United Airlines Flt. 860 Sao Paulo-Guarulhos to Washington-Dulles
This is the concluding post of my series exploring my March 2017 trip to South Africa and Namibia, which started here. (Low-quality pictures in this post due to equipment issues, apologies.)
In June 2016, United made a huge deal out of announcing its “new” business class, rebranding it as “Polaris” effective December 1. Their PR company did an amazing job, and blogs and news articles made it seem like United was going to finally bring its business class product into the 2000s – since it was the only of the American carriers that didn’t have direct aisle access on most long-hauls, and had a 2-4-2 configuration on many of its business class flights. But the truth is that United really isn’t overhauling its business class product – it’s slowly introducing new seats on some planes that are very very slowly coming online. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining that they thought buying a “Polaris” ticket meant they were getting the new seat featured in ads and blogs, only to be disappointed on board. And while the “soft” product of Polaris – i.e., food and bedding – was promoted as being revamped, my experience showed that was nothing exciting, as my “Polaris” experience on a 10-hour flight was nothing special.
The shuttle from the Marriott dropped me off right at GRU’s Terminal 3, where I found the Premier Access check-in for United. After a preliminary security screening at the front of the line, I made my way to the counter. I was still nervous about my suitcase, which was somewhere in storage, and I didn’t trust that it would make it back to Dulles with me. But with surprisingly little explanation and giving my baggage check, the United agent seemed to understand the issue, and called over a supervisor to figure out how to get my bag routed from storage to DC.
I had seen earlier that evening that United had added a 9pm flight to Washington in addition to the regularly scheduled 9:45 – presumably they had an extra plane in Sao Paulo. Although that would have gotten me in earlier, I didn’t bother to try and switch. One reason was that I didn’t have winter outerwear packed, as it was warm when I left, warm where I was going, and I thought winter would be over when I returned. I did have a light jacket in my suitcase which would probably have been enough when combined with my hoodie to prevent illness for the trip from Dulles to the office, but I wasn’t confident the bag would arrive. Plus, I was not going to be able to Uber anywhere, due to lack of phone, and would need to go to Best Buy at lunch to get a new phone. I figured I’d try and buy a coat of some sort at the airport. Unfortunately, most of the stores were expensive (i.e., Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss, and Burberry), so options were limited. They had a fall-weight jacket at the Gap that was on sale for $69, though they didn’t have my size. So, my father has now gotten a Gap fall-weight jacket that I swam in twice.
Initially, I was scheduled to have a 6-hour layover at GRU, so I thought I’d do a tour of lounges at Terminal 3. There are four of them right next to each other, perched on a mezzanine looking onto the terminal. Two take Priority Pass: The Executive Lounge and the Star Alliance lounge, which was also my default lounge given my United Polaris flight. The Star Alliance lounge was pretty lovely, though, in terms of physical space, with a range of seating, plenty of outlets, and not too crowded. Given that it accepts Priority Pass and American Express Platinum/Bradesco bank cards, I worried it would be a zoo, but I guess since TAM left Star Alliance, there actually aren’t that many Star Alliance evening flights out of GRU. From 8pm to 11pm, there were the two IAD flights, a flight to YYZ on Air Canada, and the United flights to Chicago, Houston, and Newark.
There were only two things I noticed about crowds: (1) active crew – As was the case with my visit to the Priority Pass/Bradesco lounges at the domestic side of GRU last year, I noticed crew in uniform (LATAM); (2) I’ve been noticing a new trend of people over 60 feeling it is appropriate to watch videos on their phones without headphones, and that was in full force.
The food is probably the weakest part of the lounge, with one buffet that is pretty small for a lounge that size. There was some cold salad, hamburger patties, rice, lentils, and a sort of pasta bar with congealed alfredo sauce and overcooked noodles.
I headed to the gate with plenty of time, and there was already a line in the priority boarding lane. I had had the dreaded SSSS on my boarding pass, so I was pulled aside before I could get on the plane for extra security, but the front of the plane wasn’t very crowded.
My flight was on a 767-400, which offers a better business class than many United business class planes, as it was a pre-merger Continental plane, with Continental’s BusinessFirst seats. (Yes, when flying United, you’re lucky if you get a product that was released in 2008.) The seats are in a 2-1-2 layout and are completely lie-flat. I had thought about taking one of the solo seats in the middle of the plane, but the thought of two aisles jostling me was meh, and I correctly thought the plane would be empty enough that I’d get my own 2 seats next to a window.
The seat was fine, and is fairly private for a business class seat in a 2-1-2 layout. Not only is there a privacy divider, but the angles of the seat make it so that the aisle passenger is a bit behind the window one. There was a very small cubby kind of behind your head where there was a USB port and a regular power port. There is no other real in-seat storage except for perhaps under the footwell; I ended up using the empty seat next to me. The seats have preset recline options and are otherwise similar to other “good” seats of the first decade of the 21st century. One place it’s probably contemporary is the TV screen which is pretty large, and was functional from boarding onward, which was nice, so I was able to watch the end of Miss Peregrine’s. There were tons of new movies and lots of TV shows as well, definitely a strength.
One of the first problems I had has actually been resolved already. When you get to the seat, there is just too much stuff on it. One of the things United made a big deal about when it announced Polaris was the “Saks Fifth Avenue” bedding. Unlike many carriers where flight attendants come down the aisle and offer you bedding after boarding, United plops a bunch at the seat pre-boarding, then relies on you hunting down a Flight Attendant and asking about specific other items. On the seat at boarding were two blankets (excuse me, a duvet and a “day blanket”), a small pillow, and a large pillow. If the seat next to me wasn’t open, it would have been uncomfortable storing that all at my feet through the dinner service. About 2 months ago, United indicated there were lots of complaints about this, and announced it was pulling the smaller pillow. Not sure how much of a difference that makes.
There was also an amenity kit at the seat, which was heavily Polaris branded. The case was semi-hard and of a shape that I find very un-reusable. It had slightly better than average contents – a small pouch of Cowshed lotions (with a “sleep mist” and coupon), tissues, a dental kit, a comb, a pen, mints, nice socks with Polaris stars on them, earplugs, hand sanitizer, and a gel eye-mask.
The cabin felt like a factory for the entire flight, and wasn’t luxurious feeling at all. (In my notes from the flight, the words “aloof” “mechanical” and “factory” each appeared multiple times.) The whole plane boarded through the front door, so it was loud and chaotic, and there wasn’t much predeparture service. The cabin was also extremely warm. The purser did introduce herself to passengers and offer customs forms, but she was pretty scant after that. Shortly after boarding, a young male FA came over and gave me a menu, which was half a description of Polaris, including the reminder that you are not supposed to take blankets and pillows home. I was also offered a pre-departure beverage, which was served in a small neon blue plastic cup, which United must have gotten on sale at Party City, along with a Ferrero Rocher chocolate from Walgreen’s. Yay Polaris? I had the jacket I had purchased at my seat the whole time, and the FA never asked if he could hang it.
I was asked for my meal choices (both dinner and breakfast) before the boarding door was even closed, which seemed rushed, especially since we took off a few minutes early, actually. Once airborne, there were so many announcements. They were very repetitive of the long safety video, and the predeparture announcements, and they were read in both English and Portuguese – the English with long awkward pauses.
There was a hot towel service after takeoff, but no one came to me with one. There was apparently massive confusion which flight attendant was serving me, because a flight attendant from the front then came and brought me a tablecloth for dinner as part of his service. A second flight attendant then came from the back with a hot towel after he had cleared other towels and saw my section didn’t have any. Then a third flight attendant came from the rear with a tablecloth, though I had one already. I have no idea what the issue was, but throughout the flight, me and the couple behind me (i.e., the only passengers on the rear right side of the cabin) consistently got served several minutes after the rest of the cabin.
The menu for “Polaris” is supposed to be new and redesigned, but it seemed pretty standard to me, with a choice of grilled beef tenderloin, cheese cannelloni, grilled chicken breast, Brazilian seafood stew, or a salad with grilled chicken. Since I’d had two grilled chicken meals at the Marriott, beef it was. While I waited for dinner, I watched some episodes of Arrested Development. Wi-Fi was available for $16.99 for the entire flight, which didn’t seem exorbitant, but since I planned to sleep I did not take advantage.
An hour after take-off, a beverage service came, served with nuts (too late if you ask me). I got a glass of Pinot Noir and a glass of water. The wine wasn’t very good. Thankfully, there wasn’t a long wait between drinks and the dinner service. The first tray had bread (garlic and a roll), butter, a salad, and a parma and melon starter. In lieu of salad dressing, there was a packet of olive oil. The salad wasn’t very fresh, and the other app was meh.
The meat was okay, but for some reason there was a huge pool of olive oil on the plate. I was not offered a drink refill the entire time. Finally, when my plate was cleared, I asked for more water. I declined the cheese and port course.
Probably the fanciest part of the Polaris meal is the rolling out of the dessert cart. The dessert cart for the front of the cabin completed and the front FA came and distributed water bottles to them before I saw dessert alas. The cart had a variety of cakes, which looked good, but I went with the United classic – the ice cream sundae. Alas, there was actual ice in the ice cream, but it was otherwise good. (Awhile after this flight, this service was discontinued temporarily because apparently the glasses were all shattering. Thankfully, no hunks of glass for me; apparently now they are using plastic cups.)
The service finished about 2 hours into flight, and I prepared for sleep. Part of United’s shtick is that you can request slippers and a cooling neck pillow and a mattress pad in Polaris, but there aren’t enough for the whole cabin. Plus, given how unfriendly and unavailable the crew was for things like getting a water refill during dinner, it makes you feel like you’re being a demanding customer to ask. I saw a passenger in front of me get a cooling pillow, so I figured I would ask for one too. When I was able to flag down the FA who was serving me, she acted annoyed and said she didn’t know where they were but would look. After she insisted there must not be any, I told her what bin the other flight attendant had pulled it out of, and, voila. It honestly was not worth the trouble.
I slept for about six hours. I woke up once in the middle of the night and saw there was a little cart set up with water and chips, etc. About 75 minutes before landing, breakfast was served by the same unfriendly flight attendant. After my meal tray of a gross spinach frittata with a strange sauce, Greek yogurt, and fruit dish, it took a long time for the bread basket to appear, and there was only one pass of it before my tray was cleared.
And then we were on the fairly not-snowy ground at Dulles, only 24 hours after scheduled.
The “Polaris” part of this flight was supposed to be the service. But the service was among the worst I’ve ever had in business class. Apart from the delays and invisibility for refills, etc., the wrapper for my amenity kit remained sitting next to me for the entire flight, and my “Thank yous” were never met with “You’re welcome.” The food did not seem enhanced in any way. Given that the Polaris being advertised in terms of seats is just an aspirational idea that most United Business customers will not see for years, perhaps the service is just an idea too? Delta and American’s business products still strike me as leaps and bounds ahead.
And that’s it. Apologies it took so long to bang this trip series out, but it was a long trip with a lot of places and products that don’t seem covered that much. My next big trip – to Norway, the Netherlands, and Malta – is only 10 days away, which I’ll give an overview of in the next few days.