United Airlines' Polaris lounge at San Francisco (SFO) is large, well-appointed and sets a new benchmark for business class airport lounges, especially in the USA.
The Polaris lounges are not just the ground component of United's Polaris business class, which is finally gathering speed for a quickening fleet-wide upgrade – they also represent a new breed of business class lounges for the airline.
San Francisco's Polaris lounge is only the second to open since the December 2016 debut of the flagship Chicago lounge.
United expects two more Polaris lounges to open at Newark and Houston around the middle of this year, with LAX planned for late 2018, although Polaris lounges for London, Hong Kong and Tokyo have been pushed back to 2020.
Australian Business Traveller scoped out San Francisco's new Polaris lounge at an invitation-only media preview ahead of its public opening on Monday April 30.
Location & Impressions
The San Francisco Polaris lounge sits in the same footprint as the old United Club and the adjacent Singapore Airlines and EVA Air lounges, near Gate 92.
Turn a sharp right after going through the security checkpoint at SFO's international terminal and you can't miss it.
Tucked away from the main concourse, this small entry belies the sheer size of the split-level lounge, which has seating for 440 travellers across a massive 2,600m² footprint.
Most of the what you associate with the typical airport lounge experience – the bulk of seating, a variety of dining options and the bar – is located on the upper floor.
Did we say 'seating'? There's a riot of seats – 19 different types, in fact – to suit solo flyers...
... to these odd-shaped social couches.
Through it all you can see United's hallmark blues, slates and soft metal sheens.
The upper floor is gun-barrel straight, with dining areas at either end and a bar in the middle.
It looks much better when it's shot by a professional and being patronised by the pretty people from Casting Central.
Either way, the tended bar will be a standard element at Polaris lounges, serving up everything from wines – 50% of which will be drawn from California – to Piper-Heidsieck 1785 Cuvêe Brut Champagne, straight-up spirits and cocktails.
We're pleased to report that you can also get a proper barista-pulled espresso.
Natural light floods the lounge's main and upper levels, with a mix of low seating and high benches where you can take in the view over the runway and the bay beyond.
Tucked away at the end of the lounge's upper level, furthest from the dining room, there's even an old-fashioned set of lookout-style binoculars – so you can zoom into a point (or plane) of interest.
One of the best aspects of a lounge this size, with this much variety in its design, is that every traveller can find 'their' space – a place where they're most comfortable and which suits their own needs.
Under United's strict new access rules, Polaris lounges are exclusive to business class and first class flyers on United Airlines and its Star Alliance partners (including Lufthansa, Swiss, Turkish Airlines, Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, EVA Airways and Asiana).
Business class passengers have no guesting privileges, however travellers booked in a first class cabin can invite one guest travelling on the same flight to join them in the lounge.
Note that passengers on flights to Mexico and Canada (such as those of United and Air Canada) aren't on the door list, as those are not considered long-haul flights.
The Polaris San Francisco lounge is open from 6.30am to 1am.
United MileagePlus members and other Star Alliance Gold-grade frequent flyers who are booked into premium economy or economy are barred from entry into Polaris lounges and will need to hoof it further down the terminal to Gate 98, where they'll find United's old first class lounge has been converted into a United Club.
At one end of the lounge is a dedicated dining room with 16 six-seat tables.
The a là carte menu features some Asian dishes, in keeping with San Francisco being United's gateway to Asia, along with Western fare including the airline's own Polaris burger.
There's also an extensive buffet.
You can of course bring dishes from the buffet into the dining room, but there's also a long stretch of tables and chairs all the way through to the bar.
But wait: the Polaris dining experience at San Francisco isn't quite over yet.
At the other end of the lounge to the dining room there's an area called The Studio.
United intends this to be a secondary dining area offering sushi but which can also showcase the work of local partners through pop-up events such as cheese and wine tastings.
If there's one thing to be sure of when it comes to this lounge, you won't go hungry.
Something we love seeing in new lounges is when a designer – perhaps stung by their own experiences in the past – has sprinkled AC and USB outlets with abandon.
In United's San Francisco Polaris lounge, those power ports are almost everywhere you look, including those sidetables between individual chairs...
... and grouped into pairs of 2 x AC and 2 x USB, so you'll never need to negotiate 'socket sharing' with a neighbour.
The speed of the password-protected WiFi is astounding: during out tests it consistently bent the needle at around 250Mbps for both downloads and uploads.
In short, there's nothing to stop you hunkering down to work almost anywhere in the lounge – but when your business travel calls for serious business, head for one of the 49 signature workspace chairs.
These are clustered together on both levels of the lounge.
Each pairs an oversized and incredibly comfortable chair with a sidetable for working, adds a gentle LED personal light and AC/USB sockets, and offers room between the chair and the partition walls to stow your carry-on bag our of the way.
If you need somewhere to make or take a phone call which you'd rather not share with the rest of the lounge – or if you're just the thoughtful type who doesn't want to disturb your fellow travellers – head for one of the three private 'phone booth' rooms directly opposite the service desk on the upper floor, just to the right of the lifts.
The ground floor of the lounge, past the entry area, is United's 'relax and recharge' space.
There's still more conventional seating here, in what the airline describes as a library-like setting...
... plus a dozen workspace booths.
Further along is a corridor flanked by eight shower suites.
These extremely spacious suites features a rainfall shower, luggage rack, hair dryer, Cowshed shower products and Saks Fifth Avenue towelling.
A valet is on hand to steam your clothes upon request – although like all 'complimentary' US airport lounge services (including free drinks at the bar), a tip won't go astray.
If you've got a really long wait for your flight, couple that shower with a snooze in one of the five nearby 'Quiet Suite' nap rooms.
United says that sensor-controlled blinds will descend to shade these nap rooms from the sun.
Each one has a day bed with blankets and pillows from Saks Fifth Avenue, which also provides the bedding kit on United's Polaris business class flights.
There's also a set of earplugs, a sleep spray and – for some reason, not that we're arguing – a square of San Francisco's own Ghirardelli chocolate.
Passengers can even dial in some white noise or a sleep-inducing soundtrack such as gentle rainfall.
United's Polaris lounge concept has taken another huge stride at San Francisco, and the only travellers who'll be complaining about this will be the frequent flyers who can't get in the door because they're booked in the wrong cabin class. But for business and first class passengers, this is a suitably classy way to begin their journey.
David Flynn travelled to San Francisco as a guest of United Airlines.