The inaugural United Airlines flight from Sydney to Houston promises the fastest flight time from Sydney to New York, as well as direct, daily, non stop access to Houston, America’s fourth most populous city. So what happens on an inaugural flight and what can people expect from the Polaris business class product? And what does an ice cream sundae taste like at 35,000 feet?
Top pic Copyright Kurt Ams Sydney Airport
America still remains one of the top outbound destination for Australians and it only took United Airlines a few months to decide that they wanted to establish a Sydney to Houston route. The impact on Sydney for a new route opening up is not small. They’re projecting that the route's 27,000 annual overseas visitors will spend a total of $50 million into the Sydney economy. 90 years ago it took 9 days to make the same journey. Today it will take just 15 hours.
It’s Saturday the 20th of January 2018 and at the United Airlines counter the red, white and blue balloons are out in full force. There’s an astronaut, cowboy and a baseball player to greet everyone checking in with the trademark American gusto. Check in for business class is a breeze and we're soon making our way through immigration holding express passes. Business class customers have a choice of the AirNZ or Singapore Kris Flyer lounge to choose from and we opt for the Singapore Airlines one with champagne at the ready as well as a good selection of Chinese and Western breakfasts to choose from.
Shortly after we are called to the gate where the cowboy reappears and they are giving away breakfast of toasted rolls and red, white and blue cupcakes to all passengers on the flight.
The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner is what makes these routes possible. In flight supervisor Craig Gotfried explains that the plane itself is built to fly “long, thin routes” (airline talk for long distance routes with fewer passengers) but make it profitable. The plane has 252 seats of which there are 48 business class suites, 63 economy plus and 141 economy.
My seat is 8A in the second section of the business class cabin. This cabin isn’t actually the Polaris cabin that features the wide seats that you may have seen in ads. They are upgrading the fleet to have these but are in the process and for now and these routes we have the older style seats. These seats are more like regular business class seats.
The cabin crew introduce themselves and I’m seated next to Craig who regales me with tales of life in the air and on the ground working for United. Champagne or mimosas are offered as well as a twin pack of chocolate coated macadamia nuts.
On the seats are Saks Fifth Avenue blankets and pillows. They bring around amenity kits with Cowshed branded products including hand cream, lip balm and a refresher towelette. There's toothpaste, toothbrush, socks, ear plugs, tissues and a sleep mask. My travel writer friend is sitting in front of me. Within 30 minutes she already has herself an in-flight husband and they both cue a movie to start at the same time to watch it together!
Cotton pyjamas are also offered as well as cooling gel pillows, fleece lined slippers and a mattress cushion that I mistake for a quilt (oops). Behind the seat there are international plugs, USBs and excellent noise cancelling headphones. I recline the chair and settle in while they take our order for our choice of main.
I’m so entertained by Craig that I barely get a look at the entertainment. There are some new movies, tv box sets and the usual offerings of music and games. Once the seatbelt sign goes off I change into my pyjamas. These are very comfortable and come in size S/M and M/L. I recline the seat and notice that these seats can be quite small, especially in the corner where you may find it hard to fit large feet once you recline the bed.
A drinks trolley comes past and they offer me a cocktail, a glass of wine and during afternoon or evening flights, a wine flight with red or white wine. The wine list is put together by master sommelier Doug Frost so I try the wine flight of Spanish, Italian and French red wines which are served with mixed nuts and a choice of still or sparkling water.
Prawn and Pesto Salad
The menu has a New Zealand feel to it with the use of ingredients like kawa kawa (an edible leaf) and Akaroa salmon. The Polaris menu was created in partnership with chefs from The Trotter Project, a non-profit company that mentors young chefs. They serve the first course: a prawn, melon, kawa kawa and pesto salad as well as a salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The prawns are a little tough but I do like the garlic bread on the side. The two salt and pepper shakers are shaped like globes which are cute but apparently are a challenge for the flight attendants as they can roll around the tray.
Akaroa Salmon With Pesto Cream Sauce
My main is the salmon with mashed potato and vegetables as a pesto cream sauce. The salmon is cooked right through, I prefer it a little less cooked but the vegetables on the side are good.
Dessert is actually in three parts. I had assumed you had to choose one of the three but instead all three are served to passengers. The first offering is a trio of camembert, white cheddar and blue cheese with seedless red grapes and water crackers. This is accompanied by a glass of port.
The crew playing with my camera
Then they bring around the trolley. This crew, particularly flight supervisor Roxanne Hoye are fun and she offers to take a photo of the trolley for me and the crew have some fun here.
The trolley rolls around and I squeal with delight at the three tier stand of petit fours in all of their rosy hued glory. And then I get an offer I find impossible to refuse. “Would you like an ice cream sundae?” the lovely flight attendant Judy asks. I’m reminded of that moment in Seinfeld where Jerry and his model seat mate get ice cream sundaes while Elaine sits in the economy section.
Me stalking the petit fours again
It comes in a paper cup (a temporary measure I am told) and it is a scoop of vanilla ice cream with your choice of butterscotch, hot fudge or strawberry sauce with almonds, thick cream and cherries. I opt for the butterscotch with almonds, whipped cream and cherries and it is utterly delicious.
Sometimes ice cream in flight can be very hard because they use dry ice to keep it cold but the ice cream here is at the perfect temperature. I also try some petit fours - a cherry cake, a raspberry lamington and a passionfruit cheesecake just to test things out. They bring me my tea during this service although cognac and whisky are also offered.
There are four bathrooms in the business class cabin and the one on the left centre is very large as it is for wheelchair customers. I use the Cowshed products in the bathroom and brush my teeth and get ready for bed. The cabin lights are all dimmed to lull everyone into sleep. We have just under 11 hours to go until we arrive in Houston at 10am. I get a solid 9 hours sleep in two lots which I feel is a major victory. I woke up after about 6 hours, had a snack and then fell asleep for another three hours.
Roxanne had mentioned the hot snack so I ordered one of those with the flight attendant who had noticed I was awake and offered me one. It is a toasted cheese sandwich on sourdough with a tomato soup. The bread is a bit firm but I enjoy the thick soup and dip the bread into it. I also go for a walk and take a peek at the snack selection but nothing really grabs me (I must have been tired).
Breakfast is served an hour before we land. I pick the fruit plate because flights are drying and I need the refreshment. I eat the fruit with my Earl Grey tea and feel ready to take on Houston!
So tell me Dear Reader, have you ever had an in fight husband or watched a movie simultaneously with another stranger? Have you ever been on an inaugural flight? And is there a direct route you wish would open up?
NQN travelled to Houston as a guest of United Airlines but all opinions remain her own.