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A surprisingly comfortable seat made better by Saks Fifth Avenue bedding, and much of the meal beat the expectations of a domestic flight. Don't miss the dessert cart!
Horrendous inflight Wi-Fi and a 2x2 configuration that means no aisle access for half the cabin, while storage is minimal in the seat itself. No access to the Polaris Lounge at SFO.
Even though the very best experiences that US airlines can offer are still found mostly on international flights, the competition has heated up in recent years on transcontinental routes. The Big 3 (and JetBlue) have made it a priority to cater to the discerning business traveler regularly flying back and forth between the East and West coasts in the US.
That said, not all transcontinental business-class experiences are equal. In particular, United made a big show of adding “Polaris” branding to all of its international business class products a few years back, but the key feature of that brand — the new Polaris seat — isn’t found on any regular domestic route. So what is the United business class experience like without the seat on one of the airline’s key transcon routes? How does the soft product measure up amongst United’s competitors, and what’s the “old” business seat like? A recent trip in business between San Francisco (SFO) and Newark/New York (EWR) gave us the opportunity to find out.
With corporate dollars readily available for business travelers to spend on nonstop domestic premium transcons, finding saver-level award space is a bit like spotting a unicorn. But if you’re lucky enough to score space, you’ll pay 35,000 United MileagePlus miles one-way plus $5.60 in taxes in fees (though booking within 21 days of departure will also incur a $75 close-in booking fee unless you have United elite status or the premium United MileagePlus Club Card). Also, if you’re short of United miles, Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred instantly to United at a 1:1 ratio.
Since United is a member of the Star Alliance, finding low-level award space also gives you the ability to redeem with other Star Alliance programs. One of the most interesting options on this particular route is Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer, which charges just 20,000 miles for one-way transcontinental business class on United. Even better, Singapore has no close-in booking fees, and you can transfer in points from all the major flexible points programs.
But if you can plan far enough in advance, you’ll find that competitive pressures have driven business-class prices down on US transcon routes. You can easily book this flight in one direction for just $659 during the week, or $559 on Saturdays. Still, even at those low prices, it’s a solid redemption through Singapore if you can find award space.
The business-class cabin on this 6pm Sunday flight was about half empty even just a week out from departure, giving me my choice of seat. I picked 2E — a standard aisle seat on the right side of the plane.
I could have checked in online, but wanted to experience the service at the airport, so I arrived about two hours ahead and headed to the Premier Access line available for business-class check-ins. The line was minimal and the agent was efficient, so I completed my check-in within 10 minutes.
Contrary to what some people assume, having a domestic business-class ticket doesn’t normally give you access to the airline’s lounges. But the legacy airlines have exceptions for major transcon routes, which means I did in fact have access to my pick of the standard United Clubs at SFO. However, this does not include the Polaris Lounge in SFO’s International Terminal G, which is reserved exclusively for international premium travelers.
Now, on the one hand, one might think that missing out on the Polaris Lounge isn’t a big deal, especially since it’s over in the international terminal. But I think this is a significant strike against United, especially when competitor American Airlines is opening Flagship Lounges at a rapid pace and providing its premium transcon travelers with access to those lounges. SFO’s Terminal G is not hard to walk to from Terminal 3, and with only 16 seats on the transcon 757, extending Polaris Lounge access to its business class transcon passengers wouldn’t put a heavy extra load on the new lounge.
In any case, I instead proceeded to the United Club at the “rotunda,” which is the largest United Club at SFO. This is a good-looking lounge with an impressive entryway and lots of space.
Even on a busy Sunday evening, I had no trouble finding plenty of space to sit, along with access to power outlets and Wi-Fi. In fact, one smaller side room was completely empty.
The best feature of this particular United Club is the large windows running along one side of the lounge, giving guests an expansive view of the tarmac. I must say I greatly enjoyed sitting and watching the planes go by as I worked on my laptop.
However, if you’re expecting a full meal at this lounge, you’ll be disappointed. The offerings leaned more toward the salad bar variety, with a soup option (tomato soup on the day I was there), cheese and crackers and a few bite-sized desserts.
A full bar is also available with complimentary house wines and liquors, while anything on the higher end will incur a charge. If you’re looking for non-alcoholic beverages, there’s a Coca Cola freestyle machine.
Overall, this lounge is fine but nothing spectacular — it’s essentially a standard (though it is a lot larger than most) domestic airline lounge with a great view and uninspired food options. If your priority is a seat and a large lounge, you’ll be fine here. If you’re looking for a more substantial meal and have The Platinum Card® from American Express, I’d suggest the Centurion Lounge, which is also in Terminal 3. It will almost certainly be more crowded at the Centurion Lounge, but you’ll have a much better selection of food and complimentary drinks.
Cabin and Seat
Boarding began right on time at 5:10pm and business-class passengers were invited to board early. There were 16 lie-flat seats in four rows with a 2×2 configuration in the forward cabin.
Waiting at each seat was a small amenity kit and the Saks Fifth Avenue pillow and blanket that is part of the Polaris experience, even without the new Polaris seat.
The seat controls are available on the inner armrest of each seat, allowing a variety of positions from full upright to lie-flat. These definitely aren’t the most modern seat controls you’ll find, but they do get the job done.
Obviously the major downside of the cabin is the 2×2 configuration, which means half the passengers have no aisle access and must climb across the aisle passenger to get up (fortunately my seatmate slept the entire flight). However, the seat is surprisingly comfortable with the controls and outlets where you’d expect them to be, and a tray table that’s large enough for both a drink and a laptop.
My one complaint is that storage is minimal in this seat, but there’s a spot for bags under the storage cubby, and also a small area behind you where the A/C outlet is.
Amenities and IFE
Our flight pushed back 4 minutes early and was airborne about 15 minutes later. After takeoff, I explored the United IFE system, which doesn’t offer a huge selection and leans heavily on mainstream Hollywood box office fare. As an example, the two movies under the “classics” section of the system (denoted with a black and white movie still) were “Forrest Gump” and “Spy Kids.”
The TV side of the equation is somewhat better, with most titles featuring 3-5 episodes of the series and a few with 10 or more.
The system can be controlled either by touch screen or a two-sided remote. Oddly enough, the touchscreen was more responsive than the remote — I usually find it’s the opposite — but the distance from the seat to the screen made using it by touch awkward.
Oddly enough, there were no headphones waiting for me when I first arrived at my seat — instead, I had to ask a flight attendant for them. When I got them, they performed respectably on the system with moderate noise cancellation.
The IFE system was adequate, but the Wi-Fi on this bird was completely horrendous. The service provided by Panasonic cost $24.99 for the duration of the flight and essentially didn’t work the entire time. The signal kept dropping out and was barely usable during the few times it was available, even after trying on multiple devices. It was so bad that I was unable to get a speed reading — not that it would have mattered anyway since it was impossible to get any work done.
Diving into the amenity kit that had been waiting for me when I arrived, I found it to be somewhat sparse, with only the absolute basics included — eye mask, toothbrush, toothpaste, lip balm and earplugs, all in a small cotton bag. Some people will undoubtedly find this disappointing, but as a traveler whose bedroom is already bursting with old airline amenity kits, I actually found this choice refreshing. I don’t really need more than the basics for a transcon flight, so why load up an amenity kit with a lot of unnecessary junk?
The United transcon 757-200 business class seat turns into a lie-flat bed by extending to its full 62-inch flat length, which butts up against the 13-inch foot/storage cubby for a total length of 75 inches. I’ve used other business seat configurations like this and the extension design works fine.
One of my biggest complaints about in-air lie-flat beds is not the length, but rather the width — when they’re too narrow, the seat feels like you’re lying in a coffin. However, this United lie-flat bed had better width than most, making it comfortable when lying between the armrests. However, while the short length worked for me, I suspect it would be cramped for a tall person.
The single lavatory at the front of the cabin was generally clean and well stocked — it was neither comfortably large nor uncomfortably small. One lavatory for 16 passengers was adequate, though a second lavatory was available behind us at the front of the economy cabin if needed.
Finally, a test of the temperature and humidity in the cabin showed a comfortable 71 degrees with 10-14% humidity, and the ambient sound level in the cabin clocked in between 82 and 86 decibels.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Before takeoff, the flight attendant came by and asked if I wanted a pre-departure beverage. I ordered a Coke, which came in a blue plastic cup, as did everyone’s pre-departure drink. Once we were airborne, beverage orders arrived in standard glassware, and undoubtedly United uses plastic cups for this early drink service to make it easier to pick up quickly before pushing back from the gate. Still, Delta does its transcontinental pre-departure service in glassware.
Along with the pre-departure drink, the flight attendant handed out dinner menus. The front side of the one-page card showed the various courses, along with the choices available for the main dish.
On the back of the menu card was an abbreviated wine and liquor list, which had the usual suspects on the liquor side but didn’t specify the different types of wine. I inquired later to find out that the sparkling wine being offered was a Ca’ di Rajo Mito prosecco.
Before we pushed back, the flight attendant took our requests for our main course. I particularly liked that she asked for both a first and second choice.
The first official beverage service began about 15 minutes after takeoff. I ordered a gin and tonic, which is both my standard drink and the one I like to request on a flight to see how it’s mixed and delivered in the air. That’s because it’s a simple drink that anyone can make, but also one that anyone can screw up by not mixing it correctly.
The gin and tonic was presented in a glass with a lime (good) and plastic stirrer (also good), along with a small serving of mixed nuts. It was mixed decently if not perfectly — just a touch too much gin. But acceptable.
The first course was served just a few minutes after my drink arrived, consisting of the starter and salad courses.
I really enjoyed this salad and appetizer course. The açai vinaigrette was perfectly matched to the grape-infused salad, the shrimp was flavored with just the right amount of kick and the pineapple slices were juicy and delicious. My only complaint is I would have liked two shrimp instead of one.
Next, the main course arrived — I had ordered the beef short rib as my first choice, even though I know it’s difficult to do meat well in the air.
Unfortunately, it was not my day to beat the odds. The beef was tough and had the taste of having been frozen for a while, while both the polenta and kale were overpowering in comparison. There also wasn’t enough sauce for the meat. The pretzel roll was the one positive, as was the flight attendant who proactively offered me a second one.
But then… the famed dessert cart arrived to win me back over. Featuring a choice of sundaes, chocolate caramel or fruit, there were enough options to make everyone happy, and the flight attendant had no issues giving me everything but the fruit.
When it came to the sundaes, the difference between United and the Delta business class transcon flight I had taken the day before was stark. Whereas Delta’s sundae was just ice cream and sauce, United’s dessert looked (and tasted) like an actual sundae, with chocolate chips, whip cream and a classic cherry on top.
To top it all off, not only did the attendant ask if I wanted coffee with dessert, he brought me a side plate with extra cream, sugar and a napkin.
These extra touches at dessert were typical of the service on this flight — generally a notch above standard domestic business class, but still lacking attention to detail at times, which made things a little hit and miss. As I’ve come to expect on US airlines, when I first sat down, the flight attendant asked if I wanted my coat hung up, and then returned it about 10 minutes before landing. However, also as I’ve come to expect on US airlines, once the meal service was complete, I didn’t see very much more of the flight attendants for the rest of the flight, which meant I had to get up and track someone down midflight to get a glass of the prosecco.
Another example of the haphazard service was having to ask for headphones. I don’t know if this is standard on United, but on both Delta and American, the headphones are waiting for you when you arrive. Still, those quirks aside, the service on this particular flight felt slightly better than a typical US airline.
I’ve now flown on the transcontinental products offered by all three of the legacy airlines, as well as JetBlue Mint. United’s offering lands somewhere in the middle — not fantastic by any means, but pleasant enough for a six hour flight. One could argue that you shouldn’t expect a top notch experience given the cost of this flight versus a true international business-class experience, but one could also argue that JetBlue does a pretty spectacular job with its transcon at that same price point — or even less.
Would I fly in United’s transcon business class cabin again? Yes, but I’m not sure it would be my first choice, considering I can get a better seat on JetBlue and a better ground experience in a worl-class lounge on American. Of course, considering there are now Polaris Lounges open in both San Francisco and Newark, it would take one simple policy tweak for United to immediately catch up with AA on this front. Whether it’s something United’s executives will one day consider to improve its domestic transcontinental experience remains to be seen.
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