This review is based on the author’s March 27 United Airlines Polaris Business Class flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco, the inaugural flight of United’s brand-new B777-300ER aircraft complete with the Polaris cabin. United flies daily between Hong Kong and San Francisco, Chicago and New York’s Newark. The airline is currently retrofitting exiting aircraft with the new Polaris cabins but a fleet-wide rollout won’t be complete until 2020.
I used the United web check-in to register for the flight and assign myself seats. The online check-in opens 24hrs before departure and worked without a hitch. You can also check in via the United mobile app, which is equally quick and intuitive.
United operates its own lounge at HKIA. The facility near Gate 61 is one of the airline’s better international lounges, offering business centre and shower facilities, as well as an open bar and a buffet section. The facility opens daily from 6am to midnight and welcomes Star Alliance Gold cardholders travelling in economy class too.
Boarding for the 1115am departure to San Francisco started early at 1015am. Since it was an inaugural service with several media onboard and a gate ceremony on the ground, there was a fair amount of commotion surrounding the gate but lines were moving swiftly regardless.
Priority boarding was given to U.S. army personnel and customers requiring wheelchair assistance, followed by United 1K status customers and business class passengers. As has sadly become standard for all U.S.-bound flights, there was a secondary security screening on the air bridge before boarding the aircraft which took some extra time.
Once onboard, I quickly made my way to seat 16D in the rear business class section. Configured with a 1-2-1 layout, United’s new Polaris business cabin features direct aisle access for every passenger, 180-degree flat-bed recline and up to 6’6’’ inches of bed space.
For single passengers, the single window seats (A;L) are the obvious choices. The centre seats (D;G) offer more versatility. In every other row these are immediately adjacent, perfect for couples or families, while in other rows they are slightly angled away from each other, toward the aisle, with a sizable bulkhead and divider separating two perfectly private spaces if required.
No matter what your seat preference, I would recommend choosing a seat in rows 1, 7, 8 or 9, given these are in close proximity to the galleys and lavatories, which not only generates significant foot traffic but also noise and potentially disturbing light on overnight flights.
As I was settling into my seat, a flight attendant offered to hang my suit jacket and asked for my pre-departure welcome drink of choice. There were no trays with the standard orange juice, water and champagne selection. Rather you could order anything you wanted. Each passenger also gets a Belgian chocolate, which is a nice touch.
Waiting at my seat was a very nice amenity kit and a menu. For business class, this has to be one of the nicest kits I’ve ever seen, not because of its design but because of how much stuff it had in it. There were eyeshades, earplugs, a comb, a pen, socks, mints, lip balm, hand cream, moisturizer and facial mist, most of them Cowshed-branded.
I really LOVE the new United Polaris seat. While not the most cutting-edge product out there, it is such a vast improvement over its predecessor and the Polaris/Saks Fifth Avenue bedding that comes with it is easily the best bedding offered by any airline in business class. It’s incredible! Each passenger gets two quality pillows, two large blankets and slippers, and can also request a memory foam gel pillow, a mattress pad pyjamas, a first for a U.S. airline.
Overall, the seat provided lots of storage space for your personal items and even more counter space to place your books, documents or electronics. I worked throughout the flight and found the seat and elbow space perfectly adequate for prolonged typing away on my laptop.
I took a quick one-hour power nap before landing and thought the full-flat bed position very comfortable, especially after adding the mattress pad it almost felt like sleeping in my own bed; there were no uncomfortable ‘dips’.
We pushed back on time and were airborne 30 minutes later after accounting for taxiing and ATC delays. The service began some 20 minutes into the flight and kicked off with a wine tasting, a new Polaris feature. I had a tasting of three white wines, which was a pretty fun new element although obviously somewhat of a gimmick given that most passengers would already know if they prefer a sweet Riesling or a dry Sancerre. Nevertheless, the tasting definitely elevated the flight ‘experience’ and I noticed how several passengers around me were clearly impressed with the offering.
This inaugural service was operated mostly by United’s Hong Kong-based crew, which made a huge difference. Based on several past flights, I find the Hong Kong-based crew much friendlier. This crew was obviously proud of the new Polaris cabin and it showed in the way they interacted with passengers and ‘hustled’ some of the new features.
The lunch service started about an hour into the flight. First up was a chilled pan-fried scallop appetizer with cauliflower puree, edible flowers and red fruit coulis. Great presentation and good taste. This was accompanied by a generous serving of fresh greens with a choice of dressing and assorted breads. For mains, there was a choice of grilled beef tenderloin with red wine sauce and seasonal vegetables, roasted Chinese-style chicken with fermented red bean sauce, water chestnut and pak choi, pan-fried sea bass with champagne cream sauce, squid ink taglierini and fava beans, or a vegetarian Agnolotti pasta dish with gorgonzola and butternut squash.
I had the sea bass, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was a generous portion, the fish was cooked just right and slightly flaky, the pasta al dente and the sauce light and delightful. Very good.
For dessert, there was a choice of mini lemon tarts, brownies and little cups of tiramisu, strawberry or lime mousse or United’s signature sundae with a choice of toppings, I had all of the above, alongside some amaretto, and enjoyed it.
There was a snack menu available throughout the flight, including shrimp in garlic sauce with egg fried rice, tomato basil soup served with a grilled cheese sandwich or cup noodles.
Two hours prior to our scheduled arrival into San Francisco breakfast was served, comprising a choice of cereal, congee or frittata. I had the congee, which was fine, but lacking some flavour. United has partnered up with Illy coffee, but this excludes espresso or any specialty coffees.
We landed 30 minutes ahead of schedule. It was a short walk to immigration, but once there things went awry. Following the new US immigration rules
including the electronic ban
, there were lines as far as the eye could see and processing nearly took two hours but this is not the airline’s fault.
Polaris is such a phenomenal turnaround for United! While I wouldn’t have recommended United before the arrival of the B777-300ER and Polaris, the competitive landscape has changed. United’s hard product is now at par with Cathay Pacific’s offering on the route and United regularly offers affordable business class fares from Hong Kong to the U.S. and beyond.