Last Friday, I flew from SFO to EWR in United's new Polaris cabin, so naturally I have a bunch of thoughts to share about it. Just to clarify, this wasn't the full Polaris service -- United marketed it as a standard p.s. flight. (That's what they call their transcon service, which includes elevated service and amenities vs normal first class.) However, as they ready their 777s for routine international service, they have been running them on the SFO - EWR route and will continue to do so for another month or so. The plane I flew on arrived from Hong Kong in the morning, so it's already pulling double duty on domestic and international service. Overall, I really liked the seat and the cabin. I don't have as deep of a bank of experience as some other bloggers who have tried dozens of long haul business class products, but I'll try to ground most of my observations in relative comparisons so you know where I'm coming from.
I suppose the most direct comparison would be with Delta One, since they're both US legacy carriers. I flew Delta One on an A330, which is Delta's current flagship product, a reverse herringbone seat. (When Delta receives the new A350, they will introduce an upgraded Delta One suite that would probably be my favorite overall product, at least from the looks of it.)
To cut to the chase, I vastly prefer United's Polaris cabin on the 777 to Delta One on the A330 (this configuration is also available on Delta's 747, which I haven't flown). Here's why:
Design - United's cabin is undeniably sleek with nice, muted finishes and a very considered overall design. Things like the reading lamp, the marble side table, and the storage cabinet are examples of this. Delta's cabin is very antiseptic, and aside from the smart-looking quilted leather seats, it's pretty boring.
Comfort - United's seat is incredibly comfortable. Before I started flying in premium cabins, I didn't realize how seat comfort among different products (in terms of ergonomics and cushioning) varies a lot. Leather seats are often pretty hard - this is definitely true for Delta and Virgin America - but you also don't want a seat that's too soft, since it will not be sufficiently supportive for a long-haul flight. United's seat strikes a nice balance between cushion and support and is instantly comfortable upon sitting down.
Privacy - I chose a forward-facing window seat, which is the most private configuration in the Polaris cabin. Like the Thomson Vantage XL seat I flew on SAS, this seat has a console along the aisle. The opening is also fairly narrow, so you do feel like you're in your own private suite for the most part.
Here's a photo of my foot in the entryway of the suite, which gives you an idea of how wide it is (not very).
In general, the design of the Polaris seat feels roomier than the sum of its parts. Let's be honest here - it's basically a 2-4-2 configuration, since the rows overlap considerably. However, they've managed to design the suite so that the space you lose to the passenger behind you doesn't make the seat feel cramped at all.
I do think it's funny how there are some people out there who won't be dissuaded from their hatred of United. In every Polaris review I have read, there's always at least one guy who says something like, "That looks like garbage from a garbage airline full of garbage and run by garbage people ARGLE BARGLE GAAAAAARBAGE BLEEGHGGHGHG." As someone with absolutely no reason to heap praise on United for this product, I can say that it is really nice, despite what you may think about United. I suppose it's fine if people are going to irrationally avoid it, since it means more award availability for the rest of us.
As for which seat you should choose: I highly recommend a bulkhead seat against the window, such as 1A or 9A. 9A is really close to a giant bathroom, although this bathroom was occupied for nearly the entire flight, so you'll want to be ready for some foot traffic. It's an impressive bathroom, though - there's even a full-length mirror on the door. 9A also gives you the benefit of being near the engine, so if you're an avgeek and like taking photos like this one, you won't want to be too far toward the front.
The other thing about the bulkhead - foot room. There's tons of it, and it makes a huge difference in bed mode. Overall, I found the seat pretty comfortable for sleeping - I didn't actually sleep, but I lay down for most of the flight listening to music, and it was pretty nice. You can see that my size-12 shoes had more than enough room to chillax, which isn't always the case in business class foot cubbies.
(As a quick aside, notice how the "Push" instruction on the tray table is in the same font as the rest of United's marketing materials. This is the kind of attention to detail that I can really appreciate - making sure every last little tidbit of the product is reflective of their overall brand identity. Just make sure the tray is pushed all the way in and locked, since it's really heavy and will slide out and whack you on the knee when the plane takes off. I'm speaking from experience here.)
What didn't I like? I'm not a huge fan of the leg rest's shape, which has a cutout to fit around the front of the console. Because of how the seat slides forward as it moves into bed mode, that cutout part really only supports your ankles, meaning you don't notice how narrow it is. However, in relaxation mode, it supports your thighs, which meant that my right leg kept sliding off. I compensated by trying to keep my legs toward the inner part of the seat, but I repeatedly hit the control wheel, causing my seat to recline further. (Also, I apologize to United for getting my dog's hair all over the seat. The fabric is pretty grippy (almost like a lint brush), so all the little fur tufts that I carry around with me came right off.)
More importantly, I suppose, is that this seat isn't representative of the entire Polaris product. Other seats don't have nearly as much foot room, and only half the seats are this private. I realize that every cabin is going to have a best seat in the house, but in general, I don't like configurations where only 25% of the seats are desirable, and certain seats are actively undesirable. However, if you're booking far enough in advance and can get a bulkhead window seat, it's a really nice product.
Where does it rank among all US carriers? Well, I can't really speak to it from experience, but knowing my own preferences, I'd say it's pretty close to the top. To me, it looks nicer than American's forward/backward configurations, but narrower than the two different reverse herringbone seats that they offer. I do really like a seat with a console between me and the aisle, though, which is one reason the Polaris window seat beats out a reverse herringbone seat. I don't think that's enough of a reason to elevate Polaris above the American reverse herringbone seat, though.
As for Delta, as I described above, I like Polaris more than the reverse herringbone seat on the A330, but the new A350 product looks fantastic. It's basically the Thomson Vantage XL seat with a door, and that's already my favorite kind of business class seat (even though this is another one where I'd try to avoid 75% of the seats).
I do wonder, though, how United is going to scale it down for the 787 and 767. I'm not backing off my claim that it doesn't feel cramped, but that doesn't mean it isn't a dense configuration, and squeezing the seats together might make the difference between the seat feeling private and feeling claustrophobic. (As another aside, I think it was Lucky who said that the forward-facing window seats feel claustrophobic. I am claustrophobic, and I disagree with this. Even in bed mode, I didn't feel like I was in a sarcophagus or anything - while you are pretty enclosed, the fact that there is an opening as well as a curve to the console means that you don't feel too hemmed in. For example, here's a photo of what the view from your seat looks like. Despite having the console wrap around you, it's still fairly open.)
Finally, a couple random observations not about the cabin itself:
- The flight attendant working my section said she liked the new seats but that there were already some downsides that the crews are complaining about: chiefly that the narrow opening to the forward-facing seats makes it harder to serve those passengers. She also said, "I mean, if you were any bigger, you wouldn't be able to fit through there." That's pretty rude, right? I don't think she meant it to be rude, but still.
- I last flew p.s. on a 757 around a year and a half ago, and the service has improved in certain ways. You get Saks Fifth Avenue bedding - not the whole shebang like on a Polaris flight, but a nice duvet and pillow that are an improvement over what they used to offer. Also, you now get a scaled-down amenity kit (which, most importantly, includes Cowshed lip balm), rather than the flight attendant passing through the cabin with a basket of amenities. The food was decent, too - much better than either Delta One or SAS (although don't forget that I'm specifically talking about the specialty vegan meal, which is something United has always done pretty well).
What does everyone think? Is Polaris just a bunch of stupid garbage coughed up by garbage heads, or are you looking forward to trying it out? I'm honestly surprised how much I enjoyed it - I'll get into this in a future post, but I actually preferred it to the Mint Suite that I flew back home. It's more spacious and comfortable than it looks from photos, and while I was expecting it to feel constrictive, it makes use of the space so well that it feels just as roomy as a less dense configuration. I'm sure it doesn't compare to a true 1-2-1 reverse herringbone on a 777, but it has to be pretty close.