British Airways Business Class (Club World)
It is a pretty picture,
but the champagne was non-vintage and the overall experience
BA boasts having the world's
first fully flat bed in a business class cabin. I sampled it on
flights between Seattle and London and return in October 2002,
and had a very disappointing experience in both directions.
In the interests of fairness, I
flew them again in October 2003 to see if my previous
experiences were a 'one-off' or typical, and then again twice in May
2008 and again later in the year.
I have updated
the review as appropriate.
The Total Business Class
In theory, a business class
ticket offers you a lot more than just a more comfy seat on the
plane. You should also expect to be able to get your seats
pre-assigned, a separate fast check-in line, priority luggage
handling, and a pleasant lounge in which to relax and await the
BA refused to pre-assign us
seats, in either direction, even though I called three weeks
prior to departure. They said that this was 'for our
convenience'! They say that by not pre-assigning more than half
the seats, they can ensure that everyone gets the seats they
want when checking in at the airport. They said that, in
particular, it would mean that there were no problems with
couples traveling together and not otherwise being able to be
seated together. I explained that we were a couple traveling
together, and suggested it would be easier if they gave us two
seats together in advance, rather than forcing us to wait until
the uncertainty of what might be available at the airport, but
BA refused to help. This is both stupid and unacceptable, and
explains why BA has earned itself an industry reputation for
having one of the least helpful business class advance seat
assigning policies of all airlines.
May 08 Update : This
policy has been slightly modified - premium level frequent
fliers (either BA Executive Club or Oneworld partner airlines)
can get seats preassigned, and on rare occasion their
Reservations staff have been known to sympathetically bend the
rules to help. Major travel agencies can also apparently
get seats pre-assigned for their clients.
Check in at Seattle was
quick and easy. But for the return flights, when checking in at
Geneva, the business class line was moving more slowly than
their frequent flier checkin line! An additional benefit, when
flying out of Heathrow, is a priority lane to pass through
Emigration and Security. But this priority lane also moved
slower than the regular lanes - a completely unacceptable
situation. A BA customer services rep should have been
monitoring the relative line lengths and arranged for more
staffing to be added to the priority lanes. In May 08, the
two lines were moving at similar speeds, as has often been the
case when I've observed both lines in the past. The
regular line has multiple screening lanes, the priority lane
usually only has one lane, so the net result is similar line
The business class lounges
in Geneva and in London are both lovely. But in Seattle, the BA
lounge is way too small. When we arrived, there were no
remaining pairs of seats together - we had to sit some distance
apart from each other. Furthermore, people were permanently
camped at the two computer terminals, and all the phones had
people seated beside them, so there was no way to get online,
either with BA's computer equipment or my own.
Although it was
disappointing that we couldn't sit in the lounge together, at
least we could sit. Later arrivals into the lounge found
themselves greeted by literally standing room only! It would
have been more comfortable for them to enjoy a seat in the
public gate area.
The Seattle lounge offers free
Wi-Fi, but is not designed
for people who want to work. There were only two workstations (ie
tables with chairs) and they were both taken up with BA's own
computers. The many people in the lounge with their laptops out
all had to have them balanced on their laps, and the high sided
chairs forced one to squash one's arms very uncomfortable when
typing on the keyboard.
The T4 BA lounge also offers
free Wi-Fi, but only in limited parts of the lounge. The
area with the desks and computer workstation areas is,
bizarrely, not in the coverage area (you'll want to go to the
bar area instead, as counter-intuitive as this seems!).
Some months ago BA announced
its plan to discontinue priority handling of business class
luggage. BA still places special tags on the bags, but this did
not seem to result in any speedier delivery of the bags at the
other end, and indeed on the return flight, BA lost both bags
for varying numbers of days. Three weeks later and BA have still
not responded to my request for compensation.
In May 08 my bags had no
problems on the flights from the US, but were lost, along with
those for 20+ other passengers on the 777 flight, on the return
flight from Heathrow back to Seattle. They were returned
to me two days later. BA's unreliability with bag handling
is known world-wide, and seems to continue unabated, year-in and
Arriving on Board - First
It was a relief to leave the
crowded BA lounge and to move to the airplane. But, after
arriving at my seat, it was like I'd taken the starring role in
'The Invisible Man'. None of the various flight attendants in
the cabin greeted me. No-one offered me a newspaper or drink.
No-one offered to take my jacket and hang it up. No-one provided
me with an amenity kit. I did notice flight attendants doing
this enthusiastically to other people in the cabin, but for some
reason they chose to ignore me.
Eventually, I gave up
waiting and demanded some service, which was then provided
without comment or apology. BA offer different amenity kits to
men and women, but neither has anything special - this is
another area of conspicuous reduction in quality over the years.
Some time after the flight
had taken off and reached cruising altitude, with the flight
attendants circulating freely around the cabin, I realized that
my seat electronics were all broken, and so I used the flight
attendant call button on the adjacent seat (mine didn't work!)
to call a flight attendant to ask if they could fix the problem
or move me to another seat (they couldn't and didn't). The call
bell made its usually 'dong' sound and the light went on above
our seats. I even noticed one of the flight attendants look up
in response to the 'dong', but then look away again.
After almost fifteen
minutes, a flight attendant appeared to ask me if I wanted a
drink. No mention of the lit call light. I decided I'd stop
waiting to see how long they'd ignore the call light at that
stage, turned off the alarm, and discussed my problem with them.
Again, an entirely unacceptable service standard.
It was an unpleasant feeling
of deja vue when I flew again in 2003. I boarded the plane,
struggling under the weight of probably too much carry-on, and
walked into a very dark and gloomy cabin (for some strange
reason, the main cabin lights were off). A flight attendant
passively watched me as I took off my jacket. He quickly walked
away at that point, and I thought he had gone to find a hanger
so that he could hang my jacket for me. I waited, but after a
couple of minutes it was plain that he had simply walked away at
the point where he could have offered a service to me.
No amenities kit was offered
at any stage. And, while a minor point, the seat pocket was
missing a copy of their inflight magazine, meaning I had no
information on what movies were playing on which channels. At
least the in-flight entertainment system worked at my seat this
time, albeit it somewhat imperfectly.
A better experience was
enjoyed on both flights in May 08, with almost everything going as it should on
board. Perhaps the half empty business class cabin helped,
allowing the flight crew to spend more time with their
The Sleeper-Bed Seats
Here you can see
illustrations of the seats, both when configured as a bed and
when set for normal 'sit-up' seating. A distinctive feature of
these seats is that they alternate between facing forwards and
Note that these
illustrations (adapted from the BA website) correctly show the
seats to become a four piece bed. Perhaps the four separate
pieces are part of the reason why I found the 'bed' to be
The various seat controls
are all power operated. Some airlines include a feature card
that describes how to operate and adjust all the different
things on the seat, but although BA's seats have a bewildering
number of buttons and adjustments, there was no explanatory
Seating is 2+2 on the upper
deck and 2+4+2 on the lower deck and on 777 planes). My preference is for the upper
deck. There is more locker space, a higher ratio of toilets to
passengers, and because it is upstairs, all by itself, there are
fewer disturbances caused by flight attendants and passengers
moving through the cabin semi-randomly. But even
downstairs still sees you with generous overhead space.
The seats are claimed to be
six feet long when fully extended as a bed, and probably this is
so. But not all of the six feet is usable unless you have your
head wedged hard up against the edge of the headboard, and your
feet pressing hard against the back end as well. I am almost
exactly 6' tall, and found the bed was way too short for me
to be able to lie straight, and way too narrow for me to be able
to lie on an angle. Any bed needs to be longer than you are to
reflect the fact that when you lie on the bed, your feet face
down (and increase your effective length) rather than go out at
right angles when standing, and your head rarely goes to the
very top, but only to halfway up the pillow. So the BA 6'
sleeper bed seat is probably only long enough for people 5' 8"
Rather than getting a good
night's sleep, I tossed and turned fitfully and experienced
massive back pain in the process. As extraordinary as it may
seem, I find a regular business class seat that partially
reclines to be more comfortable and easier to sleep in than
these so-called sleeper bed seats.
Seats alternate between
facing forwards and backwards. If you have a middle seat, you
therefore can find yourself almost staring at the passenger
alongside in the eyes for the entire flight - not always a
desirable outcome! Recognizing this, BA provided fan like
privacy screens that can be unfolded between the seats. But when
this is done, one loses almost all eye contact with the aisle
and if you have claustrophobic tendencies, you would find it
quite unpleasant. The already narrow space becomes even
I tried one of the
rear-facing seats in 2003. For most of the flight, there was no
distinguishable difference at all, but when taking off it was
strange to be pushed forward rather than back, and when landing,
the opposite experience occurred.
Food and Drink
I remember the good old days
when one was offered a choice of water, juice, or champagne when
arriving on board. Not so these days - all you get is water or
Update, May 08 : The
champagne is back. Yay!
After taking off, there was
an enormous delay of about 45 minutes before they started
serving drinks and snacks (this delay may have been a one-off
and wasn't experienced in 08). There was no apparent reason for this
delay, and the passengers in coach class were well into their
drink and food service before we business class passengers had
any chance to get anything.
The wine list included an
excellent Meursault, ordinary non-vintage Champagne, and some
mysterious Californian reds - no classical French Bordeaux at
The wine list was somewhat
improved in 2003, with a 1997 vintage champagne and a nice
Bordeaux as well as a lovely Pouilly Fume.
In 2008, the wine list was
back to non-vintage Champagne, plus some adventurous selections
of whites and reds. A 2003 Wattle Creek Shiraz was
amazingly complex, I didn't try any of the three whites or the
The menu offered two choices
of appetizers, three main courses on the flight to London and
four on the flight back to Seattle, and two desserts. But, to my
disappointment, by the time they got to serving me (and, no I
was not in the last row!) they no longer had all their food
choices available. This shows an extraordinary degree of
penny-pinching meanness on BA's part (each extra entree costs
them maybe $4).
In 2008, there were four
main courses offered, and I had a wonderful meal. Gravlax
salmon, a lovely salad, melt-in-your-mouth beef short ribs with
a great sauce, and a very nice cheese plate, finished off with a
couple of chocolates, on the flight over. On the return, a
brilliant asparagus appetizer, then I treated myself to two main
courses - a superb beef casserole and a marvelous cold poached
salmon salad, plus cheeses. Wonderful both ways - indeed,
couldn't be improved upon at all. Two brilliant meals in a
But, as wonderful as the
food was, it was 'rough around the edges' with some of the
frills you'd hope for missing. For example, it was
surprising to see that sauces were offered in tiny plastic
sachets such as you'd get at a takeaway joint.
In common with every other
flight I've had on BA, their tea was absolutely undrinkable. Way
too strong, and overbrewed. What is the point of flying on a
British airline if they can't serve a decent cup of tea! Even
the tea on modern British trains is excellent, but never on BA
A nice touch was that the
meals were accompanied with two different types of salt (sea
salt and rock salt) and two different types of pepper (white and
black). But rather than being in nice little miniature shakers,
they were presented in cheap paper sachets. 2008 update :
You now get just one type of salt and one type of pepper, in
miserably small packets that are woefully inadequate.
It was disappointing to be
given plastic cutlery, but in fairness to BA, this is due to UK
civil aviation guidelines. The FAA do allow metal knives and
forks (subject to their evaluation of each style of knife and
fork), but the UK authorities do not, so flights to/from London
need to use cheap plastic.
2008 update - we now have
metal cutlery once more.
After the unnecessarily late
dinner, there was an all too brief period before an
unnecessarily early breakfast. The cabin lights came back on
more than an hour and a half before arriving into London. We
were quickly served a breakfast and then had almost an hour to
wait until our arrival.
I asked why they always
serve breakfast so early, destroying the chance of any semblance
of 'a good night's sleep'. The surprisingly frank answer was
that it is more convenient for the cabin staff if they serve
breakfast early, allowing plenty of time to clean up and prepare
for landing. Why is it that we - the $8315 fare paying
passengers [2008 - the fare is now $10256] - have to be ruled by what is convenient for the
cabin crew, rather than vice versa?
In 2008, breakfast service
didn't start until about 55 minutes prior to landing, a much
The seat is poorly designed
in several respects.
For example, if one has a computer on the table tray, it is impossible to
fold down the small drink holder. The computer fills the tray,
and there is nowhere convenient to put a drink.
And if you want to reach
something in the seat back pocket in front of you, you'll have
to get up and move over to it, because it is far from being in
The Business Class section
offers eighteen different channels of video programming and a
dozen or so channels of audio entertainment plus the wonderful
realtime Map display that shows where the plane is, what height,
speed, etc, and estimated time of arrival. The selection of
movies was reasonably good, including recent releases. There was
also a phone at the seat, but I didn't test to see if this
worked throughout the flight, and possibly some computer games
Unfortunately, the entire
In-Flight Entertainment system was broken at my seat on the
flight SEA-LHR. Because the cabin was full, they couldn't move
me to a seat that did have a working system, and indeed, one of
the flight attendants told me that several other people also
were suffering broken IFE systems too! This meant that not only
could I not control my video system, but I couldn't control the
overhead light, either - although there was a second small light
on the seat itself, this was a problem on the night flight.
On the return, my seat was
working, but the entire system for all people in the cabin was
suffering from occasional piercing bursts of static that made us
urgently rip our headphones away from our ears.
The electronics seemed
satisfactory in 2003, but not so the lighting. The overhead
lights were misadjusted so that the person next to me's light
shone primary in my space (as did my own). This caused the other
person to be in semi-gloom while I was in blinding light.
Update 2008 : Seat
lighting is still not perfect. The overhead light that
shines down on an angle was blocked if the privacy fan was up,
and if I angled the mini light on the top of the seat to shine
where I most wanted it to shine on the book I was reading, it
ended up pointing straight in the eyes of a passenger diagonally
opposite, who, through a flight attendant asked me to redirect
the light. So reading was difficult.
One of the features that BA
are very proud of is that they provide at-seat power for laptop
computers. Well, yes, they do and they don't! Unless you have a
special type of plug adapter and cord, you won't be able to
connect your computer to the power supply. Don't worry - BA have
these on board. But, do you think they give them to you, or even
just lend them to you (not for free, but as part of the $9000
premium you've paid for your business class seat)? No, of course
not. You have to pay approx $150 extra to buy one of these
The First - But not the Best
BA's business class sleeper
bed seat is undoubtedly the first such seat (although now some
three years old). But it is equally undoubtedly not the best.
Virgin Atlantic Airways
recently announced their introduction of a seemingly vastly
superior type of seat. It is longer. It is wider. It is probably
more comfortable. There are more entertainment choices on the
personal video. And they provide free adapters for the computer
power supply plugs.
I review the
business class and sleeper seat here, and it seems to trounce the BA
seat and business class service in all respects.
Update 2008 : Five
more years on, and BA's business class is now seeming very dated
compared to the 'state of the art' elsewhere. They are
replacing their current business class seats and inflight
entertainment systems with apparently better ones, but I've yet
to encounter the newer configuration.
Adding Up the Numbers
An economy airfare between
Seattle and London on BA costs between $400 (on special) and up
to $1000 at other times. The flight time is about ten hours. A
business class fare is $10,256 [as of May 2008] - more than $9000 extra (or about
$450 per flying hour). (In case you wondered, first class is
In evaluating the value of a
business class fare, it is important to remember that there is
almost no difference in total journey time for business class
rather than coach class. You still have to check-in a ridiculous
number of hours before the flight. Your part of the plane takes
off and lands at exactly the same time as coach class. You get
to breathe the same air that the people in coach class do. Maybe
you might save a few minutes waiting for your bags (but maybe
not). The premium for business class is almost exclusively in
return for more comfort, not for a faster flight. How much extra
comfort should $9000 buy you?
Anywhere in the world - on
the ground or at sea - a $9000 premium for what in essence can
be considered as two nights in a nice hotel, two dinners and two
breakfasts, plus some drinks and free movies - would buy you the
most extravagant luxury imaginable.
But not in the air. You get
service of randomly varying standard, anywhere from excellent to
unacceptable, you're may find that your limited
choice of food items has already run out and you have no choice
but to take the food choice that all your fellow passengers have
already wisely refused. You've got an appreciable chance of
finding that your seat and its video system and even its light
doesn't work, you have in-seat power for your computer but the
adapter cable will cost you $150 extra, and the pre flight
services (faster checking in and lounge) may be inferior to
those enjoyed by coach class passengers, while the post flight
services (faster customs/immigration and baggage) may be either
not offered or again inferior to coach class travel.
The Unanswerable Question
Is it worth $9000 extra to
fly Business Class? By any rational measure, the answer has to
be 'absolutely not'! My experience has sometimes included longer checkin times
than for coach, a standing-room only lounge, a broken seat
entertainment system, no choices of food because they had run
out, and lost baggage.
My recommendation, if you're
spending your own money on travel, is, whenever BA have a
special (most of the time, it seems!) to spend the small extra
cost on their 'World Traveler Plus' premium economy service.
This gives you a tangible improvement in comfort and service,
but at a very affordable cost. Of course, if your company is
paying, then enjoy the best class they will allow!
BA regularly fills its
Business Class cabin, and presumably at least some of the
travelers are not staff traveling for free, or upgraded
passengers, or people with mileage awards, but real fare paying
passengers! Which just goes to show that you can, indeed, fool
some of the people, some of the time.
Update May 2008 : Some
of the preceding comments seem a bit harsh, and so I'm rereading
and revising this, fresh in the glow of a good business class
experience. Perhaps it is fair to say that when you pay as
much as $10,256 for a business class flight, you rightly have
the very highest of service expectations, and it seems difficult
for airlines to uniformly meet those expectations.
Apparently BA will sometimes
sell upgrades to Business Class at the airport when checking in,
for prices ranging from $500 to $1200 per person, one way.
At this price - $50 - $120 extra per hour of travel, the cost is
closer to sensible and might be something you wish to consider.
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15 Nov 2002, last update
28 May 2011
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.