Change Your Altitude

Official: United Announces First 777-300 Routes

United (UA) is finally coming close to introducing their much anticipated Boeing 777-300ER fleet – February 2017 was the tentative launch date if all things went on schedule.

And while things seem to be running smoothly on that front, there was a bit of a plot twist from the widely agreed upon launch airport of Newark (EWR).

Hint: the official 777-300 launch isn’t going to be from Newark.

The Scoop:

Well, it’s going to be from fellow fortress hub San Francisco (SFO) instead.

Effective March 25, 2017 the aircraft will be formally placed on United’s San Francisco to Hong Kong service, replacing the existing Boeing 747-400 that’s currently flying the route (with no individual entertainment in Economy Class, mind you).

Before that test runs between Newark and San Francisco will be conducted, starting February 17th to sort out any potential early teething issues and for crew training purposes. So be on the look out for those flights – that would be massive upgrade on the normal p.s. 757’s that normally do the route AND you’d get to test out the new Polaris product on the cheap.

As it stands the new 777-300 fleet will represent the only aircraft in UA’s fleet that will feature the new product in it’s entirety, seat included. United Chief Commercial Officer Julia Haywood had this to stay about Polaris and the new fleet at UA:

“With United Polaris business class we are providing re-imagined inflight dining, new amenities, the first United Polaris lounge at Chicago O’Hare International airport and now this custom-designed seat.”

While the Polaris Business class lounge is now open at Chicago, an airport that won’t be getting the new onboard hard product for some time yet, United oddly hasn’t opened their Polaris lounge in SFO yet and won’t have one in time for their official launch – the airline anticipates around summer time 2017 will be the soft opening of the San Francisco location.

Only Chicago out of this map has been opened (on Dec 1 as promised) but other locations to follow will include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Newark, Washington DC, London and Tokyo. Presumably more points in the UA network will be added even further out into the future.

Flights will be staffed with Newark and Hong Kong based crews (the ultra senior SFO UA crew base probably won’t be happy about this!).

United currently operate 20 747-400s and with Delta is the last remaining US carrier to do so – the entry of the 777-300 is meant as a like for like replacement for the 747 fleet which UA hopes to have completely phased out by 2018 as new 777s come in. The 747 seats 374 passengers in a 4 class configuration (First, Biz, Econ+ and Econ) whereas the Polaris 777 will feature 366 seats in a three class layout (Polaris Biz, Econ+ and Econ).

United has joined the 2016 premium experience – Polaris is configured in a 1-2-1 staggered semi-enclosed suite format with every seat having direct aisle access.

The Takeaway:

The 747-400 might be the Queen of the Skies and a beautiful aircraft to look at, but it’s time at many airlines around the world already has or is about to come to and end, and United is no different. It represents an era of four engine technology that no longer is required with the much more fuel efficient current generation of Boeings, and the product UA offers onboard on these aircraft currently is borderline appalling – especially given the long haul nature of the flights they operate.

For United elites (all what seem like 10 tiers of them) this is a great upgrade in terms of product, even if it means the elimination of First Class on this route and others to follow. Polaris is basically equivalent if not better than United’s current International First Class offering anyway, and at 60 seats is a much bigger cabin to contend with than the current layout.

The minus – 60 seats in a Business Cabin means a much less personalized experience and a most likely frantic cabin crew. And despite featuring suites privacy will most likely be diminshed given the sheer number of passengers around you. Boarding will also likely to be a bit chaotic despite being in Group 1 (well, it already is I guess). And the ground experience won’t feel as ‘premium’ per-se as check in and lounge space will be challenging to come by.

United isn’t all bad.

To be fair United isn’t using a generic supplier version of the 1-2-1 configuration that both Delta and American use – UA’s suite is a custom and patented design and will feature more personal space per cubic centimeter than their main competitors.

The plus – first off, the soft product as in catering and amenities that United intend to offer – huge upgrade. Courses have been added to meals and the quality and quantity of each course has been increased along with improved amenity kits. The seat itself is the biggest leap in United’s product – the forward/rear-facing 2-4-2 layout on some of UA’s current 777s is ridiculously noncompetitive and even on their 2-2-2 layout aircraft not all seats have direct aisle access, something that American Airlines and Delta already offer.

The biggest plus – redemptions! Yes with 60 seats personalization becomes dumbed down, but it also means that more seats are available more often. Considering we, under no circumstances, expect UA to lower ticket prices in Polaris despite more inventory, redemption opportunities become important.

We expect a good amount of teething time in the coming year to get to where United would like the Polaris to be on the soft product side of things – word on the street is that existing crew are already struggling with the new service regiment. But it’ll get better with time naturally and as more 777-300s come in and more routes and crew bases are opened up to the product consistency will arrive. It’ll just take about 5 years to compete.

At which time Polaris will likely already be outdated.

But hell, as a United FF I’ll take ’em as they are dished out. Are you excited to check out the hugely promoted Polaris product when the new 777s arrive in a few months? Would you go out of your way to fly the 777-300 version of Polaris??

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