As a lifelong American Airlines customer and frequent Cathay Pacific flyer, United had a long way to go to impress me with their Polaris business class product. They did. Here is another leg in my status run to Hong Kong trip report.
This post is part of a trip report series from a recent status run to Hong Kong. I should clarify that Matthew is the king of onboard photos, I am not. Some of these are not my favorite but true to my experience.
- Mileage Running May Be Dead, Status Running Still Alive
- United’s Polaris Lounge San Francisco
- Polaris Business Class Service San Francisco to Hong Kong
- Hyatt Regency Tsim Sha Tsui – Suite
- Hyatt Regency Sha Tin – Suite
- Shenzhen Day Trip
- Too Much Traveling
- Singapore’s Bad Hong Kong lounge
- ANA Business Class Hong Kong Tokyo
- ANA Haneda Lounge Review
- ANA Business Class Tokyo-Haneda to Chicago O’Hare
Initial Buyer’s Remorse
I have written before that I switched from American to United mostly due to the issues with American’s soft product and the deterioration of its loyalty program. When I did my first long-haul business class status run with United last year to qualify during my 1K challenge, I was flabbergasted by a new-ish 787 that featured a 2-2-2 configuration (complete with stepping over your seatmate in the middle of the night).
That was the best alternative at the time to dodging the absolutely unconscionable 2-4-2 business class – yes, really. Can you imagine buying an $8,000 ticket in business class and sitting in the middle seat in a four-seat section, bursting shoulders on either side for 12 hours? If you can, congratulations, you qualify as a fanboy.
In all honesty, row 20 is a more spacious row in Economy (2-3-2) than row 10 in business class. I had no idea prior to challenging with United how rare their direct aisle access seats were even on new aircraft. Shame on me for assuming that United was actually ahead of American who only recently retired the oxymoronic “angled flat” seats in a 2-3-2 configuration on their 777s: I should have done more research.
However, the carrier’s soft product – the service aspect of the flight – was much better than American’s. The last straw for me with American was having to send two meals back on a 14-hour flight from Hong Kong where the first was served in metal tins. There was a total lack of effort even on the only aircraft in their fleet that still featured a separate first-class section. Following that flight, I had a chance to try Qatar Airways and realized that other carriers were doing better and it was time to move on. With the soft product, United has succeeded there from the start.
Boarding to Hong Kong Is Always Bad
I have been flying to Hong Kong for awhile often several times per year and the equipment of choice from the USA is apparently a 777-300ER. American added the destination once sufficient 777s were added to their fleet at first from Dallas, later adding Los Angeles. Cathay Pacific nearly exclusively uses 777-300ER while United has a mixed fleet but primarily the same 777 as the others with a very similar layout.
As with any of those carriers, the boarding area is always a nightmare. Although the gate area for this flight was huge with United (American’s in Dallas is remarkably inadequate) it still turns into a bad situation as gate agents don’t clearly tell people where to go. I guess on one hand it’s nice to know that this problem is not a oneworld issue but appears to be universal for the route. But it’s also disappointing that no one can seem to get this process right.
Also, it’s a big airplane – 300+ seats big – and without fail, every time I fly the route it’s always oversold or very close to it. I overheard my outbound flight was oversold once I was already onboard. I was disappointed there was no announcement in the 40 minutes boarding was intended to start until the time it actually did. It’s a shame because I was on a mileage run that was already scheduled to be too long, I would have been a cheap date if they would have announced the overbooking at the gate.
I Bee Boarded
Making my way to my seat, the last of the front business class section, I realized I made another rookie mistake. I booked next to the galley, which is in front of the walk-up snack bar and opposite the second set of doors and bathroom. It didn’t ruin my flight to be so close, but I won’t book there again if there is another choice in the cabin (presumably not on the other side of the plane in the same row).
Buzzing around me was a honey bee, infatuated with my seat. I tried to ignore it for some time, but then the thought of a 13-hour flight with a bee that had no interest in the rest of the cabin turned. There are two ways to remove a bee from your seat without getting stung.
- Kill it. Just roll up a magazine and strike it against a wall or window.
- Shoo it out the open door. That was hard to do, a cursory attempt was made.
- Leave it to chance. I’ll probably be fine, and hopefully everyone else will be.
I had no intentions of leaving it to chance. One of the crew members saw me attempting to strike the bee and asked why I don’t just take it outside the aircraft. I offered her the opportunity to capture it and then safely relocate it back into the San Francisco air, she declined. I struck again unsuccessfully. After two or three attempts (killing a bee that crawls into crevices without looking like an idiot smashing a magazine against a brand new airplane is difficult), he/she had disappeared. I left it to chance the rest of the flight and never saw or heard it again.
I wouldn’t have let it delay the flight, but some are allergic to bees (I am not) and should that bee have stung the wrong person somewhere over the Pacific ocean, I wonder if the FA would have still preferred that I politely request the bee to vacate or buy a ticket.
The seats are designed in a herringbone fashion. I had only ever flown in reverse herringbone and didn’t really understand what the difference was (other than slanting the opposite way). It clearly became clear why I prefer reverse herringbone, window seats face at an angle toward the window as opposed to the aisle. I can’t think of a reason why facing away from the window and toward the aisle is a benefit but I am sure there is a contingent that can explain, perhaps they will be so inclined to opine in the comments.
United hit a home run with the seat design. Cathay Pacific was the original leader in the space, and American liked it so much that they licensed the design from them – a really smart move. United didn’t exactly copy the model, but its seat is excellent. The layout was 1-2-1 with a mix of herringbone and a straight seat at the windows.
In a seated position, it was comfortable to sit in though the controls were new to me, and maybe not as comfortable a design as what I was previously used to. There is a spinning dial to move the selected portion (footrest, lumbar support, reclining back of the seat) forward and backward. It wasn’t a detractor nor strength, just different than other carriers.
Hong Kong-based Crew
What differentiates the service from United as opposed to American is their Hong Kong-based crew. For American, a slew of senior flight attendants, some of whom are jaded (this is a blog not a news story, my opinion is based on experience but remains my opinion), some of whom are just looking to log some serious hours. I have yet to encounter an FA from American on the route (at least from Dallas) that was in any way looking to provide an excellent experience.
United was different and as the first introduction to the service, it made all of the difference. It was evident that the crew was Hong Kong-based (both by their Cantonese pendants and the way they ran the service). I had previously flown on United long haul to Shanghai (787 and 747) with a US-based crew in each direction and the attention to detail was superb from this crew. The others were fine, but this one was amazing.
It also sends a message to the market and to the customer. We don’t just fly to Hong Kong, we are Hong Kongers. The storied history of the route within the United system is probably part of that difference from American, a newcomer to the market.
I prefer to test a new travel provider if I can. I don’t want to get in too deep only to find that they can’t handle more detailed requirements as I did with American. I asked to have my meal held and cooked later in the flight to sleep nearly right away (not before a sundae) and wanted to see if they would remember and deliver before arriving into HKG. I understand in principle why they serve breakfast upon arrival, they assumed you have slept during the flight. Landing at 6:45 PM still means breakfast service two hours prior to touchdown.
But if you truly want to assimilate to your new surroundings and beat jet lag, you should wake up at about the time in the flight that will be morning in your arrival destination, and sleep when it would be night time. So I did that, falling asleep at the equivalent of about four in the morning in Hong Kong (a late night I guess) and woke up at about 11 in the morning Hong Kong time. I then requested my meal, beef short ribs with wasabi grits.
It was perfect. The food was all hot when it arrived, it was what I ordered, not a replacement off the snack station, the team remembered and it was well-plated. That’s why I left American in the first place. It was the following meal (a replacement after I sent the first choice back) that finally pushed me away from my lifelong carrier of choice. After many, many long-haul flights on American, they simply wouldn’t have put this kind of care and high-level execution into an off-schedule meal service (examples above).
From start to finish my experience met or exceeded my expectations. American and Cathay Pacific have a reverse herringbone seat design that is hard to beat, and while I found United’s offering a little strange, it still delivered privacy, an excellent lie-flat experience and great placement for chargers and storage. Their soft product was next-level. I can’t say that the Polaris lounge beats the Wing from Cathay Pacific, but this is not a United Club, this is something else. Dougie and his team at American should get out a pen and a piece of paper to jot down some notes from United. Still, despite my excellent experience, there are simply not enough Polaris-equipped planes and lounges to make them my first choice all the time. You can call business class on a United 787 in a 2-2-2 configuration Polaris if you want, but frankly, it just cheapens the brand. I implore you to work tirelessly, United, to get the rest of your international offerings up to the Polaris standard. You will find yourself peerless in the United States.
Have you tried Polaris? How has your experience been? Is Polaris elevated service enough to switch you from another carrier if you are currently loyal elsewhere?