Sydney - San Francisco
- Direct aisle access
- Ample personal and working space
- A great sleep experience
- Fast WiFi
- Position and orientation of universal AC socket may frustrate MacBook users
- United’s flagship business class seat is your cosy cocoon for relaxing, working and sleeping
Three years after United Airlines’ Polaris business class seat first took wing in December 2016, the Star Alliance member’s flagship seat has made its way to Australian skies.
United’s daily flights between Sydney and San Francisco have been boosted from a Boeing 787-9 to a Boeing 777-300ER sporting the advanced seat.
At the time of writing this is just a temporary arrangement, with the Dreamliner and its older 2-2-2 seating returning to the route from Friday March 27, 2020. However, with a Polaris upgrade of United’s Boeing 787s now underway, consider this summer swap to be a tantalising taste fo things to come.
If you’re travelling with only hand-luggage, using the United Airlines app is the fastest way to check-in for your flight – it’ll even capture your passport using the smartphone’s camera – and get a mobile boarding pass so you can skip the check-in desks and head straight to immigration.
Otherwise, venture to the business class check-in counter at the end of Aisle D in Sydney, which is open three hours prior to the departure of UA870.
United business class passengers have a checked luggage allowance of two bags, each weighing up to 32kg; add some frequent flyer status to this (MileagePlus Premier Silver, Gold, Platinum and 1K, or a Star Alliance Gold card from another airline) and you’ll get a third 32kg bag into the bargain.
United’s business class passengers flying out of Sydney – along with passengers holding Star Alliance Gold status (for United this includes MileagePlus Premier Gold, Platinum and 1K members) – can choose between the lounges of Star Alliance siblings Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines, both of which are upstairs of gates 50-63.
It’s not an either/or proposition – the lounges are conveniently located next door to one another, and you can visit both should you wish. So how do they compare?
In the past, our standard advice for any Star Alliance flyer has generally been to visit the Air New Zealand lounge for a barista-pulled coffee or a cocktail from the bar, but to favour the Singapore Airlines lounge for the food. However, Singapore Airlines has now added a barista station to its lounge and the coffee is excellent.
At the same time, the buffet at the Air New Zealand lounge offered plenty of variety – including freshly-prepared chicken tikka sliders at the live cooking station – and a strong leaning towards healthy salads and wraps, but not at the expense of more hearty delights such as beef rendang with tumeric-infused rice, or indulgent treats such as banana and cinnamon muffins.
The AirNZ lounge is also larger and has a dedicated family room, so it’s the better choice if you’re setting out for holidays with the kids in tow.
On the return leg, passengers can unwind in United’s San Francisco Polaris Lounge – one of a new generation of lounges which aims to close the Polaris loop with a similarly upmarket on-ground experience.
The spacious Polaris lounges offer an à la carte dining room, a tended bar and a variety of seating including some work-friendly nooks. They’re also exclusive to business class passengers of United Airlines and its Star Alliance siblings. Frequent flyers in premium economy and economy, regardless of how lofty their status, must make do with the standard United Club lounges.
When United Airlines pulled back the curtains on Polaris in mid-2016, it was a bolt from the blue which went beyond just playing ‘catch-up’ to the rest of the industry to become arguably one of the most premium business class products of any US airline.
The innovative 1-2-1 layout created by Acumen Design combines forward-facing and angled seats in a dovetail arrangement which provides every passenger with direct aisle access and privacy.
This seatmap helps illustrate the Polaris seating layout on United's Boeing 777-300ER, which also divides business class into two cabins of equal size.
Solo passengers will of course go for a window seat, but as is common with these layouts, only half of the seats are actually next to the window: those are the odd-numbered rows, with a bench and stowage nook (and a rather narrow passageway) between the seat and the aisle.
In comparison, the even-numbered rows see the passenger closer to the aisle, with a bench and cupboard between them and the window. There’s still quite a lot of privacy because of how the seat is both angled away from the aisle and set back within a wrap-around shroud.
The middle seats follow a similar pattern: even-numbered D and G seats are at the aisle, and thus further apart from one another; odd-numbered D and G seats are closer to the centre and nearer to each other (making then the better choice of flying with a friend).
In both cases, a divider between the seats which be lowered if you’re travelling with your partner.
Once settled into your Polaris business class seat, you can begin to appreciate some of the details.
Atop the wide and deep faux-marble benchtop is a tall cabinet containing the noise-cancelling headphones and an amenity kit, with a mirror on the inside of the door.
Beneath this: the IFE controller, a combo AC/USB power socket and the headphone jack.
This is one area where the design seems ill-considered: the position and orientation of the universal AC socket is such that a MacBook power adaptor will only fit if it has a two-prong US or EU plug and if the brickette is tuned upside down, so that it clears the benchtop. Got a three-prong AU or UK MacBook power brick? You’re out of luck.
Of course, this isn’t an issue with most Windows laptops or the smaller AC adaptors of tablets. Fortunately I was travelling with a ‘PlugBug’ adaptor which clamps atop the standard MacBook power brick and I had the AC plughead on hand, although this made the upside-down adaptor top-heavy and several times during the flight it jostled out of the socket (quick remedy: put the amenity kit onto the benchtop and wedge it under the adaptor).
There’s a second USB charging point beneath the video screen and conveniently-placed next to a recess that’s ideal for a book, magazine or tablet.
Another thoughtful touch is the grab-handle mounted above the video screen, which makes it easier to climb get out of (and pivot back into) your seat.
The tray table is deep, wide and solidly hinged, sliding smoothly out from beneath the video screen while also angling inwards on its track towards the passenger. Pull it all the way out for dining or working, or slide it halfway out if you relax with some BYO video on your laptop.
In addition to a tiny pop-out LED reading lamp with adjustable brightness, a larger lamp next to the benchtop provides pleasing ambient light and lends a classy atmosphere to the cabin as a whole.
A control strip along the edge of the seat includes an intuitive knob for adjusting the seat from full vertical take-off and landing mode into a lie-flat bed, plus a Do Not Disturb button so that the crew know to leave you to your work or slumber.
Creature comforts include roomy lightweight pyjamas and an amenity kit – at the time of writing, this was a special Star Wars kit – containing the obligatory toothbrush, eyemask, earplugs and socks, along with face cream, hand cream and lip balm from Sunday Riley. There’s also a pair of soft slippers for when you’re padding around the cabin and visiting the loo.
Being United Airlines, it’s unavoidable that the seat and cabin are decked out in plenty of blue, but the design boffins at PriestmanGoode who took charge of styling the Polaris experience softened this with brushed metal, slate and silver trim.
You’ll ideally spend at least half of the journey between Sydney and San Francisco sleeping, and Polaris is a very sleep-friendly seat, especially thanks to United's investment in the ‘soft product’.
Your Polaris sleeping kit includes a plush Saks Fifth Avenue duvet and a lighter day-blanket, a large soft Saks pillow and a smaller and firmer gel-cooled pillow, while the crew can also dress the two-metre bed with a mattress cushion.
Restrictive space in the footwell is a common issue with seats that, like Polaris, have an alternating ‘dovetail’ layout: but on the Boeing 777-300ER that cubby proved quite spacious for my size 9s (Euro 42).
However, limited seat width – even with the armrest lowered to free up an extra few inches – makes it a tight fit if you like to sleep on your back. Polaris is one for the side-sleepers.
Lunch was served shortly after take-off from Sydney, starting with a tasty seared prawn appetiser and a mixed greens salad.
For mains, the choices offered were:
- chipotle beef brisket
- Thai-style green curry with chicken
- Roasted Tasmanian salmon fillet
- Roasted Portobello mushrooms
I chose the salmon, and it was excellent: light, flavoursome and well-balanced, although bringing out the meal on a single tray rather than serving individually-plated dishes makes the dining experience a little less premium (albeit more efficient for the crew).
For desserts, ice-cream sundae is a bit of a thing with US airlines, and United is no exception.
The generous scoop of vanilla ice cream was topped with chocolate and butterscotch sauce, strawberry puree, almonds and cherries.
Cheese and biscuit plates were also available for travellers with a savoury tooth, but they looked rather scant – dessert is really all about the sundae.
The galley snack bar included some cakes/slices and lamingtons, chips, cookies, cheese platters and fruit, while the 'anytime à la carte menu' included a morish little chicken pot pie bowl.
Before arrival into San Francisco came a choice between a light continental breakfast (cereal, milk and fresh fruit) and a more substantial chicken and sweet corn frittata with chorizo, potatoes and a tomato pepper ragout (shown below).
United might not make a big fuss about its inflight dining experience (unlike some airlines) but what it does, it does well.
Entertainment & Service
Each Polaris passenger has their own 16-inch touchscreen paired to decent noise-cancelling headphones. The content shows a predictable leaning towards Hollywood releases and classics, but the renaissance of quality TV also means there are plenty of box sets if you’re in the mood for a bit of binge.
Just a word of caution: with an 8am arrival into San Francisco, be careful not to get too caught up in your favourite TV series (or do back-to-back episodes of a new fave) and end up with not enough time spent sleeping.
United’s Boeing 777-300ER includes a satellite Internet service with three time-based (rather than data-limited) sessions:
- one hour costs US$8
- two hours costs US$13
- a ‘flight pass’ covering the entire journey costs US$29
Timed sessions can be paused so that you can, for example, divide your one hour into several bursts of being online. If you provide your MileagePlus membership number before entering your credit card details, you can also switch the connection between devices, such as signing up on your laptop but then later moving to a tablet or smartphone.
Although United rates the Boeing 777-300ER’s inflight as ‘Basic WiFi’, download speeds averaged around 4Mbps with peaks as high as 11Mbps (uploads were consistently around 1.2Mbps) – making this more than sufficient for email and relatively zipping Web browsing, although Internet video streaming is not supported.
Throughout the flight the service from the crew was friendly, approachable and attentive, with the attendants walking through the cabin several times in a more proactive way to offer service as needed.
United Airlines took its time in designing and then delivering the Polaris business class seat, and then worked to weave in an improved business class experience from meals and bedding to airport lounges. There's no doubt that this was worth the wait, as United has raised the bar to a world-class standard.
The author travelled as guest of United Airlines.