Review: United Airlines Business Class, Sydney – San Francisco

At the end of 12 days in Australia, my wife, three year old daughter, and I were set to fly back to the States on United award tickets in business class, Sydney – San Francisco. Flight UA870 was operated by a Boeing 777-300ER, the airline’s largest aircraft, and every seat was booked.

Here’s the experience in a nutshell: United Airlines business class is (usually now) a better seat than the airline used to offer, but one with less space than you’ll find on Delta, American, Air Canada or Air France. United has good bedding, and the wifi worked on my flight, but the rest of the soft product from food to service was subpar.

To be clear, I was grateful to be flying business class on such a long flight as Sydney – San Francisco, especially booking using miles. And United’s Polaris is a business class. It just generally lacked many of the touches that make the experience more than just ‘a better seat than coach’.

Check-in

We arrived at Sydney airport terminal 1, the international terminal, right when I’d planned. United counters were at the very far right end of the terminal, but easy to find thanks to a monitor showing which letter check-in desks they were using. We walked straight up to business class/1K check-in and were helped almost immediately.

The very friendly Aussie working the check-in desk told me all about her daughter returning to Australia once quarantine was no longer required, and about how good the coffee is in the Air New Zealand lounge. But it took her quite awhile to process baggage tags. Once we’d done that we headed straight for passport control. There’s no premium queues for government checks when leaving Sydney, so leave plenty of time.

United business class passengers have access to the Singapore and Air New Zealand lounges. There’s also a nearby American Express lounge. On this trip I visited none of those. Despite arriving at the airport two hours prior to departure, by the time I’d made it through passport control and security – the lines were very long on a Sunday morning – and out near the gate it was already four minutes to scheduled boarding. I used the time to buy a bunch of bottles of water, not trusting United’s flight attendants to keep me hydrated on a 13 hour flight.

Boarding – Masks Required?

As passengers crossed onto the jet bridge they were told they had to wear masks. This wasn’t because of Australia’s masking rule for flights, but in the words of the flight attendant because of airport rules about masks. Passengers were informed they could take off their masks once we’d pushed back.

One passenger pointed out, and pulled up on their phone, that airport masking rules in New South Wales had changed and were no longer in effect. The senior male flight attendant who had been scolding people about their lack of masks was visibly upset, but other cabin crew informed him he was wrong. He became very gruff with the passenger who pointed out the error for several interactions, scolding him about the placement of his shoulder belt and generally sounding sarcastic.

There were no menus. Upon boarding a flight attendant taking orders asked, “lamb, salmon, or vegetarian?” Often I’ll make a decision on which protein to order based on how it’s prepared, or the sides. And I’ll consult the list of adult beverages, and especially wine, to think about what I might enjoy with my meal.

At the seat, in the storage compartment, were headphones and a bottle of water. On the seat was a pillow, cooling gel pillow, and blanket. Predeparture orange juice, sparkling wine, and still water was offered. I requested pajamas and a mattress pad – those aren’t placed at your seat, and I didn’t want them to run out.

The Polaris Seat

The seat, announced by Oscar Munoz in 2016, was a Jeff Smisek special. It’s innovative for being able to squeeze seats into space, to ‘check the boxes’ as efficiently as possible. It’s not a seat to avoid the way old United business class (Diamond seats) are, with several planes still flying around six years into the new seat offering. But make no mistake that United’s business class is a lesser product.

Nonetheless it is a gorgeous cabin despite also being a dense cabin, and there were plenty of items at the seat – a blanket, pillow, cooling gel pillow, and new Away amenity kit.

Slippers are placed on the ottoman.

Odd-number rows of the Boeing 777 are great for families traveling together in the middle section, because while the center divider (electronically controlled) goes up and down between those seats the divider is much larger for odd-numbered seats.

There isn’t very much storage in the seat, but there’s a nice side table that fits a laptop when it’s not on your tray table. There’s also AC and USB power. The small cubby fits your headphones and some other sundry items. A water bottle was placed inside before passengers boarded.

Main Meal Service

After takeoff (room temperature) nuts were distributed, along with a beverage of choice. There would be no separate beverage service when meals were passed out, or even after the meal.

I had ordered the salmon and the piece of fish was quite good. The salad was lettuce and one cherry tomato cut in half. Bread was served room temperature. There was no separate appetizer, just the lettuce.

There was no napkin laid out on my seat’s tray. Instead the meal was served on a tray preplated with linen. It’s all about speed and efficiency, not a moment spared for extra interaction by crew at the seat. After all before the pandemic United removed a flight attendant from business class and there’s just no time.

After the main meal a flight attendant came around offering dessert – a choice of “cheese and crackers” (no mention of what cheeses were on offer), “lemon cake” or “ice cream.” I chose the ice cream and it came to the aircraft with toppings on it. The vanilla ice cream was freezer-burned.

There’s no separate cheese course, you can no longer have more than one choice, and if you did want cheese the only way to find out what the cheeses were on this flight would have been to select that as your dessert, taste them, and guess.

There was no opportunity for something to pair with dessert, though you could have hit the flight attendant call button – asked what they offered (again, no menu) – and then requested something.

Mid-flight Snacks

They ran out of midflight snacks. First the chips were gone, then the cheese and crackers (maybe the dearth of those is why you can’t have a separate cheese course). And eventually the sandwiches were gone, too. Notably United doesn’t even catering a hot option, as Air Canada had on our outbound.

Sleep On A 10 a.m. Departure

I find it really tough to sleep on a 10 a.m. departure. I love late night flights, and ultra-long haul flights where you’re going to get a night’s sleep almost no matter what. But it’s tough to leave at 10 and be ready for bed just as you’re landing in the morning at your destination.

Good bedding helps. So does darkness. However some passengers chose to keep their windows open for the flight. That was bad enough – as people were starting to settle in for bed cabin crew gossiped about work incessantly from the jump seats by the forward door, and didn’t even use their “inside voices.”

Pre-arrival Breakfast

Not only wasn’t there a menu, there wasn’t a choice. The idea of breakfast was introduced as, “what are you drinking with your breakfast?” I asked about coffee, they have milk and only milk – no other options. And there was no discussion of what the food was being placed in front of me.

The egg dish was surprisingly good. The sausage (against my better judgment I took one small taste) was among the most disgusting things I’ve ever tasted. The fruit generally unripe but fine. Breakfast bread – a muffin – came packaged.

The Internet Worked

I have to hand it to United – the internet worked, and with reasonably low latency. Wifi was $28.99 for the full flight.

Historically the number one reasons I’ve tried to avoid flying United domestically is because of lack of functional internet. Internet on Delta, American, Alaska and JetBlue have all been vastly superior to the slow offerings on United. Flying United has meant a hole in my productivity for several hours, which is something I can ill-afford.

They’re making an effort to improve wifi on their domestic fleet, and wifi on their Boeing 777-300ER is much better than the last time I flew one as well.

United Offers A Largely Ambivalent Business Class

I want to like United business class. When they first rolled out Polaris service over 5 years ago, they did a really nice meal service. They did wine tastings. They let you indulge with cheese and then dessert. Since then we saw a litany of Kirby Kuts even before the pandemic, and the service doesn’t live up to what other airlines are offering. And that’s on top of a seat that while passable – it is lie flat with direct aisle access and stylish – doesn’t offer as much space per passenger as other seats.

I’m trying something new with my trip reports, a rating by category and then overall for the flight. I may adjust the weights given to each category as I refine my thinking on this experiment.

United Airlines business class flight (1-10):

    Seat (50%): 6/10
    Bedding and amenities (15%): 9/10
    Food and Beverage (20%): 4/10
    Service (15%): 3/10
    Weighted average: 5.6/10

One thing I do have to give United credit for – I’ve noticed that they cap the number of miles they charge for business class, and at a lower level than competitors. So while you might pay up to 250,000 AAdvantage miles one way for a business class award between the U.S. and Australia (against seats legitimately selling for $7000+) United charges 200,000. Both are better than Delta on this score of course. So there’s a use case for some.

Flying from Australia to North America I’d certainly prefer to fly Delta, Air Canada or American (once their flights re-start) and Qantas on a Boeing 787-9. But United business class does the job of transportation while escaping from economy.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Several of the statements in this whiny article are generally untrue. I often ask for a cheese plate and a sundae in United Polaris and I’ve never been refused. I’ve also never experienced United running out of midflight snacks (how many did you eat?!) and dinner service is always with a napkin on the table, not the tray. I’ve also always received a menu and always get my first choice. However, even if all those things happened to me, I guess I’d live. Jeez, it’s a plane flight, get over yourself. I fly a lot, all over the world, in business class. United does a great job for a reasonable price, frankly. One of my favorite airlines, except once in a while there’s a real battleaxe up front, but even that is just free entertainment.

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