BEST FOR: Impressive Polaris lounge and cushy lie-flat seats
PRICE: A weekday premium economy round trip in April starts at $8,541.
FLIGHT TIME: 11 hours 20 minutes
BACKGROUND: Long-haul flights are a rough go no matter what the route. Frequent flyers know that an upgrade to Business Class can make all the difference between traveling well or being disgorged at your destination like something from the cast of The Walking Dead. Even in Business Class, however, there are notable ranges of service per airline. United Airlines has taken all this to heart and started rolling out its new Polaris Business Class product when it took delivery of its first Boeing 777-300ER. At that time it also opened its first Polaris Lounge in Chicago.
CHECK IN: I arrived at SFO’s International Terminal in plenty of time to get through what I assumed would be a major bottleneck at the check-in counters. However the dedicated business class lane was practically empty, so I quickly made my way through security and soon on to the much-talked-about Polaris Lounge on Level 3.
THE LOUNGE: The Polaris Lounge on two floors of SFO’s Terminal 3 seems like a universe unto itself. Guests take the escalator to a welcome area reminiscent of the arrival rooms of Westworld. There’s a bar and a well-stocked buffet, and at the back a large sit-down restaurant with generous menus and views of taxiing airplanes.
BOARDING: If you are flying at night as I was, expect to be greeted soothing mood lighting, mostly in violet and indigos. You can also expect a friendly, if somewhat business-like greeting and an offer of Champagne or juice and a selection of reading material.
THE SEAT: The cabin was configured 1-2-1 with single seats facing the window or aisle along the margins and double seats in the middle, made private by a sliding divider. Each Polaris seat measures up to 23 inches wide and reclines to a fully-flat bed up to 78 inches long. Window-facing single seats in the odd-numbered rows are angled toward the window offering the most privacy, while the middle row dividers roll down to allow conversations with your seat mate.
THE FLIGHT: When meal time came, I chose an entrée of Koji-flavored salmon complemented by Zensai (eggplant wrapped in eel, with tomato jelly, snowcrab, sweet chestnuts and simmered octopus), and simmered chicken with taro. As my flight originated in San Francisco, it was virtually mandatory to order up a classic vanilla ice cream sundae with Ghirardelli hot fudge sauce for dessert. Passengers are given padded bedding created for the airline by Saks Fifth Avenue, and on flights exceeding 12 hours, pajamas – my flight timed out at 11 hours and 20 minutes, so no PJs. Rather than sleep, I took advantage of the 16-inch IFE touchscreen and noise-cancelling headphones to choose a couple of titles from among the first run films available. Should I have wanted to sleep, the seat’s do-not-disturb light would have come in handy.
An express dining service and à la carte dining menu for meals at any time was conveniently available.
ARRIVAL: We arrived on time and were quickly disembarked. As I was flying on to Seoul from here, a trip through the customs queue was unnecessary, so I made my way across Narita’s international terminal to my next flight.
VERDICT: United’s image was in need of some serious burnishing to stay competitive, but instead of incremental changes, it has taken a few liberties to deliver a new “wowing” product that would catapult it to the same league as its top-tier international competitors.