SAN FRANCISCO – As the North Star began to fade just as the sun started to rise over Newark Liberty International Airport Thursday morning, more than 350 customers boarded United 539 for a trans-con flight to San Francisco. Although it was mostly business as usual, it was a special flight.
United 539 marked the first time the airline would fly its new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft with revenue customers, and the first opportunity for customers to take the airline’s new Polaris international business class seat for a spin.
However, one can argue that this flight had a bit more significance than just a new airplane and a new seat; it was another milestone for CEO Oscar Munoz to demonstrate to the airline’s customers that the United team is working hard to improve its product, performance, and service. After all, we were on-board United’s first 777-300ER (N2331U • MSN 62642 • LN 1453), which was christened as the “New Spirit of United” last month.
It’s no secret that the merger between United and Continental has had many challenges, and many agree that United fell behind the pack, especially its premium product. For example, American and Delta were able to advertise that many of its business class seats had direct-aisle-access; meanwhile, some of United’s business class cabins were in a 2-4-2 layout.
Chicago, we definitely had a problem.
Shortly after United announced it would swap 10 Dreamliners that were on order for 10 777-300ERs back in April 2015, leadership change was in the air; Oscar Munoz went from being a board member of United Continental Holdings to the new CEO of the airline.
Munoz would be tasked with uniting United’s employees, improving the airline’s financial and operational performance, and winning its customer’s business. In order to do so, Munoz recognized from the get-go that he would need to win the trust of United’s employees to succeed, and many employees started to jump on-board.
The first few months of his leadership were a bit challenging as he suffered a heart attack and underwent a heart transplant, but there was nothing that was going to stop him; he was determined to help lead United in a better direction. Despite his absence while recovering for a couple months, employees began to trust him and the leadership that filled in for him during, and some changes started occurring.
Just about two months after returning to United, Munoz sent out an email to all of the members of United’s MileagePlus program to start a dialogue. He described in the letter that as he had been traveling the network that he began to “see and feel a new energy and enthusiasm that [he called] the new spirit of United.” He also introduced United Airways as another way for his team to gain insight from its customers. In the months after, the airline made great strides in labor relations, profitability, and operations.
However, the international premium product was still an issue, but behind the scenes, even before Munoz took over the reins of United, many United employees were already hard at work at designing the carrier’s new product. When Munoz joined, he told the team to be “defiantly innovative.”
The product was officially unveiled back in June 2016; at the announcement, Munoz explained that “travel now is like going to the dentist. So we wanted to look at how we make everything from the lounge to the landing a better process…when looking at international business class, our research showed that a good night’s sleep was what customers wanted most.”
So, United designed its new product where sleep is at the center of the experience to help ensure its customers arrive rested.
It’s a big task for a carrier to re-invent a new product and introduce it; so, the carrier introduced it in three different components. The first was the soft product changes; from the food to the service and even the pillows and blankets, United worked very hard to upgrade this part, and it also spent several months training flight attendants how to conduct the service.
The airline opened its first of nine Polaris Business Class lounge’s at Chicago O’Hare on December 1st which was the same day that the soft product changes went live.
Now, the airline still had to upgrade its hard product which is the third component; it was announced that it would make its official debut on the airlines’s new Boeing 777-300ER. The new product will begin being rolled out to most of the Boeing 767-300s and Boeing 777-200s later this year.
United is planning to have a fleet of at least 14 Boeing 777-300ERs; three of the 14 have already been delivered. The first one arrived in mid-December after rolling out of the paint shop in early-November.
Over the course of the last three months, the airline spent a lot of time working with the aircraft getting ready for its new hard product debut, and it also conducted several crew familiarization flights. While this was going on, the airline kept its ten exit doors of the aircraft mostly closed with very, very few pictures of the new Polaris cabin surfacing prior to the media flight on February 13.
On-Board the First Revenue Fight
About an hour-and-half before our scheduled departure time of 7:00 AM ET, people started gathering in the gate area of C123. It was business as usual at the gate other than some balloons on top of the gate signs and aviation enthusiasts posing for pictures.
Boarding began promptly at 06:10, and it was a completely full-flight with 366 passengers. While walking down the jetway, the blue color of United’s version of the North Star began to glow brighter and brighter while approaching the aircraft door, and the excitement finally began to kick in.
Once at the aircraft door, passengers were welcomed by a flight attendant, who would point out the quickest route to their seat.
One of the first things I noticed when stepping on-board through the first door was the the openers of the cabin that was illuminated with the relaxing blue ceiling lights that provided a tranquil mood. Thankfully, I was more excited than sleepy despite my 3:30 AM wakeup call.
I walked through the galley to the other aisle and walked to 5L. Many people were already on the aircraft taking pictures and even doing some exploring.
Upon arriving at my seat, there was one of the Saks Fifth Avenue blankets and pillows as well as one of the United Polaris Polar Bears that were given out during the first month of the soft product launch. The pilot and blankets are the only parts of the Polaris soft product that appear on the P.S. flights.
During boarding, the flight attendants were extremely proactive handing out menus, taking orders for breakfast, and serving pre-departure beverages, despite everybody moving around and exploring the Polaris cabin or playing with their seat. Also, a United Global Service representative went around and thanked most of the elite members that were on-board the flight.
A few announcements were made prior to pushback about this being the first revenue flight of this aircraft, but again, it was business as usual. However, Captain Taylor started off his announcements by recognizing the significance of today’s flight:
“if you haven’t figured out, this is an important flight for us here at United. This is the first revenue flight of this aircraft, and on behalf of the crew, we want to welcome you on-board this important flight.”
He went on to say that it would be just a little over five hours of flying time and expected a mostly smooth flight as we cruised at 34,000 feet.
At 7:05 AM ET, the boarding door was closed, and we began to push back. The Polaris seats have a shoulder strap that must be buckled during taxi, take-off, and landing so many people had to be reminded to buckle it.
At approximately 7:31 AM ET, we lined up with 22R, and we took-off towards the friendly skies.
The Polaris Seat
United’s Polaris seats are in a 1-2-1 configuration, and in the case of the 777-300ER, the galley and refreshment bar split the Polaris cabin into two separate cabins; rows 1-8 are in the front while 9-18 (minus rows 13 and 14 which are skipped) are in the second Polaris cabin. However, beware that rows 7 and 8 are right by the galley. There are a total of 60 Polaris business class seats on the 777-300ER.
The seats are staggered so the odd rows offer better window views than even rows, and personally, I find that the odd seats have a bit more privacy as the side table is between you and the aisle so it does not feel like you are right on the aisle. Also, I feel like the odd rows are more functional for me as a right handed person; it may not necessarily be a problem due to which hand is dominant, but that is just my take.
The seat controls are nicely placed and very easy to work. You can also lay at a nice 180 degree angle and be relatively comfortable as long as you are not too much over 6’6 which is what the seats were designed to accommodate. I found the seat to be pretty comfortable, but I would definitely use the bedding they provide on long-haul international flights for extra comfort.
One of my favorite things about the seat is the little cubby just above the remote; inside is where United stores a pair of headphones, and there is also a mirror and a light to see inside. It’s perfect to store additional headphones. Just don’t forget to make sure you have everything when getting ready to de-plane!
There is one power outlet and one USB port located right by the remote and cubby; this works out well so you can set any devices down on the side table. One other USB is located underneath the IFE screen which works perfectly for charging a phone so you can set it right below the screen.
The tray-table is located between the foot rest and the in-flight entertainment screen; you simply push it in to relate the table and pull it towards you. One nice thing is that it folds out in case you want additional space. The only minor issue with the tray-table is that it blocks the buttons for two lights on the seat controls panel.
My second favorite thing about the seat is the “Do Not Disturb” light; I think that this was ingenious, especially when traveling 12-14 hours and you do not want to be woken up for a meal. There is also a reading light over your shoulder, and a hook to hang a coat or shirt.
While we climbed to our cruising altitude, one of the supervisors on today’s flight, Kurt, was assisting through the aisle with a few different problems that came up with the in-flight entertainment system. I experienced a problem with not being able to hear sound, but he was able to re-set my system, and it ended up fixing the problem.
While chatting with him later in the flight, he explained that they can reset any one screen they need to in both the Polaris and United Economy cabins if there is an issue; this is quite nice as it doesn’t impact all of the passengers.
The IFE screens in Polaris are 16” which was a nice size for the seat; it is powered by the Panasonic eX3 suite, and the 777-300ER also has the eXconnect in-flight WiFi system. The screen can be controlled by the remote or simply touching the screen. The remote is located either to the left or to the right, and can be hand-held by the push of a button.
If you’re an AvGeek, hands down the best thing about the IFE system is being able to listen to Channel 9 as long as the pilot turns it on. However on the off chance that does not interest you, there are hours and hours of movies, TV shows, music, and 22 different games. The remote also has buttons to turn on the overhead light and to call the flight attendant.
The only unfortunate thing about the IFE system is that you have to have the right headphone adapter to use your own headphones as the size seems to be different than the standard that is provided with some noise-canceling headphones.
The Refreshment Bar
This was a good move by United to put this on the aircraft; there were only a few bottles of water on it for this flight, but the purser, Jorge, told me that more snack and drink options will be available during flight on international flights.
The Economy Class Cabin
The economy cabin is tight with 306 seats in the dreaded 3-4-3 configuration, so there are 10 seats across. Compared to United’s other 777s, the room of the seats has also been reduced, even in United’s extra-legroom Economy Plus seats.
There are 102 seats in Economy Plus; the seat pitch and width was reduced to 34” and 17.5” from 35” and 18.5” respectively from the current 777-200 fleet. The other 204 economy seats, and their seat pitch has been reduced to 31” from 32”.
On the bright side, at least all of the economy seats are equipped with in-flight entertainment systems unlike the carrier’s Boeing 747s that the 777-300ER is replacing.
I asked a 6’1 economy passenger while checking out the rear galley on what he thoughts about the seats; he was not a fan. He explained “that they are tight, especially for the person in the middle.” Unfortunately, it seems that this configuration is now standard for airlines to go with the 3-4-3 layout. The aisle also feels a bit tighter compared to other aircraft.
I asked the purser if he thought the tightness causes issues from the crew perspective, and he did not seem to think it will when they will have 12-13 flight attendants for a long-haul international flight instead of just nine on today’s flight.
The round-trip flights from Newark to San Francisco and Los Angeles are all P.S. flights meaning it is United’s trans-con Premium Service. The Polaris seats are just temporary until the Boeing 777-300ER begins international flights next month. It is not clear if changes will be made to the product in the future so we will just have to wait and see. However, it was an excellent experience trying out the P.S. soft product, and I must say, the French Toast dish is most excellent. Plus, who doesn’t love a warm chocolate chip cookie and a glass of cold milk?!
All of the flight attendants were extremely professional and proactive. Despite some issues with seats, the entertainment system, and the Wi-Fi, they worked diligently to fix them or do the best they could. For example, while over Utah, the Wi-Fi went out, but four different flight attendants tried different ways to troubleshoot the problem; finally, one of them worked!
Sure, this was an inaugural flight, and it is expected that the flight crew will be proactive and do an excellent job; however after talking to three flight attendants, I feel like the New Spirit of United truly is alive and well. They seemed to very much like the leadership and trust them. Further, they agreed that this has taken place through many steps from all being in the same uniform to agreeing on one single contract. Today’s flight and the new product is just the cherry on-top of the sundae that will be delivered when both Continental and legacy United flight attendants officially become United flight attendants.
At just about 9:00 AM PT, we began our initial decent into San Francisco; on our approach, it felt like we were floating back to the ground. At 9:39 AM, Captain Taylor gracefully set down the 777-300ER, and eight minutes later, we pulled into gate 82.
No fire trucks for a water cannon salute greeted us nor any fanfare in the gate area of the airport; it was just business as usual. However, this was just how it was supposed to be; one of the flight attendants working the flight, Bruno, emphasized that they are using the roundtrip flights between Newark and San Francisco to work out all of the kinks and become familiar with the aircraft before it begins flying between San Francisco and Hong Kong, starting on March 25.