United Airlines put its first Boeing 777-300ER -- along with its ballyhooed new Polaris cabin -- in the air Monday, flying its newest aircraft type on a four-hour demonstration flight from Chicago O’Hare to San Francisco.
CEO Oscar Munoz was on hand for the occasion, performing a ceremonial ribbon-cutting at the airport and performing gate duties as United showed off the jet. True to the role, Munoz scanned the boarding passes of media members and other VIPs flying on what the airline billed as its debut flight of the aircraft.
Still, Monday’s flight was a not a regular "revenue" flight, but rather part of a continuing publicity blitz by United to show off its new business-class cabin. The 777-300ER, United’s first plane to get its updated Polaris seat, will enter revenue service for the first time on Thursday (Feb. 16).
Initially, it will fly domestically between Newark Liberty and San Francisco – a hub-to-hub route for United that connects two of its biggest bases and will allow crews to become familiar with the cabin layout on the new aircraft.
United will expand its 777-300ER service to international routes as more models of the plane enter its fleet. The airline says the new Polaris-outfitted planes will begin flying between San Francisco and Hong Kong on March 25 when the 777-300ER will replace United’s Boeing 747-400s that currently fly the route.
As for Monday’s flight, that came as United has been hyping its new Polaris cabin and service. It’s all part of a broader turnaround strategy at the company, which finally seems to have found some forward momentum after an extended run of inconsistent operations and customer service following its 2010 merger with Continental.
"It's more than a product. It represents the new spirit of United," Munoz said in remarks before the launch, according to Travel Weekly.
Indeed, many have credited Munoz – who took over as the company’s CEO in late 2015 – for restoring a sense of optimism at United. In addition to working to update the carrier’s product, Munoz has been assembling a respected management team that many industry observers believe could restore the company as a formidable force in the U.S. airline industry.
For now, all eyes are on United’s overhauled “Polaris” business class cabin. United has already rolled out in-flight service elements of Polaris, but the new seat and cabin design will debut with this first 777-300ER before slowly rolling out to more of United’s long-haul fleet.
United’s new Polaris seats have so far received generally positive feedback. Each of the lie-flat seats in the cabin includes direct-aisle access – a significant improvement from the carrier’s current business-class layout that requires many customers to climb over their neighbors to get in and out of their seats. Other amenities, like Saks Fifth Avenue bedding, have been mostly well-received.
In coach class, however, United will move to a 10-abreast seating layout that features a 3-4-3 configuration. United had already announced plans to move to a similar "high-density" layout on several of its older Boeing 777 aircraft.
Seth Miller was on United’s demonstration flight on behalf of the Runway Girl Network, a site dedicated to covering seats, aircraft interiors and other items that account for “passenger experience.” He reviewed the flight, including this take on the economy cabin:
“The decision to go 10-abreast in economy class is not surprising but also not particularly comforting for those who fly in the back. The seats are tight, with three of us rubbing shoulders and elbows while trying out the space. I’ve done the 3-4-3 layout a few times now and it feels even a smidgen tighter to me than the Boeing 787’s 3-3-3 layout, though that may just be psychological, as one sees an extra human in each row of the 10-abreast 777.”
Overall, United’s new 777-300ERs will include 102 Economy Plus seats and 204 standard economy seats. Unlike on many international carriers, United’s Economy Plus seats come only with about three extra inches of legroom; they will not include separate recliner seat types that have become increasingly common in the so-called “premium economy” cabins of international carriers like Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France, Qantas, Cathay Pacific and others.
(Ben Mutzabaugh - Today In The Sky / USA Today)