Reported by Anne Spiselman • Photos by Fred Swanson.
June 10, 2018 — Chicago. United Airlines inaugurated its Polaris service in late 2016 and has been slowly rolling out its Polaris business class seats and lounges since then.
My plan was to fly from ORD to EWR to check out the Polaris lounge that had opened there a week earlier, then take flight UA960, a 777-300ER fitted out with the new Polaris business class seats, to FRA.
The flight from Chicago was slated to arrive in Newark at 17:25, and the one to Frankfurt was scheduled to depart at 19:40 from the same terminal, so there should have been no problem.
But things don’t always go as planned.
My traveling companion/photographer Fred and I arrived at O’Hare’s Terminal 1 at around 11:00 for UA1611, the 14:10 flight to EWR, partly because the weather was stormy and we worried about getting stuck in traffic and partly because, well, we’re always early.
A bit confused by the signs, we headed to a United Premier Access counter, where an agent operated the automated kiosk that scanned our passports for the international flight and spits out boarding passes for both legs. We weren’t checking any luggage, so we bypassed that step.
When I explained that I was traveling with my own wheelchair but would like wheelchair assistance getting through security, to the United Polaris lounge, and later to the gate, he suggested that it would be quicker if I went to United’s Accessibility Services desk at the far end of the terminal than if he called someone to come help.
I didn’t even know United had an Accessibility Services desk at the airport, and no one had told me that I could go directly there to check in, check luggage, and get wheelchair assistance. This was rather surprising since before traveling I had talked on the phone to the airline’s Accessibility Services personnel—twice. I wanted to make sure there would be no problem stowing my wheelchair in the cabin.
Even though it collapses to the size of a suitcase and fits in an overhead bin, Flight Attendants often give me a hard time about it and seem unaware of the Air Carrier Access Act’s rules regarding wheelchairs. (Briefly, closet space must be available for the first wheelchair, and any assistive devices that fit in an overhead bin or under the seat must be stowed in the cabin if the customer wishes).
Apparently, the first person I talked to had written down both that I was traveling with my own wheelchair and that I needed one to be provided, so I got a callback to find out which was correct. No mention of the desk at the airport either time.
As it turns out, we were expected at the Accessibility Services desk, even though we didn’t know it. The woman on duty made a call, and soon Premium Services Supervisor Souhier Boutros came to greet us. She was dedicated to helping us until we got onto the plane. Though we were delighted for the help, we didn’t realize at first just how valuable it would be.
Getting through security took a while because the TSA agent inspecting the luggage had to call four times for a female agent to pat me down in the wheelchair. And it was a pretty thorough pat down at that.
In the Polaris Lounge
Then it was on to the Polaris business lounge, which opened near gate C 18 on Dec. 1, 2016, and got so busy so quickly it expanded in 2017, taking over part of what had been a United Club.
Souhier gave us a tour starting with the massive light installation “North Star Chicago” in the marble-clad lobby. Created by artist Wolfgang Buttress, it showcases the streets of Chicago, and a corresponding map on the wall outlines the area covered.
Reserved exclusively for United and Star Alliance business and first-class customers on long-haul flights, the lounge has a variety of seating options, among them individual “pods” with pull-out tables and lamps, open areas with lots of power plugs and USB ports, banquettes with little round tables, and comfy armchairs along windows with great views.
Dining and drinking choices include an extensive buffet that changes throughout the day and an inviting bar serving top-shelf liquor, boutique cocktails invented by notable mixologists, craft beers, and an impressive wine list.
There’s even a hydration station with colorfully garnished flavored waters in large glass jars.
The expansion houses a sit-down restaurant featuring indulgent breakfasts like eggs Benedict and brioche French toast and a lunch and dinner menu with selections by celebrity chef Art Smith, such as his buttermilk fried chicken and Blue Door kitchen burger.
A dozen individual washrooms, a couple of them wheelchair-accessible (though the doors are too heavy to open if you’re in a wheelchair), line a hallway with starry-night lighting. Six shower rooms, one of which is accessible, allow travelers to freshen up, and a few rooms with daybeds, heated blankets, and subdued lighting are available for naps.
After the tour, we settled down near the windows to toast our trip with glasses of Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Brut and snacks from the buffet: smoked salmon on little squares of black bread, Caprese salad, stuffed roasted tomatoes, ham and cheeses, mini skillets of chicken pot pie and shepherd’s pie, brownies, cookies, and petit fours.
Meanwhile, Souhier, who’d been working at the main desk, learned that our flight to EWR had been delayed, and she started researching alternatives while waiting to find out how late it would be.
Given the bad weather, I’d done some advance research on United’s website and mentioned that it looked like the 18:15 ORD-FRA nonstop might have the Polaris business seats.
When it seemed like the delay was going to be about an hour, which meant we might not have time for the EWR lounge even if we made the 19:40 flight, we had a difficult decision to make: Stick to the original plan or switch to the nonstop.
Thanks to Souhier, who provided encouragement and found us two Polaris business seats (though they weren’t together) on UA907, the 18:15 ORD-FRA nonstop, we decided to switch.
It definitely was the right decision! As she later told us, UA1611 didn’t get off the ground until 16:40 and wasn’t going to arrive in Newark until 19:40, the same time the flight to Frankfurt was leaving.
Since there were no other UA flights to Frankfurt until the next day, we would have been stuck in New Jersey overnight.
Instead, we spent a few pleasant hours in the lounge, even making friends with a couple from Ohio, until the wheelchair pusher came at 17:25 to take us to preboard, and Souhier accompanied us, too.
On the Plane Before Takeoff
Although our seats originally weren’t together, I was able to switch my window seat, 9A, for one in the center, so Fred and I had 9D and 9G, the two middle bulkhead seats in the second Polaris business compartment.
The aircraft for UA907 was a B777-200 that had been retrofitted with 50 Polaris business seats, which are in a 1-2-1 configuration, so everyone has aisle access (like the old first-class seats).
The seats all face forward (unlike the old business class seats on some planes) and are 22-inches wide. They also recline 180 degrees to lie flat and offer 6 feet 6 inches of sleeping space.
Essentially, the seats are pods with several storage spaces (a cabinet for the oval metal amenity kits and large noise-deadening headphones, a pocket for magazines), a small side table (mine already was scuffed up), a screen in front of each passenger with a coat hook next to it, a shelf and footrest below, and a tray table that pops out with the push of a button.
Between us were the controls for operating the seats, as well as a partition that could be raised for privacy. On the seats when we arrived was the Saks Fifth Avenue bedding the airline is proud of: a light blanket, a rolled up khaki-colored duvet (warmer than it looked), and a big pillow.
My first impression was that space seemed cramped, and the entrance to the pods—especially the window ones—was surprisingly narrow.
Despite the amount of storage, it was hard to know where to put the bedding when not using it. The seat controls were difficult to decipher, and I soon discovered that the seats weren’t designed for my 4-foot 10-inch height.
When I raised the leg rest, my feet and lower legs dangled over the edge; they didn’t reach the built-in footrest until the seat was almost fully reclined. (Fred, a 6-footer, found the seats equally uncomfortable for slightly different reasons.)
The seat-belt latch was way off to one side, making it hard to buckle, and there was a constraining shoulder harness we were required to use for takeoff and landing. One of several tradeoffs for pod privacy is that passengers seated in the center can’t see out the windows at all.
Before takeoff, a Flight Attendant came to take entrée orders but hadn’t had enough menus to hand out, so I had to ask for one. There was so much cabin noise from the air-conditioning (icy-cold until takeoff; okay after that) that we could barely hear the announcements in English and German.
The safety instruction video started with a Mardi Gras theme and had all sorts of cutesy details, a trend nowadays. I asked a Flight Attendant where the safety vest was in our seats, and she had to go find out because it was her first time on this plane. No wonder we couldn’t see it: It was set back under the seat, in the middle.
Boarding finished at 18:00, and the plane was scheduled to take off at 18:15 but didn’t. At 18:30 or so, the purser made the rounds greeting passengers. He quickly figured out our seat switch. I mentioned the need for wheelchair help when we landed, and he asked me to remind him at breakfast.
Pushback was at 18:35 and lift off at 18:51. A message on our video screens said we could listen to our flight number to hear communication between the flight deck and FAA air-traffic control, a feature unique to United but not available on all flights.
Entertainment is available on travelers’ personal devices as well as the plane’s system, which listed lots of current and older movies, some with audio description, and albums, though there did not seem to be much in the way of classical music. The amenity kits had socks, eye mask, earplugs, toothbrush, pen, tissues, and Cowshed hand cream and lip balm.
Dinner service started with hot towels, followed by the beverage trolley. The wine list said to ask about today’s Champagne selection “hand-picked by Doug Frost, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine.” So I did. The Flight Attendant said it was Alfred Gratien, opened a bottle, and brought me a taste.
I liked it, so she poured some into a stemless flute and delivered a little bowl of warm nuts (almonds and a few cashews). The wine list also offered Robert Weil 2015 Riesling Tradition, Joseph Drouhin 2016 Chablis, Bouchard Père et Fils 2015 Côte de Beaune Villages, and Catena 2015 Cabernet Franc.
Next tray tables were popped out and covered with dark-blue cloths, a prelude to the arrival of cloth-covered trays bearing the chilled appetizer, a mesclun salad with grape tomatoes and balls of fresh mozzarella (the menu listed olives but I didn’t see any), vinaigrette dressing, butter, tiny salt-and-pepper shakers (cute orbs), and real silverware. Rolls and garlic bread were offered.
An asterisk next to the appetizer, Thai-style lemongrass shrimp with green papaya mango salad, indicated that it was “inspired by The Trotter Project Chef Michael Armstrong of TAO Group/New York.”
Begun to honor the late Chicago chef, Charlie Trotter, The Trotter Project is a nonprofit charitable and educational organization dedicated to mentoring the next generation of culinary professionals, and Trotter-affiliated chefs have teamed with United to help develop its menus in exchange for sponsorship by the airline. Unfortunately, my two shrimp were overcooked and mealy.
Of the four entrée picks, miso-glazed Amazon cod fish fillet with soy beurre blanc, green tea soba noodles, bok choy, carrot, and daikon, also was marked with The Trotter Project asterisk. The good-size fillet was nicely cooked but a tad fishy with barely a hint of the glaze or sauce.
The noodles looked more like buckwheat soba than green tea, and the vegetable mix added color to the generous plate of food.
Far better, if not as pretty, was the spicy chicken with udon noodles in a Thai-style coconut-ginger broth. Piquant and lime-y, with boneless chunks of moist chicken, it was more like a thick Thai coconut-milk curry and as good as you’d get in some restaurants. It also has been so popular that it has stayed on the menu for months, according to United officials.
Maybe that’s why there’s no mention that it was created by Chicago chef Bill Kim, another Trotter Project participant. The main courses we didn’t try were the seared beef short rib and lentil chili.
We were spoiled for dessert choices from a trolley: three cheeses and grapes with or without a glass of port; a trio of mini sweets (apple pie, cheesecake, salted caramel bar), and/or an ice-cream sundae, vanilla ice cream with a choice of toppings including hot fudge, caramel sauce, nuts and whipped cream.
I sampled all of them and liked my hot fudge sundae the best. Coffee or tea ended the meal. We could have skipped all this and opted for “express dining” instead, but that would have been less fun. And if we were still hungry (ha-ha), snacks were on hand near the galley anytime after dinner service.
After dinner, the lights were dimmed, bottles of water were handed out, and the flight—cruising at 35,000-37,000 feet—was very smooth. I watched “Lady Bird” (good) and “Phantom Thread” (not so good), then tried to doze, not very successfully despite the comfy duvet.
About an hour-and-a-half before landing, the lights went up, hot towels were passed out again, and breakfast service commenced. We had the herb-flecked omelet stuffed with provolone, roasted peppers, and onion and served with chicken sausage, roasted potatoes, and fruit. The other choice was fruit with cereal and milk. Both came with yogurt, orange juice, bread, butter, and preserves, as well as coffee or tea.
About 10 minutes before the seat belt sign went on for our descent, an announcement warned us that this was the last chance to move about the cabin (i.e. to use the toilet). I’ve not experienced this on many flights and really appreciated the little act of consideration.
We touched down at FRA on time at 09:40 but then taxied around for about 15 minutes to find an available gate. The door nearest our seats was opened (especially, I think) to let me and my wheelchair out, and a very nice airport attendant was waiting to usher us through passport control and on to the car rental counter.
Overall, our United Polaris business class experience was very enjoyable, and the special attention we got made a big difference. I’m not sure how things would have been if we’d had to change the flights on our own.
The ORD Polaris lounge is a cut above with loads of amenities, and it didn’t get too crowded during our afternoon there. The flight was very smooth, but the Polaris business class seats could be designed better.
On the return flight on a Boeing 777-200, we were in old United business class seats—configured 2-4-2 with some facing backwards—and both they and the cabin actually felt roomier without all the pod paraphernalia.
If I were a consultant for the airline, I’d also suggest soft-fabric amenity kits (easier to pack in one’s suitcase than hard metal ones) and a classical-music station in flight and automatic door openers for the wheelchair-accessible bathrooms in the lounge.