United Business Class Review During COVID-19 – GRU to EWR

REVIEW OVERVIEW

Comfort
Service
Value
Convenience
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United Polaris Business Class Review During COVID-19 – GRU to EWR

United Business Class Review During COVID-19 – GRU to EWR

United business class review on the 787 Dreamliner from São Paulo GRU to Newark EWR during COVID-19: is it worth the extra points and miles? In this review of the United business class product, we’ll look at what services United is and isn’t offering. We’ll also cover the flight itself, including the hard and soft product elements. Also, we will cover what lounge service is like and which lounges were open, plus the multiple changes in our booking along the way.

Booking Process

We booked with Avianca LifeMiles. We paid 60,000 miles + $76.88 in taxes/fees per person. The cash price of this ticket is $1800, so our booking value was 2.87 cents per point. This is slightly lower than our average business class valuation for LifeMiles. We had LifeMiles from when I opened the Avianca Vuela credit card from Banco Popular. My wife transferred American Express Membership Rewards to my LifeMiles account for the 2nd ticket.

Originally, we booked GRU-IAD in Washington, D.C. This flight would be United Polaris class on the 767. About a month before the flight, the flight was canceled. No one ever notified us, but I noticed it in my account after warnings about Avianca partner flight cancellations. Avianca changed us to the Newark flight on the 787, which was our original preference anyway, but this wasn’t available when we originally booked. For us, it was a win.

Both of these were United Polaris class, which is the newest product. A few days before our flight, I noticed that the seat map for our flights changed. An aircraft swap put us onto the older business class product, rather than the new Polaris class.

Check-In at São Paulo GRU

Last month, I talked about passing through GRU airport and what I saw/experienced. More stores are open now, but it’s still a ghost town compared to normal times. This was my wife’s first flight since January, and she had to pick up her jaw off the ground a few times.

At United check-in machines, the agent helping us just kept hitting the “no” button for all of the questions about whether we recently had COVID-19, did we travel to a “red” country recently, etc. Apparently, none of the questions apply if you are US citizen. It was interesting to see him blow past these questions and not even ask us about them.

Given that the flight to IAD in D.C. was canceled, they moved everyone from that flight to our Newark EWR flight. Because of this, our flight was really full. The check-in line was pretty long because of this, also.

Nearly empty Star Alliance Lounge at GRU São Paulo

Star Alliance Lounge at GRU

I’ve visited this lounge a lot of times. I want to quickly highlight how empty it was. I’ve never seen this lounge this empty. When I tried to visit last month, it was closing (due to reduced hours at present). We were really surprised by how lifeless the lounge was.

The buffet is closed. Instead, there is a menu. You order from an employee at a table, who serves the food to you. Drinks are on request, also, rather than the giant “help yourself” refrigerators the lounge typically uses. The showers are closed, as well.

The lounge also has new sinks, which are the coolest sinks I’ve ever seen. The sink and the hand dryer are built into one contraption. Welcome to the future!

Boarding Process

Boarding started from back to front. Those with priority access or flying in business class could board at any time. All boarding went through a single jetway, despite the 2nd jetway being available and visible. They didn’t attach it or open the door for some reason. However, boarding was super efficient. We left the gate 10 minutes early, even with a full flight, because they boarded everyone so quickly. Props to United’s gate staff!

United Business Class Review – GRU to EWR on the 787 Dreamliner

Let’s jump into the bulk of the review for United business class, flying from São Paulo GRU to Newark EWR on the 787 Dreamliner. We will cover the hard product (things you touch / are built into the plane) and the soft product (intangibles like service).

United Polaris business class review on 787 Dreamliner

United Business Class Hard Product Review

The business class area is divided into 2 mini cabins, separated by bathrooms. The front cabin has 8 rows of 2-2-2 seating, and the rear cabin has 4 rows of 2-2-2. Newer planes in United’s livery have 1-2-1 layouts with the Polaris class seats. Since our seat map changed from 1-2-1 to 2-2-2, there was clearly an aircraft swap leading up to the flight. United plans to overhaul and refit these older 787s with the new seats, and they are already marketing everything as if it’s the same, but it isn’t all the same. We got surprised.

Welcome screen - 1E United Polaris business class review

The cabin looked clean and organized upon entry. Agents at the door directed us to our seats, where were received warm greetings from the purser. We had seats 1D and 1E, which are the middle seats of the 2-2-2 layout. On our seats, we found a pillow and blanket, each individually wrapped in plastic.

 

The Seat

I found the seat comfortable and decently spacious, even if not overly “roomy”. Seat controls were really easy to operate and worked well.

tray table - United polaris on 787

The tray table folds out from the center console in an area near your knee. I found it a bit bulky and loud when opening/closing it.

Foot well on 787 - United Polaris business class review

The foot well was a bit strange. The footrest is cut in an L shape. That meant the part by my left foot was a good 4-5 inches closer to me than the part near my right foot. I’m 5’10” and couldn’t reach the footrest in the “seated” position—only when reclining my chair a bit. The foot well was sufficient but not anything to brag about.

Storage

Storage space was small and awkward. There’s a small, laptop-sized storage space under the TV screen that I only found near the end of the flight. It’s just tall enough to put a laptop and documents in there, running the width of the TV screen.

Small storage on 787 Polaris GRU to EWR

A small storage space also sat under the power outlets in an area behind my right shoulder. I had seat E, and my wife had seat D to my left. Her storage/power outlet area was also over her right shoulder, in the area where our seats came together. I found that an odd layout.

PES on United Polaris

Personal Entertainment System

The entertainment system had a lot of options. There was welcome information on arrival at the seat. It includes tons of movie and TV options, plus the standard flight information. There are also “zen” options for relaxing music + nature scenes that you can choose from. I saw a handful of options for these.

Remote for PES

The personal entertainment screen is touchscreen, which is responsive. I found it easier to use than the remote, though the remote was decent at its job. The main reason I wound up using the remote, even though the touch screen was simpler to use, was convenience. The remote is right there, but I had to adjust and move around too much to reach the screen, making it cumbersome. Convenience was the winner.

My wife’s remote for the personal entertainment system had some issues. She had to press hard & hold the button for it to really work. This meant she sometimes passed the movie she was trying to select, etc. It worked, it just needed more effort than it should have required.

United Polaris lavatory

Business Class Lavatories

The lavatories were small. The plane had 1 lavatory in the front galley and 2 between the 2 mini cabins. 3 total lavatories. They had enough space to do what you need and get out. If you wanted to change clothes, such as putting on pajamas to sleep, it would be tight. The lavatories were in good condition, though. They were clean throughout the flight.

United Polaris lavatory amenities

The business class lavatories also included extra toiletries. These included a face mist and hand cream from Sunday Riley and a garment care spray from Murchison-Hume. I’ve never seen a flight offering this product, so that was interesting.

Seat controls for United Polaris 787 Dreamliner

The Bed

The seat lays completely flat into a bed for sleeping. It was sufficiently long enough for stretching out when you want to sleep. The control for laying the seat down into the bed position was easy to use: just hold the “bed” button until it’s flat.

While the bed was long, it wasn’t overly wide. I did feel a bit cramped when trying to lay on my right side and switched to my left side. This fit better around the shape of the seat, arm rest on the aisle side (which can’t be adjusted), and the center console. Space around the shoulders and in the foot well was sufficient but not generous. Overall, it’s good for sleeping if you can get into the right position.

United Polaris business class review - amenity kit

United Polaris Amenities

The amenities were great. Since United is marketing everything as Polaris, even when it doesn’t have the newest seats, we received amenity kits marketed as Polaris. Upon arrival at our seats, we each had an amenity kit. These were full of standard items, plus extras.

Inside the kit, there are socks, toothbrush + toothpaste, ear plugs, tissues, a sanitizing wipe, and even a pen for customs forms.

The best part was a mint-scented eye mask that was comfortable and cooling. However, with a face mask over my mouth & nose plus trying to use this eye mask, I felt too hot and a bit claustrophobic. I had to give up on trying to use it, but it seemed awesome.

My amenity kit and my wife’s kit had a different organization for the Sunday Riley products. Mine came in a cardboard box, while hers were in a plastic pouch. They both included the same items, though: a facial cleansing cloth, lip balm, hand cream & face cream. They smelled good. These also matched the products in the Polaris bathrooms.

Do not disturb on TV - best features - United Polaris business class review

Best Features

I want to highlight 2 things I really liked about the Polaris class hard product layout / features. First, you can set your TV screen to a “do not disturb” message, which is great. There’s also a 2nd option for “wake me up for meals”, which I found really interesting.

Also, once you lay your seat down into the bed position, the screen on the remote changes to a new display. It now has a soft lighting color and tells you remaining flight time. This was right near my head, and I find this a great feature. If you open your eyes during the night, you don’t need to hunt around for what time it is or how much of the flight is left. This is ingenious.

Best features - United Polaris business class review

Overall, I’ll rate the hard product as 6/10, because it’s good but not mind-blowing in any aspect.

United Business Class Soft Product Review

I have mixed feelings about the soft product. I’ll be clear about that up front. I want to separate these by things the flight attendants can control and things they can’t control. Let’s start with the latter.

Lack Of Meal Options

United is not offering any special meals at this time. I find this…odd. I understand the reason it started, but continuing it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Other airlines flying out of the exact same airport are offering special meals, so why does United say it can’t do this? I couldn’t get a clear answer about this via Twitter or on the phone. Thus, we ate at the airport before the flight.

They offered 2 meals: fish or beef. I will also say that the fish option smelled horrible. Multiple passengers commented about the powerful smell of the fish meal. When the purser asked us about dinner during boarding, we mentioned that we’d eaten, due to lack of special meals. He said that there were many unhappy customers on a flight he recently worked going to Israel. Everyone got the Kosher meal, but not everyone on the flight wanted this 1 meal.

I understand that the flight attendants can’t control this. They did the best they could. Flight attendants were really friendly when explaining to passengers about limited options. They provided extra snacks in baskets positioned around the cabin (pretzels, chocolates, chips & cookies). They offered drinks any time you wanted. With limited resources on meals, they did their best.

United Polaris business class review - flight attendants hit and miss

Ho-Hum Flight Attendants

That being said, out of the 4 flight attendants we encountered (1 of them being the pursuer), 2 were awesome and 2 were barely alive. The purser and the 1 female flight attendant put a smile on and put their best foot forward. They were friendly and helpful, always smiling and attentive. Great service from these 2 employees.

The other 2 men we encountered were…on board…and had a pulse. I never saw them looking friendly. They never said “hello” or anything, just grabbed trash off my tray table without a word and then walked away. They seemed glum. If being a flight attendant is just pushing the food cart, they did their jobs. If it includes customer service, they didn’t.

Language Issues

United also had no flight attendants in the business class cabin who could speak Portuguese. I found that really odd. Shortly before takeoff, a woman tried to use the forward lavatory. One of the ho-hum flight attendants used his 3 words of Spanish that he knows to try to tell her to go to another lavatory, because he’d already locked the door to this one. I had to translate for her, because they had no employees who could speak Portuguese in the Polaris cabin. That’s weird.

Overall Thoughts On Service

Some things are beyond a flight attendant’s control. The flight attendants can’t force United to offer special meals. I think they did the best they could; the purser was friendly and open with us about this being a confusing situation for everyone. He and the female flight attendant tried to make up for it with extra smiles and snacks. However, there are things flight attendants can control that I think United needs to improve in the Polaris cabin on this flight.

First, they need a flight attendant in Polaris who can speak the primary language of the majority of the passengers. Second, the 2 guys who never smiled need to work on that. I actually never heard either of them speak beyond the time the guy sputtered his 3 words of Spanish before takeoff. Awkwardly grabbing my trash without a smile or a spoken word doesn’t do much in the way of customer service.

I’ll weigh the overall impression of the soft product as 6.5/10, since the majority of my interactions were with the good staff, not the bad ones. This pulls the score up, even though 50% of the flight attendants were not good.

Transit In Newark EWR – Lounges Closed

During our transit in Newark EWR, the Polaris Lounge was closed. United has a list of lounges that are open and closed. The United Club Lounge in terminal C was far away from our connecting flight. I do like the fact that those arriving in Polaris or long-haul business class, even when connecting domestically on a non-business class segment (I booked separately with United miles), still entitles you to visit the Polaris lounge. Updates on lounge availability can be found here.

Final Thoughts On United Business Class During COVID-19

I was really excited to flight United Polaris business class from São Paulo to Newark. I’ve been excited about this product since its inception and was excited to finally fly on it. I’ll be honest that the experience didn’t match the expectation in several ways, unfortunately. There was obviously the aircraft swap.

Also, I’m confused about why United says it can’t offer any special meals while their partners are doing so out of the same airport catering center. I found 2/4 flight attendants in the Polaris cabin to be sub-par. Plus, some of the elements about the seating layout are phenomenal, while others are weird (the L-shaped footrest is a perfect example of awkwardly bad choices).

The design and look of the cabin looks great. The pictures gave me a “wow” factor that made me excited to fly the Polaris product, but we wound up on something different after flight cancellations and aircraft swap. I’m not saying the flight was bad. What I’m saying is that it’s good—not great—and didn’t match my expectations. I’m glad I finally flew with United on the 787 Dreamliner, but it’s not my favorite hard product or soft product. I wanted to like it much more than I actually did. And given all of the other products I want to try (plus my lack of travel around North America), I’m not sure when a true Polaris flight is in the cards for me.

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Ryan S
Travel hacker in 2-player mode, intent on visiting every country in the world, and can say "hello" or "how much does this cost?" in a bunch of different languages.

11 COMMENTS

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Ryan S, Houston IAH, Terminal D, has had these sink/hand dryer combos since 1990.
    (You wrote: “The sink and the hand dryer are built into one contraption. Welcome to the future!)”

    • Weird, never seen them before in my life.
      We just learned that Brazil’s future is Houston’s 1990 I guess…

  2. From the photos you posted, this is not true Polaris, even though United markets it as Polaris. Only the 1-2-1 (or 1-1-1 on the 767s) is the true experience.

    Having said that: while the new cabin is better, the old ex-CO product is pretty comfortable as well.

    • I stand corrected. We had an aircraft swap, which explains why I previously saw 1-2-1 and then saw 2-2-2 shortly before the flight.

  3. Hi, this is the old continental business class, not the real polaris business I think. Hope you will try the real polaris class soon.

  4. Thanks for this report. Can you provide a bit of detail about what the situation in in returning to New York from Brazil at the moment. I’m a US citizen and thinking I may head to Brazil next week, after 10 months of absence. The rules seem in constant flux and I don’t really understand the state of play at the moment. Is it that we need a test in Brazil before we get on the plane? If so, where did you get it? Also curious if there are any sort of efforts to enforce any sort of quarantine, etc. by the US/NY/NJ health authorities? I took a trip to Mexico City over the summer before they added the newer restrictions.

    • Mak – Yes, things are constantly changing. Here are some good resources that you should bookmark:
      1-https://www.united.com/en/us/timatic?i=TIMATIC&fbclid=IwAR0IDSuv49vTb106R_JgjXA4RDEAunll90fmf_Uc4Ux2dRAZtJ5NIBOCg3o

      You can use this for anything, not just United flights, going anywhere in the world. It will tell you visa, health, etc. requirements for entry.

      2-https://www.hyatt.com/en-US/info/covid-19-government-resources
      here’s a list of requirements by state, since different US states have different rules for entry. We were flying to FL, so there were no requirements for us. Entering NJ does have requirements, but United employees in Brazil could allow us to board REGARDLESS, because the requirements are on us to honor, not legally binding on them. That part is a bit weird, so make sure YOU know, because they just know about national requirements.

      3-If you do need a test, the GRU airport has a test center in the international terminal. I mentioned it here – https://milestomemories.com/how-is-traveling-right-now/ it costs about $70 US, results in 4 hours.

      • Thanks very much. I’m just wondering how much of a pain in the neck it will be to get the test. It would be super annoying to go to the airport 5 hours early to get the test, and not much less annoying to go all the way out to GRU. I imagine that there must be some places right in Sao Paulo but I know in New York City one needs to often wait 2+hours to take the test (and lines are often longer) and 4 days to get the results (which is insane).

        • Hermes Pardini laboratories can do them in about 24-30hr for results, tons of locations around the country, book an appointment online. That’s how I did one in October.

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