An old school hard product meets a swanky new soft product
Until the new Polaris hard product makes its way on to United’s entire longhaul fleet, higher flyers will more-often-than-not be stuck in a forward cabin seat that’s past its prime. There’s the legacy United first class (really very nice for what it is) and the dormitory-styled seats in business class (nightmarish by all accounts), and then also Continental’s old premium offering. My outgoing leg to Europe featured that third alternative: a B/E Aerospace-designed “Diamond” seat that’s competitive in the crowded transatlantic market. Couple that with a much-improved soft product, and you have what amounts to a solid ride across the pond…although it isn’t without its faults either.
Because of a delay on the shuttle flight out of BWI and a subsequent holding pattern on arrival, a previously two-hour-long layover had evaporated, and thus rendered a visit to one of the Newark United Clubs impossible. In fact, by the time I finally set foot in the terminal, there were only 10 minutes before boarding closed and, to make matters worse, my bladder was in desperate need of relief. Following a frantic sprint to the bathroom, I went to where, according to the United app, the plane would parked at… But NOPE! After another mad dash across an otherwise barren Terminal C, an unlikely surprise awaited…
A chaotic mass of people waiting to get on a plane has never looked so good! After the second huge relief in as many minutes, I joined the priority boarding line and was soon walking down the jetway.
Newark Liberty (EWR) – London Heathrow (LHR)
Depart: 22:10 (22:25 actual)
Arrive: 10:10 (9:24 actual)
Aircraft: Boeing 767-400ER
Everyone entered the plane through the second door, and from there, business class is to the left.
United’s lone premium cabin on its 767-400ERs features 39 seats in an eight row, 2-1-2 configuration with seven rows of singles in the center. If flying solo, these “Captain Kirks” are indisputably the best to get (unless you HAVE to have a window). You’ll have no neighbors in addition to direct access to both aisles. They’re popular choices though, and they go quickly during seat selection.
If you can’t snag a middle, then the bulkhead is your next best bet for maximizing comfort. I was lucky enough to get one of those: 1B.
What makes the bulkheads more valuable — at least on these particular planes — is the extra space afforded to those sitting in them. The majority of passengers have relatively small foot cubbies positioned underneath the armrests of the chairs in front. That’s not a big deal if you don’t plan to sleep, but God help you if you do. Best case scenario: you won’t have a lot of extra room to move around. Worst case scenario: you’ll feel as if you’re in a coffin. Good luck if you’re a side sleeper and/or tall! I am both of those, but thankfully, size wasn’t an issue because the bulkhead seats provide more lateral foot space than the others; they’re not constrained by a row ahead. You probably won’t have to contort yourself to fit comfortably while lying down here, and you’ll probably be able to sleep in a natural position.
Another perk that comes with sitting in the front of the cabin is the massive shelf in front of you. While you’re technically not allowed to store things there for the flight — sorry, your rollerboard carry on will have to go in the overhead bin — it’s a nice place to temporarily keep all of the pillows and linens that are waiting for you when you board (more on this later).
There’s more floor space (comparatively) in the bulkhead too, featuring an bigger storage area underneath the foot cubby too…
Alternatively, you could just stow your backpack or purse or whatever up above and then use the extra room to spread out!
Beyond that extra personal space though, there’s an unfortunate lack of storage areas. Middles, bulkheads, and standard seats all suffer from this design flaw, and pretty much everything with you that’s bigger than an iPad will have to be kept in the overhead bin or in your lap. Aside from a nook next to your head…
…and a “smartphone shelf” right underneath the display in front of you…
…you won’t find anything more. Moreover, what can you actually keep in those spaces? Yes, the amenity kit is stowed in the nook by default, and there’s room for a phone and unused headphones on the shelf, but it’s a challenge to get anything bigger to fit securely. It’s not like you could stash a tablet, let alone a laptop, in either place… nor can you do so in the tiny literature pocket either. That’s completely jammed with magazines and pamphlets; there’s not even enough space for the menus!
Instead, those are delicately balanced on the inner armrest, propped up on the small privacy partition between the two seats.
There are a few smaller, more forgivable issues with the hard product too. For one, there aren’t any overhead air vents, and you might find yourself desperately longing for some cool air after waking up in a hot sweat in the middle of the flight. Such a feature is practically standard on American carriers, which makes it all the more disappointing when you reach for one here and find nothing. This particular seat was also starting to show some age, with chipping paint on some of the aisle-side surfaces.
The tray table is sturdy and can withstand your hammering keystrokes on a laptop without sagging or rattling — that’s a good thing — but it’s “bolted” to a single spot on the side console. This means that during meal services, you’re pretty much stuck there unless you completely disassemble your place setting and fold the tray away. That’s, uh, not a good thing… especially if you (urgently) need the restroom.
All criticisms aside, it’s hard to hate this B/E Aerospace “Diamond” seat. It helps that it’s just oh-so-comfortable to sit in. Sure, it’s not as advanced or as private as a reverse herringbone, and some (but not all) might feel claustrophobic from the waist down because of constrictive foot cubbies… but it’s perfectly serviceable. It’s well-padded, and excellent, Saks Fifth Avenue-branded bedding is included to complement the cushions. Even though it has suffered from a series of cuts since its inception in December 2016, Polaris still offers one of the best all-around products for sleeping. For a short transatlantic redeye, there’s not much more you could want!
The lack of storage at the seat was particularly frustrating when trying to find a spot for all those pillows and mattress pads and duvets. Airplane carpets and overhead bins are infamously filthy, so perhaps you’d hesitate too before putting something there that you’ll later be snuggling up with. Everything was in my lap during takeoff, but after that, it all went to the bulkhead shelf in front. But again, the bed is excellent, and this minor hassle is nothing but a small price to pay.
There are other nice features too. It’s convenient having power plugs and headphone jacks so close to your head…
…and seat controls are easy to use without being too simplistic…
…and there are not one, but two lights: one in the overhead panel, and a second behind the headrest (that works when the seat is fully reclined in bed mode).
After stressing over the delay (while urgently having to use the bathroom) and sprinting around the terminal, settling in to the cushy chair safe and sound felt that much nicer. No sooner than 15 seconds after catching my breath did a flight attendant appear to offer a box of chocolates and a predeparture beverage. I selected some sparkling wine, which was pleasantly tasty (that strangely had no label).
Perhaps I’ve grown accustomed to cheap cups when flying on U.S. carriers — that’s just the norm — but it’s definitely noticeable when there’s an upgrade. It’s funny how a seemingly minor serving style, in this case, using actual glass in lieu of plastic, can set the tone for the rest of the service. It’s a positive first impression for sure, and as a result, the overall quality of the entire meal seems to be enriched. If only United would make that investment…
Regardless, the predeparture treats are good for creating anticipation for what comes after takeoff. The flight attendant working my aisle, Ashley, was a star. I had broken in to a sweat running through the airport moments prior, and after dropping the chocolates and champagne off, she proactively came back with a cold bottle of water. What a welcome aboard! Shortly after that, the pilot himself came out of the cockpit to personally address the business class cabin. He excitedly announced the flight time (“It’s gonna be a short flight! It may even be under six hours depending on what traffic at Heathrow is like!”), told us not to worry when we see pilots moving throughout the cabin (“Our rest area is in the back of the cabin! We gotta rest too!”), and then gave a step-by-step preview of our route (“We’ll be climbing to 35,000 feet over Long Island, then turn north towards Canada, and then catch the jet stream to blast us across the pond! There might be some chop…” and so on). While “blast” may not have been the best choice of word, there was no doubting how happy he was to be flying. This attitude seemed to be shared by the rest of the crew.
We pushed back about 10 minutes after our scheduled departure, and after a fast five minute taxi, we were in the air after a short takeoff roll. United makes its in flight entertainment available on the ground, but I wasn’t able to enjoy it fully because it was stuck in Korean mode and unresponsive to touch and remote inputs.
The moving map was also finicky. Not only was everything in Korean, but the colors were distorted.
A flight attendant kindly reset the system right after take off, and while the language defaulted back to English, every now and then, the map would glitch and temporarily show the garish green and purple colors again. At least everything else was functional.
These technical problems are minor in the grand scheme of things, and they can likely be chalked up to the age of the system; it is what is is. While that’s no good in the immediate — let alone how awful it’d be if it were permanently broken during a longhaul trip — everything else about United’s in flight entertainment is excellent.
There are dozens of movies spanning various genres and dates. There are classics to go with contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, and a selection of indie movies for those inclined to “wander off the beaten path.”
United also features entire “box sets” of TV programs. The first two seasons of one of my favorite shows, Veep, could be screened in their entireties on this flight. If this weren’t a redeye, that’s how I would’ve passed the time…
Kudos should be given to United here. Licensing Veep, which airs on HBO, probably cost a ton of money… likewise for the other box sets/big Hollywood flicks. In any case, it’s good to see that management is making these investments in the passenger experience, which also includes beefing up the inflight wifi. It’s priced reasonably and is really fast. I had no issues connecting for an hour, and was able to take care of emails and do some reading online…
… and then skim the provided literature (United’s own Hemispheres and Rhapsody magazines) once the session expired.
What entertained me the most was far from glamorous: the “Live from the Flight Deck” audio feed serving as a soundtrack to the moving map.
Some might find that pairing to be remarkably boring, but as an AvGeek, there’s nothing cooler. There was a lot going on as we were leaving the greater New York area, and listening in real time to the chatter between the pilot, other pilots, and air traffic controllers made for a unique perspective on the trip.
Meanwhile, maybe 10 minutes after we left Newark, flight attendants sprung in to action to set tray tables for passengers. I was amazed by how fast they were moving, but that all came to a screeching halt when we hit some serious chop. It’s hard to be mad though — what else could be done? — and besides, now I had a chance to check out the amenity kit…
This particular one was exciting. In October 2017, the airline announced that it would be issuing limited edition kits that pay homage to United’s now-retired 747 fleet. They were only supposed to be used until the end of the year, so I wasn’t expecting to find one in February 2018.
The contents of the amenity kit were extensive too. Anything and everything you could need for a longhaul flight was accounted for.
Kudos to United for investing (yet again!) in something that can make a huge difference in improving passenger comfort. There’s nothing like being able to brush your teeth before bed, for instance. As far as I’m concerned, this amenity kit is the best ever…but perhaps all of the additional 747 swag influenced that opinion!
After repacking and stowing the kit (to take home and add to the collection!), roughly half an hour after departure, the turbulence had died down and the flight attendants resumed service. Ashley had remembered my champagne selection on the ground, and proactively brought a fresh glass of it (this time served in ACTUAL glass!) with some warm nuts too.
An accompanying hot towel was decidedly less satisfying. While it looked fine at first…
…it was clearly dirty. There was a visible smudge right in the center of it.
That was repugnant, and I politely folded the towel back up and asked Ashley for a new one. She happily obliged, and the next one — thank God! — was in pristine condition.
In addition to the aforementioned bedding, much fanfare has been made about the refined Polaris dining and drinking services. Indeed, the onboard offerings have been quite good in the past, and this flight was no exception. While wine flights aren’t publicly advertised anymore, you can still have one provided that you ask specifically for it.
It’d be cool to taste the various white wines (why not?), and so I requested them when the wine trolley came around…
…But good lord, there was a lot of alcohol at once!
Getting drunk while flying should generally be avoided — as my mother says, “the only thing worse than being hungover is being hungover on a plane” — and the initial pourings of wine were perhaps too generous. That wasn’t an issue so much, but it was jarring when a different flight attendant (not Ashley) came by and instructed me to “hurry up, the food’s starting! Chug them or pick a wine!” “…Pardon me?” At the time of this exchange, meal orders, mind you, had not even been taken yet. It seemed like there was still plenty of time to indulge, but I relented anyway, selecting the Landmark 2014 Overlook Chardonnay (the middle of the three pictured above). All were good choices, but this one tasted the best out of the bunch. My judgment, however, should be taken with a grain of salt; my palette isn’t well-developed.
The brusque interaction was the only serious hiccup in otherwise good service, but it’s a shame that it has to be mentioned in the first place. What was the rush, anyway, and why be rude about it? It’s not like my actions delayed meal service for everyone else… Maybe this wouldn’t have been so irritating if I had just decided to chug what was in front of me…
Anyway, after having the flight of wine whisked away from me, I perused the dining menu.
There’s an express option consisting only of the starters and dessert, and for those who have obligations the following day, it’s worth considering if you want to maximize your sleep. I was hungry though and wanted a full meal, ultimately deciding on the Thai spicy chicken. The chicken would hopefully pair well with the wine, and it’s hard to mess up a noodle dish on an airplane. The same can’t always be said for fish.
When Ashley took my order, more than 20 minutes had elapsed since the wine “incident,” and no one had been served anything else in the interim. Not that this is a big deal, but what’s the point in being needlessly rushed? Hmph.
The chilled appetizer, on this flight a lemon grass shrimp and mango salad, was presented about an hour after we left Newark. A spinach salad and a pretzel roll (that was offered in a bread basket) accompanied it on a tray. Everything was fresh and, more importantly, tasty. It was impossible to miss how citrus-y both dishes were, but nothing was too overbearing, and the flavors complemented the entree. Well-planned meals like that get bonus points.
The presentation overall was nice. United no longer uses industrial carts to deliver food to passengers, and instead, Ashley brought everything over and explained what was what. Even though most everything was pretty straight forward, this style of service (also introduced as part of the Polaris rebrand) adds a much-appreciated sense of increased personalized attention. Once I finished eating, the tray was removed within two minutes, and then replaced with the entree within another two. Ashley and her colleagues were quick!
Yet again though, they might have been a bit too quick. I wanted to savor the meal — the chicken and noodles were perfectly prepared and the spicing was incredible — and correspondingly, I ate slowly. On numerous occasions, sometimes even while in mid chew, a crew member approached to ask, “are you still working on that?” As was the case with the wine, plenty others were still munching away. Was this necessary? Oh well, at least no one will accuse the flight attendants of being too apathetic…
There were a few moments during the meal service that were quite charming. The spicy chicken entree was true to its menu description and at times, my tongue felt like it was melting. Ashley noticed my watering eyes after a particularly potent bite, and then ran back in to the galley before returning with cold milk (which has the ability to cool “burning” mouths). How sweet! Speaking of that…
After finishing the Thai noodles about an hour and a half in to the flight, Ashley collected the dishes, and then at around the 100 minute mark, came around with a cheese and dessert cart. I passed on the former, but who can say no to a sundae? Being able to point to the toppings and then watch her mix everything together made the experience all the better. The ice cream treat was the perfect finish to an excellent meal… until Ashley came back to offer some of the other desserts. That last addition was the icing on the cake!
By the two hour mark, we were well on our way across the ocean, the flight attendants had cleared the tray tables, and then lowered the cabin lights so that everyone could get some rest. There was going to be plenty of time to sleep, although I would’ve liked a little bit of flexibility with the pace of my meal. It would’ve been nice to have not felt rushed through every stage of the dinner, but then again, getting more than three hours of sleep is important too. There’s just going to be a bit of a trade off on such a short redeye…
Ashley came by with bottles of water for everyone, and also offered turn-down service. While she was reclining the seat, I went to one of the two lavatories located in the back of the cabin and freshened up a little bit before bed.
Like the rest of the plane, the bathroom isn’t particularly glamorous and you won’t ever mistake it for Emirates. It’s a bit on the small side, but its features are functional, albeit bland looking. This seems like an appropriate place in the review to remind you that a sterile-looking space is not necessarily sterile. Take this horrifying surface along the rim of the toilet.
Who knows what that gunk is, and I’m not any more inclined to think about that now than when I was on board. No amount of high-quality Cowshed toiletries can change my opinion: just two hours in to the flight, this is disgusting and completely unacceptable in any class of service. United needs to scrub this down immediately.
I fortunately didn’t have to use the bathroom again until Heathrow, and the bed waiting back at the seat was so comfortable that I didn’t dwell on that ghastly toilet rim for much longer. While the seat design has been criticized in the past for not being very private, you won’t feel entirely exposed thanks to some small partitions. You don’t have to worry about seeing any other passengers; it would be weird to make eye contact with a stranger right before sleeping… Instead, you can just focus on sleeping naturally (well, as much as possible on an airplane).
I crawled under the Saks Fifth Avenue-branded covers, and watched the moving map before falling in to a deep sleep no more than three minutes later.
The perfectly padded seat and accompanying mattress pad made for great sleep, but unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. We were right over St. John’s, Canada when I closed my eyes, but then three hours later, we hit awful turbulence and the pilot asked everyone to sit down and buckle up. I was wide awake after that and couldn’t fall back asleep. It didn’t help either that I was uncomfortably hot and sweaty, and it’s at moments like those that you’ll really miss having individual air vents. At least we had made a lot of progress across the ocean in the time that had elapsed, and were rapidly approaching Ireland thanks to a strong tailwind.
When everything smoothed out, the seatbelt sign was turned off again, and I got up to explore the cabin. There’s a self-serve station in the rear galley, and while a snack would’ve been nice, nothing was particularly appealing.
Nothing was available fresh, and the selection was clearly just leftovers from the meal service. They weren’t bad choices, but I was hankering for something that didn’t taste like it had been sitting on an airplane for five hours previously. When I went back to my seat empty-handed, the “bed,” for better or for worse, had been stripped of its sheets and the seat was moved into the “lounge” position. The proactiveness of the cabin crew was on display yet again!
I continued to listen to the “Live from the Flight Deck” feed and watch the map until we were an hour out. Then, the cabin lights were turned on, window shades were opened, and breakfast was served. I had requested the “Rustic Omelette” with my dinner order, which sounded a lot better back then than it actually tasted. Don’t get me wrong, I ate everything you see below, but the meal was average at best, and there was a notable difference in quality between the two main dishes.
At least we would be on the ground soon, and the views of London didn’t disappoint. While it was nice to have an aisle seat, it would’ve been nice to gaze out the windows on our approach (and subsequent holding pattern) too. It definitely would’ve made for better quality photos…
Lastly before we arrived, the purser came by to hand out landing cards and a pass that grants access to expedited immigration lines and the Star Alliance Arrivals lounge. Both perks were hugely useful for me later that morning… but that’s for a subsequent post.
We were stuck flying in circles above London for about 20 minutes, and we landed at 9:24am local time. That’s a whole 46 minutes ahead of schedule, and a testament to how strong the tailwinds were. We were at our gate in under five minutes — it was a quick taxi, even by Heathrow standards — and landside before 10:00. While the whole experience was speedy, it was relaxing through and through. Nothing like some extra time and flexibility to make it to the next stop.
United’s take on business class, Polaris, checks all the boxes for being a competitive product in a crowded transatlantic market. An excellent bed for sleeping, solid dining options, and attentive service are all accounted for here. The airline definitely understands what matters most to higher flyers, although there is ample room for improvement too. Perhaps some of the flaws that I encountered, like the filthy bathroom, are unique to that particular plane. Others, like the lack of personal storage, won’t be fixed until the new seats make their ways to the entire fleet. That’s something to look forward to for sure, but until then, you likely won’t feel like you’re “stuck” in something sub-par either. For 60,000 MileagePlus miles on a route like Newark to London, you’re getting a good value too, and really, what more could you want than that?
The good, the bad, the ugly of the old United Airlines Polaris Business
- The Good
- The well padded, mostly comfortable seat is excellent for sleeping (provided that you can get a bulkhead). To boot, United has excellent bedding options.
- United’s in-flight entertainment selection is top notch; it’s nice to have good onboard wifi to complement an extensive movie/television library.
- The crew seemed genuinely happy to be there. The pilots came out of the cockpit to address the business class cabin and flight attendants were cheery, even after a long night of working.
- The Polaris service concept continues to be executed nicely, with improved food and dining options.
- The Bad
- Aside from being REALLY comfortable for sleeping, the seat itself wasn’t that great…
- Some of the meals were rushed, and certain crew members seemed to be especially harried. I wish I could’ve had more time to savor the meal.
- The bathrooms were really gross, even only a couple hours in to the flight.
- The Ugly
- I love having them around, but where are we supposed to keep all those pillows?!?
- The self-serve snack bar
looked like itwas a collection of half-eaten leftovers from the earlier meal service… and it was.
“A Weekend to Europe” Trip Report
- Introduction: A Weekend to Europe
- United Polaris Business Class, Boeing 767-400ER, EWR-LHR
- United Arrivals Lounge, London Heathrow (LHR)
- L’Hermitage Gantois Hotel, Lille, France
- Air France Business Class Salon (Terminal 2E, Hall K), Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
- Air France Business Class, Boeing 787-9, CDG-YYZ
Have you flown the old United Airlines Polaris Business? What are your thoughts?