As good as United transcon gets: A review of Polaris business from New York to Los Angeles on the Boeing 787-10
During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. However, we are publishing new flight, hotel and lounge reviews, from trips taken before the lockdown. We have also been publishing a selection of our most popular reviews from the past year. We hope this will help you choose once we’re all ready to start booking trips again.
Bear in mind that for the foreseeable future, service on board will be greatly reduced to lower the risk of contamination, and that the ground experience — with lounges closed or without food and amenities — will also be very different from what was available before the pandemic.
[tpg_rating ticket-class="business" tpg-rating-score="81" ground-experience="12" cabin-seat="27" amens-ife="11" food-bev="18" service="13" pros="Top-notch lie-flat seat; delicious food; attentive service throughout the meal." cons="Overcrowded United Club in Newark; hectic boarding process; very basic amenity kit." /]
The transcontinental routes between New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco are among the busiest and most premium in the entire country. All major U.S. airlines fly these routes and compete for corporate contracts and business passengers by offering their most extensive onboard service and product.
Even so, that experience varies widely by carrier and the aircraft operating each route. United's best offering is on its Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner, featuring fully lie-flat Polaris pods, a Premium Plus cabin and an elevated coach experience.
My colleague Zach Honig flew the Los Angeles - Newark route last year and noted that the service still needed work. Read on for what it was like just over a year later.
Before the coronavirus crisis, United used a mix of Boeing 757, 777 and 787-10 aircraft for its premium transcontinental routes between Newark, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The EWR-LAX route offered twice-daily 787-10 service, and the SFO route offered it once daily. We're now seeing transcon routes operated mostly by 737s and Airbus A319s with first-class recliner seats, plus some flights on 787-8s, some of which have the newest Polaris. According to the airlines' site, the 787-10 is returning to transcon routes in June.
Getting a seat in biz on the 787-10 paying cash can be cheaper than one might think. Ever since JetBlue entered the transcon market with its award-winning Mint product, the advance-purchase one-way fares between NYC and LAX and SFO have dropped significantly. If you're booking far enough in advance, you can find seats starting at roughly $600, not bad for a five-hour-plus flight.
But finding award space is a whole different game. United knows that most people prefer flying on the 787-10 with the airline's best Polaris biz seats, so finding award seats isn't nearly as easy as it is on flights operated by the 757 or 777. If you're lucky enough to find one, the cost will vary as United now dynamically prices award tickets. If you end up finding saver award space, you could always redeem points with your favorite Star Alliance airline loyalty program.
In my case, I redeemed one of the best (and cheapest) upgrades in the book. As a United Premier 1K, I receive 280 PlusPoints each year. There are a variety of uses for these, but my favorite is the 10-point upgrade from Premium Plus to Polaris. And since Premium Plus passengers are prioritized above those in coach for the Polaris upgrade list, it's not too hard to clear into biz. For more about this sweet-spot upgrade, check out my dedicated post here.
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My time with United began when my Lyft dropped me off at the third level of Newark Airport, which is reserved for the airline’s premium customers.
The check-in halls were especially quiet this Wednesday afternoon, no surprise given it was early March, just before the coronavirus outbreak resulted in nationwide lockdowns. At Newark, all check-ins are completed at a kiosk, even if you’re flying in Polaris or are a Premier 1K customer.
Though I wasn’t checking any bags, I proceeded to the Premier Access check-in counter to print a boarding pass. There were plenty of agents roaming around in case you had issues checking in, but the kiosk worked as intended. Within minutes, I had a printed boarding pass and made my way through security.
Newark recently received a big upgrade: the addition of Clear security lanes. Although the check-in areas were quiet, there was a line at PreCheck. I used my free Clear membership (here’s how you can get one too) to skip the line and breeze through security.
Once airside, I made my way to the main United Club at Newark located next to Gate C74. Ever since United opened the Polaris Lounge at Newark, the regular clubs have been especially overcrowded. The airline opened a few temporary United Clubs, but that hasn't solved the crowding issue. Fortunately, help is on the way in the form of a new “one-of-a-kind" United Club. (Bear in mind that most United lounges are currently closed.)
After showing my boarding pass, I was promptly admitted to the Club. Finding a seat was nearly impossible, though. The lounge was packed. I took a brief tour of the space and then made my way to the gate. This is a prime example of why I often skip the airport lounge and head straight to the gate.
The lounge’s food selection was about average for a domestic club. There were a bunch of cold options, including a small salad bar, hummus and crudités, cheese selection, red pepper gouda soup, brownies and cookies.
For those with a sweet craving, there was a table with snack jars filled with M&Ms, banana chips and pretzels, in addition to towers of ice-cold water.
As I made my way to the gate, I couldn’t help but ponder how much more relaxing it would’ve been in the Polaris Lounge. Unlike American, which allows domestic business-class passengers into the Flagship lounges, United denies premium transcontinental passengers access to its top-tier lounges. Access is restricted to passengers traveling in Polaris on intercontinental flights, or long-haul first or business on Star Alliance airlines.
Gate C98 was packed by the time I got there 10 minutes before boarding. Interestingly, there was a dedicated Global Services agent waiting at the front of the queue to welcome and escort those uber-elites onto the plane. This was the first time I’ve seen that in all my United flying.
But I’m just a lowly 1K, so I waited my turn to preboard. Once aboard, I found an already hectic cabin that only got busier since everyone boarded through Door 1L.
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Polaris seats are pretty standard across United’s fleet.
On the 787-10, the biggest of the Dreamliners, the 44 business-class seats are spread across 11 rows in a 1-2-1 configuration. Seats are staggered, which means that the window seats alternate between being closer to the aisle and window. Similarly, center seats alternate between being adjacent to each other and closer to the aisle.
My strong preference is an odd-numbered solo seat that’s flush with the window since it offers additional privacy from the aisle.
I got an ExpertFlyer alert that two such seats — 5L and 7L — opened up just a few hours before departure. Thankfully, I chose 7L since Row 5 is missing a window. (ExpertFlyer is owned by the same parent company as The Points Guy.)
Though Polaris seats are essentially identical across the fleet, there are some reasons to choose one plane over another. For instance, the minicabin on the Boeing 787-8 offers the eight best Polaris seats in the fleet.
In my opinion, the 787-10 — the biggest of the three Dreamliner models — is middle of the pack. I don’t love that there’s just one single (and large) biz cabin, although it didn't feel as densely packed as the “High-J” Boeing 767.
Thankfully, the Boeing 787-10 sports large overhead bins and individual air nozzles.
The seat itself is incredibly comfortable. It’s 21 inches wide, and the bed measures 76 inches long. You can add a few more inches of width if you lower the aisle armrest that doubles as a literature pocket.
I found the bed very comfortable for a short nap. I especially liked the extra room around my head in bed mode.
Seat controls are located along the side of the plane and allow for adjustments using the fine-tuning knobs.
The side table is plenty large for a laptop or magazines. There’s also an enclosed storage compartment with a mirror and headphone hook.
The tray table measures 18 inches long and 15 inches wide and fit my 13-inch MacBook Pro without an issue.
There are four lavatories for business class, two at the front of the cabin and two just behind. Each featured Sunday Riley hand cream and face mist, as well as Murchison-Hume Garment Groom.
All in all, this is definitely the best seat United flies between coasts.
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The amenities on offer were just about average for a premium transcontinental flight.
Waiting at my seat was a Saks branded pillow, plush blanket and bare-bones amenity kit.
Although I completely understand that United doesn’t feel the competitive pressure to offer a gel pillow or throw blanket on this route (like it does on international Polaris routes), adding those two amenities would definitely go a long way in differentiating the Polaris experience.
The real disappointment, though, was the amenity kit. It contained a toothbrush, earplugs, thin eye mask, Sunday Riley lip balm and a postcard. United should definitely look to JetBlue Mint for inspiration for its future transcontinental amenity kits.
There was plenty of inflight entertainment on the 15.4-inch HD screen. I counted 255 movies, including a bunch of new releases like "Bombshell" and "A Hidden Life."
The TV show selection was similarly robust, including multiple episodes of "Saturday Night Live" and HBO’s "Succession."
I love United’s new IFE software. Everything loaded smoothly and there were plenty of nifty features like a relax mode which displays a screensaver while playing calming music.
There's a remote, as well as an AC outlet and USB ports at the edge of the side table.
Panasonic Wi-Fi was available for purchase. A full-flight pass cost $24.99, and although the internet needed to be reset once, speeds were impressive at 17.9 Mbps download and 1.53 Mbps upload.
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You’ll be fed well in United’s transcontinental business class. Though the service isn’t as extensive as it is on an international route, everything I tried was wholesome and tasty.
There was a two-sided menu waiting on the side table when boarding. There was no choice of starter, but there were three entree options.
Lunch began about 30 minutes after departure. I was first asked for my drink order, which was served alongside some warm mixed nuts.
Dear United: Please don’t ever remove your signature Knob Creek Old Fashioned On the Rocks from the menu.
I was then offered a plate with a cold appetizer and salad, along with a selection of bread from the basket.
The stuffed grape leaf was a great way to start the meal. The harissa spice gave it an extra kick. The spinach salad was a bit bland but hit the spot.
I’m always impressed when there’s a good selection of breads. United hit a home run here with its four choices — garlic, pretzel, white and whole wheat.
My main was delivered about 90 minutes in to the flight — perfectly fine with me for a daytime transcon. The seared turbot filet was delicious. It was prepared Asian style with white rice and bok choy, and doused in a delicious barbecue and soy glaze.
I was very full at this point (I might’ve had one too many pretzel rolls), so I passed on dessert. But the dessert cart was very tempting. There were signature create-your-own Ghirardelli sundaes with a choice of toppings, including walnuts, chocolate chips, whipped cream and maraschino cherries.
Cheese and crackers, sliced fruit and brownies were available too.
After lunch, I dozed off but woke up 90 minutes before landing to the prearrival snack service. It consisted of a choice of turkey or hummus wraps, as well as a well-stocked snack basket.
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When Zach Honig reviewed this route earlier last year, he described the service as among the "least attentive I’ve had on a premium transcon United flight."
My experience was the complete opposite. I was greeted at the aircraft door by friendly flight attendants who pointed in the direction of my seat.
Service began with predeparture beverages of choice. Flight attendants really hustled since they needed to deliver drinks between spurts of people boarding.
Once the boarding door was closed, the flight attendant serving my aisle stopped by each passenger, introduced himself and collected entree orders. He asked for my backup should they be out of my top choice. This is one of my airplane pet peeves; flight attendants shouldn’t be asking top-tier elites for their second meal choice.
Either way, they had enough fish for everyone, so I didn’t have to worry about it.
Service throughout the meal was very attentive. Drink refills were proactive, and dishes were cleared just as they were finished. Though the lunch service wrapped up just a bit over two hours into the flight, I didn’t mind the prolonged service since it was a daytime flight.
I also appreciated that all food, except for dessert, was served on individual trays at each seat. There were no carts throughout the meal, which helped make the service feel more personalized.
One of the most competitive airline routes in North America is the roughly 2,400-mile journey between New York and Los Angeles. The competition is especially fierce in business class. The Big Three U.S. airlines, as well as JetBlue, all offer fully-flat seats at the pointy end of the plane on this route.
United’s best offering is its service on the Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner. In biz, this plane features the true Polaris product with direct aisle access from every seat, making this the airline's best hard product shuttling between the coasts.
Though the amenities could use an improvement, the food and beverage selection, as well as the service I received, were well above average.
All in all, biz on the United 787-10 Dreamliner puts biz on American’s A321T and Delta’s 767 to shame, and gives JetBlue Mint a run for its money. Is it best overall? That’s up to you, but it’s certainly United’s best transcon product.
All photos by the author.