Polaris: United’s attempt at a competitive business class product. Despite being launched last year, I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to give them a fly. To tell the truth, I was a bit confused by the launch. Before having even one “new” Polaris seat in the sky, United rolled out their soft product. In other words, they just polished and re-branded their existing premium cabin. This would be like Airbus repainting some old A340’s, cleaning up the interior, and calling it a new aircraft.
Making the Reservation
I booked a one-way, mixed-class ticket from Phoenix to Tokyo/Haneda for 65,000 Ultimate Rewards transferred to my MileagePlus account. Additionally, United was charging $44 in taxes and fees. Similar itineraries were priced at approximately $2700 at the time of booking, providing me with a respectable $0.041 redemption rate. Considering this was a mixed cabin flight, economy Phoenix to San Francisco and Polaris Business to Tokyo, the actual redemption rate should be adjusted down. It’s hard to say exactly how much, but I would venture a guess that if a full first/business ticket purchased in cash was $2700, a mixed fare should price around $2200. With this in mind, I consider my adjusted redemption rate to be $0.033. In general, I will not transfer an Ultimate Reward for any redemption less than $0.03. So while this technically does meet my personal criteria, it only does so by a hair. All fees were charged to my Chase Sapphire Reserve. By doing so, I received lost baggage/trip insurance, and earned 132 UR’s.
It is worth noting that this international saver award was only available because I’m a United Mileageplus Explorer cardholder. It’s one of the lesser-known benefits of the card, yet the one I personally consider the most valuable. Without getting into too much detail, cardholders have access to additional saver awards not available to non-status MileagePlus members. In fact, the amount of additional award availability can be quite substantial. There have been numerous times I’ve anonymously searched for award availability, only to find the options sorely lacking. However, when I subsequently sign in, I’m generally greeted with a much larger set of choices. So while I rarely (never) use my MileagePlus Card for purchases, I continue to pay the annual $95 fee, primarily for the increased award booking options.
Check-in at Phoenix Sky Harbor was United typical. No fanfare, very little in the way of pleasantries, but otherwise uneventful. As the first leg was booked in economy, I didn’t have the luxury of using any expedited check in. This turned out to be a non-issue as there wasn’t much of a line at the self-serve kiosks. Furthermore, my TSA Pre-check status provided expedited security.
In addition to increased award availability, one is also granted priority boarding on all United operated flights if you hold the MileagePlus Explorer card. Personally, I don’t find this to be of much benefit, as I don’t relish the idea of rushing to an econ seat. If that benefit were available to Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier cardholders, it would be a points game changer.
Aside from getting to board in a line that makes you feel semi-special, there was absolutely nothing eventful about the PHX-SFO leg. It was economy, it was cramped, the FA’s didn’t seem to love their lives, I’ll move on.
SFO to HND
After landing in San Franciso, we had roughly 2 and a half hours to kill, so we promptly made our way to the United Club located in the international terminal. Along the way, we did notice a peculiar sign outside the United Club located in the domestic terminal:
Allow me to rant for just a moment, this is completely unacceptable. United advertises and provides several single-entry club passes as a benefit to holding the MileagePlus Explorer Card from Chase. In my opinion, then denying those cardholders entrance to a club when a pass is presented amounts to nothing short of false-advertising. I have no doubt that their ability to do this is disclaimed many times over, but it nevertheless feels misleading. To add insult to injury, I took a quick glance inside and saw the facility was not particularly crowded, so it certainly wasn’t a space issue. It really felt like they were doing it just because they could. Rant over.
SFO United Club – International Terminal
Unlike it’s domestic terminal counterpart, the international terminal United Club did not appear to be restricting pass-holder’s from entering. Though I doubt those in the domestic terminal knew this. As Ben over at OMAAT pointed out, there is nothing particularly special about this facility. It’s clean and provides ample power outlets, so at least the basics are covered. However, food options are severely lacking. Most hotel continentals put it to shame. There is a full service bar that appeared well-stocked.
In life, I can drink bottom-shelf wine, but I can’t deal with cut-rate WiFi. At first, the United Club seemed to impress. I was able to login quickly and it was blazingly fast. Unfortunetly, my WiFi induced euphoria was short lived, as the network required re-authentication seemingly every 5 minutes. So annoying. It was never anything more that simply re-entering that days password, but still, why? As with most United customer service experiences, it seemed so close to good but yet somehow manages to miss the mark.
On to the Dreamliner
Sitting pretty at gate 93 was our ride to Tokyo, a shiny 787 Dreamliner. We purposefully left the club early as I wanted to see if I could woo my way onto the aircraft a minute before others to snap some pics of the empty cabin. To my pleasant surprise, after letting the gate agent know it was my first time in a Polaris equipped aircraft, and I wanted to get some photos for my blog, she seemed happy to help out. While I didn’t have much time (only a minute or so), it was a really appreciated accommodation, and it allowed me to grab the panorama below:
The cabin is arranged in a 2-2-2 layout. In my opinion, getting a little tight for business. Theoretically this seating arrangement is temporary as United (very) slowly rolls out their much improved Polaris seats. In the meantime, we’re getting older seats with the newer soft product. Unlike United’s 747’s, at least there arent’ middle seats in this cabin.
Shortly after boarding, both the flight attendants and the service manager took a couple minutes to introduce themselves, that was welcome. Furthermore, they took this opportunity to grab our pre-departure drink order, as well as hand out the Polaris Business amenity kits. Of course, seeing as I was firmly planted in seat 1A, I had to grab a glass of bubbly before we got going. Smug, yes, satisfying, hell yes.
The Amenity Kit
Unlike some others, I really don’t put too much stock in a premium cabin amenity kit. To my way of thinking, it’s really just some cheap travel trinkets in a little branded pouch that says “hey, hey, I didn’t fly economy!”. For those who are curious, here’s what it looks like:
It’s got some stuff in it, I really didn’t take too much time to get acquainted. On the bright side, it did contain a fantastic sleep mask that I’ll actually keep for future use. Not included, but available for use are United branded noise cancelling headphones. They do the job, just not that well. Surprisingly, there were quite a lot of people using them. If you’re going to spend much time in the sky, a pair of high quality over-the-ear, noise cancelers is a must. I used a pair from Sony (Amazon) that I’m very happy with. Half the price of Bose Quitecomfort 35’s (Amazon) and in my opinion only slightly inferior.
Time to Get Going
After a lengthy takeoff delay caused by an overcrowded taxiway we got going. On the bright side I did have the opportunity to grab a couple #avgeek shots.
Rejected on UA 875
As soon as we completed our initial climb out, and I noticed the FA’s start to move about, I hit the call button to request another drink. Unfortunately, the relatively curt FA who answered my call simply said “uh, you want a drink now? If you wait a few minutes, we’ll be starting drink service”. My mental reaction was “uh, no, I don’t want to wait a few minutes, you’re literally standing 5 feet from the galley.” My physical reaction was a very indignant “Ok”. Feeling relatively discouraged, I waited about 5 minutes and tried my luck again. To my unpleasant surprise, a different FA gave me the same response! Apparently the time between pre-depature drinks and the first official beverage service is meant for sober reflection in Polarisland.
Although this fully classifies as a first world problem, I spent the next 15 minutes hastily reviewing my AVOD entertainment options and being annoyed. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was denied a beverage while flying international premium. I was really starting to think “no wonder United has the reputation it does”. Yeah, it’s petty, yeah there’s bigger problems in the world, but I was thirsty!
When drink service did begin, I requested a wine flight. I went with whites. Girlfriend went with reds. Honestly, my wine palate is pretty un-discerning. I likely wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a cabernet and a pinot. I just ordered it because that seemed like the thing to do.
Shortly after drinks were served, lunch was up. I ordered the traditional Japanese service. Bad idea. When ordering something with the end goal of reviewing it, you should at least know what you’re talking about. I was served something that was cold and bland, with a side of something cold and bland next to some fish that didn’t really taste like much. The problem is, that I don’t really know how this dish was supposed to taste. So I feel like saying it was “bad” might be naïve. All I know is that next time I’ll go with the chicken.
After meal service was United’s renowned sundae cart. However, I’m doing the millennial low-carb thing, so I just said “no thanks”. I did look good though.
Bed, Movies and More Drinks
I have this problem, and I have yet to be able to overcome it. I can’t sleep on planes. In another futile attempt to fully enter REM, I thought I might try a little drink/rerun combo. So, post meal, I grabbed one more thing boozy, put on something boring and attempted to drift off.
This is a great time to talk about United’s in-flight entertainment system. It’s not great. It’s also not that bad. I’ll keep this relatively brief, because there’s really only two things that make or break an AVOD system. Selection and picture quality. There are some other nuances, like ease of navigation. But I’d bet you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that would complain provided the other two are well executed. So, selection, it was adequate. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time going through everything, but there seemed to be a lot. Plenty of new-release movies and games. I’d say they delivered on requirement one.
Next, picture quality. Or should I say lack thereof. The screen was large enough, but it was also all washed out, see here:
So even when the cabin was totally dimmed, you had a hard time actually seeing what you were watching. Equally poor, was the “touchscreen” remote. I used quotes here because I think “poundscreen” would be more accurate. You had to press so hard that at times you’d worry you were going to break the thing. Furthermore, the remote resolution was so low, that you had a hard time making out what you were looking at. If you can picture a color flip-phone display circa 2005, you’ll have a good idea how information on the remote was displayed. Menu text was ok. But trying to make out a movie title on a thumbnail sized picture involved some serious squinting.
To compliment the flick, I grabbed a Goose Island 312. Good job United on this one. All too often we’re presented with the standard Budweiser/Coors/Heineken combo. I’m a millennial, we drink craft. Could be a fad, but I think it’s good. I was just happy to have some unique choices. I forgot to grab a pic of the drink menu, but it seemed to cover all the bases. Don’t know if everyone’s particular brand will be available. But I’d bet almost anyone will be able to find something to make them happy
The WiFi Experience
Or shall I say lack thereof. It absolutely blows my mind that a state of the art airliner can have such poor WiFi. It was as close to useless as one could get without fully meeting the definition of the word. As a point of reference, I typically like to run a quick speed test to see exactly what type of connection I’m working with. United’s in-flight WiFi was so poor, the test actually timed out. Something I’ve never seen happen before. Prices are shown below, but don’t be fooled, you’re essentially paying something for nothing. I was able to respond to one Facebook message before the connection went into a never-to-recover death spiral. It’s an interesting choice to terminology United chooses to use on their error page; “Temporarily Unavailable.” Replace the word “temporary” with “pretty much never” and we’d be close to something accurate.
Please reach out to our Refunds team here: https://t.co/G8u1cq5lL5. ^NJ
— United (@united) July 22, 2017
Approaching Japan and Eating Breakfast
By now, a few hours had passed since my desperate, yet pathetic attempts at finding a way to make the WiFi work had given way to defeat. Japan was tantalizingly close and it was time for the one in-flight meal that in my experience can actually be quite good: breakfast. Truth be told, I was quite tired and don’t really remember the Asian option, but referencing my less-than-stellar dinner, opted for what might be my last western meal for a couple weeks.
What arrived was about as American as you can get. Eggs, potatoes, sausage, corn, some fruit and some yogurt. Ok, well the yogurt was Greek, but that might be in name only. Oh, I also got an empty plate with some butter and jelly for what I assume was for a bread based product. But I wouldn’t know, it never came. Nevertheless, what did actually make it’s way to my belly was quite good. Even the strawberry was fresh. Not wanting to miss any opportunities for free booze, while still staying within the bounds of business classy, I grabbed a mimosa. Unlike my post-departure drink request that was met with sass, the FA seemed happy to pour me something that was a bit more champagne than orange juice. Just the way I like them.
Landing and Final Thoughts
Given some of my complains, one might be lead to believe that Polaris didn’t meet expectations. The truth is actually quite the opposite. So, to end on a mile high note, here are some things that I really enjoyed:
- A generally friendly and attentive flight crew (minus the one FA who refused a drink prior to formal service)
- A comfortable place to sleep, including nice bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue
- An ample selection of drinks. Maybe not the best in the sky, but certainly adequate.
- The quite cabin that a Dreamliner ride provides
So while United Polaris wouldn’t be my very first choice when choosing a ride across the Pacific, it wouldn’t be my last either. The frustrating part is that their so close to great. If their AVOD system got a 2017 update. If their lounge provided some decent food options. If their FA’s were trained to give provide a business class passenger with a post-departure drink without hesitation! If they could simply polish what already exists, I see no reason they couldn’t be completely competitive with their outstanding Asian competition. So for now, I’ll likely continue to look towards EVA, Cathay or JAL. But I’ll maintain cautious optimism that one day in the near future, the idea of flying United Polaris will be truly thought of as a journey unto itself.