It’s official: United Airlines has made their return to John F. Kennedy Airport! It has been over 5 years since United has flown to or from JFK. It might seem odd that they’d be returning during a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the airline industry, but it also may be the best time to try some route changes. United began service between JFK and both SFO and LAX on the West Coast. I jumped at the chance to fly United Airlines business class SFO to JFK.

I’d hoped to be on the inaugural flight, but I settled for flying one day later. There were (sadly) no saver business class seats available on the March 28 flight. I considered flying economy, but I really wanted to enjoy the premium cabin on their business-dense Boeing 767-300.

United Airlines SFO to JFK: Flight Details

I booked my United Business ticket for just 27,500 miles. Considering that this is a United Business ticket and offers the same benefits as their premium service (p.s.) routes between the West Coast and Newark, I was surprised. My guess is that the pricing is still being worked into their system. I noticed that business class started at 25,000 miles, initially, for flying the new SFO/LAX to JFK routes. However, this was updated within several days. But when I added the connecting flight from ACV to SFO to the itinerary, the price dropped again.

Here are the details of my flight:

  • Origin: San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
  • Destination: New York John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)
  • Airline: United Airlines
  • Flight Number: 520
  • Aircraft: Boeing 767-300 (high-J configuration)
  • Date: March 29, 2020
  • Class of Service: United Business
  • Cost: 27,500 United MileagePlus miles and $5.60

Like I mentioned, this is one day later than the inaugural. I’ve always wanted to fly an inaugural flight of some sort. Definitely on the aviation bucket list.

San Francisco Airport Experience

I arrived on the short hop from our regional Arcata-Eureka Airport. As is typical these days, the flight was early, giving me extra time to enjoy the United Club. Normally, you do not receive club access on domestic tickets. However, United is treating the SFO/LAX to JFK service like one of their premium transcontinental routes (review of my SFO-EWR roundtrip), which offers club access at the origin and destination airports of the premium route.

It’s been a while since I’ve been in an SFO United Club. I visited the old First Class lounge back in 2017, which has since been turned into a regular club. I headed to the United Club in Concourse F since it was closest to my departure gate. United also has clubs in Concourse E and International Terminal G, one (or both?) of which are still closed.

I had a bit of trouble scanning my ticket on arrival. The agent asked if I was using a one-time pass or was a club member after noting that the ticket did not include club access. I showed her my boarding pass that listed my ticket as United Business. She then noted that it was the flight to JFK, and that was the issue. The new service must not be loaded into the system yet.

The United Club currently offers a buffet of prepackaged food. Breakfast options included packaged burritos, muffins, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, and fruit. You could as for coffee at the bar instead of using a machine.

The front desk also suggested that I try either a Manhattan or cosmopolitan cocktail the club is offering to celebrate the new JFK service. I mean, hey, it was just before 8:00 a.m. Not my Monday morning MO. But I guess I’ll subject myself to it for a review.

The desk made it sounds like they were complimentary for JFK passengers, but there was a $5 charge for either one. Let’s just say the only other cosmo I’ve had was much better. Now I’ll probably sleep the whole flight…

I headed over to Gate F14 five minutes before boarding was scheduled to begin. The first thing I noticed was how few people were waiting at the gate. It’s a new service, and United will surely give it time to grow a following. The Boeing 767 aircraft on the route has just 167 seats, but there were probably only 50 people or so on the morning flight to JFK.

Before boarding was announced, the United Manager of Technical Operations at SFO warmly greeted everyone at the gate. He was excited that we were flying this new route and ensured us a pleasant flight aboard the 767 that had overnighted there. The aircraft had arrived from Dulles the previous day.

I noticed there was a videographer taking footage at the gate and aboard the aircraft prior to boarding. You can see him in the photo above.

The High-J Boeing 767-300ER Cabin

United has configured part of their 767-300ER fleet with a premium-heavy seating configuration, which they are using on their West Coast service from JFK.  These aircraft have previously been used on flights to London and other routes where a higher percentage of premium cabin passengers are anticipated. My guess is that United will test the JFK service with these and see how they do before fully committing to the strategy. There are far more business class seats on these aircraft then even the premium service 757-200s United operates.

With 17.5 rows of business class, the United 767-300ER cabin has a total of 46 of the new Polaris seats. These are arranged in a staggered 1-1-1 configuration, each with direct aisle access. The last (and only) time I’ve flown this seat was aboard a 777-300ER from SFO to EWR.

Behind the business class cabin is a small United Premium Plus cabin. The cabin has a total of 22 of the recliner seats, which are closer to a domestic first-style product. These are arranged in a in a 2-2-2 configuration. Behind this cabin is the economy cabin, which has just 99 seats in the typical 2-3-2 configuration you’ll find on any Boeing 767.

Boarding was fast and easy with so few people. There were maybe a dozen other passengers in the business class cabin. Most were in the forward window seats on either side of the aircraft.

I had selected seat 5L, a true window seat that offers the most privacy. The Polaris seats are staggered, with one seats facing directly forward, followed by another at an angle. It’s an interesting product, but I really liked it the first time I flew it and enjoyed it even more this trip.

Still, the “aisle” seats aren’t bad. You still have a bit of a divider separating you from the aisle. My biggest complaint is that you get a single window, and only if the seats lines up perfectly with it. The side table is also smaller.

On the Boeing 767, I’d definitely opt for the window seats in any case. There is no good option for traveling with a spouse or with kids. If I was traveling with my older two, as I have a number of times, I’d choose a forward-facing seat in the middle row (e.g. 5F) and have the kids in the two closest seats opposite me (e.g. 6L and 5L). This would let me be the most accessible to them and able to see all their interactions with the crew.

Polaris United Business Seat

The Polaris seats are quite comfortable, more so than most business class products I’ve flown. The combination of the seat along with the gel pillow that United offers in their business class cabin make it a great option for catching some sleep on an overnight flight. The Saks bedding is also excellent.

My only “overnight” was flying from San Francisco to Newark, which was short, but I slept very well most of the flight. This was my first daytime trip in the seat. If you do still want to nap during your trek across the country, you’ll find that the foot well is plenty large for most people’s feet. With 77 inches of total seat pitch, there is more than enough foot room.

The seat controls are to the side of the seat. The Polaris seats generally fold down comfortably into a reclined position by just using the single slider that takes it from upright to prone.

Like I mentioned before, the true window seats are the most private on the plane. This is the view of the aisle from my seat.

United doesn’t provide a “full” Polaris amenity kit for their transcontinental flights. The simpler one has everything you need, though: eye mask, earplugs, lip balm, and a toothbrush. Ironically, the card inside the kit was labeled New York/Newark. It would make sense for them to add a second one specifically for JFK.

Above the table to the side of the seat are the headphone jack, the universal power outlet and USB outlet, and the IFE controller. You don’t necessarily need the IFE controller, as the screens are a responsive touchscreen.

However, if you recline, you’ll find that the screen becomes pretty difficult to reach, especially if you have your head comfortably resting on the gel pillow and the Saks blanket draped over you. Thus, the IFE controller. There is another USB outlet below the IFE screen, and a tiny storage cubby.

The arm rest to the side of the seat slides up and down as desired. It also contains the safety card. Note that there is no Hemispheres magazine. I do hope it makes a comeback. Although I have other airlines I like waaaaaay more than United, their magazine is one of the finest. No way I’ll read it off a device, either, if they move that direction permanently. Some things are just print or nothing.

Unlike the side table that had some tiny crumbs and the residue of a drink spill off the side, the tray table had clearly been immaculately cleaned and still smelled sanitized when I pulled it out. Kudos to COVID-19 cleaning.

I’m not a fan of the Boeing 767 when flying long-haul, but this transcontinental premium experience might be the absolute best way to fly it.

And yes, COVID-19 is still ongoing. Can’t wait to ditch the masks entirely, but right now I’m simply happy to be flying every opportunity I get. Extra happy to be flying the excellent Polaris seat in United Business class SFO to JFK.

United SFO-JFK Departure Experience

Although this wasn’t the inaugural flight, there were multiple announcements from United staff thanking us for flying with them, from the operations manager at the gate to the captain’s pre-flight address. It was beyond the normal thanks that every airline offers. You could tell they were excited to be flying this route.

We had a nice sendoff as well. The flight attendants alerted us that the ground staff would be all seeing us off, which they did.

We were off ahead of schedule. Goodbye SFO!

It was yet another lovely morning in the Bay Area. I flew to Utah last week, and it was one of the most spectacular mornings. This one rivaled it, although it was just slightly more hazy. Can’t beat that view!!

Meal Service and a Special Gift

Meals were served 30 minutes into the flight. Our flight offered a choice between quiche and French toast. I can never get myself to order French toast anywhere, let alone a plane, given that I grew up making and eating it so routinely. So quiche it was! Accompaniments included yogurt and a Dole fruit cup. High class fare.

Breakfast was decent, all things considered. I have a pretty low bar for plane food, especially domestically, and United hit an easy par with this meal. The flight attendants brought around snack baskets near the end of the flight.

Later, the flight attendant came by with special mementos for our flight. Since this wasn’t the inaugural, it made me wonder if they would be passing out these postcards and luggage tags until they run out? I was super stoked to receive something from the flight. Totally unexpected.

The rest of the flight went smoothly. We had a few minutes of terrible turbulence just past Colorado’s front range of the Rockies, and then it was a nice ride the rest of the trip. I told myself I’d spend my time reading like I did last week, but I ended up watching Arrival, one of my favorite Sci-Fi movies.

Arrival Into New York JFK!

New York looked quite beautiful from the air. Flying into JFK doesn’t provide the same awesome view of Manhattan that Newark landings often yield, though.

Once on the ground I spotted a tail I’d never seen before. New York has an handful of unique foreign airlines, given how big of a hub it is. But this appears to be a Saudi Royal Family 747? Not to be confused with Saudia, the national airline.

We parked with a nice view of Terminal 7, waiting for the other Boeing 767-300 to push back. The United flight from SFO to JFK arrived nearly 40 minutes early, which meant that the gate we would park at was still occupied. Given that United has just returned to JFK and has very few gates, this is obviously a major hindrance. Fortunately, we had to wait less than 10 minutes.

United 767-300 Business Class SFO to JFK: Final Thoughts

Overall, I had an awesome time flying United business class SFO to JFK. The “High-J” Boeing 767-300 with their Polaris product is a real treat. I’d happily fly this long-haul, as it is much better than any other 767 seating I’ve flown or seen. The crew were excellent, the food decent, and the seat very comfortable. There were a couple very tiny hiccups, including the lounge access issue and waiting to park at the gate. But given the potential operational issues for a new flight, this is nothing. The staff also seemed genuinely thrilled we were flying with them.

Would I fly them again on this route? Absolutely yes.

It also hit me that it has been a year since my debacle trying to cancel my United ticket at the beginning of the pandemic. Back then, I swore off giving United another dime, given how poor their customer service experience was trying to cancel and receive refunds according to DOT regulations. I’ve still only booked United awards with either their miles or partner miles since then; however, I have to say that they have been a better airline this whole past year, with better on time performance, customer service, and flight crews than I’ve experience in all the years prior. Let’s hope it keeps up!