FIRST LOOK: United’s stunning new Polaris Lounge at San Francisco airport

San Francisco airport has a new shining star.

Today, United unveiled the widely-anticipated and long-awaited Polaris Lounge, an exclusive haven for passengers traveling on the carrier’s long-haul transcontinental premium service. The lounge also welcomes Business and First Class customers departing on flights operated by Star Alliance partners, including Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, EVA Air, and ANA.

At 28,128 square feet, featuring 440 seats, and spanning across two stories, the lounge is almost three times larger than the former United Club it replaces, twice as large as the Polaris Lounge at Chicago O’Hare, and sports some of the airport’s best views. The breadth of services and amenities is unparalleled at San Francisco airport, and has few contenders in the US.

A slow ascent to the firmament

The Polaris star did not rise overnight. Today’s carefully orchestrated press event was as an opportunity for United to showcase a flagship facility, but also an attempt at hitting the “reset” button on PR for the much-maligned Polaris product.

United’s revamped business class service, which kicked off to much hype close to two years ago, has been plagued with delays and setbacks, and has yet to materialize for most customers.

Back in June 2016, United touted new private flat beds with all-aisle access, luxurious Polaris lounges at major hubs, and improvements to the in-flight “soft product” including excellent bedding, enhanced food and beverages, and a myriad of high-end touches such as wine flights, slippers, and pajamas on select flights.

For most United customers, Polaris remains largely an abstract marketing concept. Only 24 aircraft out of over 120 international configurations are equipped with the new seats. The Boeing 777-200 fleet—the backbone of United’s long-haul service—did not receive its first retrofit until last week, twenty-two months after the launch. United has made a series of small but noticeable cuts to the wine offerings and amenities. Flight attendants’ enthusiasm for the rejuvenated service seems to have faded. And on the ground, customers are still waiting for the promised lounges. The only operating Polaris Lounge, located at Chicago O’Hare airport, has struggled to cope with swelling crowds. (It was finally expanded in January.)

Ground services have been especially lacking in San Francisco, where the international United Club, the Singapore Airlines SilverKris Lounge, and the EVA Air Evergreen Lounge were all shuttered back in September in order to make room for the Polaris Lounge. United scrapped a plan to open the Polaris Lounge in phases, instead booting all Star Alliance Gold passengers to the bare-bones United Clubs in the adjacent domestic terminal, and relegating business class passengers to the tired, hastily downgraded, and chronically crowded Global First Lounge.

The star has finally risen. The new Polaris Lounge, which opens to the public on Monday April 30th, will be transformative. This morning, a very relaxed Oscar Munoz, CEO of United, celebrated the unveiling of the lounge with members of the press and the United team. Mr. Munoz was discovering the lounge along with guests, having only seen plans and renderings ahead of the event, and was visibly thrilled to share the excitement with his team.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco ribbon cutting

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco ribbon cutting

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco

Polaris Lounge San Francisco design

The new United Polaris Lounge at SFO is located in International Terminal G near gate G92, steps away from the security checkpoint, and immediately adjacent to the airside connector to Domestic Terminal 3, in the footprint of the former United Club, Singapore Airlines Lounge, and EVA Air Lounge.

While the reception area hasn’t moved since the United Club days—the two escalators to the upper floor will be familiar to frequent flyers—the space has received a complete face lift. The lobby exudes a feeling of exclusivity yet understated elegance, with a “meteor shower” lighting sculpture as the focal point of the design.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco upper lobby

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco upper lobby and meteor shower sculpture

The hallways prolong the cosmos metaphor. Dimly lit and outfitted with LED twinkling stars, they guide guests to the club’s many relaxation amenities on the lower level, which include a quiet library area, eight shower suites, and five private slumber rooms with day beds.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco

On the upper floor are several expansive seating areas, a bar, a full-service restaurant, a customer service desk, private phone rooms, and work spaces.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco upper level seating area

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco upper level seating area

The design draws its inspiration from the United Polaris Lounge at Chicago O’Hare with soothing blue, gray, and white tones, and high-end finishes such as designer light fixtures and marble partitions. Travelers have their choice of custom seating with 19 types of seats including dining tables, solo seats, and inviting couches, all with readily available power and USB plugs. The lounge sports no less than 496 outlets for 440 seats.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco upper level seating area

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco upper level seating area

Our favorite option is the productivity pod: a cocoon for solo business travelers outfitted with personal lighting, USB and power outlets, a coat hook, and a laptop table, which provides excellent privacy and comfort. Designed by the same team that conceived the on-board Polaris seat, the productivity pods have received a few enhancements compared to their original version in Chicago. The pull-out tray, which was a tight fit for some guests, has been phased out in favor of a more versatile fixed table.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco productivity pod

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco productivity pod

The top floor boasts expansive windows with terrific views on the tarmac, runway, bay, and city in the distance. An airplane geek’s paradise, the Polaris Lounge features binoculars for a close-up view on the constant ballet of wide-body aircraft bound to worldwide destinations.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco binoculars

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco binoculars

On the top floor is also a spacious customer service area. The traditional and intimidating counter has been phased out in favor of a more intimate setup with seating for both guests and customer service representatives.

Across the customer service desk are a few spacious phone rooms with a door, which double as touch-down work spaces. They’re available on a first-come, first-serve basis, for up to one hour.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco private work space

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco private work space

Dining at the United Polaris Lounge SFO

One of the most impressive aspects of United’s new Polaris Lounge for international premium travelers is the food and beverage offering, which puts the airline firmly above the competition. Equipped with its own full kitchen, the lounge employs a full-time culinary team who crafts inspired dishes for a discerning global clientele. United has outsourced day-to-day operations to Sodexo, who promises a world-class experience. The waitstaff has been especially trained for the Polaris service.

For the lighter appetite and passengers in a rush, the buffet features an assortment of snacks, nimbles, salads, small plates, and desserts, elegantly presented on skillets and fine china. United also offers a noodle bar with a selection of accoutrements, as well as a sushi station.

A highlight of the Polaris Lounge is the complimentary full-service restaurant, where guests may enjoy a full a-la-carte meal in serene surroundings. Situated in a stunning dining room with two large window walls and posh booths, the restaurant uses an exclusive set of china and silverware inspired by the Polaris business class seat.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco restaurant dining room

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco restaurant dining room

Highlights of the menu include shrimp cake, a chicken katsu bento box, cioppino, the popular Polaris burger (also available at Chicago O’Hare), and an indulgent tiramisu espresso cup.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco restaurant dining room

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco restaurant dining room

Sit-down dining is available on a first come, first serve basis. The service is bound to be popular, especially in the evenings ahead of late-night departures to Australia. When the first Polaris Lounge launched in Chicago, United floated plans to allow reservations through their mobile app, though the option hasn’t materialized. While United has observed that customers who wish to dine at the lounge typically find a table, we recommend arriving early to savor a meal. A-la-carte service is only available in the dedicated restaurant area, which accommodates up to 36 guests at 16 tables.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco restaurant dining room

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco restaurant dining room

For comparison’s sake, and with no further commentary, here’s a picture of the food offerings at the former United Club.

Food and beverage offerings at the former United Club at San Francisco Airport's International Terminal.

Food and beverage offerings at the former United Club at San Francisco Airport’s International Terminal.

Virgin Atlantic is the only other airline to offer true a-la-carte dining at San Francisco airport. The Clubhouse is a design marvel and the staff top-notch, but the British carrier lacks the real estate to offer a menu and service as elaborate as United’s. Assuming United’s service remains steady over time, the airline holds a significant competitive advantage over both its domestic and foreign rivals.

The Polaris Lounge bar takes advantage of the craft cocktail craze, led by mixologist Adam Seger. Seger and his mixology friends are offering new twists on familiar cocktails using craft liquors that will be exclusive to the Polaris Lounge. Signature cocktails will include the Pisco Punch and Mai Tai, which, despite their international connotation, originated in the Bay Area: Trader Vic concocted the Mai Tai in Oakland, after returning from Hawaii. Our favorite creation is the Airplane Cocktail, served with a clipped-on paper airplane on a Polaris-branded coaster.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco bar

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco bar

Behind the marble-clad bar will stand familiar faces. Among them is expert bartender Michael M., who, having delighted customers at the American Express Centurion Lounge and American Airlines Admirals Club, has now joined the Polaris crew. In addition to mastering the art of creative cocktails, he’s bound to become a talented barista: the Polaris Lounge offers handcrafted espresso drinks—a unique feature among airline lounges at San Francisco airport.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco bar

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco bar

Soda, juices, infused and bottled water, tea, and espresso are available for self-service in coolers in the buffet area.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco barista service

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco barista service

In the rear of the lounge (where the bar used to be located in the former United Club) is The Studio, a space equipped for demonstration cooking and wine tastings.

The Studio at United Polaris Lounge San Francisco

The Studio at United Polaris Lounge San Francisco

 

Relaxation amenities and privacy at the Polaris Lounge San Francisco

United envisions the Polaris Lounge as a private haven away from the noise and stress of the airport. The airline has dedicated the entire lower level of the lounge to relaxation amenities, with a focus on privacy. The offering is impressive, though it remains to be seen how the services cope at peak times.

Eight spacious and exquisitely designed shower suites await Polaris customers. Reminiscent of a five-star hotel, the rooms are appointed with a heavenly memory foam bath mat, over-sized Saks Fifth Avenue-branded towels, a pair of slippers, and Cowshed Spa bath products in wall-mounted dispensers. Convenient power outlets allows guests to top off their devices, and essentials such as combs, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shower caps, and shaving kits are available upon request.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco shower suites

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco shower suites

United also offers laundry and clothes pressing service: hang your clothes through the double door, ring the bell, and your items will be promptly returned to you while you freshen up.

In lieu of traditional public bathrooms, the Polaris Lounge sports generously-sized individual all-gender stalls equipped with a toilet, a sink, a bench, and plenty of room to change or freshen up.

Five napping rooms offer a private refuge to weary travelers. The sleeping suites feature day beds with Saks Fifth Avenue-branded pillows and blankets, slippers, eye masks, as well as a bottle of water, ear plugs, and Sleepy Cow Calming Pillow Mist from Cowshed Spa.

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco napping rooms

United Polaris Lounge San Francisco napping rooms

The slumber rooms offer a touch of genuine luxury, though the design subtly aims at discouraging long stays: the suites lack a door, the curvature of the beds is not especially welcoming to side or stomach sleepers, and the abundant daylight may not be conducive to sleep, even with an eye mask.

The showers and sleeping rooms are available on a first-come, first-serve basis from the Valet. We recommend inquiring early should their be a wait at peak times.

Also on the lower floor is a spacious library designated as a quiet area. The space benefits from ample daylight and is gorgeously appointed with productivity pods and private seats, many with views on the tarmac. The bookcases display various books, as well as amusing memorabilia in nod to United and the aviation industry.

Library at the United Polaris Lounge San Francisco

Library at the United Polaris Lounge San Francisco

United stresses that Polaris is a “branded experience.” The Polaris Lounge sports a custom scent, “Landing,” which was trialed earlier this year at select Chicago O’Hare gates. The lounge also features its own playlist inspired by the airline’s global destinations.

Library at the United Polaris Lounge San Francisco

Library at the United Polaris Lounge San Francisco

United Polaris Lounge at San Francisco airport access rules

The United Polaris Lounge at San Francisco airport will be open from 6:30 AM to 1 AM. The club welcomes United Polaris customers, as well as Star Alliance Business and First Class passengers departing on international flights longer than six hours. Star Alliance partner airlines at San Francisco airport include Air China, Air India, Air New Zealand, ANA, EVA Air, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, SAS, SWISS, and Turkish Airlines.

United passengers will receive access as long as their itinerary includes at least one segment in United Polaris, including when connecting to/from a domestic flights. A passenger departing from San Francisco then connecting in Chicago to a Polaris flight would enjoy access to both the San Francisco and Chicago O’Hare Polaris Lounge locations.

The Polaris Lounge is off-limits to United Club members, Star Alliance Gold customers traveling in economy, and Air Canada premium passengers, who will continue to receive access to United Clubs—which, while far more modest than the Polaris Lounge, should be significantly less crowded going forward.

The former Global First Lounge near gate 98 will become a United Club on April 30th, pending future renovations. United is also planning to open an additional club near gate 93.

The former United Global First Lounge, now a United Club, at San Francisco airport

The former United Global First Lounge at San Francisco airport: now a United Club—but not as serene anymore.

The United Arrivals Lounge, located outside immigration and baggage claim, remains available to passengers arriving in Polaris in the morning. The club offers a dozen shower suites and a hot breakfast buffet.

Bottom line

After a grueling wait, United has finally delivered on its promise: the United Polaris Lounge at San Francisco is not an evolution, but a revolution. With a complimentary full-service restaurant, a full bar, highly private work and relaxation spaces, luxurious showers, an inspired design, and some of the airport’s best views, the Polaris Lounge is a destination in itself. However, time will tell how the space copes with crowds, as demand is bound to be high.

Library at the United Polaris Lounge San Francisco

Library at the United Polaris Lounge San Francisco

The Polaris galaxy is still nascent. United’s online Polaris tracker acknowledges the significant delays in the roll-out of the Polaris program, but the airline promises to step up the cadence.

Going forward, United expects to introduce a plane with the new seating configuration every 10 days until 2020. Construction is almost over at the Polaris Lounge at Newark airport, and the club will open early June, followed by Houston in the summer. The Los Angeles Polaris Lounge should be ready by the end of the year. However, there are still no signs of construction at Washington Dulles, where Polaris restaurant-style dining would be of significant value to business class passengers making the short overnight hop to Europe. Finally, there is no word on a timeline for international lounges (though, fortunately, the United Clubs at London Heathrow, Tokyo Narita, and Hong Kong airports are already some of the best system-wide.)

In the air, United will be enhancing the Polaris product by offering a gel pillow at every seat and introducing a pre-arrival cookie (replacing the pre-departure chocolate.) The airline is also looking into using poly-carbonate glassware for pre-departure beverages, in order to replace the elegant but ill-fated glasses that used to tip over. And despite rumors, the signature Polaris amenities such as mattress pads and pajamas are here to stay.

 

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