Polaris is peachy on United 777, but coach class crush is real

United Airlines yesterday took its new Polaris product to the skies on the first Boeing 777-300ER to feature the new business class seats.

During a media event, United showed off the end-to-end Polaris experience, including the new Polaris lounge at Chicago O’Hare airport, the onboard hard product, and some of the soft product, though that last bit has been flying for the last 10 weeks.

The new plane, which flew from Chicago to San Francisco for demonstration purposes, also means a new coach class experience for United customers. Your author opted to test the economy hard product for the purpose of this report.

Lounge

The new Polaris lounge product launched at O’Hare in December along with the new onboard food and bedding offerings. It is spacious, offers complimentary premium alcohol and a variety of hot snacks for pre-flight dining. The lounge also has sleep pods and showers available.

The snacks were tasty with a good variety of flavors available. But the serving size suggests that these are definitely snacks, not meals. A full pre-flight meal, especially for service from Newark, Washington-Dulles or Chicago to Western Europe, would make the offering even more competitive and complete. It would be similarly valuable for the late-night departures to Australia and Asia where sleep is the key focus for most passengers, not a two-plus hour multi-course meal service on board. [Note: United has since reconfirmed that the lounge will offer sit-down meal service as well, though this was not included in the media event.]

Small bites are available for snacking in the Polaris Lounge at O’Hare.

Seats

The seat in any business class cabin is nearly everything when it comes to delivering a comfortable sleep experience and United’s new Polaris seat, developed in conjunction with Zodiac Aerospace and design firm Acumen, presents three distinct seat shapes for travelers, each with a sleeping space measured at 6’ 6”.

The staggered layout delivers direct aisle access for all passengers, in part thanks to a narrow gap that allows the “inside” seat of each staggered pair to reach the aisle. The “outside” seat in the pairs is slightly angled and a few inches wider at the elbows; the angle also means that the foot well narrows at the tip, reducing the sleeping space of the bed if your feet extend the full length. The narrow foot well has been a concern on United’s BusinessFirst seats and the bulkhead on the current generation offers the most space, a design decision that carries over to the new Polaris seat as well.

The Panasonic Avionics eX3 inflight entertainment system offers a sufficiently large screen and content selection along with a responsive touch interface. The new planes also include United’s famous Channel 9 flight deck communications broadcast, an AvGeek’s dream come true.

Panasonic is also providing the inflight connectivity service on board with its Ku-band satellite eXConnect platform, though the system was not fully functioning during the demo flight leading to some frustration from members of media, who had hoped to share photos and videos in real-time.

Multiple power points and a phone/tablet holder built into the tray table (useful if accessing the large streaming-media library on your own device) round out the well-rounded entertainment offerings.

Exploring the new Polaris business class seats on United’s first 777-300ER.

The Polaris seats also include some small touches such as a handle for helping passengers pull themselves up from the seated position, something CEO Oscar Munoz specifically cited in his pre-flight speech. Yes, it means that pulling on the seat in front of you is easier but it is also a built-in design element so hopefully it will reduce some of the potential disturbance of said pulling.

Soft Product

I covered the new Polaris dining setup and bedding (both of which I mostly like over the prior versions) in my previous review of the soft product. But I also had the good fortune to sit across the aisle from United’s Executive Chef Gerry McLoughlin during the flight and talk through the new concept and some of the differences the 77W presents for the crew.

McLoughlin confirmed that the menus are on a seasonal cycle with main courses changing quarterly; 1 March starts the next cycle. All US stations offer the same options for outbound intercontinental flights while the inbound service is regionalized, taking advantage of the local kitchens’ flavors and dining styles.

I tried two of the main courses; the fish outshone the beef by a wide margin.

McLoughlin also spoke to some of the improvements the new galley offers, including a steam option on the ovens to improve the moisture levels of the main courses. The turbot entrée definitely delivered on that front; the short rib less so.

This steam feature does create a scenario where the product will vary slightly between the 77W and the other aircraft that will be converted to carry the Polaris seats. Hopefully it won’t be too noticeable in the dining experience.

Turbot with mushroom risotto; juicy and delicious thanks in part to the new steam ovens on board.

Scoring Polaris

Overall the Polaris product is a solid upgrade to the prior BusinessFirst generation of seats and service. It offers a superior seat, more privacy and direct aisle access with fully flat beds, besting some of the competition while coming up short compared to others. It is not the most luxurious nor the most spacious business class product flying but it was never expected to be. As a customer who is mostly focused on sleeping while on board, I feel that the new seats deliver. Plus, one has the opportunity to watch a few movies and nosh on a decent meal if so motivated.

Coach Class Crush

The decision to go 10-abreast in economy class is not surprising but also not particularly comforting for those who fly in the back. The seats are tight, with three of us rubbing shoulders and elbows while trying out the space. I’ve done the 3-4-3 layout a few times now and it feels even a smidgen tighter to me than the Boeing 787’s 3-3-3 layout, though that may just be psychological, as one sees an extra human in each row of the 10-abreast 777.

Some design decisions make the center four seats materially less desirable than the seat triples. The mounting rails for the seat leave space for only three bags under the row and the aisle seat passengers do not really have space between the riser and the aisle for their outside foot. Plus the aisle seats measured a quarter-inch narrower between the armrests than the other seats in economy.

There are some very real challenges for economy class passengers in these seats.

The “New Spirit of United” set to take flight with the new Polaris product on board.

United Airlines covered my airfare costs to participate in the media flight.

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13 Comments

  1. Owen H.

    “There are some very real challenges for economy class passengers in these seats”

    Call a spade a spade, for everyone except the people willing to pay or lucky enough to have their company pay 3k+ each way for business this is a massive downgrade. 10-abreast is awful and 3-3-3 was a major reason to pick UAL over their competitors. Really sad to see its going away

  2. Dave Uscus

    So the new plane won’t have the blue sidewalks that Continental had? I love the look of Continental cabins! What a shame that this won’t look like a Continental cabin. Can’t believe that United is throwing away the Continental look for this aircraft

  3. Steve B

    Have to agree with Owen H., the vast majority of the aircraft will be receiving a major downgrade with this “spectacular” new plane; especially when it is a full flight. UA has, in their own special way, introduced a new aircraft with a entire new theme “Polaris” that will be avoided by the educated flying public. I for one will avoid 10-abreast 777s on long-haul flights.

    So thanks for the 777er United. Now let me go book flights on the old 777-200s with 3x3x3. When those aircraft are refitted to 3x4x3, I’ll refit my travel plans with another airline.

  4. Joe

    “There are some very real challenges for economy class passengers in these seats.” —

    The key challenge is that this daft 777 3-4-3 layout reduces the seat width to 17.5 inches, which is *less* than the width of an average male’s shoulders of 18 inches.. See
    https://www.fas.harvard.edu/~loebinfo/loebinfo/Proportions/humanfigure.html

    Standard economy seats were 18 inches or more in the past for this very reason. Furthermore, unlike your squishy butt, shoulder width is bone to bone, i.e. there’s no give there. You can’t squeeze your shoulders into a smaller space.

    We can clearly see the impact in the photo in the above tweet. Since the seats are actually narrower than the people sitting in them, they’re having to sit slightly sideways to avoid each other. Imagine doing that for a 14 hour flight.

    It’s a little early to get any feedback on UAL’s unwise choice of 777 3-4-3 but if you want to check out the likely outcome, see the scores of excoriating reviews on Seatguru of Swiss’s 777 3-4-3 fiasco.

    What’s next with this “making the seat smaller than the person” design philosophy? Ceilings so low that you have to keep your head bent forward the whole flight? Can’t wait to find out!

  5. marc

    My understanding is that the coach seats on the 77W are less than 16 3/4″ wide. This is ridiculous and should not be permitted. The airlines are making money hand over fist and just squishing passengers in without a care for their well being. I’d love to see some United seniors executives, their president and chairman fly in coach on a 14 hour flight and see how they like it. Definitely time for a change in who I fly and will avoid these planes.

    • Seth Miller
      Author

      My measurements of the seats during the flight showed most at 16 3/4″ between the armrests. Only a couple are smaller than that.

      And, unfortunately, 10-abreast has been around awhile and is growing in popularity. Avoiding it is getting harder.

  6. Eric B

    I just flew back from HKG to SFO in Polaris biz class. I was a bit disappointed to say the least.

    When I checked in at SFO in early April (on our way to NRT), I asked four different 1K ticket counter agents and a supervisor about the seating. No one knew the details about the wall separating the two middle seats. As such, my wife and I chose 16D/G. This turns out to be about to be the furthest apart that we could sit. It means we had to just short of shout to each other to communicate. In the future, we would opt for an odd-numbered row as we can somewhat sit next to each other.

    The separating wall does go half way down. The buttons to move the wall up and down are not recessed. As such, it is very easy to accidentally touch them while handing something across the wall (as done several times).

    The seat is not very comfortable for someone that is 6’2″. I definitely prefer the older style seats. I could not get to sleep. Because of the tapered design, you feel like you are in a coffin. Further, there is very little room where your feet are supposed to be. There definitely not enough room for my feet.

    The tray table has a poor locking mechanism. While taking off, the tray table whizzed out and hit me at the top of my knee caps. Definitely not fun. My feet were planted flat on the floor. In that position, the tray table does not clear my knees.

    The small faux marble table is fine by itself. The design for the A/V control and the audio for the head phones is at the back edge of the table. This is an absolutely ridiculous design. The cables drape over the table top. Having a glass of red wine there is a disaster waiting to happen. In my case, disaster was when the A/V control when whipping back to its home and dumping the wine glass everywhere including my white dress shirt.

    Now for the A/V. The screen is large. Large enough to reasonably read subtitles for movies (or annotations in movies). But, like most flights, the left/right audio was reversed. I have a dozen patents in video compression. It is plainly obvious when it is not correct. Further, the playback system has a audio / video synchronization problem. Every 3 to 3 1/2 minutes, there is a short 1/10 second gap in the audio. It is very distracting.

    The wine did not match the provided list. The wine on the way to Narita was fine. Coming from HKG was barely drinkable. The Champagne and Port were good.

    The food coming from Hong Kong was better than heading to Tokyo. But what is it with United? Why do they think people want an omelet before landing in Tokyo at 3 PM in the afternoon. They have been doing this for the last year. Please give something matching the arrival time zone. As it is now, the give you an omelet for arrival no matter what the time is and no matter where you are traveling.

    In short, I have traveled in the new Polaris class four times since the roll out in Dec-2016. The most recent trip had the new Polaris seating. I am not impressed and would not recommend it. I will certainly try to plan my travel to avoid the new seats.

  7. Eric B

    Hi Seth,

    If you would be kind enough, please abbreviate my last name in the post to “Eric B”. I appreciate it.

    cheers,
    eric

  8. eric zinn

    Well , after 1.5 million miles with United, and trying hard to ignore their recent bad publicity, and after eagerly awaiting my first trip this year to Israel on the new Polaris – I had the misfortune to read these reviews – and I think I will look for another airline for my next 12 hour trip to Israel. The business class looks like an upgrade to what they have but the reviews on the seats are mostly negative – so why would anyone want to spend that kind of money when there are so many better alternatives. Ive flown many times in Premium economy and it was “bearable” but the NEW economy of 10 sets across is a simple insult to Uniteds frequent flyer passengers. Why cant United get things right with how their loyal passengers want to be treated. I hate giving up all the priveledges my 1.5 million miles are supposed to give me – but making the flight more uncomfortable for the passenger is no way to earn loyalty!
    A very disappointed frequent flyer!

    • Seth Miller
      Author

      If you can be in Polaris I’d still take United. If you’re in economy the connection en route may be worth it for your comfort.

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