Here’s What United’s New Polaris Seat and Service is Really Like

Yesterday I took a media flight from Chicago to San Francisco on United’s brand new Boeing 777-300ER, the first plane to actually offer the airline’s new Polaris business class seats.

Since December 1 United has offered their new soft product – meals, bedding, etc. – but no flight has had the new seats. This confuses many customers who see Polaris on their reservations and expect fully flat direct aisle access seating. That is coming, the first plane will fly its domestic inaugural this week before going into international service initially on San Francisco – Hong Kong.

I arranged my own travel up to Chicago and back from San Francisco and covered my own hotel night. The flight itself wasn’t for sale but consistent with my practice of not taking free flights I made a donation to charity in more than the cost of a first class segment between the cities.

Bottom line is that the product is nice, the seat is a big improvement for United, and I think it closes the gap enough that it will no longer be necessary to book away from the United business.

American has the better seat still — I’d take American’s Boeing 777-300ER seat, their Boeing 787-8 seat, and their Boeing 787-9 seat over the Polaris seat — but United has a much much nicer soft product. And the new United seat is certainly good enough.

Now, as I review the experience I will disregard some of the excellent service I got on the flight, the crew was fantastic but I have to assume hand-picked. I was thrilled to be able to experience the seats in action and not in an event space.

As for choosing seats: You need to decide if you like being more open to the cabin, with the extra table space on the inside of the seat (my preference) or if you prefer it on the outside which is either more cocooning or a bit claustrophobic.

I recommend taking a bulkhead seat for a bit of extra surface space at eye level in front of you which is great for all the ‘stuff’ you are given and since the seat really has almost no storage (but the foot well can be used during takeoff and landing … at least on the 777).

The business cabin is huge, a sea of seats, it isn’t the most intimate but this many seats should make getting awards and upgrades eventually quite possible at least compared to a smaller cabin.

The event began in the new Polaris business class lounge in Chicago, where CEO Oscar Munoz spoke briefly. Then we all headed to the gate where he played gate agent and scanned all of our boarding passes and joined us on the plane before getting off prior to doors close.

There were plenty of things at the seats — blankets, two pillows, slippers and then amenity kits were distributed along with menus, pajamas were distributed (these aren’t going to be offered on transatlantic flights) and flight attendants informed us about optional items we could have like gel cooling pillows.

Everyone was up and in the aisles while predeparture beverages and a chocolate were served. I don’t envy the flight attendants trying to perform service under these circumstances. We were all encouraged to take our seats, and we managed to figure out the seatbelts (you’re required to use a shoulder strap on takeoff and landing) and we pushed back four minutes early. Your foot area is a permitted storage area during takeoff and landing on this aircraft.

The whole business cabin was full between media, United staff, and product partners. There were a few staff in the economy plus section, and not a single passenger in regular coach. I wouldn’t be inclined to sit back there in 10-across (3-4-3) seating, a configuration many airlines including American have but that’s quite tight.

The full international meal service was offered, which was great but on the other hand everyone really wanted to be up in the aisles socializing.

I had a wine tasting, both a flight of white and of red. The Perrier Jouet champagne is a great choice for business class, the rest of the wines a bit less expensive but I was pleasant Washington state Colby Red blend that was quite nice and enjoyable (~ $12 in a bottle shop). La Crema is an archetypal California chard, Columbia Crest is fine though hardly special. I took a glass of the Colby Red with my main.

The starter was fine, a salad and two shrimp. I was impressed though that I had a United flight attendant offering me fresh ground pepper.

At a flight attendant’s recommendation I tried the beef, which was overcooked albeit beautifully presented.

I also tried the lobster mac and cheese off the midflight snack menu.

There were of course snacks in the mid-galley as well, but you could order off the snack menu and I think that’s really great compared to American’s offering.

The dessert cart is perhaps the most impressive piece of the service.

I really loved the custom dishware, from the predeparture beverage designed not to spill to the wine tasting glasses and base they sit in. A ton of thoughtfulness went into the product.

After the meal service there was just enough time to have the bed turned down but not enough to actually nap, nonetheless the seat is comfortable and surprisingly spacious especially once you put the arm rest down which prevents it from being claustrophobic.

A quick trip to the lav before landing, in the middle of the cabin you’ve got a larger one than in front so great for changing into pajamas.

Finally a quick stop to see the crew rest space before landing, and a visit to the cockpit once we were on the ground and the special flight had come to an end.

Polaris is not going to be one of the world’s leading business classes, but it is a very good product and makes United competitive. There will be no reason to avoid flying United in business class, and it will even be enjoyable. And they’ve done this while maintaining significant cabin density. I’d prefer a larger footprint for the seat, but I also prefer for there to be enough seats that upgrades are possible. It’s a good compromise.

The biggest frustration is how long it will take for the rollout. If you have a Boeing 777-300ER of course those are being delivered with the new seats. But it will be sometime in 2019 before half the fleet has the new seats, and years after that before nearly all the fleet does.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. why do these seats have massive headrests that jam your head forward? These are so uncomfortable. Just as bad as the terrible headrests in the current UAL biz class.

  2. Ugh. Now I’m dreading our upcoming run in J, LAX-MEL in the 789, which won’t have the seats until forever.

  3. What Tony said. It’s frustrating to hear everyone praise United for what is NOT an industry-leading product, and will absolutely be outdated before the fleet is consistent. And I don’t understand why everyone’s stating, “But it’s an improvement for United…” So what? It’s still a shoddy product comparatively and United should be embarrassed that they’re taking new A/C with a trailing-edge seat. The whole American air carrier industry and its followers need to stop patting United on the back for an overhyped and under-delivered hard product with a soft product that is surely not going to withstand even one year of use.

    And I say this as a someone with fairly considerable status on United.

  4. Garry, I think an apples to apples comparison of this seat is the AA 787-8 seat due to the similar density. Why is it that you prefer the AA787-8 seat vs the UA 777-300ER polaris product?

  5. I flew Newark to Tel Aviv with Polaris. The Asian chicken soup from Newark to Tel Aviv was delicious. I also liked the lobster mac and cheese and tomato soup snack, but they are a bit rich. On the flight from Tel Aviv the sea bass was delicious, with walnuts and a creamy sauce, it tastes like a gourmet meal, not like airplane food. There are amenities such as the mattress cover, gel pillows, slippers and pajamas that you need to ask for, the flight attendants did not offer.

  6. Gary,

    United has previously stated that Polaris will not be in a majority of the fleet until 2021–not 2019, as you reported.

  7. Umm no PJs when traveling across the Atlantic? What people don’t sleep on those flights? This is an example where United could spend minimally more and really show their commitment to their premium passengers.

  8. @nick I’m the source for much of the dates, and my conversations with United, the key element here is what we mean — 50%+1 during 2019 per United yesterday, “the bulk of the fleet” a couple of years after that.

  9. @Adam fair to call out “soft bigotry of low expectations” but this is much better than United has offered, and will close the gap enough to not have to book away from United, which is important and a meaningful change.

  10. @ Endlosluft — actually, ALL flights under 12 hours are not going to have pajamas. So even flights to South America like IAH-EZE. This really makes United seem cheap, IMHO.

    @ Gary — how much footwell space was there compared to, say, current 777 J? Find those seats very uncomfortable unless you sleep on a side and tuck your knees in.

  11. Great work United – you now have one plane in your fleet with a J product that can almost compete with the likes of airberlin and Iberia. Gooooood, here’s a cookie!

  12. @Ivan Y I couldn’t agree with you more. If it’s an overnight flight there should be pajamas available in a premium class. Can’t they just add a few dollars to the flight cost and make that available. Is this really the thing that breaks the bank? I just don’t get the minimal cost vs. making it feel like a high quality product.

  13. @Ivan Y i found it perfectly comfortable but I’m not super tall, I think it’s better than the current seat in that regard but there is some narrowing so someone much taller could have the same issue

  14. @ Eli Cohen: I never understood why CO served Treif to TLV, usually only shellfish but clearly UA is still doing so. Unfortunate if you can’t order a SPML in advance

    @ Gary: Serious question for you. Since you made a point to call out that you don’t take free perks and say you donated to “charity”, which organization did you donate to? Don’t see how that could impact your objectivity on UAs new offerings, but it’s comendable that you do so. Seem this was part of a loosely defined media event (which you apparently fall under), the travel was germane to this endeavor I don’t see how that’s a conflict. It’s not like UA said go take your wife SFO-HKG and you got a free trip out of it. Just curious about your rationalization, must have been important enough to mention in the body of the post.

  15. Two things stand out to this 1MM & Premiere Gold flyer: no pajamas for flights on the 9-11.59 hour flights is pretty bad and the ‘new’ tea selection on the dessert cart is Stash brand, which is a low end variety popular in the restaurants/food service. Nothing special there as far as quality.

  16. I do like how they added the wine tasting and the additional soft touches to enhance their offering. It makes it stand out above AA and Delta.

    That is awesome you were able to participate in the media event. Did you do a lot of background work to get included in the invite? Or was this one that they reached out to you? I assume the later since you’ve been writing for so many years now .

    Thanks for covering this event.

  17. May I suggest that United get pajamas for Global First Transatlantic while it still exists. It is nice to provide (on request) pajamas in business (even unusual) for long (12+) flights. But all competitors offer Forst class pajamas on long haul to/from europe…And providing pajamas on request to zingernational forst customers is a limited expense

  18. Quote: “@Adam fair to call out “soft bigotry of low expectations” but this is much better than United has offered, and will close the gap enough to not have to book away from United, which is important and a meaningful change.”

    It will be enough to not book away 50%+1 of the time from 2019. By which time we may well see further upgrades to Biz Class in general (Qatar just announced a major initiative this week) and perhaps see even further upgrades from the big three carriers in the US.

  19. Delta has offered a dessert cart exactly like this one in business class for many years. The on-demand mid-flight snacks are impressive, however.

  20. @ Gary – thank you! Personally, we are not fans of restrictive footwells found on an ever-increasing number of seat designs. It may sound strange, but I felt a lot more comfortable flying on SAS SVG-IAH route in angle-flat J seat (2-2 design) than on United’s 777 J seat. That’s why we are mourning a loss of 777 on SQ route out of IAH — SQ First seat is very nice and roomy; new SQ A350 J seat looks very strange.

  21. A quantum leap forward for soft product, especially food. Wines are very unexciting and cheap however. It remains to be seen how this showcase service will be degraded when the usual grumps and slackers take over service. It’s something they could take a little pride in serving, but I doubt most of them will see it that way.

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