Review: United Airlines Business Class 787-9 (SFO-LHR)

When United introduced its Polaris seats in 2016, they set a new standard for widebody business class cabins among US carriers. Though I’ve flown Polaris a handful of times since then, I decided to use this most recent flight between San Francisco and London as an opportunity to properly look at the product seven years after its release, with the added perspective of around 100 international business class flights under my belt.

My general impressions are that the hard product–what set United apart from the herd when Polaris debuted in 2016–is now middle of the pack among transatlantic business class cabins. The soft product, at least on this flight and on the past few I’ve taken, is below par, with disappointing food and service. 

There was a time when I’d go out of my way to fly Polaris, but that’s no longer the case. None of that’s to say that my experience was unpleasant per se, just that Polaris is–at least beyond the lounge–a pretty ordinary product. 

How I booked my United Airlines business class ticket

I booked this flight for 63,000 Avianca LifeMiles and $51.70 in taxes and fees. Lifemiles is among my favorite frequent flyer programs because of its great redemption rates (just 87,000 miles for a first class Lufthansa ticket!), frequent awards and points sales, and many transfer partners. I transferred American Express Membership Reward points to pay for this trip, but you could use points from any major award program other than Chase. Considering the fact that these programs often run transfer bonuses, you could easily book this ticket for around just 50,000 miles.

My flight details were as follows:

  • United Airlines 930
  • San Francisco (SFO) – London Heathrow (LHR)
  • Departure: 7:50 PM, April 4
  • Arrival: 2:10 PM, April 5
  • Flight Time: 10h 20m
  • Business Class, Seat 12A

United Airlines business class check-in & boarding

I arrived at San Francisco Airport early to get some work done from the Polaris Lounge, where I spent four productive hours. At around 7 PM, I left the lounge and made my way towards gate G1 to get a picture of the 787-9 that would be carrying us nearly 5,500 miles from San Francisco to London.

a plane on the tarmac

I walked down the jet bridge and onto the aircraft at 7:20. Boarding finished about 15 minutes later, and we pulled back from the gate just before 7:50. 

a group of people walking into a train

United Airlines business class cabin & seats

Polaris on this 787-9 is laid out in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration and contains 48 seats across a total of 12 rows–eight in the forward cabin and four in a rear mini cabin. The seats are 20.5 inches wide (seats on the 777-300ER and the older B/E Diamond on certain 767-400s are actually a slightly wider 22 inches) and offer 78 inches of pitch. They’re well-padded and I found them pretty comfortable for sitting and sleeping.

a seat with a pillow and a phone in it

I was seated in 12A, a window seat at the back left corner of the Polaris cabin. Since seats are staggered, my seat was nearer the aisle than the window, which made it feel relatively exposed, despite a privacy partition that wraps partially around the upper part of the seat. For a true window seat, choose an odd-numbered A or K seat.

a seat in a plane

On the left side of the seat are two windows and a faux marble countertop, in front of which is a small cylindrical light fixture.

a glass on a table

The fixture gave my seat a cozy feel, especially against the backdrop of beautiful sunset during takeoff.

a light on a wall next to a window

Above the countertop is a universal power outlet, USB port, and IFE remote control. 

a close up of a power outlet
a black rectangular object with buttons and lights

To the left of the seat and parallel to the headrest is a small cupboard that housed the provided headphones and bottle of water when I sat down. It’s big enough to store a phone, wallet, passport, and book. On the right side of the cupboard is a small reading lamp.

a small refrigerator with a bottle in it

The left side armrest contains backlit seat control buttons, including a massage function, as well as a button to control the lighting and the do not disturb sign on the outside of the seat.

a close up of a device

In front of the seat is a crisp 16-inch IFE touchscreen, below which is a second USB charging port next to a storage slot.

a screen on a plane

Directly below that is the tray table, which you’ll need to push in to unlatch.

a close up of a white object

The tray table was large enough to eat and do work at the same time, which I really like.

a seat in an airplane

To the left of the screen was a small coat hook.

a close up of a black box

On the right side of the seat was a gray leather armrest and, below it, a literature slot.

a seat with a book in it

Overall, I like the look of the cabin. Faux-marble finishes, blue fabric, and brushed aluminum make the space feel clean and calm, and are consistent with the aesthetic of the Polaris Lounges. The seats themselves are comfortable, relatively private (more so if you reserve an odd-numbered A or K seat), and have direct aisle access, which are all things that I expect from a modern business class seat. There’s nothing especially nice about these seats, and you can find equally private and slightly wider seats in several Delta One and American business class cabins.

United Airlines business class amenities

When I arrived at my seat, a hard plastic Away-branded amenity kit was waiting for me.

a blue plastic case on a blue surface

Inside were a pair of socks, a pen, a set of earplugs, a dental kit, an eye mask, and a packet of tissues. 

a table with items on it

There was also a bag of Sunday Riley beauty products, including facial moisturizer, lip balm, hand cream, and a facial cleansing cloth. 

a group of small packages on a table

All said, that’s actually a lot of stuff for a business class amenity kit, and I was impressed by the quality of the items provided.

United Airlines entertainment & wi-fi

United’s 787-9s are equipped with wi-fi, which costs $22 for the whole flight, or, perplexingly, $8 for two hours and $2 for one hour. Except for some spottiness over the North Atlantic, speeds were reliably fast the entire flight.

The entertainment was expansive and featured lots of new movies and TV shows, as well as music and an interactive flight map. The provided noise-canceling headphones were comfortable and produced good sound.

a pair of headphones in a safe

United Airlines business class dinner service

Shortly after takeoff, one of the cabin crew came around to take orders. The menu read as follows.

a close up of a paper

I was leaning towards the turbot fillet but switched to the tortellini after I made the mistake of asking for a recommendation from the flight attendant, who embarked on a five-minute spiel about the environmental damage caused by commercial fishing.

My starter, salad, and main course arrived about an hour and a half later. I found the tortellini to be bland and watery and the bread to be pretty stale.

a plate of food on a blue surface

For dessert, I ordered an ice cream sundae. The menu advertised it as coming with “assorted toppings,” but arrived with only maraschino cherries. I asked for other toppings but was told that only cherries were available.

a cup of ice cream with cherries on top

My complaints might sound caviling, but for a seat that frequently retails for more than $5,000, I think onboard food should be better than what I was served. That should be doubly true on a flight originating from a United hub like SFO, where I’d expect the catering to be especially good. 

United Airlines business class bed

At around 10 PM Pacific Time, I decided to hit the hay. United’s Polaris bedding is provided by Saks Fifth Avenue and comprises a duvet, throw blanket, large white pillow, and gel pillow, all of which I thought were very comfortable. Unfortunately, there were not enough mattress pads loaded on this flight so I didn’t get one.

a pillow and a case on a bed

United doesn’t provide pajamas on flights less than 12 hours, so I didn’t get any on this flight.

United Airlines business class bathrooms

This 787-9 has three lavatories, two at the front of the cabin and one at the rear, for 48 Polaris seats. The bathrooms were kept clean throughout the flight and there was never a wait to use them.

a sink in a bathroom

Next to the sink were bottles of facial mist and hand cream provided by Sunday Riley, as well as Murchison-Hume stain remover and fabric freshener, which I’ve never seen before but found pretty handy for refreshing my clothes after a long flight.

a group of bottles of hair sprays

United Airlines business class pre-arrival breakfast

The best food I had on this flight was my pre-arrival French toast. It came with a berry compote, roll, side of fruit, and tub of Chobani. 

a plate of food and a glass of juice

United Airlines business class service

The service on my flight was not good, and I’d call it a letdown but for the fact that I boarded the flight with low expectations. There are three examples that stuck out to me:

  • Flight attendants seldom came through the cabin to offer drinks and check in on passengers
  • It took a while–about 90 minutes–to get my dinner after I ordered
  • Two of my drink orders were dropped and I had to remind a flight attendant that I had requested them

The flight attendants themselves were perfectly pleasant, but I had a much more attentive and proactive cabin crew on my economy class KLM flight a few weeks ago. At the risk of sounding repetitive, that should not be the case for a ticket that routinely costs more than $5,000.

Arrival at LHR

We broke through London cloud cover around 1:45 PM local time and touched down 10 minutes later for an on-time arrival. We taxied for another 10 minutes before parking at gate B47 at Heathrow’s Terminal 2.


In an absolute sense, this flight was good: a decent hard product mostly offset a poor soft product. In relative terms, though, it was a disappointment. Most other transatlantic business class products I’ve experienced over the past couple of years had superior service and served better food, all while offering equally comfortable seats.

That wasn’t the case until recently, which probably amplifies my disappointment; only a few years ago, I felt that a seat from San Francisco to London in one of United 1-2-1 Polaris seats was a cut above their US competitors. Today, the newest Delta, Jet Blue, or American business cabins all offer a better inflight experience than their United counterpart.

All that said, I’m willing to be proven wrong. I’ve got a couple of Polaris flights booked for later this year, and I hope United steps up the product before then.

  1. I just had my first Polaris Class flight on a 787 LAX/LHR. Disappointing is probably the best way to put it. This coming from someone who has 2.5 million miles on United but have traveled much less since I retired in 2007. My first overseas flights on United started in 1986 when they acquired the rights to Asia from Pan Am. United started off a big shaky but over time they got to be quite good in all aspects of their Asian service as well as Europe. I was able to travel Business and many times would get upgraded to First. I loved them both. Service and food were both always good and getting on the plane in Asia for the trip home to SFO was always a pleasure. My recent Polaris flight was not the same. It took a while to get oriented to my little booth in the middle of the plane and it felt like I wasn’t even on an airplane. It took almost 2 hours from the time I boarded until someone actually asked if I wanted something to drink. Both the dinner and breakfast were probably the worst airline meals I’ve ever had. Just terrible! I did enjoy the entertainment but not much else. In 2 weeks I’m flying back but no really looking forward to it.

    1. I don’t like the entertainment remote either actually as I found it pretty sluggish and ended up mostly using the touchscreen to control the IFE. I didn’t mind the seat/bed controls as much.

  2. “Some of United’s 787-9s are configured in a 2-2-2 setup with older B/E Diamond seats”
    All United 787s have the staggered 1-2-1 new seats. Ditto 777s and 767-300ERs. The last of the 767-400ERs get converted in the next 2-3 months.

  3. Before the pandemic I would travel from SFO to Europe nearly twice a month on average, and because of my status frequently upgraded to Polaris. I loved til and vividly remember great meals and service. I would usually so SFO-FRA before going to my final destination. Since I was traveling to different places all over Europe, even though I had my favorite restaurants in each city, the “restaurant” I dined in most often was onboard Polaris. I remember on more than one occasion remarking to the FA providing excellent service, food and drinks that it was my favorite and most frequently visited “restaurant.” Now, beginning to resume travel, I recently had Polaris on SFO-MUC. Apart from the “hard product” being as I recalled, I was thoroughly disappointed by the soft product. Really sad.

    1. The declining soft product is definitely sad. I’m hoping the upcoming reboot of their catering helps but I think the service also needs some serious improvement.

  4. Agreed. I flew ORD-ZRH three days ago and it was a bummer. The flight attendant “in charge” of my aisle had an attitude similar to a teacher fed up by unruly kids…except that she was like that from the very beginning. She also did the bare minimum. No beverage offers at all between meals. Btw, I had the same menu as you and chose the same dinner you did; and hold the same opinion on its quality/blandness. On my flight back next week I’ll make sure to sit on the other isle just in case she’s there.

    1. A fed-up teacher is the perfect way to put it! I’ve gotten the exact same vibe from United cabin crew on several occasions and really wonder why this seems to be such a United-specific phenomenon.

  5. I totally agree with you. The service on United airlines has become below par. I just flew from LA to Newark in Polaris and it was nothing to be proud of. Food just ok, service has a lot of improvement. You are lucky you got a new Polaris seat I was on a 777-200ER Polaris seat which showed a lot of wear and tear. It seems they are not keeping up with the upkeep either on the older Polaris seats, which some of them have been around since 2016. United Airlines needs a quality control persons and take pride in a little bit more cleaning the plane or deep cleaning it once in a while.

  6. We dread flying thru ORD to EDI Edinburgh in June because we’re flying Business 757 trans-atlantic. I can’t imagine what will be good about the flight short of direct non stop. What do you know or where to go to hear about the kitchen food updates coming?

    1. Best of luck on the 757 and, if you can, book a seat in row one or your feet will be pretty tight. Regarding food updates, I’ve heard they’re late 2023/early 2024, but United has been very tight-lipped.

  7. Last fall, I flew Polaris Class on the 787-8 from Washington-Dulles to Tel Aviv. I special ordered kosher food which was great on the way out but they had no record of my order on the return flight. They offered to compensate me for the mistake but have yet to hear from United. I am a big fliteseerer and was naturally very disappointed when my window seat was, in effect, an aisle seat–this was addressed in the article. The boarding pass clearly said I had reserved a window seat; I am not used to this kind of deception by United or any other carrier. Because the front cabin was filled, I couldn’t be reseated. I received a $200 credit and was told by the purser the airline had received many complaints from folks who thought they had booked a window seat. I had quite the opposite reaction of the quaint headlamp: it blocked my view of the window adding insult to injury as I had now was seated three feet from the window in United’s definition of a window seat. Even though I was disappointed in the Polaris seating, I will continue to use United as it offers the only nonstop service from Washington to Tel Aviv.

    1. Crazy that they didn’t have a record of your meal on the way back to IAD and crazier that they didn’t have a single extra kosher meal on a flight out of TLV!

  8. I flew UA’s 787-10in Polaris BCN-EWR less than a week ago and could have used this same review, changing only the flight data. Meh!

  9. Hallmark of flying United in recent years is poor food. I sent my main on flight from SFO-FRA couple years ago untouched as was so awful. Seat is still great without doors if you get a true window seat.

    1. Agree on food.. If I have a chocie Iwill fly TAP or Turkish Air to Europe. They have problems but not the terrible United food (espcially breakfasts which appear to be inedible — something called an egg. no fresh fruit, and a plactic wrapped “croisant” rather than the pre-Covid bread basket

  10. I find it sad they list express dining as an option when the default is already…express dining. Save for the dessert I guess.

    They really need to get staffing right to serve the meal in courses, and up the quality. 12 hour flight and rushing through to avoid a cold main is not appropriate.

  11. Ok, I fly UA quite a bit and have had good experiences (including the catering) yet read consistently bad reviews regarding the food. Then it occurred to me: the reviewers seem to always order meals that I never would. I’d have ordered the steak and probably would have had a different experience than you had with the tortellini. Wouldn’t have ordered the turbot either. And the steak would have been a tad over cooked yet enjoyable. You guys do this to yourselves then whine about the soft product. Just my 0.02 and no, I’m not a pleader for UA.

    1. Honestly, that’s probably a good take–I think the right order tends to be meat on these flights. The issue is that I keep kosher (or at least try to) which means that I’m more or less limited to vegetarian or fish options.

    2. Consider yourself lucky. My three transatlantic Polaris flights (all LAX-EWR-Europe) were beyond dreadful. Inedible food (and yes, one was a steak although unidentifiable as it was a black mess inside AND served in it’s foil heating pan because “they didn’t properly cater the plane”), coupled with totally disgruntled FAs, along with the total lack of attention. So lucky you! But I go out of my way to NOT fly UA.

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