Polaris Redemption: United's Retrofitted 777-200 From DC to Frankfurt
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Almost exactly a year ago, I experienced my worst business-class flight to-date on a United 777-200 from Frankfurt (FRA) to Washington, DC (IAD). Among the strikes against that flight were a business-class cabin that had eight seats across, a seat mate that was chewing tobacco, a crew that wouldn't enforce the airline's policies, a grossly undercooked meal, a broken seat and a malfunctioning in-flight entertainment system. It couldn't have been much worse, right? Wrong. Upon arrival in DC, my complaints at a customer service desk led to a United agent threatening to call the police on me.
Now, about a year later, United's just beginning to retrofit its 777-200 fleet. I got lucky enough to snag a seat on the plane's flight between DC and Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) on April 23, and was eager to test out United's brand-new hard product. Would United redeem itself after utterly failing me a year ago? Spoiler alert: The answer is yes.
In the year since I first flew United business class between the US and Europe, there's been an ever-so-slight increase in the cost of these awards — a one-way award between the US and Europe in business class will now run you 60,000 miles instead of the 57,500 it used to cost a year ago. Luckily, an award was available when I went to book the flight — TPG transferred the 60k miles from his Chase Ultimate Rewards account to book the ticket for me. The total cash outlay for this ticket was just $79 — $23 of which came in the form of the German passenger fee and $50 in the form of the Award Booking Fee, since I'm not a United elite and booked this ticket so last-minute. We charged the fees to the Platinum Card® from American Express, since it earns 5x points on airfare purchases when booked directly with the airline.
Check-in and Lounge
Since I was flying Polaris, I used the Polaris/1K elite Premier Access check-in desk at Newark (EWR), where my trip originated. I completed the check-in process — including my own documents check — at a self-service kiosk, but was never prompted to check my bag.
I inquired with the gatekeeper agent if I had missed a step. Seemingly annoyed, she explained that I had to use a different kiosk to check my bag. She then pointed me to... the same kiosks, and I waited in line to check-in again so that I could check my bag. I've never been impressed with United's Premier Access check-in process, and this was another disappointing experience.
I didn't have any time to visit a United Club at EWR, but I had a decent layover at Washington-Dulles (IAD). I'm a big fan of the Turkish Airlines Lounge at IAD, so I passed up my other lounge opportunities and spent much of my layover in this lounge — including a refreshing shower. I was able to access the lounge as a business-class passenger on a Star Alliance flight, but I've visited the lounge before using my Priority Pass membership from my Chase Sapphire Reserve.
Polaris passengers board in Group 1 on United, which means that they're after Global Services members, families with children and military service members. Unfortunately for my photo taking opportunities, passengers were held at the boarding door until some final preparations were made to the cabin. Once those were complete, it was essentially a mad dash onto the aircraft.
Cabin and Seat
The Polaris cabin on the 772 stretches across two cabins. The forward cabin features eight rows of the airline's wholly unique layout, which gives all passengers direct-aisle access thanks to the 1-2-1 configuration, but still maintains the high density found on older versions of this aircraft. Couples will want to pick odd-numbered rows (1, 3, 5 and 7) to sit together in the middle seats. Window-seat addicts and lovers of privacy will also want to pick seats in odd-numbered rows.
However, if you're a fan of the window, beware that row 7 does not have one!
The rear cabin has five rows of seating along the windows, but just four in the middle section. Couples, you'll want to snag the middle seats in either row 9 or 11 in order to sit next to each other. If you're traveling alone and want a window or ultimate privacy, pick seats on either side in rows 9, 11 or 15 (there's no row 13 or 14 in this cabin). Row 12 is pretty much a no-go for everyone, as these are seats that are adjacent to the aisle and also lack a window.
From what I could tell, these are the exact same seats you'll find on the carrier's 777-300ER. Each one has a small cabinet rated to hold small items during taxi, takeoff and landing. Under the cabinet is a sleek table and mounted next to that is a classy looking light.
Under each IFE screen there's a very useful tray. However, there's not much of a lip to this very deep tray, so you're not going to want to store anything important (like your passport or phone) in here during takeoff, because it'll be difficult to fish it back out later. I almost learned this the hard way.
Thanks to TPG's United expert Zach, I knew that the bulkhead Polaris seats provided the most space, extra-large footwells and privacy. So, I jumped on seat 9L when I saw it was available on this flight. As you can see in the photo below, there was plenty of room for my feet!
However, there's one small thing to keep in mind if you do go for a bulkhead seat in the rear cabin. Your view will be partially obstructed thanks to the massive engine that'll be in full view right outside your window.
While the front of the plane offers a vastly improved passenger experience, the same can't be said for the back. Economy on this aircraft is arranged in a 3-4-3 configuration, which is not especially pleasant, especially for a long-haul redeye flight.
Amenities and IFE
At boarding, each Polaris seat was stocked with a large pillow, as well as a plastic-wrapped blanket and duvet. A small box containing a Polaris chocolate and the amenity kit were left on the side table.
The bathrooms were stocked with Cowshed toiletries. At boarding, the bottles still were wrapped.
One of the more annoying aspects of the United Polaris experience is having to remember to ask for some amenities. These include slippers, a mattress pad, a memory foam pillow and pajamas (on flights of 12+ hours). Knowing about this "secret menu" of amenities, I asked for slippers early on so I could wear them during the flight.
Before heading to sleep, I asked for a mattress pad. I returned from brushing my teeth to find it left in my seat in its packaging. After taking the mattress pad out of its wrapping and performing my own turndown service, my bed was ready to provide me with several hours of restful sleep.
Each seat has a large touchscreen directly in front of it, and it's stocked with a solid selection of movies. I was disappointed that the only "audio" options were audiobooks — I couldn't find any music. That said, United does score major points for having an amazing AvGeek feature: a live air traffic control feed.
At boarding, a pair of over-the-ear headphones came wrapped in plastic and hanging on a hook in the seat's cabinet. The two-prong headphones provided decent-quality sound but didn't seem to provide any active noise cancellation. There's a USB plug under the IFE screen, and under the small cabinet you'll find a universal power adapter adapter (and another USB port!), IFE remote as well as the jack for the headphones.
Wi-Fi was offered on this flight at a price of $7.99 for 1 hour, $11.99 for 2 hours or $22.99 for the full flight. Here's a tip — if you don't fly United often, remember to jot down your United MileagePlus number (and password, if you don't remember it), as you'll need to log in to your account before purchasing Wi-Fi in order to be able to switch between devices. I was able to test the internet through Google's internet speed test and found it to have adequate download speed, but a slow upload speed.
Food and Beverage
During boarding, flight attendants passed through the cabin multiple times to offer welcome drinks. The choices were Champagne, water and orange juice. I didn't inquire if other drinks were available.
Shortly after reaching cruising altitude, flight attendants made their way through the cabin to take dinner orders. I asked what my choices were, as there was no menu at my seat when I boarded. The FA left abruptly and returned shortly to drop off a menu, though he didn't wait to take my order and instead continued to make his way back through the cabin. I was the last to order dinner, but thankfully still ended up with my first choice.
Giving just the main courses a look, I ordered the "chicken" expecting to get the "seared chicken breast with mustard mushroom sauce, chive mashed potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts" that was on the menu. However, I ended up with a very different main dish. I wouldn't realize until later that it's because I was given a menu for a London Heathrow (LHR) to IAD flight.
While one FA was taking meal orders, another worked the cabin taking and serving drink orders. When I asked for a cup of coffee, she suggested a glass of still or sparkling water as well. The drinks were served with a bowl of warmed nuts.
To start, I got a hearty salad and a plate of cured meat with spicy mustard and grains, as well as two pieces of bread.
When I finished the salad, that bowl was removed and replaced with the main dish. It was an Asian fusion chicken and noodle soup in a coconut milk sauce, and it was spectacular. I strongly considered licking the bowl clean.
Although the drink menu I received said that FAs will offer the airline's specialty beverage service, no one offered me this. However, I knew that the wine tasting was an option, so I asked for a white wine flight. I ended up with three different whites to sip along with my main course. Note, though, that the wine tasting option will soon be eliminated, as United's going through a lot more wine than it had anticipated.
After dinner, the glorious ice cream cart was wheeled through. Full from dinner and trying to be careful after my stomach issues on my flight the night before, I passed on the ice cream... before being convinced to reconsider by the friendly flight attendants. I definitely didn't regret trying some of the ice cream, which was topped with chocolate sauce and M&Ms.
In the name of getting a full review, I asked to be woken up for breakfast. I chose the hot option and was served a very large breakfast. I'd say that you could easily skip dinner to maximize sleep and then be completely satisfied with this meal upon waking up in the morning.
In terms of service, I found things to be pretty good overall. I received both a friendly greeting and goodbye from flight attendants, and they made their way through an impressive number of service aspects, especially considering that the flight wasn't that long. There were a couple of disappointing points, though. The menu situation could've been handled better — and obviously it would've been nice to get a menu for the right flight. The service impressed me overall, however — I can see why UA loyalists defended their airline after I'd had such a poor experience last year
All in all, I really liked my first experience flying in United's new Polaris seat. United truly does have a competitive business-class hard product to match its improved soft product that it rolled out in 2016. Here's how you know I really liked this product: I'm planning to fly it again. Looking through the photos and discussing the experience with my wife (and fellow top-tier AA elite member) Katie, we're adding United's Polaris seat to our list of products we want to experience together. What a difference a year makes.
All photos by the author unless where otherwise noted.