The good – and bad – of flying United’s transcon Polaris during the pandemic

Aug 27, 2020

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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of four reviews of premium transcontinental flights during the pandemic. Expect to see reviews of American Flagship First and Delta One shortly. The JetBlue Mint review has already published. 

Before the pandemic, the major U.S. airlines competed fiercely on some of the popular and lucrative routes between the New York area and Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Even though travel demand has declined significantly, the carriers are still offering their top products on these cross-country routes. I recently flew United’s transcon Polaris product from San Francisco to Newark — a route I’d flown many times in the past. What follows are 15 thoughts on what’s changed since my pre-pandemic Polaris review.

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In This Post

SFO was empty

I was flying on a Wednesday afternoon, and the airport was empty. In fact, it was even quieter than when I visited at 4:30 a.m. to review the Amex Centurion Lounge before the pandemic.

There were just a handful of people checking in for United flights. Had we visited during the morning or evening departure banks, it likely would have been a different story.

The security checkpoints were all consolidated into one screening lane. Clear and PreCheck queues were open, but I was funneled into the main security line after the ID check.

I was given a laminated card showing my PreCheck status, allowing me to keep my shoes on and my laptop in my bag.

The security officers’ workstations just received a major upgrade. The new acrylic barriers on display at SFO are currently being installed at airports across the country. The TSA is contracting Lavi Industries to build an additional 1,230 units at 37 airports nationwide. At a cost of $2.48 million, I was surprised that the security agent wasn’t using the new barrier.

Once airside, there were plenty of hand sanitizer stations located throughout the airport. Most stores and restaurants were closed, so the majority of passengers were sitting by the gate.

United Club is open

SFO is home to four United Clubs, as well as a flagship Polaris Lounge. Because of the pandemic, United has consolidated its lounge operations to a single location in Terminal F.

Polaris Lounges nationwide remain shuttered, and all eligible passengers are invited to use the standard United Club. That doesn’t make too much of a difference for transcon UA flyers. Unlike American Airlines, United doesn’t admit premium transcon flyers to its business-class-only Polaris Lounges.

Though the lounge was open, food and beverage services have been suspended due to local county restrictions. All guests are given a small to-go bag stocked with water and some snacks.

The club was certainly the cleanest and emptiest that I’ve seen it, but there wasn’t much reason to hang out there for so long.

Related: 7 ways the United Club experience has changed due to the pandemic

Cheap fares & easy upgrades

Before JetBlue introduced Mint, cross-country business-class airfares could easily climb to well above $2,000 each way. Along with a revolutionary onboard product, JetBlue also upended the legacy pricing strategy for the transcon market.

Pre-pandemic, fares started at around $600 each way. Now, due to JetBlue’s Newark expansion and the depressed travel market, flights have dropped to $399 each way.

But even if you can’t find an inexpensive fare, scoring an upgrade has never been easier. Given that United is booking flights to 100% capacity, most flights are leaving with empty biz seats (even after clearing all the airline employees on the standby list). If you’ve got PlusPoints to burn, now’s a great time to consider using them — especially since international travel is largely off-limits for the foreseeable future.

Related: The cheapest way to upgrade transcon United flights

Lie-flat seats are back

In April, United pulled most lie-flat seats from its transcon flights. Instead of operating swanky widebody jets, the carrier put more efficient planes on the routes.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for United to restore lie-flat service. You’ll now find a mix of Boeing 757s, 767s, 777s and 787-10 Dreamliners flying cross-country.

Just note that you won’t find any of the legacy-United 757-200s with a 28-seat biz cabin, since those planes are parked in long-term storage. Furthermore, schedule changes are happening quite frequently – I was booked to fly the flagship Boeing 777-300ER, but it was swapped to a 777-200 at the last minute.

Related: Why more lie-flat seats on United flights isn’t necessarily good news

You’re responsible for your social distancing strategy

A handful of airlines are blocking seats on every flight to promote social distancing. United isn’t one of them. As such, your flight could easily be booked full.

That’s why I was keen to check the seat map and monitor the loads on my flight. For one, I chose to fly midweek with the hope that it wouldn’t be too full. (It paid off; we departed with just 32 of the 50 Polaris pods taken.)

Additionally, I purposely chose to sit in the last row of the cabin in one of the single seats flush with the window. I figured that I’d be farthest from the galley and fewer passengers would walk by my seat.

Related: How to determine if your flight is full

The plane was cleaner than ever

One of the first things I noticed when I boarded was how clean the plane was.

Upon entering the plane, every passenger was given a sanitizing wipe and gloves by request as part of United’s CleanPlus initiative.

Even though the plane hadn’t flown in five days, I decided to clean my area again.

But Premium Plus and coach, as well as Polaris, were all in tip-top condition.

Even the tray tables and lavatories looked spotless.

There were more passengers in Polaris than coach

Flying on a nearly empty widebody is thrilling. The takeoff roll was one of the fastest I’ve ever experienced on a 777.

It felt like there were many more passengers in Polaris than there were in the back of the plane. The entire Economy Plus section had just one passenger. The main coach cabin had just a handful too.

If you choose the right flight, you don’t necessarily need to splurge for the extra space in Polaris. But with low fares and easy upgrades, I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

The hard product is great

Boarding the United 777 was so exciting. It was my first time in a Polaris pod since March, and I couldn’t contain my excitement as I boarded. I kept snapping pictures of the cabin and aircraft.

I love the Polaris seat. (Those who follow me on Instagram know that Polaris is one of my favorite biz products.) The seat converts to a lie-flat bed and features plenty of personal space.

The 16-inch entertainment screen was full of recent movies and TV shows, and there was plenty of storage for my electronics in the small cubby.

Seats are arranged in an alternating 1-2-1 configuration. Each window seat is either flush with the window (my preference) or the aisle.

Center pods are either adjacent to each other (great for couples) or facing the aisles.

Related: The ultimate guide to United Polaris

Amenity kit hasn’t changed since March

United’s transcon product has been pretty consistent over the past few years.

The amenity kit has been through a few iterations though, and the latest version is a plastic pouch with a limited selection of goodies. There’s a postcard themed to a United destination, as well as an eye mask, toothbrush, lip balm and earplugs.

It isn’t as extensive as JetBlue’s Hayward-branded kits, but it’s definitely better than nothing.

You’ll be served a meal

Every airline is making adjustments to the meal and snack service. After all, it’s likely one of the riskiest (and costliest) components of the inflight experience since flyers are allowed to take off their mask for eating and drinking.

United isn’t providing meals for most domestic flights (even if you’re sitting up front). However, UA is making an exception for premium transcons.

Unlike pre-pandemic, there was no menu available at the seat. Instead, the flight attendant came around asking for orders.

She offered a choice of chicken or pasta, but didn’t give much more description than that. I noticed that she first asked Global Services and Premier 1Ks for their meal preference, before going to other customers.

I selected the pasta, which was served all on one tray with foil and seals intact. The butternut squash mezzaluna was better than I expected. It was served with a side salad, roll (so long bread basket), mixed nuts and a cookie.

Overall, the meal was about as good as I remember it from March pre-pandemic. The most noticeable difference was the dessert. Much to the chagrin of my sweet tooth, the ice cream sundae cart has been temporarily removed. At least the Christie Cookie Company snickerdoodle cookie was good! (I wasn’t surprised to learn that Christie is the same company that created the legendary Doubletree cookie.)

Transcon snack basket during the pandemic
Transcon snack basket from March

After the meal, there was a snack basket available for those seated in Polaris. The selection included gummy bears, pretzels and kettle chips — much more limited than before the pandemic.

In coach, United offers an all-in-one snack bag with two snacks, a bottle of water and a sanitizing wipe. Economy Plus passengers used to be served a small meal on this flight, but that’s been temporarily suspended.

Related: Here’s what food and drinks you can expect on your next flight

Expect a limited liquor selection

One of the highlights of flying in Polaris is the On The Rocks Old Fashioned. Unfortunately, the drink is unavailable for the time being according to the crew on my flight.

Old Fashioned served in March

However, there’s a full assortment of traditional liquors available upon request. I selected a gin and tonic with my lunch, which was served in a sealed bottle and can.

Pre-departure beverages have a new meaning

Before the coronavirus, pre-departure beverages were offered in Polaris. It was always a nice touch to get a drink after the inevitable chaos that comes with boarding.

Now, Polaris flyers get a small 8.5-ounce bottle of Dasani water served alongside a sanitizing wipe.

Boy, how times have changed. The closest thing you’re getting to alcohol on the ground is whatever’s included in the wipe. (No, it’s not edible.)

Goodbye to the Saks duvet

I’ve always slept great in the Polaris pod. Aside from the comfortable bed, I’ve enjoyed United’s pajamas and Saks Fifth Avenue-branded bedding on international jaunts.

On transcon flights, you used to receive a pillow and Saks duvet.

Transcon Polaris bed during the pandemic

Unfortunately, to trim costs, United has removed the duvet from eligible domestic flights and replaced it with a day blanket. This didn’t bother me too much on the daytime flight, but I would certainly miss the duvet on redeyes or longer hauls to Alaska or Hawaii.

Transcon Polaris bed in March

Related: United improves onboard beverage service, trims Saks amenities

The Wi-Fi worked (well)!

As a Premier 1K, I’ve had plenty of experience with United’s often unreliable Wi-Fi network.

Fortunately, it worked well on my flight. Priced at $32.99 for the entire flight, speeds were some of the best I’ve experienced in recent memory.

Deplaning is still a mess

Of the major U.S. carriers, United is doing a great job at attempting to deplane passengers in a socially distant manner. Flight attendants called groups of rows to deplane together. Once the first group got off the plane, the crew called for another.

While this sounds good in theory, passengers didn’t follow instructions on my flight. They crowded the aisles, making deplaning one of the least safe elements of the flight experience.

Related: The one major social distancing challenge I’d like to see airlines fix

Bottom line

Flying United’s best domestic product was exhilarating. I hadn’t been on a UA transcon since March 5, and I was excited to see how my pandemic experience compared.

Well, the hard product is still the same — and that’s a great thing. Expect lie-flat seats with plenty of personal space on the 777 and 787-10. Though the meal service has been trimmed, at least it’s still available.

The two things I missed most were the old fashioned and Saks duvet. But if those are the only cuts United is making to the experience, then Polaris remains one of my top choices for cross-country travel.

All photos by Zach Griff/The Points Guy 

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