded with "it is what it is." Alrighty then.
Food and Beverage
I was promptly offered a pre-departure beverage as soon as I sat down — there's no question that the service was far more attentive overall, which makes sense given that there are just eight seats in the first-class cabin. The purser also stopped by to introduce himself to every first-class passenger, and even presented his business card.
I requested a Bloody Mary, which arrived quickly, but was served in a plastic cup. That's something United's done with pre-departure beverages for years, but it still feels a little tacky in a premium cabin.
As I mentioned, the service is now more or less identical between first class and biz — aside from slightly different amenity kit coloring, the only other noticeable difference is a reference to "Polaris first class" at the top of the wine card. A flight attendant confirmed that the wines themselves aren't any different in first class, though. There also isn't a curtain separating the two cabins anymore — United isn't hiding the fact that first class is on the way out.
After takeoff, I asked to try United's new Bourbon, Buffalo Trace. It was actually quite pleasant, and while I would have preferred to pair it with the chocolates United used to serve before departure on Polaris flights, the mixed nuts were a decent substitution.
Shortly after takeoff, the flight attendant serving our cabin came through with appetizer trays, which consisted of seared tuna with quinoa, a cabbage salad and a warm pretzel roll. The salad was fine — I especially liked the sesame ginger dressing — but the tuna dish was a little disappointing. The sauce it was served with was simply plain wasabi (presumably from a tube) — even mixing it with a little mayo would have improved the flavor and consistency quite a bit.
I was surprised to find that the rolled-up napkin only had one set of silverware — one fork, one knife and one spoon. While it ultimately wasn't that big of a deal, I do recall receiving separate silverware for each course in the past. The flight attendant offered chopsticks, though, which I used for the entree.
Entree choices were identical to those in business, and included beef short rib, Chinese-style pork meatballs, spicy chicken with udon noodles or seared sea bass. While United does offer special meals on long-haul flights, there wasn't a vegetarian option listed on the menu. I ordered the pork meatballs, which were very tasty, though the presentation didn't feel especially "first-class."
The service was very attentive throughout the meal — dishes were delivered and cleared quickly, and the flight attendant checked back often to see if I needed a beverage refill.
He came by with the dessert cart just after collecting the entree plates. There was plenty to choose from, including mini apple pies, cheesecake squares, a caramel pretzel bar, ice cream sundaes and cheese plates. In the past, the cheese had been a separate course, but it looks like United's opted to group it with the sweets now.
I asked for an ice cream sundae with caramel and cherries, which was delicious.
After dessert, the flight attendant set up a modest snack bar in the galley, with a few wines and some of the leftover after-dinner treats. While the spread wasn't especially appealing, I did really like that the crew had hung up a chart with our flight route — that was different, and gave us something fun to look at.
Interestingly, there was a larger spread back in the business-class cabin, again presented alongside the flight chart.
A hot snack was available as well — Korean beef over rice. There wasn't much meat, but it was tasty, thanks mostly to the sauce. It also came along with another pretzel roll and the boxed chocolates I had been hoping to enjoy with my Bourbon.
Finally, breakfast was served about an hour before landing. We had a choice of a Southwestern omelet, Chinese congee or fresh seasonal fruit. I ordered the omelet, which also came along with corn, chicken sausage and potatoes. It was flavorful, but felt more like something I'd expect to receive on a short domestic flight, not in international first class.
It's clear that United wrote off its international first-class product long ago. Deep-pocketed passengers are fully aware, too, with many booking flights on other Star Alliance airlines or competitors — even China Eastern's first class seems more appealing, thanks to the far more private seat.
While it isn't entirely clear how United will fill these seats when they're offered on planes that have yet to undergo renovations, they'll likely continue to go primarily to business-class passengers with upgrades and non-revenue flyers, who — for the foreseeable future, at least — will continue to have easy access to a lie-flat seat.
Ultimately, the end of first class isn't a loss to travelers — if you need to fly in a cabin above business, partner flights that earn United elite credit, such as those operated by ANA, Asiana and Lufthansa, remain available, and UA's new Polaris business class represents a huge step up from that awful 2-4-2 business class, and even United's soon-to-be-retired first-class seat.