Flying business to New York out of Heathrow is one of the most competitive aviation markets there is – and the competition has never been more intense.
With more than three million travelling from Heathrow to JFK and one million to Newark every year, it’s a fierce battleground that often sees the major carriers introduce their latest innovations here first.
Onto this skyscape has flown United Airlines’ Polaris service, launched in 2016 and named after the North Star, with the airline hailing the new service as “the shining new star of business class travel”. Installed on all new Boeing 777-300ER flights globally, with 14 currently in existence, it is soon rolling out on United’s new 787-10 aircraft, while a retrofit programme on 767-300ER and 777-200ER flights is already under way.
Checking in to the service at Heathrow Terminal 2 for a flight to Newark, I am fortunate enough to try it for myself.
Sleep, food and drink, and entertainment are the key tools by which all mid- to long-haul airlines will seek to attract customers.
United has made sleep its key priority, with Polaris following extensive research among its passengers – and there is no doubt about the emphasis it has given to comfort from the beginning of the journey. After being personally welcomed to my seat, I am invited to make myself comfortable with custom-designed bedding from SaksFifth Avenue including duvets, day blankets and a large and small pillow.
Mattress cushions are also available on request, meaning I have access to more bedding here than I do in my airing cupboard at home. Together with the 180-degree flatbed – all six feet six inches of it – it makes for a comfortable rest later in the flight and one that more than lives up to expectations, supplemented by an amenity kit from Soho House & Co’s Cowshed range.
I am brought a drink of my choice and a menu offering a versatile range of options across a five-course meal. Updated seasonally and regionally influenced, the Polaris menus have been developed in partnership with critically acclaimed chefs, including Bill Kim of Chicago restaurants Urbanbelly, bellyQ and Belly Shack, and Jesse Dunford Wood of Parlour in London.
Hot mid-flight snacks such as lobster macaroni and cheese are available on daytime flights longer than eight hours and all flights longer than 12 hours. After mistaking my appetiser for my main as it is so substantial, I thoroughly enjoy a chicken tikka masala and United’s Signature Sundae, a homemade ice-cream extravaganza created to my own specifications, although I could have had made my own choice from a dessert trolley.
The drinks selection is every bit as comprehensive as you might imagine, with passengers on afternoon and evening flights able to create their own wine-tasting menu, with a customised wine flight including options curated by United’s own master sommelier.
Entertainment is impressive, with the seatback 16in high-definition entertainment system operating slickly and instantly, the responsive handset taking me straight to a selection of more than 50 films, a number of them – such as ThreeBillboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – still in cinemas at the time.
Overall the Polaris experience is impressive, with each seat somehow offering both direct access to the aisle and a very private feel. My Polaris experience finishes at the United arrivals lounge back at Heathrow Terminal 2, where I am able to shower and breakfast before continuing into London to begin the working day.
The United Airlines lounge at Heathrow Terminal 2 is a good 10-minute walk from security, adjacent to gate B64 – but the negatives stop there.
Although open since 2014 and awaiting an upgrade to Polaris itself (see below), the lounge is a popular one at Heathrow, featuring the longest bar at the airport and a full complimentary drinks menu.
Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the airfield, while the contemporary interior offers a range of seating areas from plush armchairs to desks and dining tables, most well served with power points. Showers are available, stocked with the same Cowshed toiletries found on the planes.
On my early-morning visit, the lounge fills up very quickly but still allows comfortable space for the 200-odd who are there. Heathrow is one of three airports outside of the USA awaiting a new Polaris lounge next year.
Bob Schumacher managing director sales – UK & Ireland, United Airlines
How has United Polaris performed since its launch in 2016?
Customers welcome our Polaris seat and are impressed with the Polaris onboard service and amenities. The response to United Polaris has been overwhelmingly positive. Since its debut in December 2016, United has achieved its highest-ever satisfaction scores in sleep comfort among business class passengers.
What makes it different from other transatlantic business class services?
Following more than 12,000 hours of research, we identified sleep as a priority for business class passengers. Exclusive to United, the individual suite-like pods were designed in partnership with Acumen Design Associates and PriestmanGoode and manufactured by Zodiac Seats UK to ensure passengers have the best possible rest. With sleep in mind, United partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue and Soho House & Co’s Cowshed Spa to develop products to help passengers get the rest they need. United Polaris business class also includes improved flight attendant service procedures for greater efficiency and a shorter meal service so customers can have undisturbed sleep.
Are there more Polaris lounges in the pipeline?
The first United Polaris Lounge opened at Chicago O’Hare in December 2016, and the San Francisco and Newark lounges are now open. In 2018, new United Polaris Lounges are scheduled to open in Houston and Los Angeles. Future lounge locations are Washington Dulles, Heathrow, Hong Kong and Tokyo Narita.
What other developments can we expect over the next 12 months?
We continue to introduce Polaris across our international fleet. We also plan to introduce United Premium Plus on select international flights. United Premium Plus will offer more space, comfort and amenities. Seats will be more spacious with upgraded dining on china dinnerware, complimentary alcoholic beverages, a Saks Fifth Avenue blanket and pillow, an amenity kit, and more.