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.
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).
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.
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).
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 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.
Shoulder belts for the win! pic.twitter.com/ZhtzfuSnXW— David Parker Brown (@ARdpb) February 13, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.