Edited by: Jessica Merritt
& Keri Stooksbury
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Airline: United Airlines
Aircraft: Boeing B787-10
Flight #: UA38
Route: Tokyo Haneda Airport (HND) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
Date: October 10, 2023
Duration: 10 hours, 10 minutes
Cabin and Layout: Polaris business class; 44 seats in a 1-2-1 configuration
Seat: 9D (aisle)
Cost: $1,104 (including an ANA business class flight from Jakarta to Tokyo)
After connecting in Tokyo, my wife and I flew United’s Polaris business class home to Los Angeles; though we had flown in Polaris previously, this was our first time flying it on a 787 aircraft. In many ways, we knew what to expect. However, as those flights had operated with limited services due to COVID-19 restrictions, we were curious how service would be on this flight.
We also were curious whether United would continue its terrible streak of always messing up our vegan meal requests. Incredibly, the airline got it right for the first time. And barring what I think was a sneaky move on the internet, this was overall a solid flight. It even had the fastest “extra inspection” I’ve ever received with SSSS on my boarding pass. Here’s how our flight went.
Prior to our trip to Singapore and Bali, I found a great deal on business class tickets to get home, so long as we were willing to position to Jakarta from Bali. Paying $1,104 for an itinerary that included ANA business class from Jakarta to Tokyo and then this flight with United Polaris to Los Angeles was a steal. For comparison, the full route from Jakarta to Los Angeles typically costs $1,800 on a good day. Just the Tokyo to Los Angeles segment typically costs $2,200 or more.
When trying to get us home with points, the best I could find was 78,000 Air Canada Aeroplan points per person, including a much longer layover. Thus, I was willing to pay for this booking.
Since this was a paid ticket, I had 2 sets of earnings. I paid with The Platinum Card® from American Express and earned 5x points per $1 spent, netting 11,040 American Express Membership Rewards points after paying for our 2 tickets. The Amex Platinum card offers 5x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through Amex Travel, up to $500,000 per year (then 1x).
As we arrived on a connecting flight that was part of the same itinerary, we didn’t clear customs or go through passport control. Instead, we followed the signs for “international transit” after arriving at Haneda Airport. We passed through a security checkpoint that merits a solid 8.5 out of 10 on the efficiency scale, then we were in the terminal to find our onward flight. Between the line and inspection, we spent only 12 minutes here from start to finish.
United Airlines doesn’t have its own lounge at HND. Instead, its business class passengers and Star Alliance Gold elites have access to 2 ANA lounges near gates 110 and 114. The lounge near gate 110 was operating from 5 a.m. until the final ANA departure of the day. The lounge near gate 114 (closer to our departing gate) was only open from 6 to 11 a.m. when we passed through, so it was already closed when we walked up to the door.
We didn’t feel like walking back to gate 110 to find the lounge, given that our gate was one of the farthest in the terminal and our flight was leaving in 90 minutes. We also wanted to get to the gate early since I had SSSS on my boarding pass and would need time for an extra security inspection. Thus, we just hung out by the gate for an hour.
Boarding started a little more than 30 minutes late. Due to high winds, the arriving aircraft had to circle for a while before landing. That delayed our boarding because the crew needed time to prepare the plane before it headed out again.
Once the agents announced boarding would start soon, I approached the desk and indicated the SSSS on my boarding pass. I knew I needed to go off somewhere private for a search of my belongings, so I asked if we could get it started. The agents were ecstatic that I wanted to get this out of the way before clogging up the line, so my wife waited for the standard boarding process while I went behind a divider for the inspection.
With my travels to far-flung places, I’ve often had SSSS on my boarding pass. I can say this was the fastest extra inspection of my life. We finished so quickly that I lined up with the pre-boarding passengers on the jet bridge before the aircraft door was open. Efficient!
Once the doors were opened, we used 2 doors for boarding. Those in economy veered to the right, boarding into the galley between Polaris (business class) and premium economy. At this point, I was the only passenger heading into the “business class only” path on the left, as boarding for Polaris passengers hadn’t started yet.
Smiling flight attendants at the aircraft door greeted me warmly and thought I’d made a wrong turn. After checking my boarding pass, they indicated the right-hand aisle as the one to use for my seat.
Once boarding groups started flowing into the plane, the process moved semi-efficiently. While flight attendants at the boarding doors did a great job of helping people choose the correct aisle for quicker access to their seats, flight attendants inside the plane didn’t do much to assist the process. When people clogged the aisles or struggled to put their items in the overhead bins, crew members didn’t come to their aid to move things along.
On the B787-10, United’s Polaris business class had 44 seats in a 1-2-1 layout. My wife and I had seats 9D and 9G, which were 2 seats together in the middle of the plane.
Each seat had a private area — much more than just a seat. While these suites didn’t have closing doors, they did have a lot of amenities.
Of course, there was a seat.
On arrival at my seat, I found a pillow, blanket roll, and bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue.
The blanket was made from recycled plastic bottles, had a fun design, and was really lightweight.
I also had a pair of fuzzy slippers.
There wasn’t an obvious place to store all of this stuff, but the footwell provided ample space.
And for context on just how much room there was, here’s the empty footwell with just the slippers inside:
Each seat had a 3-point seatbelt with a detachable shoulder harness, which we were required to use during takeoff and landing.
Along the aisle, I had a cubby. It was flanked by a lamp and a flip-out reading light.
The door to the cubby latched closed, and a water bottle was inside. My headphones were hanging on a hook inside the door, and the back of the door also had a mirror.
Below the cubby, I found the headphone jack, universal outlet, USB-A charging point, and detachable remote for the entertainment system. There was also a fair amount of counter space in front of this cubby.
There was an adjustable armrest along the plastic frame holding up the cubby. In the “up” position, it provided access to the safety information card and inflight magazine.
Pushing a button on the front of the armrest and giving a little shove moved it down easily.
A fold-out coat hook was on the frame in front of me near the entertainment screen.
The tray table was released after considerable squeezing on a latch underneath it, allowing it to slide out from under the entertainment system.
Interestingly, the tray table was taller than it was wide. I was certain this couldn’t be correct and tried multiple times to figure out how to rotate it to a horizontal layout, but I couldn’t find one. I can’t remember ever seeing a portrait-style table layout like this before.
Above the tray table was a small space that looked like it could provide storage but wasn’t very useful. It definitely couldn’t fit my laptop.
Between my seat and my wife’s, we had a privacy divider that could go up and down easily using the button on top.
Under the divider, I had numerous seat controls. These could move the seat forward and back (useful for getting closer to the tray table during meal time), lay the seat flat, put it into a reclining position, and turn the aisle-side lamp on and off.
The plastic frame around each seat also had a small step. This was handy for anyone struggling to reach their items in the overhead bins.
As this cabin was laid out in a 1-2-1 confirmation, you might think all middle seats were equal, and all window seats were equal. However, that wasn’t the case.
Window seats in odd-numbered rows were closer to the window, while those in even-numbered rows were closer to the aisle. If you want more privacy, choose an odd number here.
The middle seats in odd-numbered rows were closer together. In the photo below, you can see that some seats were next to the divider, allowing passengers to converse more easily, while others were separated by their cubbies. These separated seats were the middle seats in the even-numbered rows. If you’re traveling with someone and want to sit closer together, choose seats in odd-numbered rows in the middle section.
When I arrived at my seat, I had a menu on the counter along the aisle. On one side, it listed our flight’s meal and snack options. Options included grilled chicken, ribs, and salmon, and there was an express option to help maximize sleep.
The back side listed drink options. Wines and Champagne were available.
For the first time, United got our special meals right. My wife and I requested (and then re-confirmed incessantly, given United’s track record) vegan meals. We actually received them, which made us very happy. Our meals included a salad, dinner roll, grilled vegetable starter, and a main dish.
The main dish was rather mediocre as far as cooking goes. It felt like something I’d whip together when no one felt like cooking and there weren’t any leftovers to reheat. It consisted of some penne noodles, lentils, chickpeas, olives, and peas, as well as a bit of tomato sauce and greens. It was edible and filled my stomach, but I wouldn’t accuse this dish of having flavor.
I will preface my description of the second meal by saying I’m very easy to please, but I’m also honest. That said, this second meal was a head-scratcher. Along with a cup of applesauce, a roll, and a fruit cup, we received a mix of mushrooms, peas, eggplant, and tomato sauce. No one bothered to put any seasoning on it.
After failing to fulfill our special meal requests dozens of times, United made progress by delivering vegan meals. Yes, this is progress. The next step in the evolution would be adding some flavor.
For those of you not ordering special meals, you’re in luck: I heard other passengers saying the food they ordered was good.
If I previously described an amenity as the most interesting one I’ve ever received, that accolade has been reassigned.
During our flight, we received Therabody fanny pack amenity kits. I’d never dreamed I would say something like that.
These were truly unique. They had an adjustable strap and zipped open at the top — just like you’d expect from a fanny pack.
And though they weren’t large, there was a lot crammed inside. We had socks, an eye mask, a pen, tissues, earplugs, and a dental kit.
The TheraFace kit included a towelette, lip balm, hand cream, hydrating mist, and eye serum.
Each seat had a built-in entertainment system, with the screen mounted into the frame around the seat in front. It was medium in stature as far as business class cabins go.
A wide range of movies were listed alphabetically but could be filtered by language, genre, and other sorting options.
There was a section of kids’ movies also.
Numerous podcasts were also available.
I found the option to watch concerts and recordings of live events interesting.
And the entertainment system also had wellness-themed offerings, such as recordings of nature.
While listening to music or podcasts, there were visualization options that provided something more interesting and soothing than just staring at the album cover.
It was also possible to see the flight plan on the entertainment screen, indicating when lights would be on and off and when meals would be served.
The screen offered an option for “Please don’t wake me” and “Wake me for meals,” so flight attendants knew our wishes while sleeping.
United advertised that Wi-Fi was available on this flight. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. And it wasn’t a connectivity issue related to storms. According to a flight attendant, the system was broken and had been broken on this plane for 5 days.
What upset me and other passengers about this is that the crew knew the system was broken before takeoff and didn’t tell anyone. This would’ve allowed people to download their work before the flight rather than being told there was Wi-Fi and then finding out there wasn’t.
Lavatories were available at the front and rear of business class, located on both sides of the plane. These were definitely larger than the lavatories in economy class.
While there weren’t any unique features, there were additional toiletries. These included hand lotion, air freshener, and a facial mist.
I interacted with 4 flight attendants during this flight. I thought 3 of them were great, but 1 seemed to be having a rough day. Luckily, I barely interacted with this person besides saying what I wanted to drink when my meals came.
Overall, I thought the flight attendants were friendly and punctual. They were friendly at the aircraft door during boarding and disembarkation. However, they didn’t do much to help passengers during boarding, just offering a warm greeting.
Moreover, I’m not sure what happened, but the staff clearly decided not to forewarn passengers the Wi-Fi wouldn’t be working during the flight, despite knowing in advance. That’s a service issue, in my opinion, because United sent numerous notifications to passengers advising there would be internet during the flight. People (like me) planned on working during this flight. Advance notice that this feature wouldn’t be available seems reasonable when they clearly knew before we boarded (as a flight attendant informed the passenger across the aisle from me).
When we landed, the plane taxied to the gate, and then we had to wait as another plane was still at our arrival gate. The crew seemed as shocked as the passengers, given that we arrived 30 minutes late.
During this time, the crew made announcements informing us of what was happening, immigration procedures, and which baggage claim would have our luggage. They also were friendly while being stern with passengers who stood up while we waited on the taxiway.
After we reached our gate, deplaning was quick. Business class passengers departed first, with everyone leaving from the front door near the cockpit. Flight attendants were present to smile and say goodbye.
Overall, this flight had many positives. I thought Polaris business class’ hard product (seat, amenities) was really nice. The bed was comfortable for sleeping, entertainment options were abundant, and the bathrooms were spacious.
Service wasn’t anything special, but it was good enough to get the job done. And United finally got our special meals right, so that’s a win. I found some aspects of the service lacking, but nothing significant. I would fly this product again.
For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, click here.
Polaris business class has 44 seats on the Boeing 787-10. These are in a 1-2-1 configuration of 11 rows.
All United long-haul aircraft have Polaris business class at this point. Some were built with this seat type, while others were retrofitted to add these newer, nicer business class seats. This includes all models of Boeing 777, B787, B767, and Airbus A350.
United offers domestic first class within the U.S. These seats are bigger than economy and have more space. Polaris is an international-style business class with lie-flat seats, larger entertainment screens, slippers, and more space. It is nicer than United’s first class seats.
Polaris is the name for United’s premium business class product. It is nicer than United’s “first class,” which merely offers larger seats on domestic flights. Polaris is an international business class with lie-flat seats.
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Ryan has been on a quest to visit every country in the world and plans to hit his final country in 2023. Over the years, he’s written about award travel for publications including AwardWallet, The Points Guy, USA Today Blueprint, CNBC Select, Tripadvisor, and Forbes Advisor.
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