16 Rows of Biz: Reviewing Polaris on United's 'High-J' 767-300ER
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[tpg_rating ticket-class="0" tpg-rating-score="78" ground-experience="9" cabin-seat="18" amens-ife="10" food-bev="18" service="23" pros="Outstanding Polaris Lounge, more seats means more upgrade and award availability, third lavatory helps ease congestion." cons="No windows at row 18, not ideal for couples or families, cabin length impacts service, Wi-Fi wasn't working." /]
This week, United surprised frequent flyers with an especially exciting aircraft swap. Rather than flying to (and back from) London Heathrow (LHR) on the usual 30-biz-seat Boeing 767-300ER, customers found themselves in a far larger 46-seat Polaris cabin — instantly adding more than a dozen upgrade seats and marking the first flight of the airline's "high-J" wide-body plane.
With a 1-1-1 configuration, the space looks as long as it sounds — add in a challenging galley and lavatory arrangement, and I was eager to take the carrier's latest international product for a transatlantic spin.
I've been tracking this particular aircraft, N666UA, for the past few months. Originally, we had expected United's new 767 configuration to enter service this summer, so I scrambled to book once I learned that it'd be flying this week, instead.
With one soon-expiring Global Premier Upgrade (GPU) burning a hole in my United account — and a second from a very generous friend — I booked a round-trip on the first and second flights from Newark (EWR) to London (LHR), and right on back, given that I wanted to experience both the short eastbound redeye and the longer day-time return.
There was a challenge, though -- a last-minute economy ticket was pricing at just over $3,600 round-trip, and there wasn't any business-class saver award space immediately following the swap — so it was time to get creative.
In the end, I booked two tickets, with the first itinerary taking me to London and then on from Frankfurt (FRA) to Dubai (DXB) later in the year, for $1,459 all-in:
The return, meanwhile, would bring me back from London to Newark, and then from Newark to Frankfurt to catch the above flight to Dubai, for $1,177. I also paid a $100 UK Air Passenger Duty when upgrading to business class, plus $120 to upgrade my Dubai flight to premium economy on Lufthansa. It was a slightly convoluted booking, but ended up netting me an onward trip to Dubai for considerably less than the cost of a London round-trip.
When all was said and done, we spent $2,856 for two long-haul flights in business class, one in economy and one in premium economy, earning a total of 14,280 Membership Rewards points (worth $285.60), thanks to the 5x airline bonus via The Platinum Card® from American Express (when booked directly with the airline or via Amex Travel; on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year). After flying each of these flights, I'll earn a grand total of 13,814 Premier-Qualifying Miles (PQMs), 2,307 Premier-Qualifying Dollars (PQDs) and 25,377 redeemable miles, worth $355.28, based on TPG's valuations, bringing the net cost down to a very reasonable $2,215.
With 46 seats available — well, 45 for sale (more on that shortly) — I imagine you'll have a decent shot at scoring an award or upgrade seat in the future, especially on off-peak dates.
At one point, there ended up being two seats for sale on my flight, and on the day of departure, United made one of those two available for saver awards, which'll run you 60,000 MileagePlus miles each way to Europe. (See Decoding United’s Revenue, Award and Upgrade Fare Classes for more on how the letters above break down.)
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I arrived many hours early — around 10:30am — since I really didn't mind spending the day working from the Polaris Lounge. The terminal was quiet when my Lyft pulled up, and after confirming that I was indeed flying Polaris (or a Premier 1K member), I was allowed to proceed to a special check-in desk.
I confirmed my seating pick one final time on the kiosk, and picked up my boarding pass for the London return as well.
Given that it was mid-morning, several of the security checkpoints were closed down.
There were only two PreCheck lanes in use, but the line moved very quickly — I was through to the terminal in less than five minutes.
The Polaris Lounge at EWR is located just past the main security checkpoint.
Even with a large sign out front breaking down the various Terminal C lounge options, many flyers walk in and up to the front desk, hoping to access the lounge. I imagine the agents end up spending a lot of their day directing customers elsewhere, but given that I was flying long-haul business class, I was able to get in.
The lounge was very quiet when I arrived around 11:00am, but filled up a bit throughout the day.
I reviewed the lounge in great detail shortly after it opened last summer, so I'll try to keep things fairly brief here.
After the check-in desk and hall, you'll find plenty of tables, booths and bar stools to choose from.
Then, around the corner, there's even more seating, including these slick workstation pods.
As much as I love sitting near the window, those spots tend to fill up a bit more, so you might need to head back a few rows if you're visiting in the evening.
You can't beat the views, though!
There's also a dining room, with a-la-carte menus and waiter service.
And, of course, a large buffet.
The buffet offered a mix of cold and hot items, including a fairly uninspired spread of deli meats and cheese.
There was also a build-your-own salad station -- all the ingredients looked fresh.
I tried the beets, which were light and delicious.
Attention to detail was lacking a bit at the buffet. Several dishes were mislabeled, for example, such as the "Shepherd's pie" below.
As was this dish, which turned out to be a delicious chicken curry.
I had an absolutely fantastic meal in the dining room, though, with the Polaris Burger, a salad and an espresso martini.
Dessert is available in the dining room or back at the buffet.
I ended my meal over at the bar, where you'll find a selection of custom cocktails, including the Polaris Old Fashioned, my personal favorite.
The amenities go on from there, and include 10 private shower suites...
...and another 10 semi-private nap pods, complete with Saks Fifth Avenue pillows. Be sure to make a reservation if you're planning to use a shower suite or nap pod during peak hours!
The lack of attention to detail was apparent in the shower area, too. Mine, for example, had frayed towels, a garbage can that hadn't been emptied and hair in the sink. There were other little touches missing, too — dental kits were available, but there weren't any water bottles or glasses to drink from the sink. The was also a towel rack, but it wasn't anywhere near the shower, and there wasn't a hook nearby, either.
Since I had to work, I made myself at home in one of the four "phone booths" — which, interestingly enough, don't actually have a phone. Despite being separated by a glass wall and closing door, the two I tried weren't as quiet as I would have liked, though they were far more private than the main lounge areas, and an attendant did come by to check on me and clean up my dirty dishes at one point.
I had previously been warned that the Wi-Fi wasn't yet operational on this recently retrofitted plane, so I got all of my work out of the way using the super-speedy connectivity in the lounge.
United's Terminal C has come a long way beyond the Polaris Lounge as well.
Some of the old staples are still around, such as the main duty-free store near gates C120-C139.
There are many new restaurants to choose from, though, including a very good French bistro, Saison, which shares a kitchen with Classified.
They've made very good use of the space, overall, including in the middle of the concourse, between the gates.
There's also a food court at the far end of the pier, and another, the "Global Bazaar," at the other end of Terminal C.
United's working to renovate all of the gates at Terminal C as well, and we had one of the new ones. It's a huge improvement — power outlets and USB charging, fancy booths and table seating, and iPads that let you order food from nearby restaurants.
Soon enough, our boarding time of 6:35pm had arrived, and with that, it was time to experience our very special 767 to London!
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As I mentioned, this version of United's 767-300ER has 16 rows of 46 seats, making for one very large cabin, extending from the forward door to halfway over the wing. Note that seat 1A is designated as a pilot crew rest on transatlantic flights, so only 45 seats are actually available for purchase.
Given that I had two flights on the same aircraft, I wanted to try two very different seats — both in the "extended" portion of the cabin (behind row 10). For Newark to London, I grabbed the very last seat, 18L, hoping that would give me a clear view of the service flow.
I figured I'd be exhausted when it came time for the return, so I picked a more private window-facing window seat, 11L, closer to the middle of the cabin.
With a 1-1-1 arrangement, there aren't any paired seats, so if you're hoping to stay near a companion, you'll be best off grabbing one seat behind another.
Window seats in odd-numbered rows offer the best privacy, since they're a bit farther from the aisle.
You may have noticed a gap in the middle section of rows 17 and 18. While it's not yet reflected on the seat map, it turns out there's another lavatory there — a new addition on the 767-300ER.
The new lav also happens to be the most spacious, though I often found there to be a bit of a wait, since it's within view of the Premium Plus seats and there's only a thin curtain blocking flyers from walking up.
The lavatory walls add quite a bit of privacy at the window seats in rows 17 and 18, though, making 18A and 18L the most private aisle-facing window seats on the plane — though I was very disappointed to find that my window seat didn't actually have a window.
I found my second seat, 11L, to offer great privacy as well, though sadly it only had one window, rather than the two you'll find at most odd-numbered rows. If you're hoping for two windows, I'd avoid row 7 as well.
All seats offer a decent amount of storage, including a small area beneath the IFE screen and a compartment below the ottoman that's large enough to accommodate a small bag.
Each seat also has a side table, which I used to store my laptop and other gear during the flight.
There's a small enclosed compartment above as well — that's where you'll find the headphones and amenity kit, most likely.
Despite there being 46 seats, I found the cabin to be very private overall, especially with my seat in row 18.
In 18L, the lavatory and seat walls meant I didn't have to make eye contact with any other passengers, and the crew members working biz really only walked back to serve me, since there isn't a galley behind.
Looking out above the seat, I could catch a glimpse of premium economy, and the small area where folks tended to gather when waiting for the lavatory — but, again, you really need to go out of your way to make eye contact with anyone.
The 767 has the same seat controls you'll find on other Polaris-equipped planes — while the seats are up to 2 inches narrower, compared with the 777-300ER version, you'd really need to hunt to notice any significant differences.
I found both seats to be very comfortable for sleeping, especially with a mattress pad installed, which you'll need to request from the crew.
Bulkhead seats (in row 1 on this plane) do offer a bit more room for your feet, but I really didn't have an issue in 11L and 18L.
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One of United's original Polaris initiatives was to add Saks Fifth Avenue bedding, including large pillows, comforters and even mattress pads, which are available upon request. Now, United gives everyone a cooling gel pillow as well. I'd say United easily has the best bedding of any US-based carrier — it really makes a difference on these short transatlantic redeyes.
I also got a well-stocked amenity kit, with a comfortable eye mask, ear plugs, socks, a dental kit, Cowshed moisturizers and creams, tissues and a pen, which comes in handy for filling out immigration forms. (Update: Slippers are also available upon request.)
The one area where United desperately needs to improve is with the provided headphones. They aren't noise-canceling, and frankly sound like garbage. I tried them yet again to see if anything had changed — nope, they were just as bad as always, so I'd be sure to bring your own.
The in-flight entertainment system is fantastic, though, with a 16-inch HD touchscreen and loads of options.
I counted 200 movies, many of which I actually wanted to watch, including a few dozen new releases. There were more than 100 TV shows to choose from, too.
I also really like United's new moving map — it's fully interactive, making it easy to follow along with the flight.
Wi-Fi wasn't available at all on my flight to London, but it did come in and out during the last 90 minutes of the trip back home. The rates were pretty outrageous, though, especially for a one-hour pass.
I tried to purchase Wi-Fi a couple of times, but the connection dropped out. I had no problem browsing United.com, though, which loaded quickly, and is always free of charge. The flight information page was available toward the end of the flight, too.
I overheard a flight attendant telling another passenger than the airline had a technician onboard, so it seems they're aware of the issue, and I imagine it'll be resolved soon.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="18" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" dine-on-demand="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I'll dig into this more in the Service section, but having a single cabin of 16 rows — with just one galley up front — definitely impacted the flow. With economy passengers streaming by for a solid 15 minutes, there wasn't any way for a flight attendant to offer me a pre-departure beverage until just before the door closed.
I requested sparkling wine, and apparently I got lucky with one of the new glasses — there weren't enough, so some passengers ended up with plastic cups. Unfortunately, there isn't a great solution on the 767-300ER, since everyone boards from the front, blocking the aisle. Rather than handing them out after the main meal, United may want to have flight attendants place water bottles at each seat before boarding, so at least passengers have something to drink.
Having eaten a fair amount during my work day in the Polaris Lounge, I was a bit overwhelmed by the menu — there was a lot of food for such a short flight, and given that I was working on a review, I really wanted to sample all of the courses.
The service began about 50 minutes after takeoff, when I was offered my choice of drink — it definitely took a bit longer to reach me, given that I was 16 rows back. I went with the Colby Red Blend, which I've always enjoyed on recent United flights.
I also asked for a glass of sparkling water, but there wasn't any left on the cart. That meant the flight attendant needed to walk 16 rows up to the galley and 16 rows back — it only took a couple of minutes, but I imagine some crew members wouldn't have been thrilled.
20 minutes later, the crew came back with the appetizer tray and drink refills — I had some more Colby Red.
The salad was fresh and flavorful, with a solid mix of fruit and goat cheese.
I also liked the smoked salmon appetizer — I've had it off and on for years, I feel like, but it's definitely a favorite.
My entree came 20 minutes after that. While I'd normally go for something a bit lighter — such as the spicy chicken, poached salmon or butternut squash pasta options on this flight — I wanted to see how the short rib came out this time.
It arrived in a small pool of sauce/grease, and was very well done, but somehow still managed to have some decent flavor. The grits were pretty bland, though — they just kinda tasted like fat.
Speaking of fat, it's hard to avoid after the meal, too, given all the options for dessert. With plenty still left by the time they reached my seat — almost two hours after takeoff — I decided to sample a bit of everything. The sundae is always a hit, but the other sweets were a nice treat as well. As a non-athlete, there's simply no world in which it's appropriate for me to eat this much food, though.
Speaking of which, after just three or so hours, it was time to eat again. Breakfast options included a Southwestern omelet (my favorite) or fresh fruit with cereal.
This has always been hands-down my favorite airline breakfast, and it did not disappoint this time, either. I just wish I had been at least a little bit hungry.
There are cinnamon rolls as well — I don't want to even think about how many calories I consumed on this single seven-hour flight.
I've heard good things about the kosher meals in London, so given that I was making a direct turn and I figured I wouldn't be hungry, I pre-ordered one for the return.
What a letdown! Somehow, it seems that I ended up with an economy meal. My guess is that since I requested it just after booking, it was attached to my economy ticket, even though my upgrade cleared well before 24 hours in advance. The entire meal was vile — so bad, in fact, that the crew took pictures to send to the catering team.
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The service was very well-intentioned on both flights, even though it was the first time both crews were working this plane. The UK-based flight attendants I had on the outbound were friendly and stayed positive, despite the challenges of working the longer cabin, while the US-based flight attendants on my return seemed a bit less rushed, perhaps since they weren't eager to get the lights off on a redeye flight.
Two hours from takeoff to dessert isn't terrible, but with the larger cabin size here, if you're hoping to maximize sleep on a short redeye flight to Europe, I'd suggest eating dinner in the Polaris Lounge and skipping the in-flight meals altogether. Alternatively, you could ask for express dining, where you'll get your appetizer and entree on a single tray as soon as possible after takeoff.
Ultimately, I'm sure some crews will find the long cabin to be overwhelming, but aside from the extra distance to the galley, having six extra rows didn't make as much of a difference as I had expected.
While I've been excited about United adding such a large Polaris cabin to its 767-300ERs, given the increased chances of an upgrade or saver award, I did have some concerns.
First, the cabin length and the fact that there's only one galley for biz — just behind the cockpit — makes the job of serving 45 passengers very challenging. I was also worried about the lavatory situation, given that there were just two, and both were by the forward door. While the crew did struggle with the layout a bit, fortunately United added a third lavatory behind business class, even at the expense of losing two seats.
That leaves my one true disappointment — selecting a window seat (18L) that didn't actually have a window. There's an easy fix here too, since you don't have to sit there, though on a redeye flight I wouldn't mind it too much, especially given the added privacy of sitting at the back of the cabin.
Finally, given a choice between this and United's other Polaris-equipped 767-300ER, I'd pick the latter — a shorter cabin means more attention from the crew, and if you're paying for business class or find an upgrade or saver award on that 30-biz-seat plane, there really isn't any incentive to book the larger version.
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