TRIED & TESTED
San Francisco–Hong Kong
United Airlines B777-300ER Polaris Business; Cathay Dragon A330-300 Business Class; Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi; The Sanya Edition
BACKGROUND United took delivery of its first B777300ER in January this year, named the “New Spirit of United”. The aircraft began international services between San Francisco and Hong Kong in March, supplanting the regular B747 service.
CHECK-IN I arrived at San Francisco’s international terminal at 1115 for flight UA869, scheduled to depart at 1300. I had already checked in online and had no problems dropping my luggage at the bag drop counter. Border security was extremely thorough, but 15 minutes later I was airside. LOUNGE Normal business class ticket holders have access to the United Club Lounge, located just a few minutes’ walk from security (open 5am-midnight).
Currently construction work is ongoing – they are building a new Polaris Lounge – but there was still plenty of space, although this lounge can and does get very busy. You pass through a seating area to the L-shaped bar, and through that is another lounging section with a workbench at the back. There are no shower facilities and the F&B is adequate without being spectacular. All told, this facility cannot compare with Asian airport lounges – but once the Polaris Lounge opens we should expect much better.
BOARDING The aircraft was parked at Gate 100, a five-minute walk from the lounge. Boarding had already begun when I arrived at 1220, and I boarded immediately. I found my seat tidily stacked with a choice of thick and thin blankets, plus a large and small pillow. I was greeted by a flight attendant who addressed me by name, gave me a very well-stocked amenity kit, took my jacket and offered me a welcome drink with a piece of chocolate. The plane pushed back at 1310 and we took off at 1330. THE SEAT The 60 Polaris business seats are split between two cabins – rows 1 to 8 and 9 to 18 (without 13 and 14) – separated by the galley and in-flight hospitality area. Seats are arranged in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration (A-DG-L), meaning direct aisle access for all and a good sense of privacy. The seats alternate by row between facing straight forward or being slightly angled towards the aisle. My 2L window seat was angled – odd-number rows are straight and even numbers angled.
The seats are furbished in light and dark greys with blue accenting – a sleek, clean look. They have generous width, and are easily moved into the lie-flat position via a side panel. I found the bed set-up firm and comfortable, even for my six-foot three-inch (190cm) frame.
I was impressed with the variety of storage space, ranging from small- to medium-sized options including a shoulder-level cupboard, a narrow shelf under the 16-inch touchscreen TV for amenity kits or glasses, spaces under both armrests that could fit a laptop, etc. Beside a side tabletop were the IFE handset, international socket and USB.
A homely wall lamp and two adjustable personal reading lights offer some variety in lighting, and the electronic “Do Not Disturb” button is a useful and appreciated touch. WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? Rows 1,6, 7, 8 and 9 are close to the galleys and lavatories, and you may also want to steer clear of row 18, as the Economy Plus baby bassinet seats are in row 19 just behind a thin partition. Passengers sitting in 16A and L won’t enjoy any views as there are no windows.
THE FLIGHT A flight attendant had taken my order for lunch and breakfast while we were still on the ground. Slightly disconcertingly, I was also asked for my “back-up” choices… though happily this proved unnecessary.
Soon after take-off a selection of wines was brought round, with the chance for a small wine tasting. I chose the whites, which included a Domaine Skouras 2015 Moscofilero, a La Chablisienne Le Finage 2015 Chardonnay and a Robert Weil 2014 Riesling Tradition. For me the best came last – I really enjoyed the smoothness and sweet fruit notes of the riesling. I also liked that drinks were served with heated nuts, a nice touch that only a few other airlines also offer.
Lunch was served soon afterwards, and I started with an appetiser of smoked nori-wrapped salmon, radish and edamame hummus (the fish was perhaps a bit too “chilled”). There were four options for the main course – short rib, stir-fried beef, char siu duck and stir-fried shrimp. I chose the latter, which was extremely tasty. Dessert was rather special: a dessert trolley was pushed down the aisle, filled with ice-cream sundaes and decadent pastries – I couldn’t resist.
With the meal service over, the cabin lights were dimmed and I decided to use the time to work. A paid-for wifi service is usually offered once airborne, but problems with the satellite connection rendered it unavailable. Thwarted, I decided to sleep instead, requesting a set of pyjamas and a cooling gel memory foam pillow, which was very comfortable.
I slept well for three hours, then got up and was asked if I’d like a hot snack. I ordered tomato basil soup (a bit too sour) served with an aged cheddar grilled cheese sandwich (delicious), then visited the business class hospitality area, which displayed a selection of snacks and wines.
I checked the wifi again, and this time was able to access the service. Three packages (US$8.99/one hour; US$14.99/two hours; US$29.99/whole flight) were available, and the connection allowed me to browse websites and send texts and emails, though sending photos was simply not possible.
Annoyingly, wifi access is restricted to only one device – unless you are a United Mileage Plus member, in which case you can switch between devices on the same data package.
I worked for the next few hours until the cabin lights were turned on again, 90 minutes before landing. Breakfast options were fresh seasonal fruit, Chinese congee or a Southwestern omelette. I opted for the egg dish, which came with pepper jack cheese, black beans, corn and roasted red pepper, served with chicken sausage, potatoes and fruit. I was impressed – typically I find onboard breakfast offerings forgettable, but the corn, etc paired really well with the omelette and I finished off the whole lot. ARRIVAL We began our descent at 1815 and the crew located my jacket, which had mistakenly been hung in the economy cabin. We touched down at 1840, exited the plane smoothly and were quickly through immigration, but had to wait for our luggage as our carousel was jammed with three flights.
VERDICT An excellent seat product. I was comfortable both working and sleeping, the crew were attentive and friendly, and the in-flight food was generally of a very high quality. Wifi connection is something the airline needs to work on, but this was a really good overall flight experience on a very long-haul route. Valerian Ho