It's true, I bundled all my available airline credits from my various credit cards together and booked a seat on United's new 777-300ER during the six-week window when it will be used for SFO-EWR transcon service. This wasn't the most economical way to get across the country, but it wasn't bad. Before I jump in, I'm still wondering whether it's appropriate to devote mindshare to this kind of stuff right now. It's been like this since the inauguration, with me ping-ponging between feeling like refugees could give a fuck what I think about United Polaris and that I should just shut up for a while on the one hand, and that it's not a crime to write about what I'm interested in on the other hand. As I've said before, I'm going to cling to my points and miles (to paraphrase Obama) in order to find some measure of comfort while the country is run by a sweet potato casserole that you put in the bottom drawer of the fridge last Thanksgiving and then forgot about until it started to stink up the entire nation. I'll get to Polaris, but I'm thinking of putting the following disclaimer at the top of my posts for the next little while. If you can put up with advertiser disclosures from everyone else, you can deal with this from me.
Disclaimer: We're dealing with a political situation that makes it borderline crass to talk about first world problems like which first class is best or how to avoid <GASP> flying in economy when there are people who would strap themselves to the wing of a plane just to find refuge in this country if they could. That being said, I also believe that people can think about more than one thing at once, and that me writing about luxury travel and capitalist trappings like credit card loyalty programs is not going to trade off with the volume of necessary journalism devoted to covering current events. However, I would encourage you to support organizations that help refugees, the ACLU, or independent journalism outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, or The Guardian, all of which need all the financial support they can get right now. Finally, if you didn't come here to hear about my politics, then leave, because I'm not going to hold back just because "this is supposed to be a points and miles blog."
So, Polaris. My thoughts about it. I've been leading up to this like I have some dope science to drop, and I really don't. However, I've been thinking a lot about it since I booked my flight last week, and I wanted to give my impression of it before I (or anyone else) has set foot on the plane. (All images from United.)
- I don't think United started marketing Polaris too early. It was never going to be feasible for them to wait to market it until all the planes had been retrofitted, so they might as well trumpet it as soon as they nailed down the timeline of the roll-out. While it might create some confusion having flights in the old seats marketed as Polaris, this isn't that different from how Delta's marketing around DeltaOne only shows one configuration (reverse herringbone), when there's a good chance you'll fly in a significantly worse forward-facing or standard-herringbone seat. And I'm sure Delta is going to breathlessly market their suite-seats when they come out, even though those will only be on a handful of planes.
- I also give United credit for consistency, since American and Delta both suffer from inconsistent long-haul business class products. Some of American's seats look great, but the forward-backward ones look awful, and I'd be super bummed if I booked a reverse-herringbone seat and got equipment-swapped into one of those. It's going to take a while to get there, but I appreciate that United is at least trying to be consistent here. I know they won't get there 100%, since they don't have plans right now to retrofit new planes like the 787, but in a few years' time, they should be closer than American or Delta. I'm also curious to see how they shoehorn the seats into a 767, since they already look pretty tight in the 777.
- Speaking of the seats looking tight, I don't think it's factual to say that they're in a 1-2-1 configuration. It's really halfway between 1-2-1 and 2-4-2. Let's call it 1.5-3-1.5. That's not confusing at all. Comparing United's seat map online with the patent drawing of the original design shows how much United is trying to sell it as 1-2-1 when it isn't. Not to take away what an innovative idea it is, though, as long as they pull it off and the seats are comfortable.
- Speaking of the seats being comfortable, I'm going to guess that the straight seats are way nicer than the angled ones. The angled seats look like they practically dump you into the aisle, and for a product that claims that it's entirely built around giving you a great night's sleep, I can't imagine that the exposure to the aisle is really that conducive to getting rest. On the flipside, the straight seats are really private-looking, kind of like (but not as good as) Apex suites. As long as the Polaris configuration doesn't make them feel narrow and coffin-like, I think they could be pretty nice.
- As a quick aside, one of my pet peeves reading reviews is when the reviewer dings a product because half the seats (or even most of the seats) aren't great. The Vantage XL seat (think SAS's new business class) is a good example: half the seats aren't as good, because they're right on the aisle. But the seats that aren't on the aisle are great. So just get one of those seats! Same thing with what people say about Swiss... that's it's shitty because Swiss crams 5 seats per row when top-notch airlines go for 4. But there are a handful of throne seats that look fantastic (I'll confirm this when I fly them this summer), so who gives a crap if most of the seats are bad? Just pay attention to the seat map when you book, and if the only seats are the crappy ones, book another airline. I judge a product based on the best available seat, not the average. After all, I'm not sitting in every seat, so I don't have to care about the ones I'm not sitting in. I expect a good number of the reviews to ding Polaris based on the angled seats, so I'm just going to say now that you should try to get a straight seat, and then you wont' have to worry about it.
- How much do you care about cabin finishes? I can't decide how much I care about it, which is code for me saying that I care more about it than I probably should. One of the things I didn't like about DeltaOne was how sterile it felt. The quilted leather seats look cool, but the rest of the cabin is made out of the same material as a CAT scan machine. It's so boring, but not in an understated Scandinavian or modernist way, just in a boring way. White plastic with blue plastic trim. Blah sauce poured on a blah sundae with a blah on top. American is marginally better in a folksy, homey way. The wood trim and dark upholstery remind me of a suburban family room, or an upscale psychoanalyst's office. Still, it's kind of nondescript and devoid of personality. United really ups the ante in this regard. Of course, the possibility exists that the promotional materials massively overclaim how nice the actual cabin is, and that in reality it's plasticky and cheap-looking. But from what I can see online, United has applied a particular aesthetic to the entire plane, including the galleys, carpeting, seats, and fixtures. This ties back into the overall consistency of Polaris, and I think it's something other airlines should aspire to. It's not just about the seat, it's about a true "end-to-end" travel experience. I'm really looking forward to seeing the cabin in person, because I've been so impressed from what I've seen in promotional videos and other advance coverage.
- I'm not a United fanboy (I certainly am not going to cheat on KLM in that regard!), but I will defend them for now, since there's so. much. United. hate. out. there. It's like people expected them to introduce Etihad-style apartments on their planes or something. I don't harbor any delusions that United is going to have the best seat - that's objectively impossible, given that American flies certain planes with 26-inch wide reverse herringbone seats in a true 1-2-1 arrangement. However, I definitely think it's possible that United has the coolest in-flight ambiance, the most aesthetically engaging end-to-end travel experience, and a very-good-if-not-great seat. Haters gon' hate, for sure, although I think a lot of it is misplaced antipathy that's left over from the Smisek era, and it's probably going to take a while for some people to come around to the idea that United doesn't actively hate their customers. Fair enough. What I don't get is when people talk shit about airlines like they're rival sports teams or something. If United has a great product, it's not like you're a New Yorker who's all of a sudden rooting for Tom Brady (not that I'd compare United to Tom Brady because fuck Tom Brady). I'm digressing (big surprise). Anyway, give Polaris a fair chance, that's all I'm saying.
- Last thing: I'm so fucking excited to go to the Polaris lounge in Chicago. I'm planning to get to the airport 5 hours before my flight so I can take in every aspect. I'm showering, I'm napping, I'm eating, I'm drinking, and if I can save up a number two, I'll do that too.
Okay commenters, what say you about Polaris?