United's first Boeing 777-300ER at Chicago

United’s first Boeing 777-300ER (reg N2331U) at Chicago

Last Monday, it was disorienting when my alarm went off at 3:30am. At the time, I was not sure why it was happening, but I knew that I was not a fan. That was until I snapped back into reality and remembered that I was getting up early to fly on a few airplanes. The mission of that day was to check out United’s new Polaris business class — and I was up for it! I was to start in Seattle, fly to Chicago to meet United’s first 777-300ER, then I would get to know the product flying to San Fransisco, before heading home. All in the same long day.

In the Polaris business class cabin on United’s first 777-300ER

I have read about United’s new Polaris product and seen the photos, but nothing beats putting it to the test at 40,000 feet. Was it worth getting up so early? Oh you better believe it — it was one stellar experience (okay, I will try to behave with the space puns, mostly).

Mount Rainier, and friends, during my flight out of Seattle.

Mount Rainier, and friends, during my flight out of Seattle

My flight out of Seattle (SEA) was on a Boeing 737-900. It was a pretty standard flight, except for all the amazing views out the window. I slept, had some coffee, did some writing, and then landed. Once I was in Chicago, I made my way to the new Polaris Lounge.

Yes, it is pretty cool to hang out in the lounges and fly on the pretty planes. But one of the best parts of these trips is re-uniting with other aviation media folks that I seem to bump into around the world.

All a person needs for a good lounge experience. Although my name is David Parker Brown, I will let this one slide!

Saying hello and chatting, I almost got too distracted and forgot to try the food. I am glad that I didn’t. The food was good — very good. In United’s other lounges, I would have cheese, candy, trail mix, and zzz (that is for boring food, not actual sleep). In the Polaris Lounge (these will be special lounges for those flying on the Polaris product) the options are much more out of this world (and they have sleep spaces for the good zzz).

United's CEO helps to board our special flight.

United’s CEO helps to board our special flight.

Soon it was time for us to rally up and board the 777-300ER (after doing some modeling for United). This was a pretty special flight. Only about 60 people were on board and there were no “normal” passengers. However, even though it was a short 4.5-hour flight (well, short for the 777-300ER and the Polaris product) we were going to get the full treatment — plus some.

When it came time to board, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz made his way to the ticket podium. I figured he was going to say a few last motivational words and he would be on his way. However, he told the crowd it was time to board and took our tickets, scanned them, and welcomed us onboard. Now that is service.

Oscar reminds me more of Southwest’s fun and approachable Gary Kelly than more distant airline CEOs that I have met (that’s very much a compliment, if you weren’t sure). Does that matter? Absolutely.

The seat map for United's Boeing 777-300ER - Image: United

The seat map for United’s Boeing 777-300ER – Image: United

The Polaris business class is in a 1-2-1 layout. After trying to describe how the seats were configured over and over again in this story, I was still confused — and I flew on the plane. So I opted to add in the graphic above. As you can see, half the window seats have great access to a window, the others not so much. In the center, you either have easy access to the person next to you, the others not so much (all center seats have electronic dividers). The important part is that all seats have direct aisle access.

All the seats also have a shoulder harness seat belt. That was a new one for me. I have never had to ask one of the flight attendants how to buckle my seat belt before, but I wanted to make sure I got this one right. Luckily, it was only needed during take off and landing.

I am looking over the other middle seat (there’s some overlap at my head) and through the window seat passengers, to the window. Keeping it classy!

The really lame part of sitting in the middle is that you have almost no access to a window. Because each seat tries to give you a sense of privacy, I really had to work hard to look over my seat and try to look out the window (I was in 9G, bulkhead aisle). Luckily I knew the gentlemen in those seats (thanks Ramsey, Jason, and Andrew), but if I didn’t, I would be a total creeper.

My first impression of the new Polaris business class seat was awe. This was not the United product that I was used to. Honestly, I didn’t have super high expectations going into this, but just from the lounge and seat, I felt that we were off to a great start.

Shortly after take off our meal service began. That was a bit of a challenge since not only were we condensing service that would normally be a part of a 10-hour flight into four hours, but since this was a media flight, there were people up and down the aisles. The flight attendants were champs and made their way through the cabin serving food.

We also had United Executive Chef Gerry McLoughlin on board; hearing how he prepares the food was an extra special treat.

I started off with some Thai-syle lemongrass shrimp and salad. For my main meal I went with the braised short rib with bordelaise, creamy grits, cherry tomato, fava beans, shallot, and shiitake mushroom. I very much enjoyed the meal, but have to say it was a little weird seeing the fava beans. I was not a fan, but maybe that stems from my childhood.

The front part of the menu, above the food selection.

The front part of the menu, above the food selection.

I normally do not have a sweet tooth, but I couldn’t help myself and tried a few desserts. And then some more. I wanted to save room for the lobster mac and cheese snacks, but my tummy said no.

After dinner, it was time to head back to check out the economy class a bit closer. United opted for the ten-abreast seatings in their 777-300ER (they have nine currently in their 777-200s), which can cause a tight squeeze depending on your neighbors. Unfortunately, United is just following the lead of most other carriers in adopting the denser cabin.

It was kind of cool (and surreal) flying at 40,000 feet in an entirely empty economy cabin, but I could see it not being so enjoyable when full.

At the very back, a few of us made our way to the rear crew rest. Located above the main cabin, there are six comfortable beds that are relatively easy to access up some hidden stairs. They all had the same cozy amenities as the Polaris business class seats — including bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue.

After exploring, I decided to head back to my seat to get more familiar with it. The overall decor of the seat seemed high-end. From the materials used to the lamp off to the side. The IFE screen was large, a touchscreen, and close enough to actually reach. There was also a standard remote located off to the side as well. I didn’t have time to check out the movie options, as I was so busy checking out the rest of the cabin.

Go-go gadget sleep mode.

On the left side (for me) were all the controls for the seat. I loved the fly-wheel that you could rotate forward and back to adjust the seat. I have never seen this before. There were also pre-set buttons, but they weren’t as fun to play with. There was an easy-to-reach USB plug under the screen and another (with a full outlet) to the right. There was plenty of storage, including a cubby with headphones and a mirror.

I was having a hard time grasping I was sitting on a United plane. This product truly impressed me.

It wasn’t long before we started our descent into San Francisco. Most premium flights are too short, but at less than five hours, I really didn’t want to get off.

Before leaving the plane, I checked out the flight deck and then headed to the (non Polaris) lounge to wait for my flight back home (this time on an Airbus A319). It wasn’t long before I was back in my bed, heading off to sleep, just 20 hours after I woke up to start my adventure — which was truly out of this world.

Flying high with one of the two GE90 engines.

Flying high with one of the two GE90 engines

United’s first 777-300ER is aptly named the “New Spirit of United.” Not that long ago I wrote about seeing a positive change in United and its employees. I think this is another step forward.

While I was sharing my experience through our Twitter feed, I had quite a few of you point out that the product might be cool, but it’s no good if the employees are not. But it takes baby steps.

Yes, this was a media flight and of course they are going to choose the best of the best (which they were amazing by the way). However, starting with a product and aircraft you can be proud of starts a positive momentum. Then when you add a CEO, who seems to be creating a positive culture from the top, you are off to an amazing start.

Polaris bear is content

Polaris is much more than just a fancy new seat. It is also a new level of service and a potential new start to an airline. Hopefully, like the star it is named after, this product can help guide the future direction of United in a positive direction.

NOTE: United provided airfare to cover this story. Opinions are my own.

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EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: david@airlinereporter.com

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15 Comments
Jonathan in France

I hope you are right about a positive direction…I seem to remember hearing such promises before. United will have to deliver more than a slogan.

Agreed… fool me once…

David

Good stuff! Makes me glad to read about United on AR, especially when it’s good. I’m excited for the company, and hopeful for the chance to fly in Polaris one day.

And we used to fly on the first 727-100 (N7001U) outta SEA…..And we liked it!! LOL. Great to see a world class cabin. Now if only UAs management will follow suit and stop its anti-employee stance.

Jonathan in France

If United stopped behaving like thugs and started treating passengers with minimum courtesy, that would also be progress. Dreadful company, awful management, last choice.

Andrew Rice

JEALOUS!!!! Looks like it was a lot of fun! Nice report.

A press junket, (sorry, “Media,” to be sure, but why not? Currently UAL has ONE airplane out of many hundreds, configured for Polaris service. Will I live long enough to see Polaris service on even 25% of their fleet? I’m not taking bets. UAL may be trying, but moving up from Last Place, to compete with the far better 121 carriers will not happen anytime soon. And if fuel prices rise again, one can trash the entire program. I am FAR from sold on the idea that UAL can sustain this effort. Are there any plans to retro-fit older airframes, or is this a new, 773 only program. Glad that you had a nice experience, but I think you’ve been had. IMO, UAL simply does not have the will or the funds to make Polaris a universal substitute for their failed Business/First product. Further, within about a month, they will move the airplane to Trans-Pac service and we’ll never see it again. Of note: With no SLC in the economy section, I’ll bet that the flight crew faced some significant C.G. and balance problems. A light/empty tail section can be extremely difficult to trim and fly…

We all have to start somewhere right?

I would say I am a critic of UA. I pre-wrote part of my story before attending and it wasn’t as positive. However, what I saw seemed to be more than fancy wording or media spin.

I do think you are right. The biggest issue they will run into is consistency and getting this out on the fleet ASAP. Delta was able to get their new product online pretty quickly, we will see what UA can do!

David

I have to concur, it took Continental 4 years to deploy their new Businessfirst product, and United 6 years to apply their “Suite Dreams” Business product, i remember the first announcement back in 2007…and still flying on outdated equipment in 2014…

They are making plenty of profit to pay for the upgrades, to CaptainSpeedbird…everyone, and i mean everyone, else is going 3x4x3 on 777-3’s…including the best…i hate united, they are never on time, their crew hates passengers..etc…but i would choose them everyday over Southwest…hate to say it…cough…love to pick my seat…though on delta it is a better experience..

United needs to improve its deployment plan, who the f…k cares about 767’s being upgraded first(it should be 77’s as they fly longer routes=more money in business, and lets face it, generally fly trans-pacific) that is what really pisses me off as a trans-pac customer…until they get their act together, i will continue to fly Cathay or Singapore to asia….

blair kooistra

I hope you sidled up to ol’ Oscar and said, “Old buddy–I love this Polaris thing and all. But have you thought about ditching that Continental globe on the tail and bringing back the Tulip–ya know, back from the days when United really WAS a great carrier”?

I am hoping for that some day. I still see the tulip a few times on employees bags and such!

David

Dear Blair,

Have you ever considered that Continental was a better product, or are you caught up in swallowing the crap pill…aka the b..t.train…maybe go to a doctor?

I have never been on a post-merger flight using UA equipment where i have been even decently satisfied(90+ trips) versus CO equipment and crew(~about the same) where i have had 1) better service, 2) better planes 3) better seats…..

as a Continental loyalist, i say f…k the Tulip…how about replacing that rotten word United on the front, and make air travel better for the world. while they are at, maybe United employees(UA) can go back to customer service school and learn how to be great to start with. UA pre-merger was a dilapidated slime pit, not worth a dollar, horrible food…and do not even get me started on Suite dreams…2x4x2 in International Business, are you kidding me….at the same time that every other airline, was either 2x2x2 or 1x2x1?….talk about f…ed up…but United loyalists think that was the s..t….

$5 says you have never flown international business, or flown to asia 14 RT’s per year or more…sit down and grow up….

Plane-Crazy Joe

Although I remain a MP member, I ceased flying UA Revenue flights a few years ago. I’d had ENOUGH of UA’s various, CONSISTENT shenanigans – aka CRAP! However, I’ve booked a MP Award itinerary for this Summer; flying Star partner Lufthansa on my two outbound segments over to LHR. My two homebound segments will be on UA metal: LHR>IAH; then IAH>ATL. So, I’ll see what/if the new management team has done to improve their product; enhance their “service”!?

The ONLY way I’ll every fly their 77W Polaris product would be if it was another MP Award Itinerary! But why would I “burn” that many miles to fly UA!?

Perhaps if UA were to give me a COMPLIMENTARY itinerary in Polaris, as compensation/reparation for all their past innumerable episodes of buffoonery, I’d give their Polaris product a try?

CaptainSpeedbird1974

I still hate the new UA 77W it has 3-4-3Y which is why I will never take a UA flight EVER!!!!!! THIS PLANE DOSNT DESERVE ALL THE HYPE ITS GETTING (note that I am talking about the new spirit of united, not the 77W it’s a great plane) UNITED JUST DOSNT GET IT! NO MATTER HOW GOOD POLARIS IS UNITED IS STILL BAD. I WONT FORGIVE THEM UNTIL THEY GET RID OF THE 10 ABREST LAYOUT. ITS AMAZING HOW A LOW COST CARRIER (Southwest) CAN BE BETTER THAN A LEAGASY IN ALMOST EVERY WAY!!’ . ✈️❤️✈️

I took UA 443 SFO-EWR yesterday 2/22 on the 777-300er. Full of highs and lows but the one thing that continues to be an issue is the complete lack of a service culture for almost all the customer contact professionals. The flight was 1H10M late in leaving SFO, due to the need to replace used oxygen bottles. This being a new fleet type, this was not easily done. I was flying in “Polaris” when it was clear that I would have either a tight connection or no connection at all at EWR, I asked for the lead flight attendant to have a cart waiting to get us to the bus stop to get to terminal B to get our connection. I was informed that I did not have enough status on United (Gold) to warrant such a request.
The flight itself was fine, food an improvement but in flight service at best perfunctory; never asked if I wanted wine with my meal, nuts not removed from my tray table until the full meal tray was picked up. My son’s seat was not able to go back into the upright position and no one knew the manual override. Eventually this was cured, now we know why new fleet types are run through their paces before going on a full rotation.
When we got to EWR surprise, surprise, carts were waiting for two sets of connecting passengers!! Now that is what service is really about in the end in terms of airline experiences. If only United could incentivize their front line employees to think like passengers, they might not have a world beating product in Polaris but it would certainly be more competitive.

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