What it’s like flying United’s newest flagship transcon routes from New York-JFK

May 8, 2021

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In case you missed it, United’s back at the busiest airport in the Northeast.

The Chicago-based carrier restarted flying to New York-JFK on March 28, a move that came nearly six years after pulling out of the market. In October 2015, the carrier consolidated its JFK routes to Newark, where it has a hub. Current United CEO Scott Kirby once described the move as a strategic mistake and “the wrong decision,” since the carrier ultimately lost lucrative corporate contracts to its competitors that continued flying to JFK.

For now, the carrier is flying just two routes to New York’s largest airport — from both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) — and pending slot constraints, more may be on the way.

With the premium transcontinental designation — and some intense competition — United’s current JFK flights are some of the highest-profile ones in the entire domestic network.

Exactly one month since the relaunch, I decided to give United’s newest flagship flight a try. Here’s how it went. (Note that United knew I was onboard, so this isn’t a formal review, and I won’t be commenting on any of the service elements in this story.)

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Swankiest jet in the fleet

To underscore the importance of the JFK flights, United’s deploying its swankiest jet — the “high-J” Boeing 767-300ER — on the new transcons.

This plane is outfitted with just 167 seats, spread across three cabins, with a whopping 46 Polaris biz pods, 22 Premium Plus recliners and 99 coach seats, 43 of which sport extra legroom.

With 16 rows, the single Polaris business-class cabin occupies nearly half of the entire plane’s interior.

When this premium-heavy configuration was first devised, United’s strategy was to send the plane on key business routes, like New York and Chicago to London.

Of course, the pandemic has essentially wiped away much of that demand, so the carrier is getting creative with its aircraft assignments.

Throughout the summer, the carrier will fly the “high-J” Boeing 767 on flagship leisure routes, like Newark (EWR) and San Francisco (SFO) to Maui (OGG), in the hopes that it can command a revenue premium for the top-notch onboard product.

As for JFK, United is making a splashy entrance. There seemingly isn’t enough demand right now to occupy 46 business-class seats, but it sets the carrier up for success when that demand eventually returns.

Easy upgrades

If you’re looking to score the fancy seats, this is the route to fly.

As mentioned, the jet’s outsized business-class cabin means there are often unsold Polaris pods in the days and weeks leading up to departure, frequently making for an easy upgrade.

Case in point: on my flight, 17 biz upgrades cleared, including a handful of which were non-revenue standbys.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard similar reports from other travelers, and taking a look at the upgrade list for the next few days seems to confirm that the nice seats are being filled with last-minute upgrades.

You can upgrade to either premium economy or business class using PlusPoints or MileagePlus miles. (You earn the former as a top-tier Premier elite member.) The transcon route requires 20 PlusPoints for a bump to either premium economy or biz. If you’re already booked into premium economy, you can save 10 PlusPoints for the biz upgrade.

If you’re looking to upgrade with miles, check out the upgrade award chart to determine how many miles and dollars are required.

Lounge access is limited to the West Coast

If you’re flying in biz on United’s premium transcon service, your ticket includes lounge access.

United operates clubs at both its LAX and SFO hubs, but the carrier doesn’t have an outpost in its JFK home, Terminal 7. The carrier gave up its lounge there when it moved out in 2015. United is “working on” setting up lounge access at JFK for premium flyers, but there’s nothing to report yet.

Right now, I personally wouldn’t consider this a major drawback — at least not right now. Most lounges that have reopened are operating with limited services, and some are once again overcrowded.

Unlike American Airlines, United’s premium transcon flyers aren’t invited into the business-class-only Polaris lounges

Priority Pass members can normally access the Alaska Airlines lounge in JFK’s Terminal 7, but it’s temporarily shuttered due to the pandemic.

Polaris pods are a great way to fly

On my flight, I purchased a $219 premium economy ticket and then applied 10 PlusPoints for the biz upgrade — a worthwhile investment in my opinion.

The Polaris cabin is arranged in a 1-1-1 configuration, offering direct aisle access to every traveler. The one downside to this arrangement is that couples can’t sit next to each other.

Some window seats are adjacent to the aisle, though my personal preference is to select one that’s flush with the fuselage for added privacy.

I was quite happy with my seat choice, 17L, for this leg. It’s next to the window and provides a good overview of the 16-row cabin.

The only drawback is the proximity to the lavatory, but I didn’t find it bothersome for a five-hour day flight.

Each seat converts into a lie-flat bed at the touch of a dial.

The tray table slides out from under the inflight entertainment monitor, and it’s equipped with a built-in tablet stand that makes it easier to simultaneously watch a show and eat.

Finally, there’s a small storage compartment next to each seat, which doubles as a vanity mirror when opened.

For more details about United’s Polaris pods, check out TPG’s full review.

An amenity boost

During the height of the pandemic, United trimmed the Saks Fifth Avenue amenities distributed on premium transcon routes. Previously, biz passengers would receive a plush Saks-branded duvet.

That’s since been replaced with a much flimsier throw blanket.

The good news, however, is that to coincide with the JFK debut, United has added the cooling gel pillow that’s usually reserved for long-haul international flights.

As for the other amenities, biz flyers receive a standard pillow and bare-bones amenity pouch, with a postcard, eyeshade, dental kit, earplugs and Sunday Riley-branded lip balm.

A pandemic cut to food service

While United has cut meals from most domestic routes, premium transcons remain an exception. Biz flyers are served an individually wrapped, single-course meal, with the ability to choose from one of two entrees.

Unfortunately, however, the quality of the food has declined substantially from before the pandemic. Previously, those in the pointy end of the plane were presented with a menu card, and served a multi-course meal consisting of a welcome drink and mixed nuts, an appetizer course with a bread basket, a choice of three entrees and a dessert trolley featuring a create-your-own ice cream sundae bar.

On my flight, I was served breakfast, with the choice between an egg frittata and French toast. I asked for both — there were empty seats in biz — but neither were great.

I recognize that breakfast is one of the weakest airplane meals and United is still streamlining its catering due to the pandemic, but I was nevertheless disappointed with the offerings.

After all, take a look at what JetBlue serves for lunch in its Mint cabin on the exact same route in April and May 2021. There’s no comparison.

United has also cut the pre-arrival sandwiches from the premium transcon routes due to the pandemic. If you’re still hungry after the first meal, you can ask for some nosh from the (well-stocked) snack basket.

Drink up

Despite United’s uninspiring meal service, the carrier has recently invested in its drink options.

In addition to the standard assortment of non-alcoholic drinks, UA recently unveiled a revamped alcoholic beverage menu, which features Michelob Ultra, Breckenridge Brewery juice drop hazy IPA, Kona Brewing Co. Big Wave Golden Ale and White Claw mango-flavored hard seltzer, a United exclusive.

They join the existing liquor selections, including my personal favorite, the On The Rocks Old Fashioned. Despite the early hour, I tried some of the new options and definitely appreciated the investment United is making to offer a differentiated beverage menu.

Premium Plus isn’t a bad deal, either

If you’re looking for a bit more space without breaking the bank, you might want to consider premium economy, instead of Polaris. The 22 recliners are arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration, with no middles.

The seats are essentially the same as domestic first-class, with a few added bells and whistles like a leg rest and footrest.

The seat-back entertainment monitors are a bit larger than coach, and the inflight service on this leg largely mirrors that in biz.

You’ll receive a single-course meal after takeoff, as well as a choice of non-alcoholic drink, followed by a snack basket before landing.

Bottom line

United’s new JFK flights are some of the highest-profile ones in the entire network.

The carrier deploys its premium-heavy Boeing 767, with a ton of lie-flat pods occupying nearly half of the plane. While the Polaris hard product is top-notch, United could consider restoring the pre-pandemic meal service.

After all, as the transcon competition heats up and travel picks up once again, United ought to bring its A-game if it wants to win back the customers it lost five years ago when it pulled out of JFK.

All photos by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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