At last, after months of planning and anticipating, it was time to hit the skies and head across the pond for our Mediterranean cruise. Our award tickets required a circuitous routing, with stops in Atlanta and London to reach Istanbul. We flew to Atlanta in American Airlines First Class; I won’t review that as I’ve already posted several recent reviews of American’s domestic First service. Thus, I’ll start off with the first long flight of the trip, our flight to London on British Airways. For a primer as to how we settled on this itinerary, see my introductory post and trip report index.
British Airways (BA) Flight 232
- June 24, 2015
- Depart: Atlanta (ATL) Gate F3, 22:08, 8m late
- Arive: London Heathrow (LHR) Terminal 5, 10:58, 12m early
- Duration: 7 hours 50 minutes
- First Class, Seats 2E, 2F
- Equipment: Boeing 777-200
Our evening at ATL started out at The Club at ATL in Concourse F, which is the lounge made available to BA premium cabin and elite customers (click on the link to see my review of the lounge). Boarding was supposed to start at 9:20 P.M. for our 10:00 departure, but the time came and went with nothing doing. The agent later announced that the cabin still needed cleaning, courtesy of a late arrival due to stormy weather in Atlanta that evening. We did eventually start boarding about 20 minutes late. No big deal at all – especially compared to what these poor souls flying Delta that evening had to endure. Yes, that’s the rebooking line.
Upon boarding, an FA warmly welcomed us aboard and escorted to our seats in the pointy end. He then offered us our choice of champagne, water, and juice. Flight attendants also came by and offered to help store carry-ons in the overhead bins, and take drink orders for delivery after reaching 10,000 feet. That also gave me a few minutes to take pictures of the cabin.
First impressions – after reading reviews on both this site and others of First Class cabins such as Emirates (recently reviewed by Kevin), Etihad (reviewed by Rocky), and Singapore Airlines (reviewed by Brad), I found the cabin a little underwhelming. The seat seemed like a very nice business class seat, and while beggars flying on miles can’t be choosy, it didn’t have the “wow” factor you think of when you hear “First Class”. In fairness, both James and Matthew warned me about this in advance, so I wasn’t exactly surprised. One more complaint – the overhead bin doors felt very heavy; they were exceedingly difficult to close when loaded with a roller bag. This is an especially irritating issue, given that there is no stowage space at all at the seat itself; all bags, laptops, backpacks, etc. must go in the bins for takeoff and landing.
The BA First cabin is in a 1-2-1 configuration, meaning the standard advice for many premium cabins applies. Choose a window seat if you are flying solo, but two middles if you’re flying with a companion. We had two seats in the middle, which made it easy for my wife and I to socialize during the flight. When seated next to a stranger, there is a sliding partition to create more privacy. One mild disappointment – I’m a total dork when it comes to dimmable window shades on planes, which made me wish just a little that I had a window seat to play with one.
Despite boarding starting nearly 20 minutes late, a ruthlessly efficient process meant we pushed back just 10 minutes late. Once airborne, I started fiddling around with all of the bells and whistles at the seat. For those that need to work, a power port is located at the bottom of the seat near the ottoman, and two USB ports are located near the IFE remote. The dual USB ports are highly useful, but I don’t care for the location of the power port. It makes it difficult to, say, leave your laptop plugged in to charge while you sleep.
The IFE system had a decent, if unspectacular, selection of TV shows, movies, and games on demand. I watched a couple of wildlife documentaries on and off, and played around with the British version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (I’m apparently not up on British pop culture, as I couldn’t get past the GBP 2,000 question without crapping out). The screen is large, the controls easy to modulate, and there’s plenty of room to get nice and comfy while watching a show or a movie.
Shortly after reaching 10,000 feet, the FA brought our drinks and mixed nuts, along with dinner menus. I decided to really enjoy the experience and ordered a Johnnie Walker Blue.
While thoroughly enjoying my drink, I perused the extensive menu to decide on appetizer and dinner selections. If you would like to see full-size photos of the menus, please follow this link to my Flickr page.
Breakfast and beverage menu
I’ve been warned, as you probably have as well, numerous times to be wary of beef on airplanes. One of my finest airplane meals, though, was a beef filet on a British Airways Club World flight from London to Houston in early 2014. Hoping that lightning would strike twice, I ordered the beef. To accompany the beef, I ordered the seared scallops for the starter. The meal also included an amuse bouche of cream cheese on toasted bread with caramelized onions. My wife chose the sauteed filet of plaice fish.
Cream cheese and toast
Seared scallops with chorizo, arugula and aioli
Filet of beef with madeira jus, truffle mash, mushrooms, and broiled onion
Sauteed filet of fish
Things started off well. The little cream cheese thing was superb, a fresh, little dollop of richness that made you wish for more. Some of you may bemoan the lack of caviar, but that was fine with me. I don’t like it, at all. The scallops were also very good, with a nice sear, and the bitter arugula was a nice contrast to the sweet scallops and aioli. The chorizo was a little meh, though. The texture was a little mushy, and I would have liked a little more spice.
Where this meal fell short, though, was the beef filet. Lightning didn’t strike twice; the meat, while flavorful, was hammered, as in overcooked. Which was a shame, because the madeira jus, mushrooms, and truffle mashed potatoes were delicious. On the other hand, I had a couple of glasses of a Bordeaux with my beef, which was excellent. Definitely on the full-bodied side, but it complemented the hearty beef with its rich wine-based sauce well.
The larger overall problem with this meal, though, was the glacial place of the service. It took nearly two hours from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy savoring every moment of a fine meal, but this was a relatively short, late flight, with a drive to Stonehenge awaiting us on the other end, and I really wanted to sleep. Yet the crew never offered an “express dining” option. The long service, combined with a little too much Scotch and wine, had me nodding off before the tray was even cleared, so I ended up skipping dessert and just asking the FA to make the bed.
The bed was comfy, and I slept solidly for about 4 hours (full disclosure: I am a very, VERY deep plane sleeper, even in coach, so take my sleeping experiences with a grain of salt). I could have slept even longer, and really wanted to, but we only had about 50 minutes to go until landing time. I did enjoy this fully lie-flat seat, because as a shorter guy, I tend to slide down angled seats. Let’s just say, it’s a tad uncomfortable when you wake up with your legs scrunched up against the seat shell.
For those interested in amenities, I don’t wear pajamas, nor am I particularly fascinated with amenity kits, but I did take one of each since they were offered. The navy blue pajamas did look comfy, and are emblazoned with a “BA First” logo. The amenity kit bag is remarkably plain, though the “official” British Airways shield on the front is pretty cool. It is also stocked with “The Refinery” branded skincare products. The Refinery is a high-end salon for men with but two locations in London, and some quick checking showed that a 3.4 ounce tube of face cream retails for between $26 and $34 in the U.S., so I’m guessing it’s pretty good stuff (perhaps someone who’s been to the original salon in London can comment). NOTE: these photos were taken at home, not on the plane.
Amenity kit bag with official BA logo
The Refinery branded products
I very quickly wolfed down a little breakfast before landing. I’d just eaten a few hours before, and didn’t want to weigh myself down, literally and figuratively, with a couple of hours of driving on the wrong side of the road ahead of me, so I passed on a full breakfast and just had some yogurt and cereal. My wife did have the full English breakfast before I woke up, and said it was good, though too much food. As is unfortunately typical, we circled around Heathrow a couple of times before landing, but thanks to a vigorous tailwind, still pulled in to the gate a good 10 minutes early.
The overall service on this flight, while certainly fine, didn’t meet the standards of a First Class experience. It was the little things that were missing – passengers weren’t addressed by name, we weren’t asked if we wanted expedited dinner service, etc. None of that is a big deal, certainly not worth complaining to the airline about. But if I had paid full freight for these tickets, I’d have been a little PO’d. It does’t seem to match the white glove, personalized service found on First Class on Asian and Middle Eastern carriers.
Both James and Matthew described BA First Class as “glorified Business Class”, and that’s a pretty accurate assessment. It’s certainly a fine product, but doesn’t measure up to competitors. I was certainly glad to have sampled the product, but if you’re looking to burn a First Class award, I would suggest looking elsewhere first, especially with fuel surcharges in excess of $500 each way.
Photo at top: British Airways 777 pulling into Terminal D at DFW International Airport, June 24, 2015.