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Great Star Alliance Lounge at LAX, friendly service, good streaming-entertainment options, decent in-flight catering.
The Wi-Fi was sluggish at times, no seat-back TV, a 24-seat cabin is too large for personalized service.
Travelers are often confused as they try to sort through the various premium cabin offerings, especially when it comes to US-based airlines. “First class is the nicest, right?” Well, not exactly. It’s actually more complicated than that. While international first class will land you lobster, caviar, and perhaps even a fully-enclosed suite, domestic first class isn’t any more luxurious than, say, the coach cabin on a regional Amtrak train.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, when it comes to domestic travel, business class actually offers a far superior experience, as I found in United’s 787-10 Polaris cabin, flying between Newark (EWR) and Los Angeles (LAX). But my first-class flight back east was a bit of a letdown.
As a Newark-based flyer, I’m well acquainted with United’s 757-200s, which are used for transatlantic and transcontinental flights, since they offer lie-flat seats up front. The larger 757-300 is an entirely different beast, with ordinary recliners and operating primarily from the carrier’s hub at Chicago O’Hare (ORD).
We decided to book a one-way paid ticket on this LAX-Chicago nonstop for about $550, paying with The Platinum Card® from American Express and earning 5X points on airfare (we value those 2,750 Membership Rewards points at $55). As a Premier 1K member, I also earned 5,434 redeemable miles, worth $76 based on our valuations, plus 2,618 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs) and 494 Premier-Qualifying Dollars (PQDs).
I had just visited the United Club for my LAX-EWR review, so I decided to shake things up with a trip to the Star Alliance Lounge at the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), which I was able to access as a United Club member, courtesy of my United MileagePlus® Club Card, even though I was traveling in domestic first class.
In the past, I might have walked over from United’s Terminal 7, but TBIT recently added TSA PreCheck, which has really improved the security screening there. I was through and to the lounge in just a few minutes — an automated scan of my boarding pass got me in.
While the Polaris Lounge has a more robust food and beverage offerings, I didn’t have access on this domestic trip.
The Star lounge serves a variety of salads and other cold items — an improvement over the United Club selection, even at LAX’s upgraded lounge.
There’s a mix of hot items, including roasted veggies, meats and more.
A fun build-your-own pho bar at the back corner of the lounge is always a must-visit for me!
Beverage selections range from white, red and rose wines …
… to a full bar with draft beer, cocktails and more.
My favorite lounge feature, though, is the terrace, located just past the showers.
There’s even a view of airport operations, though it’s limited by a construction project right now.
There’s a beer fridge out on the terrace, but you can always grab something from the main bar and head outside, as I did on this visit.
Shortly before boarding, I made my way over to Terminal 7 using the LAX connector, which makes it possible to complete the 20-minute journey without passing through security a second time.
You’ll need to walk through various tunnels and passageways — a small price to pay for some free food and drinks at TBIT.
Boarding began a few minutes late, about 35 minutes before departure. While that was still easily enough time to board a 757, the gate staff was clearly getting a bit worked up about the delay, since they wanted to get us out on time.
The gate agent was fantastic about communication during the “delay,” explaining that the catering team and cleaners were still onboard (even though the aircraft arrived early from Hawaii), and provided an update every couple of minutes.
Cabin and Seat
Our flight was on a 15-year-old Boeing 757-300. United has recently renovated its extended-length 757 fleet, adding new seats throughout but maintaining the relatively large first-class cabin size, with a total of six rows of seats in a 2-2 configuration.
With 24 seats in total, this is United’s largest domestic first-class cabin.
While we were clearly traveling on a dated plane, the cabin still felt fairly fresh, thanks to the recent renovations.
There’s not much to say about the seat. I chose 5F, at the starboard-side window in the second-to-last row. Seats are roughly 19 inches wide (between the armrests) and offer an industry-standard 38 inches of pitch.
There’s storage available under each side (except at the bulkhead row), with enough room to accommodate my small backpack between the two seats in front, giving me a bit more room for my feet.
A small compartment underneath the adjustable armrest stores a small laptop or tablet.
There is also a nifty water bottle holder (though water bottles aren’t provided, so you might want to bring your own).
A slide-out drink table gives both occupants enough room to hold drinks and nuts.
Each pair of seats has three dedicated air vents, plus a flight attendant call button, which is handy given the large cabin size.
Amenities and IFE
Only a small blanket and a universal power outlet between each seat are offered as amenities.
United’s latest domestic first-class seat does not offer seat-back TV, so you’re on your own when it comes to entertainment.
The tray table offers a slick fold-out tablet holder to keep streaming content available. Luckily I happened to be traveling with my (fully charged) iPad this time around.
In addition to transmitting on-demand content throughout the plane, the Wi-Fi offered internet connectivity as well.
I was a bit disappointed by the performance, considering that United’s 757-300s sport ViaSat satellite Wi-Fi traditionally has performed a bit better than Panasonic’s offering.
Still, I had no trouble getting some work done, and navigating the streaming options was a breeze (Be sure to download the latest United app before you board!).
There were 85 movies available, including (relatively) new releases, such as Crazy Rich Asians.
The player makes it easy to find the exact spot where you left off, and the quality was decent, too.
The television selection included a grand total of eight shows — United has some work to do there.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Shortly after boarding, a smiling flight attendant came by to offer beverages. I asked for an Old Fashioned, which was delivered without any fuss — just the way I like it.
The in-flight service began about 30 minutes after takeoff, starting with hot towels, beverages and nuts.
Then, about an hour after takeoff, my dinner arrived. I got my first choice, the chicken pesto, and there was a lentil chili available as well.
Since everything was served at once, I decided to work backwards, starting with my entree while it was still hot. The dish was flavorful overall, and the chicken was moist — not restaurant-quality, but one of the better meals I’ve had on a domestic flight.
The salad was fresh, and the cheesecake was moist and delicious.
With a total of 24 seats, the 757-300 presents a bit of a challenge to flight attendants — on this flight, there was one crew member working the cabin while another prepared meals in the galley.
Our flight attendant was friendly and positive throughout the flight, and responded within a few seconds when I pressed the call button to ask him to take my tray away.
United’s 757-300 product demonstrates the importance of carefully reviewing the aircraft type before booking a flight — the 757-300 may have a similar airframe, but the smaller -200 offers a far-superior premium-cabin product than you’ll find on the larger plane. Still, I had a pleasant flight on this slightly larger domestic plane — some may balk at the lack of seat-back TVs and there wasn’t anything special about the service, but it was the best I could have hoped for given the large cabin size.
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