Flight UA842, Sydney to Los Angeles.
Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, one of 38 in the United fleet.
THE LOYALTY SCHEME
United MileagePlus, part of the Star Alliance network. In April 2022, United Airlines and Virgin Australia announced a new partnership that will allow Velocity members to earn and redeem points on United flights.
Business class, seat 5A.
Flight time is 13 hours and 30 minutes and we arrive a few minutes before US border security opens at 6am. As a result, we're one of the first flights to be processed and I'm kerb-side by 6:25am – a new LAX personal best.
United has partnered with global charity Conservation International (CI) to allow passengers to offset their flights. According to CI's calculator (united.conservation.org), this flight produces 0.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide and would cost $US14.41 to offset.
All passengers must be fully-vaccinated with proof in the form of an International Vaccination Certificate. At the time of writing, US authorities require either a negative PCR or RAT test taken no more than one day before departure, or documentation showing you've recovered from COVID-19 (a positive test result in the past 90 days plus a letter from a licensed healthcare provider stating that you've been cleared for travel).
You also need to print off and complete an Attestation form (available from cdc.gov) confirming one of the above, but no one ever asks to see this. Masks are mandatory onboard at all times (except when eating and drinking) and disinfectant wipes are provided during boarding.
A breeze thanks to a dedicated check-in area for business passengers. You can also check in online using the United travel app which has a useful "Travel Ready Centre" that lists the documentation required for your destination and allows it to be validated ahead of time. Sydney Airport has suspended the expedited Express Path through border control and security for business class passengers but the lack of international flights means it still takes less than 10 minutes.
The Polaris seat is a significant upgrade from United's previous business offering. Arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, all seats now have direct aisle access and feature an enclosed capsule design that feels more like a first-class suite. United consulted hundreds of customers and cabin crew on the new product and the result is a masterclass in ergonomics. There's oodles of storage, including a shoulder-level cupboard with a built-in vanity mirror (a confronting prospect after 13 hours), plus a large marble-effect side table and an easily accessible power point (no more fumbling around under the seat). Seats are 52 centimetres wide and convert to a fully-flat 198-centimetre bed with a mattress pad and a luxuriant Saks Fifth Avenue doona. Other bells and whistles include a memory foam pillow, slippers, pyjamas and a well-equipped amenities kit. Top tip: odd-numbered seats are more private as the side table is next to the aisle rather than the window. However, access is narrower so getting in and out can require some yoga-style contortions.
Two pieces of checked luggage (up to 32 kilograms each), one carry-on bag and one personal item.
There's an exhaustive range of movies, TV box sets, games, podcasts, language lessons and music delivered via a 40-centimetre touch-sensitive screen and noise cancelling headphones. Useful features include a favouriting system and a flight overview detailing the order of meals and when the cabin will be dimmed for sleep. Onboard WI-FI costs $US23.99 but messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp can be used for free.
Service has long been United's Achilles heel, with a brusque "chicken or beef?" attitude. Thankfully, none of this is evident with the dedicated Polaris cabin crew, who seem genuinely excited about the new product and having busier planes again (United never stopped flying during the pandemic, often only carrying a handful of passengers because of strict weekly caps). A welcome mimosa sets the tone for a nothing's-too-much-trouble offering that never falters for the duration of the flight.
Lunch is a generous serve of Tasmanian salmon with lemon hollandaise sauce and Israeli couscous paired with an outstanding Californian chardonnay (the other options are beef brisket and a vegetarian mushroom dish). COVID restrictions mean there are no printed menus and all three courses are served together rather than plated separately, but hopefully these will ease in time. Mid-flight snack options include chips, a chicken sandwich and a tapas box. Breakfast is less impressive – a choice between an unremarkable spinach frittata or fruit and pastries.
ONE MORE THING
Polaris passengers can use either the Singapore or Air New Zealand business class lounge in Sydney. An unexpected bonus is that any passenger connecting to a flight departing from LAX's terminal 7 can use their inbound boarding pass to access the dedicated Polaris lounge – an upmarket haven with showers, sleep suites and a sit-down restaurant (don't miss the warm chocolate chip cookie skillet with ice cream).
A notable and – let's be honest – much-needed upgrade to United's business class that brings it alongside (and in many areas eclipses) the other premium carriers flying this route.
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE