Reported by Robert Harris.
My wife and I were already excited about an upcoming South American vacation, but our excitement dramatically increased four days before departure when we received an e-mail from United Airlines (UA) saying that we would be among the first to experience the new Polaris Class (Airways, May 2017). The e-mail went on to describe all the elements of this new international business class service, including Saks Fifth Avenue bedding, restaurant-quality dining, sleep-themed amenities, and the Polaris lounges available exclusively to UA’s international premium cabin travelers.
The e-mail made clear that other than the already-open Polaris lounge at Chicago O’Hare, these lounges would open at other UA hubs in 2017 and beyond, and that the new Polaris Zodiac ‘open suite’ seat initially would be available only on select aircraft. I hoped that we would be lucky enough to have one of those aircraft, and that even though our Buenos Aires-bound flight originated in Houston, the lounge there might have recently opened. Alas, neither of these proved to be the case, so that the service we experienced might more accurately be called “Polaris Lite.” Nonetheless, even Polaris Lite proved to be a step up from UA’s previous international business class.
Arriving via connecting flight at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) with several hours until our 21:35 departure on Flight 819 for Ezeiza International Airport (EZE), we made our way to the United Club nearest the gate from which we would be leaving. The Club, one of five that UA operates at IAH, was attractively situated on three levels, with two floors of seating above a small but airy lobby. Both seating areas featured beige carpeting and black and white tile walkways, dark wood trim and beige leather seats.
Food offerings were varied and tasty. In addition to an assortment of cold sliced Italian deli meats, ciabatta rolls, cheese, and crackers, there was a well-stocked salad bar, fruit, and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. Two hot soups–clam chowder and chicken corn chowder–rounded out the food selections. Wine, cocktails and soft drinks were available at the bar on the first seating level, and both levels had coffee and tea service including cappuccino machines.
In conversation with Club staff, we learned that the second seating level is slated to become the Polaris lounge. Construction is scheduled to begin later in the year, with the opening targeted for near year-end. As stated in UA’s promotional literature, the Polaris lounge will feature custom-designed chairs, private daybeds, spa-like showers, bespoke art installations, and hot meals served in a boutique restaurant setting so customers can refresh and dine before their flights.
Flying Down to Buenos Aires
We arrived at the gate about 50 minutes before scheduled departure with boarding ready to begin. The gate area was spacious, allowing for an orderly boarding process with well-defined queues for each of the numbered boarding groups (quite in contrast to the situation at our originating airport, where several flights boarding at the same time at cheek-by-jowl gates produced a rather chaotic situation).
Entering through a door exclusively for Polaris passengers, we found UA’s traditional blue and gray international business class seats in a 2-2-2 arrangement, all facing forward and slightly canted toward the windows. Our aircraft, a Boeing 777-200, had not yet been retrofitted with the new Polaris seats, which initially are available only on the 777-300s now entering United’s service. Reflecting the new Polaris Class, however, laid out on each seat was the Saks Fifth Avenue bedding. This included one large and one small pillow, a soft duvet attractively rolled and tied, and a throw blanket.
Shortly after being seated, our Flight Attendant introduced herself and took our pre-departure drink orders. We each ordered soft drinks, which came with Polaris’s signature chocolate piece on a specially-designed and, we thought, ingenious tray and cup combination: each of the individual serving trays has a small post that fits into a notch cut into the lower third of the plastic cup. We later learned that many Flight Attendants are not fond of this innovative design, as when the cups are full the tray becomes top-heavy.
Although we could not enjoy the full Polaris experience in the absence of the Zodiac open suites, our seats, with their 78-inch (198 cm) pitch, 23-inch (58 cm) width and 180-degree recline, were sufficiently spacious. Beneath the amply-sized television screen was a shelf that was very convenient for storing small items within easy reach during flight. Unfortunately, there was no other storage space other than in the deep recess into which the seat extends when reclined. Also rather inconvenient was the location of the electrical ports and headphone jack behind the seat, making them difficult to reach without unbuckling and turning around.
Boarding finished 15 minutes ahead of our scheduled departure time, but shortly after the main doors were shut they were reopened and a flurry of maintenance people entered the cabin. We were advised that departure would be slightly delayed while a small but otherwise unspecified issue was corrected.
While waiting for the problem to be fixed Flight Attendants distributed menus and Polaris amenity kits. Clearly, some thought went into the contents of the amenity kit, which were grouped in pockets marked ‘sleep,’ ‘relax,’ ‘rest,’ and ‘refresh.’ In addition to standard items such as eyeshades, socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, and earplugs, the kit included Cowshed-brand pillow mist, lip balm and hand cream, a package of tissues, and a dental pick. There was even a small ‘Do not disturb’ sticker to place either above or below the TV screen for those not wishing to have their rest interrupted.
With the maintenance issue resolved, doors were again shut and we pushed back at 21:55, 20 minutes behind schedule. We promptly taxied to Runway 15L and were wheels up at 22:08 for our expected 9 hours, 40 minutes’ flying time.
Drinks service started some 55 minutes after take-off at our initial cruise altitude of 32,000ft. I chose a Robert Weil 2014 Riesling. True to the menu description, it was only slightly sweet, with refreshing fruity notes. Although it is advertised as a component of Polaris service, I do not recall a wine flight being offered.
While sipping my wine I perused the in-flight entertainment (IFE) options. These included movies, television programs, games, and audio offerings ranging from music mixes to books and podcasts. A moving map also was available. The map was not interactive, but it did provide a good pictorial display of the aircraft’s location in addition to altitude, ground speed, outside air temperature, and distance to destination. Given that this was an international flight, I was surprised to note that measures were not shown in metric as well as English units.
Dinner service began as we cruised over Guatemala, about an hour and a half into the flight. Appetizers were Thai-style lemongrass shrimp on a green papaya mango salad, and a baby spinach salad accompanied by a light lemon-olive oil dressing and assorted bread. Entrée choices were braised short rib, seared turbot, Asian fusion chicken soup, portobello mushroom and caramelized onion ravioli, or a grilled chicken salad. I chose the braised short rib. The bordelaise demiglace was flavorful, but the meat itself was a little tough for my liking (subsequent discussion with the Flight Attendant revealed that experience with the short rib has been uneven: sometimes it is indeed on the tough side, but others it is butter-knife tender). My disappointment in the meat was offset by the generous and tasty side servings of Carolina stone-ground grits and a vegetable dish consisting of fava beans, shiitake mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and shallots. My wife commented favorably on her seared turbot with basil beurre blanc, mushroom fava bean risotto, and cherry tomatoes.
Dessert is where the Polaris meal service really shines. Flight Attendants come down the aisle with a dessert cart stocked with an international cheese assortment, a selection of “sweet treat” mini-apple pies, salted caramel bars, various dessert cups, and made-to-order ice cream sundaes served in a stylish etched glass bowl. The cart provides ‘real restaurant’ ambiance, and the offerings are top-notch, completing what overall was an impressive service and a noticeable upgrade in quality over prior UA business class meals.
One area for improvement would be the meal service length, which ran more than two hours from drinks through tray clearance. Although I enjoy a leisurely dining experience, somewhat shorter service time would be welcome on an overnight flight where sleep time is at a premium.
And sleep was next on my agenda. I unwrapped my duvet, placed the luxuriously soft large pillow under my head, and reclined my seat to full-flat. Remembering that the Polaris sleep experience also includes a gel-cooled pillow on request, I asked the Flight Attendant for one, which was promptly provided. Compared to the Saks Fifth Avenue pillows, which were the most comfortable I have ever had on a flight, I thought the gel pillow a rather odd sensation. I switched back to the Saks pillow and soon was asleep. A couple of hours later I awoke feeling quite warm. It turns out the duvet, although lightweight and thin, provides excellent insulation, perhaps a little too much unless the cabin temperature is turned down a couple of degrees. Mostly uncovered, I drifted off for a little more sleep.
I awoke as we crossed the coast of northern Chile. The sky was now light and the weather crystal clear, so I gazed out the window as the coastal lowlands quickly gave way to the Andean foothills and then the Andes themselves in their snow-capped majesty.
While still over the Andes the cabin lights came up and Flight Attendants passed through the cabin with refreshing hot towels. The Andes receded as abruptly as they rose, replaced by plains dotted with the green of farm fields, while breakfast was served. I chose a rustic omelet of provolone, roasted pepper, and onion, served with Italian chicken sausage, Sicilian potatoes and a side of fruit. It was among the better in-flight breakfasts I have had.
At half an hour before our expected arrival, the moving map indicated we were still at 39,000ft (our cruise altitude having risen as our fuel load lightened) and a ground speed of 600mph (965kph). Five minutes later we began our descent into EZE. A flight crew member later confirmed that this was an unusually late and steep descent, occasioned by weather concerns, although the weather seemed fine to me. Perhaps it helped make up for our late departure, as we touched down at 10:45 and blocked in at 10:53, only eight minutes off the scheduled time.
Our return trip to IAH on UA 818 solidified my impressions of Polaris. Arriving at EZE at 17:00, we were advised check-in would not be available for about three hours before our scheduled departure time of 21:45. A ‘pre-check-in’ of sorts began at 18:05, with an agent, verifying our identities against his manifest, but it was another 15 minutes until bags could be checked.
After seeing our bags safely on the conveyor belt we proceeded swiftly through security, which lets out, not coincidentally, into the middle of the duty-free shopping area. We walked through to the Star Alliance Lounge, where we enjoyed the calming surroundings and the snacks available at the self-service food bar. Of special note were the alfajores, a delightful Argentine confection made from two round cookies with a sweet filling between them.
We boarded our 777-200, which was configured identically to the one on our southbound flight, at about 21:00. This time we pushed back five minutes ahead of schedule, and after a 40-second takeoff roll down Runway 11 were airborne at 21:55. At about 7500ft, with the wide expanse of the La Plata estuary coming into view ahead of us, we banked sharply to the left and onto a northwest heading toward Texas.
Service on this flight was similar to the southbound flight, although my IFE remote control was annoyingly balky and the moving map was replaced by a screen that showed altitude and ground speed but not location. The Polaris food service, however, continued to impress. For dinner, I thoroughly enjoyed a prosciutto appetizer and salad followed by Brazilian seafood stew over rice, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes. The stew was appealingly colorful and featured generous amounts of fish and shrimp in a pleasing citrus-accented sauce.
After dinner, I settled in for some sleep. This time I asked for the mattress pad available on request, something I had neglected to do on the southbound flight. Although the pad was relatively thin it did provide additional softness and comfort. The pad, plus those wondrously plush Saks Fifth Avenue pillows, contributed to the best sleep I have ever had on an airplane.
A light breakfast was served a little over an hour before scheduled landing. I chose a fruit and yogurt plate and a media luna, another Argentine specialty that is essentially a fluffier and sweeter version of the croissant. It was the perfect way to start a new day and end an enjoyable flight. All good things must come to an end, and five minutes after touching down at 04:56 we were at the gate and off for Customs and our connecting flight home.
In the absence of experiencing the Polaris lounge and the Polaris seat, UA’s new international business class seems more evolutionary than revolutionary, but clearly United has succeeded in developing an upgraded product much better positioned to compete with the offerings of overseas rivals more renowned for their service. The level of attention given to improving the dining and sleeping experience is evident, and the results are commendable. If the new lounges and seats are all that promotional materials and initial reviews from those who have experienced them say they are, there is no doubt that Polaris will shine brightly in United’s sky for a long time to come.