At loungereview.com, airport lounges are our passion, and we typically don’t write flight reviews. We’ll make an exception for United Polaris business class. The much hyped service, which launched today, December 1st, 2016, features a completely redesigned end-to-end experience—with major upgrades to every aspect of the product, from ground services to catering, and continuity between the ground experience and the in-flight product. We thought it’d be useful to share our perspective on the on-board product after attending the United Polaris Lounge opening event yesterday at Chicago O’Hare airport.
With this in mind, we flew today in United Polaris business class from San Francisco (SFO) to Paris Charles De Gaulle (CDG), on Day One of the new service. Here’s our review.
United Polaris, a premium travel experience re-designed end-to-end
The introduction of United’s new premium service, dubbed United Polaris, puts United back in the game with a competitive offering backed by numerous investments in the soft and hard products.
United positions Polaris as a complete end-to-end experience both in the air and on the ground. The experience includes:
- United Polaris lounges at the airline’s nine major hubs, exclusively for United Polaris passengers, featuring hot meals, showers, and private relaxation and work spaces.
- Highly private forward facing lie-flat seats with direct access to the aisle, mobile privacy dividers, a Do Not Disturb sign, and a side table designed by Acumen Design Associates and PriestmanGoode and manufactured by Zodiac Seats United Kingdom.
- On-demand entertainment system with individual 16 inch monitors, noise reducing headset, a tablet holder, and power at every seat.
- Full bedding by Saks Fifth Avenue including a mattress pad (available on demand), duvet, day blanket, and two pillows.
- Slippers and a memory foam pillow, as well as pajamas (available on demand, only on flights longer than 12 hours.)
- Enhanced catering with chocolate truffles, a new dessert selection, wine flights and new custom designed china, flatware and linens.
The experience takes flight today, December 1st, 2016, on the ground at Chicago O’Hare with the opening of the very first United Polaris Lounge, and worldwide from a catering standpoint. It will however take many months-up—up to two years—for Polaris Lounges to appear at global hubs, and for all international aircraft to be retrofitted with the new seats.
United Polaris replaces the United BusinessFirst and Global First, with international first class being phased out over time in favor of a two-class (economy and Polaris) configuration.
For a complete overview of the United Polaris experience and ground services, see our blog post: United is back in the game: deciphering the United Polaris ground services.
It’s important to note that, at this time, United doesn’t have a single aircraft with the new seats. Therefore, our experience isn’t representative of the ultimate Polaris vision. However, given the slow roll out of the new seats, what we saw today is what most passengers are about to experience in the upcoming months.
The United Polaris ground experience
Yesterday, we reviewed the new United Polaris Lounge at Chicago O’Hare. The first of its kind, the Polaris Lounge is dedicated exclusively to United Polaris and Star Alliance premium passengers departing on international flights—which explicitly excludes United Club members and Star Alliance Gold members. The restrictions help United provide a higher level of service.
Our first impressions were positive: the lounge delivers on many counts with an elegant and posh design, well-appointed shower suites, semi-private relaxation rooms with slippers, and individual productivity pods. United will soon be offering a full-service restaurant. Barista and Concierge services are also available. For more details, see our in-depth review.
Since we departed from San Francisco, we had no Polaris Lounge to look forward to. We took a stroll through the crowded United Club at SFO International Terminal G, which hasn’t changed much in years, and promptly decided to relocate to the beautiful American Express Centurion Lounge (exclusively for American Express members) where we enjoyed refreshments and a shower.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, though—the United Club is about to be converted into a Polaris Lounge, which is slated to become United’s largest system wide. The current United Global First lounge will be converted into a United Club in 2017. Additionally, a second United Club will open by gate 93 in 2018.
The United Polaris in-flight experience: boarding
Unsurprisingly, we hit a few teething issues. Boarding was delayed by 20 minutes because the aircraft wasn’t catered. When we boarded, ground staff was still scrambling to load various service items. However, the new amenities, exquisitely presented, were waiting at every seat.
The goodies included two Sacks Fifth Avenue branded pillows, which are luxuriously soft. The attention to detail is notable: the pillows come with two buttons, which will—finally!—prevent the pillow case from slipping out in flight. Size-wise, the pillows are similar to the former Global First amenities, with a large pillow and a second smaller one.
Then came two blankets, also Sacks Fifth Avenue branded: a lightweight throw, and a rolled-up comforter. Both were soft and comfortable.
And this being day one, an adorable teddy bear was also waiting at every seat—which was an instant hit with most passengers. The bear is a launch day gift, and will be available until United runs out, so you may want to book a ticket soon if you’re into airline memorabilia 🙂
Shortly after boarding, the flight attendants distributed the menus and amenity kits. The kits feel heavy and durable. They contain two pouches, Relax and Refresh, with the traditional set of items including Cowshed products. Overall, the contents of the kits haven’t changed much, though a few items have been upgraded. For example, the eye masks now come with extra padding for greater comfort. Overall, United’s amenity kits have always earned high marks in our opinion, and the new Polaris kits are a notch nicer than the former kits.
When we asked about slippers and gel pillows, which are supposed to be available on all Polaris flights, the flight attendants were confused. They acknowledged our request, but didn’t seem to know what we were talking about. The crew couldn’t have been chattier, friendlier, and more excited for the new service—it was just obvious that they were not familiar with every last detail of the new product, and the location of every item. It didn’t help that ground staff was still loading carts. After a second request, a flight attendant eventually found the slippers. The gel pillows materialized a few hours later.
The menu is comprised of a 12 page booklet printed on thick and glossy paper, plus a separate drinks list. The most obvious enhancement is the expanded entrée selection, with a choice of five main courses. Otherwise, the options were, at a first glance, similar to what we’ve come to experience from United—although we ended up being surprisingly pleased with the flavor of each dish.
The wine list turned out to be somewhat unimpressive—or, at the very least, pretty similar to the old selection. It should be noted that there *was* a wine list, however, which is in itself an improvement, considering that United gave up on printing wine lists altogether a few years ago, facing the realization that the onboard selection hardly ever matched the printed menu. Hopefully that will be resolved going forward.
We asked for sparkling wine as our pre-departure drink. It was beautifully presented in an elegant glass resting over a small tray. While both are plastic, they’re sturdy and remarkably well-designed—the glass “latches” onto the base. If anything, the setup is innovative. Our drink came with a chocolate, which was surprisingly good—think Belgian-quality rather than Hershey’s quality. (We’re picky when it comes to chocolate, and Hershey’s just doesn’t cut it :p)
United Polaris pre-dinner drink service
Shortly after take-off, the flight attendants brought table linen and hot towels. The linen is thick and the dark blue color is both classy and smart—it should mask the unavoidable spills better than the former light blue or white linen.
The crew then rolled out the drink cart. In the morning, United Polaris features a Bloody Mary cart. Since our flight departed in the afternoon, we received the wine flight service. It’s impressive how small details influence perception: the mere fact that bottles were placed in metal holders gave the whole experience a more cachet. The cart came with six bottles of wine—three red varieties, and three white—as well as still water and Pellegrino, a classy touch.
The wine flights are presented on custom trays holding three small glasses. Again, the attention to detail was remarkable: the wines were presented in the order in which they are printed on the wine list, for easy identification. The flight attendants were happy to present bottles individually. Perhaps the only caveat is that the wine tray takes a substantial amount of space, and precludes the use of a laptop. A tablet fits easily, though.
We know our readers will ask, so here’s a spoiler: the nuts were cold, and not whole—perhaps a leftover of the Smisek era. The former CEO famously stated that customers don’t care whether their nuts are whole. A real-life tragedy :p
On the brighter (and more serious) side, every service item has been updated for Polaris: even the ramekins were heavier, with a texture that matches the tablecloth.
We found the wines to be somewhat unremarkable. The novelty of the wine flight concept was a highlight, more than the individual wines. This may be a matter of taste, and the selection may improve over time.
United Polaris dinner service
The flight attendants brought dinner trays, after asking each customer their choice of salad dressing.
At first, the experience was a mixed bag. The tray service is a downgrade from the former Continental service. While trays are convenient, setting up individual tables is much classier. The cutlery is still rolled into napkins. And there was no bread basket—rather, two pieces of bread on a plate. Thankfully, United’s delicious garlic bread was on the menu, but it was served cold. And finally, the dressing happened to be served in tiny individual bottles, which felt a little awkward.
However, the new china is beautiful, and the salt and pepper shakers adorable.
We were positively impressed by the appetizer and salad, which were both fresh, moist and flavorful. Our entrée—turbot—was an explosion of flavor. United’s fish dishes have always been a highlight—we love the traditional San Francisco ciopinno and salmon and crab dishes that United has been offering for a few years—and the turbot met our expectations.
Along with our fish entrée, we tasted two white wines, a Pouilly-Fume from France’s Loire Valley (a long time staple of United’s business class) and a South African wine. Both were flavorful, and, in our opinion, significantly better than the red selection.
Then came the cheese plate. While it might look the same as United’s previous offering at a first glance, the cheeses turned out to be of significantly higher quality than they used to be. On the downside, the crackers were shrink-wrapped, and the port selection hasn’t changed—and you’re better off avoiding it. It appears that United is attempting to avoid the use of carts, as the flight attendants brought cheese plates individually, along with glasses of port on a tray.
The dessert service was a highlight. The traditional sundae service has been augmented with additional options including warm apple tarts, and berry parfaits. The flight attendants offered caramel sauce over the apple tarts, which was a nice touch. The cart also came with coffee and a selection of tea. Kudos to United for improving their dessert selection. Ice cream, as satisfying as it might be, hardly screams premium product. The addition of small desserts and baked goods will go a long way towards pleasing European and Asian palates.
United Polaris bedding
We requested a mattress pad for our bed—an amenity previously only available for Global First passengers. After a slight hesitation, the flight attendant found a stockpile in the forward storage compartments by the bulkhead, and promptly offered to provide turn-down service, which was an unexpected welcome gesture. She also found a gel pillow in the process. The gel pillow is akin to a Tempur-Pedic pillow and, while it’s not significantly efficient at actually cooling, it makes for an outstanding lumbar roll.
In our experience, mattress pads are often a bit of a gimmick—other airlines such as Turkish Airlines offer them, and while appreciated, they make a minimal difference. We were stunned by the comfort of the Polaris bed. It was outstanding. It’s unclear if United will be loading one mattress pad per passenger. Just in case, be sure to request yours early as they make a world of difference.
We’re also curious to find out how the bedding components will be stored on legacy United aircraft (Boeing 747 and flavors of the Boeing 767 and 777), which have far less storage space than the legacy Continental aircraft. We hear that the mattress pads may be stored in the overhead bins, which would take valuable space away.
United Polaris breakfast service
Breakfast is virtually unchanged. The menu featured the traditional omelet and cereal options, along with yoghurt and rolls. United’s breakfast is substantial and filling, but not especially upper scale. Also, it’s unfortunate that espresso is still unavailable—especially since the Boeing 787 aircraft, as well as the legacy Continental Boeing 767 and 777 aircraft used to have machines on board. Here’s to hoping that espresso will make a comeback as part of the Polaris retrofit.
Interestingly, the flight attendants didn’t use carts for breakfast beverage service. Instead, passengers order individually. It’s a small change, but an improvement nevertheless, since aisles aren’t blocked by carts as often as they used to be.
United Polaris bottom line
In its current incarnation, United Polaris is a significant, yet incremental upgrade over United’s legacy business class service. We were impressed by the quality of the food, and stunned by the quality of the bedding. We were also favorably impressed by the attention to detail and the thought process that went into the product.
United is monitoring the product roll-out carefully (dedicated staff was on board our aircraft, taking notes) and should fine tune the details over the next few weeks.
Kudos to the crew for delivering outstanding and gracious service despite teething issues. As the flight attendants happily recognized, there’s a world of difference between watching videos and actually delivering the service, and they did a fine job all around. The crew was also obviously proud of the new product, which bodes well for the future.
The new product is not a revolution yet, however. The ground experience at San Francisco airport was lacking, and there were a few aspects of the service that were disappointing such as the lack of a bread basket, the continued absence of espresso, and the use of a tray for the appetizers and main course. While trays help expedite service on short flights, a full table setup would be significantly more elegant on a long-haul route.
And then there’s the lack of arrivals services. Last year, United discontinued all arrivals services provided by hotels in Europe—a little known and seldom used, but highly valuable perk. United has stated that the Arrivals Lounges at London Heathrow and San Francisco airports will remain open, as well as several partner lounges worldwide. (Read our Definitive Guide to United Arrivals Services for complete details.) But few airports offer arrivals facilities overall.
These are minor caveats. Overall, we’re enthusiastic for the new product. Even in its current incarnation, United Polaris is superior to Lufthansa Business Class, and competes favorably with Air Canada Business Class. The new Polaris Lounges are outstanding, and the new seats should revolutionize the on-board experience. Unfortunately, it will take a while—up to several years—for the full Polaris experience to materialize and for the product to become consistent, which, ultimately, may be United’s most significant challenge.
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