Thanksgiving is not emphasized much in my family, so I often try to take this time to take a trip abroad. This time, I managed to snag a very nice Star Alliance business-class sale to Madrid. I had the choice of taking a more direct route of DCA-EWR-MAD, but saw that the 767 on that flight was still in the old 2-1-2 configuration, so I originally opted to fly IAD-ZRH-MAD instead. However, Swiss cancelled the ZRH-MAD segment and I didn't actually notice it until I checked my itinerary for a potential refund (more on that in a second). I called United and they quickly put me on IAD-BRU-MAD instead. I had the option of flying IAD-FRA-MAD, but would've had to wait for the business class confirmation for the FRA-MAD segment. I figured I could get to Madrid earlier here and review an airline I hadn't flown before, so I opted for Brussels.
As I mentioned, this trip almost didn't happen. Work almost caused me to cancel all of my planned Thanksgiving travel. I won't go into details, but a very pleasant surprised happened days before this flight (right before I was about to call United to try to get a refund) and I was able to take this trip after all. I am incredibly thankful.
I'll also apologize ahead of time for missing some pictures and the quality of some of the pictures. It's been a while since I've flown a long-haul and been to a real international lounge, so it's taking some getting used to.
Normally I don't like getting to the airport very early because there are few lounges in the US worth spending too much time in. This time, however, would be one of the exceptions. I arrived at Dulles roughly 3 hours before departure and went straight to the 1K/GS check-in in the back. Why the most premium check-in would be here instead of up front and center always confused me.
At least it's a short walk to the CLEAR and TSA Pre line. In any case, it seemed like a quiet afternoon.
I was quickly through and to the train to take me to the C gates.
In October, United announced that its long-awaited Polaris Lounge at Dulles would be opening by the end of the month. You can imagine my surprise and excitement when I learned this–I wasn't expecting any Polaris Lounge to reopen in 2021 much less the brand new opening of the long-delayed Dulles lounge. The Polaris Lounge can be found right across the hall from the United Club by Gate C17.
As always with the Polaris Lounges there is a beautiful check-in area. I was quickly checked in and thanked by name for being a 1K member.
The lounge proper can be found up a staircase to the right of the check-in. This is a huge contrast to the United Club across the hall where you have to descend into the depths. An elevator is adjacent if you require its assistance going up.
The Dulles lounge is huge, at 21,000 square feet and seating for over 350 guests. There is a variety of seating spread out throughout the lounge.
This is the latest edition of the work station-esque seats in the Polaris lounge. I like these quite a bit. Compared to what we saw when the Polaris Lounge was first introduced at ORD, these lack the retractable tables but have wider seats and more spacious. Generally, I see these an improvement.
The heart of the lounge can be found to the left of the entrance, with some pair seating arranged in a rather artistic manner and several seating areas adjacent to the bar and buffet. In addition to seats directly in front of the bar, there is a small dining area next to the buffet (though you're not limited to bringing your buffet items here). To the left of the bar is a little reading area with books you can peruse. For some reason, the shades were down for much of my visit.
To the right from the entrance (if memory serves) is a concierge desk where agents can help you with any issues.
All around the lounge are various decorative shelves–they added a nice touch to the decor.
Drink stations can also be found throughout the lounge.
As with any Polaris Lounge, the bar is the centerpiece and quite a beautiful one at that. It sits right next to both the dining room on the left and the buffet on the right.
Here is the buffet area:
The buffet was limited still, unfortunately. Here's what was available that day:
Bathrooms can be found down the hall underneath starry lighting. A green light indicates the bathroom is unlocked and unoccupied. Sunday Riley soap and hand cream can be found in the bathrooms, much like onboard.
The Dulles lounge does not have a huge shower suite/quiet suite area. You just check in with the attendant and they'll take you to a room. I did not need to use these rooms so I peeked inside and asked if I could take pictures. The attendant proudly showed me around. There are lockers at the entrance for your convenience (especially if you are using the quiet rooms). The Dulles lounge only has 2 quiet rooms. I believe this is due to the timing of most of the international departures from Dulles. The shower suites are similar to the ones in other Polaris lounges.
To the left of the bar is the dining room/restaurant. Apologies for the angle of these pictures.
I was quickly welcomed and shown to a table by Kelvin.
From where I was seated: a beautiful dining room with a wonderful centerpiece painting of DC.
Here is the menu. There was no drinks menu at the time.
I started off with a glass of champagne and a glass of water. Currently, the Dulles lounge is serving Lanson Black Label, which is a fine business class champagne. Throughout the meal, Kelvin was very proactive about refills and I had 3 glasses in short succession.
To start, I began with the Autumn squash soup, which was quite good.
For my main, I had the braised chicken tagine, which was also good: a little spicy without being too much so. I also switched over to the 2020 Emiliana Natura Malbec. It was alright and the only non-Californian wine available. The other options were a cabernet sauvignon, a pinot noir, and a zinfandel, all from California (Kelvin did not specify further).
For the dessert, I had my favorite at the Polaris lounges: the chocolate chip skillet cookie.
Throughout my time there, the dining room was fairly empty, never with more than 10 people there. I left the dining room at around 4:15pm and saw that the lounge itself was getting more crowded, but for some reason people were not indulging in the best part.
I switched over to the bar for the rest of my stay. Here is the list of cocktails and wines available; the bartender also offered to make anything he had the ingredients for off the menu. I asked if he could do a Paper Plane, another Polaris favorite of mine, but he didn't have all the ingredients for it.
Instead, he recommended the Hella Good, which was quite good.
I left the lounge at 5:04pm and got to my gate a few minutes later.
Here is my plane to Europe: N14001, a 3-years old 787-10. I had never flown on a 787-10 of any airline before. I was looking forward to trying out the longest member of the 787 family and see how it compared to its shorter variants. Note this is a picture after I arrived at Brussels–I couldn't get a clear picture at Dulles.
Pre-boarding began at 5:10pm. There didn't seem to be many Global Services, veterans, etc . . . before 1Ks were called.
United's Polaris Business class on the 787-10 is 11 rows of Zodiac Optima seats arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration. There is a big difference between the odd-numbered and even-numbered seats with the Polaris configuration. The even-numbered seats are quite exposed and the odd-numbered seats are far more private.
When I changed to this flight, I was originally seated in 11L, the last remaining "true" window seat. Two days before the flight, I saw that 3L became open on the seat map and snagged that instead. The cabin showed 34/44 on the app after boarding.
Here is my seat: 3L, a "true" window seat on the starboard side. You can see the seat is well padded and decently long, albeit somewhat narrow.
Waiting for me at my seat was a water bottle, headphones, and amenity kit. On the seat itself was a normal pillow, gel pillow, and bedding. Slippers were handed out later (before pushback). You can find Hemispheres Magazine and the safety card in a little pocket underneath the armrest. This armrest is retractable and can be placed down for when sleeping to give yourself extra space.
Let's explore the seat itself. The seat has a crisp, touchscreen IFE screen that is a good size and good resolution. The footwell is nice and wide, plenty comfortable for sleeping in. As with all 787s, the windows are huge and have adjustable dimmers instead of shades (more on this later). There is a small panel below the window for adjusting your seat. There are pre-set positions as well as a wheel for adjusting more specifically for your preference. I found the panel to be quite responsive. Overhead we have air vents and reading lights. The tray table pulls out from underneath the IFE monitor. It's quite easy to use and while sturdy, not unwieldy like some tables you see (especially fold-out ones). Lastly, there a lamp next to the small faux-marble table and a pop out reading light (sorry for the quality of this picture).
United restored pre-departure beverages the day of my flight, but glassware was not due back until Dec. 1. Naturally, I brought my own flute. You had a choice of water, orange juice, or prosecco for the PBD. One of the FAs later asked if they had served the drink (i.e. with the flute). I told her no, I brought my own. She had a good laugh about it and told me she was worried they had loaded glassware and she just missed the memo.
In any case, here is my usual picture of the amenity with the PBD. Currently United is offering a fairly utilitarian pouch. They're hardly the most desirable amenity kits, but in general I've found the United kits to be practical for re-using. I still use one of the mesh bags from years ago as a travel bag.
The contents of the kit are standard: toothbrush/toothpaste, earplugs, sleep mask, socks, tissues, and a pen.
The Sunday Riley pouch contained facial and hand lotion, lip balm, and a facial wipe.
You can see that the privacy from the "true" window seats is quite good–you'll have to lean forward to see into the aisle and even then it's hard to actually see other passengers.
The IFE showed the schedule of service for the flight. Shortly after I received my PDB, the purser, Susie, came by to introduce herself and ask if I would be dining onboard tonight. Honestly, I didn't really need to, but we all make sacrifices for science and reporting. There was no menu and she offered a choice of short ribs, salmon, or pasta. Susie was very cheerful and pleasant, always addressing me by name. After she took my order, she also went to hang my coat and bring me a pair of slippers.
The Captain announced at 6pm (departure time) that we were about 20 minutes late due to some boarding issues, but we should be arriving close to the scheduled arrival time anyways. After a while, he came on to inform us that we were looking at a 6:45pm departure because we needed to pull a few bags off of the plane as some folks did not have the required documents. I guess this situation is going to be the Covid normal for the foreseeable future. In any case, I appreciated how much more proactive United has become about informing passengers about reasons for delays and keeping us updated.
Sure enough, we pushed back at 6:45pm. I actually nodded off for a bit here and didn't come to until we began our takeoff roll at 7:10pm.
Once the seatbelt sign was turned off, I went forward to check the business class bathrooms. As is normal on a 787, these are fairly tight, but included the usual amenities: facial mist, hand lotion, sanitizing wipes, and a garment spray.
Service began at 7:38pm, decently quickly after takeoff. Everything was served on one tray–the whole meal was very premium economy-like. No wine list either, there was a choice of a pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon (both from California) for the reds. I had the pinot (and used my own cup).
Honestly, the beef short rib was fairly tasty, but the salad and pretzel bread were quite stale. The lemon sorbet was also less desirable than regular ice cream.
I finished eating fairly quickly and asked one of the FAs for a mattress pad, which was quickly obliged.
No turndown service (that I am aware of), so here's my own attempt. I will say that United Polaris offers some of, if not the best business class bedding in the sky. I lied down less than an hour after takeoff and was asleep shortly after.
I slept decently well and woke up about 4.5 hours later. I asked a passing FA if there were any snacks available because I didn't see anything in the front galley, he brought another water bottle and a small snack basket. I didn't get a picture of the basket, but it was the usual United snacks you see on domestic flights. I grabbed a stroopwafel. He also informed me that breakfast was going to be served in about 20 minutes.
Lights came on roughly 1 hour 20 minutes before landing. For breakfast we had a choice of egg whites and sausage or oatmeal. I opted for the former, which was decently good. I also had a cup of coffee and orange juice to go along with it.
It seemed that the window shades were locked for much of the flight, but after breakfast were unlocked. Here's a comparison of the windows at the darkest setting vs. no shade.
We began our initial descent into Brussels at 7:36am CET. The captain announced that we should arrive in approximately 45 minutes.
True to his word, we touched down at 8:06am CET and arrived at the gate 5 minutes later.
Lounge: Polaris Lounges are one of, if not my overall favorite business class lounges. The Dulles lounge is no exception. I'd definitely rate it over the ORD and EWR lounges. Service was impeccable throughout the lounge, whether it was Kelvin in the dining room, the bartenders, or the front desk. The staff appeared to be genuinely proud of the lounge and they should be. The food and drink are delicious and much better than United's current onboard product. I used to hate flying international flights out of Dulles because of the lack of a good lounge, now that is no longer the case.
Cabin & Seat: The Zodiac Optima seats are fairly comfortable seats, but are admittedly some what narrow overall. The footwell is spacious, however, and controls are responsive and easy. It is
Service: Service was quick and efficient and several of the FAs, especially Susie, were genuinely cheerful and enthusiastic. The crew made a clear effort to address passengers by name throughout. In contrast to my domestic flights, I usually have pretty good luck with UA crew on international flights and this flight was no different.
Meal & Catering: This kind of meal is premium economy and unacceptable at this stage of the pandemic. I'm glad to see that United has moved certain things in the right direction--reopening Polaris Lounges, bringing back glassware on Dec. 1, etc . . . but this is not the kind of meal you pay business class for. More importantly than anything, I miss the sundae carts and hope those will not be a casualty of the pandemic.
Bottom Line: United offers a comfortable transatlantic experience with excellent bedding and a pleasant crew. The catering is easily the weakest part and something that hopefully returns more so to normalcy sooner rather than later.