Tried & Tested

Flight review: United Airlines B767-300 Polaris business class, Chicago to London

2 Nov 2019 by Jenni Reid

Background

United unveiled Polaris, its new business class product, in 2016. Polaris has three components: a fully-flat seat with aisle access for all passengers; an on-board service including upgraded dining options, Sunday Riley toiletries and Saks Fifth Avenue bedding; and lounges with private work stations, a dining room, showers and beds. 

The on-board updates proved easy enough to roll out, but the seat and lounges have been slower to appear. This Polaris tracker gives an overview of the aircraft which now feature the seat, through a mix of deliveries and retrofits. It will be on all flights from Heathrow to Newark and Chicago O’Hare from November 15. These retrofitted aircraft also feature Premium Plus, United’s new premium economy product (pictured below).

United Premium Plus seats on the carrier's B787-10

There are currently Polaris lounges in LA, Houston, Newark, San Francisco and Chicago O’Hare. I recently got a chance to ask United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, whether London will be getting one. The short answer is no, because closing the lounge to add all the signature Polaris zones would cause too much disruption for passengers, and Heathrow already has a nice United Club lounge. However Munoz did say that they would gradually add upgrades that would be “Polaris-like”. 

Check-in

I was on the last of United’s three daily services from Chicago O’Hare to London Heathrow, which from November 3 depart at 1555, 1755 and 2105. These timings were an hour later when I flew out in October, so my Sunday flight was at 2205.

The return flights from Heathrow to O’Hare depart at 1025, 1220 and 1510. United also flies nonstop to Heathrow from Denver, Houston, LAX, Newark, San Francisco and Dulles. 

I had checked in on the United app and only had hand luggage, so I headed straight for security. The queue took about ten minutes to get through.

The lounge

There weren’t any signs for the Polaris lounge on the other side of security (that I could see, anyway) but I already knew it was located in concourse C, so I headed for that. You pass through a brightly-lit underground tunnel.

Chicago O'Hare

From this you emerge just to the right of the Polaris Lounge entrance. Here a sign informs you that it is open to United business class passengers flying to Europe, Asia, Oceania and South America. This applies to those connecting through O’Hare. It is also open to anyone departing on a long-haul international first or business class flight on any other Star Alliance member carrier.

There are also four United Club lounges at the airport, which are open to business or first class passengers flying a Star Alliance airline (short- or long-haul), Star Alliance Gold members and United Club members. Check the United website for the rules on guests.

Polaris entrance at O'Hare

A nice aspect of Polaris is the consistent design between the lounge and the aircraft, which feature marble-effect surfaces and a dark blue, grey and white colour scheme. This begins at the entrance and reception and runs throughout the lounge.

The O’Hare Polaris lounge is open daily from 0700 til 2100, though I left around ten minutes after the official closing time and there were still quite a few people in there.

As mentioned, there are some stand-out amenities here, particularly the daybeds, showers and restaurant.

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

However, by the time I arrived a little after 2000, the restaurant was closed and the shower/daybed area was being cleaned, with no one at the reception desk to let you in to that separate area. It’s here where you can usually request items such as a hairdryer, straighteners, a sewing kit, deodorant or a duvet.

Instead I had a look around the main lounge, which is divided down two wings, with a buffet room coming off one and the restaurant next to the other.

A lot of thought has clearly gone into providing a wide range of seating, catering for solo business travellers, families or passengers wanting to socialise. You initially enter onto a row of individual armchairs, positioned at an angle and between two walls to increase privacy.

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

They are very nicely designed, with marble-top tables which extend so you can eat or work off them. They also have soft lighting, a coat hook and USB charging points. You can settle down here and keep an eye on the flight information board while getting refills of tea, coffee and cold drinks from a self-serve station in front of you.

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

There is also dining table/banquette seating…

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

Armchair seating with side tables…

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

Another section with armchairs, this time in the second wing and therefore with more of a private feel (as you can see, it was deserted on a Sunday evening)…

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

Restaurant seating (you can read a review of the Polaris restaurant at LAX here)…

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

And then the bar area. This was the one place that was crowded while I visited, with people on the surrounding dining tables and also sitting along the bar watching an American football game. I didn’t want to get too many strangers in shot, so here’s a picture I took from United.

Polaris lounge bar

Not wanting a drink, I went to the buffet room back towards the entrance.

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

Again there is a classy design theme, with more greys, whites and marble.

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

The food selection was fine; there would have been plenty to fill up on, but not being particularly hungry and wanting to save a bit of space for the plane food there wasn’t much to entice me.

There were a few desserts.

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

The central buffet section had hot, hearty options such as rice and veggie chilli, meatballs and cooked vegetables.

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

There were also wraps, rolls, salads and fruit.

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

I had a small portion of rice, salad and meatballs, which were all nice, but I imagine the restaurant is really the place to go for high-end dining in the lounge. It serves small plates as well as entrees, if you’re not starving.

Polaris Lounge, Chicago O'Hare

Boarding

I received a text from United at 2105 reminding me that it was time to head to gate C16, which was a five minute walk away. Seeing a long queue of people I thought I might have missed priority boarding, as did some other passengers, but it emerged that boarding hadn’t started at all yet so we got in line.

The minutes ticked by, and around 2120 we were told that there was a technical issue with the aircraft that needed to be resolved. After the initial confusion there were regular updates from the pilot, reassuring us that crew were at various stages of preparations and nearly finished. We eventually boarded at 2150, passengers with additional needs going first, followed by those with United Premier 1K status. Then it was time for me and the rest of the Polaris cabin.  

The seat

I am a big fan of this seat design. The dark blue and grey on the seat look sophisticated, as do the white marble-effect side board and soft light fixture.

United Polaris side table

Every seat has a universal charging port, two USB slots and a reading light. Inside the cabinet is a pair of overhead headphones, a bottle of water and a mirror. Below this is a slim literature pocket with the safety documents and menu.

This was the view from my seat, 11D. It felt reasonably private even though there is no door.

The 16-inch screen was intuitive to use and could be controlled by touch or with a remote. There was a good selection of recent movies and TV shows but not much other entertainment.

This is the only bit of the seat area that I think lets it down a bit design-wise, going back to that bland shade of aeroplane griege.

For comparison, this is the old-style United business class seat. While I flew this on the way to Chicago from Heathrow, by November 15 all aircraft on this route should feature the new seat and configuration.

Old United Polaris seat

Best seat?

This reconfigured B767-300 has 46 Polaris seats, 22 Premium Plus seats, 47 Economy Plus seats with extra legroom, and 52 economy seats. Every cabin gets in-seat power points. Polaris runs from rows 1 to 18, with seats lettered A, D, G and L from left to right.

The Polaris is an adapted version of the Optima seat designed by Acumen Design Associates and Priestmangoode and manufactured by Safran (formerly Zodiac). You can also find it on some of Air France’s new A350s. The configuration is 1-1-1, meaning aisle access for all, but the seats are angled in different directions to maximise the number that can fit on the aircraft while giving each passenger enough space.

B767-300ER United seat plan

As you can see in the seat plan above, the window seats alternate between facing forward and being angled inwards. Officially the pitch for all seats is 6’3″ or 195 cm and the width is 20.6″ (52.3 cm), but the forward-facing seats will get you a little more legroom and the inwards-facing seats give you a bit more room to your sides.

However even as someone who is 5’2” I would pick a forward-facing seat, since you get a better view out of the window if you want one, and it feels a little more private in relation to the aisle. They are the odd numbers down rows A and L.

Back of Polaris seat

According to our previous review of Polaris on a B777-300ER, the bulkhead row has a roomier footwell since it is not underneath the seat of the passenger in front. As usual, the downside is that you may get people queuing for the toilet next to your seat. The galley is quite tucked away from the bulkhead row so I doubt you would get too much disturbance from that.

Polaris is in a configuration very much geared towards solo travellers rather than couples, but if you do want to talk to someone I would suggest a window and middle seat angled towards each other, such as 2A and 2D or 4A and 4D.

The flight

I was in my seat by 2210, but we sat on the tarmac for another 50 minutes before pushing back. The crew came around to introduce themselves, collect coats and take food orders while we waited, although there was no drink offered. I made do with the water bottle provided in the side cabinet.

There is gate-to-gate entertainment so I put on a TV show I wanted to catch up on, knowing I would be sleeping for most of the journey. I was offered slippers which I gladly accepted. Tucking myself under the soft Saks Fifth Avenue blanket and looking out at the torrential rain, it was quite a pleasant way to spend an hour. We were then told to put our shoulder strap on for take off.

If I was being fussy (and I’m writing a review, so I will be) I did notice that the space between the window and left armrest hadn’t been cleaned very well. However the rest of the seat was spotless.

United Polaris seat

Since this was a night flight and I didn’t want to have my laptop out, the storage was just right for me. I could put my book and phone (while charging it) below the IFE, my bag under the footwell, the amenity kit and water bottle in the side cabinet and my notebook in the literature pocket to my right. However if I’d been juggling any more items storage would have been quite limited.

Polaris

My starter was brought an hour after take off, before which I had been given a hot flannel, a bowl of warm nuts and a tomato juice.

One thing I immediately noticed was that the tray was very well designed. It was firm to lean on and in a nice black finish. You can fold it out, pull it towards you, but then the curve of it means you can push it back so that even with a plate of food on it you can get in and out of the seat or pick something up off the floor. I find that any time food is brought to me on a plane I instantly remember something I want to get out of my bag and then have to grapple for it awkwardly.

United Polaris meal

The starter was smoked duck with dried cranberries, brined carrots and whole grain mustard, plus a salad with mozzarella balls, tomatoes and an olive (literally – there was one olive), served with a warm roll. It was nice and fresh, with a variety of bold flavours, but it didn’t blow me away.

For the main there was a choice of seared beef short rib, ginseng lemon grass chicken in broth, seared yuan yaki salmon, or ravioli in Parmesan sauce with garlic spinach and roasted tomatoes. I went for the pasta. It was tasty, and definitely comfort food, with each mouthful as dense, creamy and cheesy as the last, but it wasn’t a particularly memorable dish.

United Polaris

On my outbound flight I had the salmon, which I would choose again. The fish was well cooked and seasoned, and the rice tasted fresh.

Polaris food

For dessert there was a choice of a cheese plate with grapes or sundae with various toppings. The cheese plate I had on the way over had been a bit underwhelming but the sundae, which I topped with hot fudge sauce, was very nice. There is also a cart in the galley with fresh fruit and other snacks which you can access throughout the flight (the below picture was taken on my outbound journey since I forgot to take one on the way back.)

Dining cart

The menu had the usual range of soft drinks, tea and coffee, plus bourbon (Buffalo Trace), gin (Bombay Sapphire), rum (Bacardi), scotch (Dewar’s White Label or Glenfarclas), vodka (Wheatley), whiskey (Jack Daniel’s), liqueurs (Baileys or Amaretto) and Cognac (Courvoisier). There were also four beers; Miller Lite, Stella Artois, Elysian Space Dust IPA (a strong one at 8.2%) and Goose Island, another IPA which I went for.

My apologies to the wine and champagne enthusiasts – you need to ask the crew what is available, but I was very tired and completely forgot to do so for the purposes of this review (I know this will be unforgivable to some of our readers!)

Polaris seat controls

Meal complete, I used the wheel to the side of the seat to recline fully-flat. The seat is very comfortable to lie on, just the right mix between firm and soft. The bedding is also great, with one thicker blanket to use as a base, a warm blanket as a cover, a small memory-foam pillow you can use for extra support or to block off any bits of the seat that are annoying you, and then a huge and very comfortable main pillow. All the pieces are by Saks Fifth Avenue and feel high quality.

I was also impressed with the amenity kit. The bag is big enough that I would use it on a future trip to take everything I need, and the design is subtle.

It contains the usual items – socks, tissues, ear plugs, eye mask and a pen – plus a kit by Sunday Riley with a face wipe, lip balm, hand cream and face moisturiser (note that I took the below picture on the outbound flight so the tray style is different).

Polaris amenity kit

Eye mask on and seatbelt looped on top of my blanket, I managed to sleep all the way through until breakfast, which arrived an hour before landing. An omelette was available, but I went for cereal with fruit, yoghurt and a croissant. The flight takes 7 hours and 45 minutes.

Polaris breakfast

Arrival

We landed just before 1130, quarter of an hour behind schedule. A text came through from United to tell me that boarding for the flight was delayed and would now take place at 2250. I hadn’t activated airplane mode until I was in my seat so I’m not sure when that was actually sent. 

Those who fly more than me may have had different experiences, but every time I have arrived at Heathrow this year I have found the biometric border control gates remarkably speedy, even now they have been opened to seven new nationalities. After making the ten-minute walk to the gates themselves, it took me less than a minute to get through the queue, and then seconds to go through the actual gate.

Verdict

Relaxing in the Polaris lounge is a great start to a trip, and the United Club lounge at Heathrow is very nice too. For me the best part of the flight was the comfort and stylish design of the seat, as well as the quality of the bedding and amenity kit.

Fact box

  • Best for… Access to Polaris lounges and getting a good sleep
  • Price A roundtrip between London Heathrow and Chicago O’Hare in December starts from £3,478/$4,502
  • Flight time 7 hours, 45 minutes
  • Configuration 1-1-1
  • Recline 180 degrees
  • Seat width 23” (58.4cm)
  • Bed length 6’6” (198cm)
  • Contact united.com
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Business Traveller December 2019 / January 2020 edition
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