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United Polaris Lounge (ORD)

On my way to Vienna I stopped off at United’s Premium Lounge, Polaris. Chicago O’hare currently has the only Polaris Lounge in the world. This is my second visit. I was a bit disappointed during my first visit (en route to Rio) and was so excited to see it after the expansion. One of my biggest complaints the first visit was the overcrowding and how loud the space was.

I arrived 3.5 hours before my Austrian flight to Vienna. I arrived so early because Austrian flies out if the International Terminal (Terminal 5) and Polaris is in Terminal 1. I would have to leave the secured area and go back through security in a different terminal, so I needed lots of time to enjoy this space and make my flight.

Polaris Lounge – The only one worldwide.

I arrived and check in was smooth and painless. Everyone I encountered reminded me about the terminal change and the need to deal with security again – which I appreciated. It is not a quick and easy transfer from this lounge to T5.

I walked into the lounge and I was shocked at how crowded it was. I managed to find a single seat at a small dining table. I dropped anchor, grabbed a glass of champagne (they serve Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label, which is a perfectly acceptable wine that we drink and serve at home).

Veuve Clicquot is always a lovely way to kick off a trip, don’t you agree?

My first plan was to take a look at the expanded space (they took space from the old United Club in C Concourse to expand Polaris). This new area is the designated a la carte dining area. Before the seats near the bar (where I was sitting) were the designated dining area. Every table was full in the recently expanded area. People were either actively eating or they had dirty plates on their tables next to their laptops. I had no place to eat, nor could I order anything. I asked a United employee if I could be put on a reservation list and he looked confused and said it was just first come seating only. OK.

Every 10 minutes or so I would walk back to see if space had opened up. Nothing. After waiting for about 45 minutes, I see a table of four leave the dining area, so I grab my glass of bubbles and walk back to get a seat. The recently vacated table now had a “Reserved” sign and when I asked the server, he said that it was reserved for another guest – this was the same server who told me that I couldn’t reserve a space. He did confirm that it was just a single guest and I asked if I could share the four-top table – I just wanted to try out the menu. I was shot down. The server was pretty snippy too – I was obviously distracting him from his duties.

I slink back to my cafe table near the bar – and request a refill on my Veuve before heading over to the buffet. Both times I’ve been in Polaris there has been a louder, highly energetic woman staffing the buffet area. She loves the food and she loves her job. She greets the guests, offers (unsolicited) recommendations on the food items and will even come find you if something new comes out onto the buffet that she wants you to try. She’s not that polished, but she’s a hoot.

Back at my bar table, I sampled a couple of buffet items and was flipping through a magazine when a man came up to bus the table next to me. Talk about unpolished. This guy kept mumbling something to the man at the table next to me, who had no idea what he was saying. Eventually the United employee just started taking the plates and glasses away from the table – evidently he was asking if the table should be cleared. To properly clear this table, he set the tray of dirty dishes on my table – and about 10 seconds after I snapped this picture (and he told me not to take pictures in the lounge), the plates and glasses fell off his tray, spilling other people’s half eaten food on my table. Not to worry, this guy did a great job of cleaning up the mess – by using the soiled napkins he’d just collected from my neighbor’s table. It was gross. The people at both tables next to me (the one being bused and the one watching) were frustrated and angry. I was disappointed.

You won’t get many award by stacking dirty dishes on a customer’s table.

At this point, I just decided to leave. It wasn’t going to get any better. I still had more than two hours until my flight to Vienna left, but I just couldn’t sit here any longer. I say you can build a beautiful airline lounge, but if you train and supervise the employees poorly, what’s the point?

That being said, I did need assistance with another flight issue (I had some travel plans change and I needed help rebooking) and the customer service reps (who were doing actual airline business, not wait staff) were phenomenal. The woman I was working with pulled up at least half a dozen alternates for my travel issues and she was just so lovely to work with.

Will I go back to Polaris? Yes. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. The space is very nice and with the remodel, it is much less loud than it was before. The alcohol selection is quite nice and some of the staff are competent, some are even great, alas, most in my encounters were not. It sure isn’t a world class airline lounge. I find the American Express Centurion Lounges to be far superior – and extremely consistent – relative to Polaris. I guess us United flyers just can’t have nice things. I do hear American’s Flagship Lounges are pretty nice.

What do you think about Polaris? Am I just finding bad times to visit? Do I just have too high of standards? How do you get to enjoy the a la carte dining if the tables are full and your can’t reserve a seat?

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