British Airways First Class review
BA's first class cabins
are spacious, all seats are on an aisle, and most seats are
British Airways introduced the
world's first ever lie-flat sleeper seat ten years ago, in 1996.
But since that time, their
first class cabins and seats have stayed almost unchanged, while
other airlines have introduced comparable or possibly even
better first class lie-flat sleeper seats, eroding their early
In addition, lie-flat sleeper
seats have been appearing in business class cabins as well.
Does it still make sense (did it ever make sense!) to spend $10,000 - $15,000 on a
relatively short flight from the US to UK in first class when
you get a very similar experience in business class for about
half the price?
This review is based on two
first class flights with British Airways in July 2006 - from
Chicago to London and from London to San Francisco. I
checked in for the flights in Chicago and London Heathrow,
experiencing the first class and regular lounges in both
airports and the arrivals lounge at Heathrow as well.
The First Class Experience and
Expectation in General
There is no doubt that first
class is the best type of flying experience you can get.
It is vastly better than coach class and somewhat better than
business class. But first class is usually a
disappointment for me, whether it be with British Airways or any
other airline - see the article on 'Who
Flies First Class Anymore' for a discussion on this point.
Like most other
first class passengers, I never personally pay for a first class
ticket - with the fare for a simple roundtrip to Britain being about $15,000,
that is obviously completely out of the question. Perhaps
other passengers are so abjectly grateful to be upgraded to
first class as to not view their experience from the perspective
of a $15,000 expenditure, but for me, I always think to myself
'The airline is charging $15,000 for this???' and measure the
experience by that perhaps impossibly high standard.
Am I being unfair in
applying this standard? I think not. It is the
airlines' choice to charge $15,000 for the ticket, and surely it
is only appropriate that the product/service be matched against
what they say it is worth - the same price as a new small car, a
one month world cruise, an extension to your house, etc.
Check-in for the flight in
Chicago was quick and simple.
I'd already checked my bags
when boarding the connecting Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle
to Chicago, but the downside to this was my bags never received
any priority tags, requiring me to wait longer upon arrival in
Heathrow. You'd think that with a $15,000 fare,
there'd be a system so as not to penalize passengers who are
connecting on to a BA flight from an incoming flight, but
apparently this is not the case.
My first class boarding pass
entitled me to use a priority lane when going through security,
but as often happens, the priority lane was no faster
than the regular lane, and possibly even a bit slower (this is
because typically there's only one person managing the priority
lane whereas the regular lanes might split into four or six or
Once getting through
security it took a bit of searching, but eventually I found the
BA lounge. Or, in this case, lounges. On one side of
the corridor is their regular lounge and on the other side is
a first class only lounge.
The main lounge was jam
packed full of people, with no spare seats to be found and
people uncomfortably standing up due to lack of seating.
The first class lounge was quiet and peaceful and far from full.
Strangely, neither lounge
had magazines or newspapers available. Usually one finds
copies of recent British and local newspapers in the BA lounges,
plus the usual range of magazines, but neither lounge offered
any of these. Another cost cutting measure, perhaps?
Strangely, my cell phone
didn't work in the first class dining room, but it did work in
the rest of the lounge areas. And regrettably, there was
no free Wi-fi (or regular wired internet broadband) access
offered in either lounge. Don't the airlines realize that
offering phone lines for modem dialing up are no longer state of
Pre-flight Dining in the Lounge
The flight I was on offered
pre-flight dining, with the concept being you can get your
eating over and done with before boarding the flight, allowing
you more time to sleep.
This is a very good idea for
two reasons - firstly, as stated, it means you don't have to
waste the time at the airport but can instead use it
productively, allowing you then to perhaps get a good night's
uninterrupted sleep on board, rather than have the first hour or
two spent in an extended meal service. Secondly, one's
taste buds do not work as well at altitude, and of course the
meals served are not freshly cooked in a kitchen, so the chance
to have a truly high quality and tasty meal is much greater on
But there are some
off-setting issues, too. Firstly, I'd much rather get to
the airport as late as possible and straight onto the flight,
instead of having to arrive extra early to eat. It
lengthens the entire travel experience - at least when eating on
board, you're doing two things at once - you're flying towards
your destination and eating. Secondly, I quite enjoy the
eating experience on board - it helps kill some time and has
become part of the night flying ritual for me - a meal and
couple of drinks, then lying down relaxed and full and going to
There were two dining rooms
- a first class and a regular dining room. I dined in the
first class dining room, and for most of the time there was only
one or two other tables with people dining. Service was
appallingly bad and very slow.
The menu offered two
starters, two salads, three mains and three desserts.
There were two whites and three reds on the wine list; no
champagne, and the wines were very ordinary and unimpressive
(although there were better wines on offer in the first class
I peeked into the other
dining room and noticed their menu was almost identical to the
first class menu.
No bread was offered, and
unlike the service on board where one always seems to be given
way more knives, forks and spoons than one actually needs, I
kept running out of utensils and having to steal them from other
I had two starters and a
main, but ran out of patience waiting for a chance of ordering
dessert so gave up and left at that point.
The food was okay, but the
dining experience was very disappointing and far removed from
what you'd expect in a regular high quality restaurant.
This bad service was echoed
in their London lounge as well. Eventually I had to get up
and go search for anyone to serve me - various staff members had
walked past me while I waited for 15 minutes for anyone to take
The first class cabin is at
the very front of the plane, and there are 14 seats. Most
seats are window seats, and there are two pairs of seats in the
middle for people wishing to travel together.
In the front of each seat
there is also a small stool that a fellow passenger could sit on
so if you wished to spend time chatting with a companion and
weren't sitting in the middle adjoining seats, this would be an
option too. BA refer to this rather grandly as being a 'demi
All seats have an aisle
alongside so you're never stuck having to climb over someone
else to go to the bathroom or stretch your legs or whatever.
And, talking about
bathrooms, there are two bathrooms for the 14 people in first
class, meaning there is seldom a wait to use one (this is about
five times the ratio of bathrooms to passengers as in coach
class) and the bathrooms remain reasonably fresh and clean all
flight long, due to their low amount of usage.
All seats are forward
facing. Although they were miracles of design cleverness
when first introduced in 1996, state of the art has evolved over
the last ten years and now they seem curiously unsophisticated
and dated. For example, in terms of adjusting them, one
can only adjust the back incline, lumbar support and foot rest.
The seats did have good
lighting, with two overhead lights and a dimmable light on a
gooseneck on the side of the seat.
The individual In-Flight
Entertainment (IFE) systems look as similarly aged as the seats.
The LCD screens now seem tiny compared to the much larger ones
on many other airlines, and the range of different channels - 18
- seems very limited.
BA do augment this in their
first class cabin with a selection of either 29 different
videotapes that can be played through the at-seat systems, or 27
different DVDs on planes that don't have the at-seat VCRs.
There is also satellite
phone service available at your seat.
As is all too often the
case, I had problems with the IFE. The sound was bad on
all channels, and my video didn't work. This is, I
believe, the same IFE system as was originally installed ten
years ago in the first class cabins - ten years is a lifetime in
the fast moving field of digital electronics and entertainment
and BA desperately needs to upgrade this part of their first
I subsequently discovered
that the headphones BA supplies to each first class seat have
some modest degree of noise cancelling ability, but I didn't
realize that at the time and so didn't use them, preferring
instead to use my
noise cancelling headphones.
It used to be that one of
the highlights of a first class flight was the amenities kit one
would receive. In the good old days, these kits were a
treasure trove of all sorts of goodies, even extending to
writing paper and pens and small gifts.
Nowadays, the amenity kit
that BA offers can only be described as pathetic. It was
sparsely filled with 'smelly junk' but lacked useful things such
as a comb or hairbrush (I forgot mine so hoped to find one in
the amenities kit).
We were also offered a set
of pajamas that we could change into for the flight and
subsequently keep. These were made out of some sort of
artificial fiber that probably falls apart after a single
washing, and/or pills uncontrollably, but for the brief time
wearing them on the flight they were perfectly comfortable and
warm. But one would rather hope that a $15,000 ticket
would get one a pair of finest silk pajamas, or at the very
least, ordinary cotton.
There was also a heavy
weight blanket to keep warm underneath, and this was something
that was needed for some of the time but not all the time.
The cabin temperature oscillated between icy and tropical.
I am in the minority, but I
have to say I don't find the lie-flat seats very comfortable to
sleep in. I find the mattress way too firm, and although
the seat converts to a 6'6" long bed, this isn't really enough
for a 6' person because your head doesn't go all the way to the
very top, and at the bottom, if your feet point down, you end up
being longer than your normal standing height. So the bed
was hard/firm and cramped.
Strangely, there were no
magazines or recent newspapers on board for the flight from
Chicago, although newspapers were offered on the flight back to
San Francisco. Another money/weight saving? Is this
appropriate when passengers are paying $15,000 fares?
One last small
disappointment. In the 'good old days' one used to be
given many hot towels - for example, upon boarding, before/after
meals, and prior to arriving. I like these and always make
a point of breathing in through them several times to inhale
some steam to moisten my lung tissues - tissues that otherwise
dry out in the arid lack of humidity in the cabin.
But these days, even in
first class, BA only gives you a single hot towel, offered
shortly prior to landing.
Service in general was
minimal rather than lavish, and particularly during the
overnight section of the flight, there were times when there was
no crew to be found - the crew that weren't sleeping themselves
would congregate in one of the business class galleys.
Rather than make frequent
visits around the cabin with glasses of water, we were given
small plastic bottles of water.
Eating and Drinking on Board
In addition to the meal in
the lounge prior to take-off, full meal service was offered on
The dinner claims to allow
you to choose whenever you might wish to be served, but the
flight crew absolutely do not give you any hint of having a
choice as to when you will be served dinner.
The menu was more extensive
than in the lounge, offering four starters, four mains, one
dessert and four snacks.
The wines and champagnes
were absolutely excellent, and there was also a tempting array
of after dinner liqueurs and a couple of fine single malt
whiskies listed on the menu, but alas, for some peculiar reason
the crew chose not to offer any of these.
Food was reasonably good,
and the cutlery included metal knives. A nice touch was
individual salt and pepper grinders - much nicer than little
paper sachets which are often insufficient.
I've sometimes complained
before about being woken too early for breakfast at the far end
of the flight, meaning that one misses out on an extra 30 - 60
minutes of sleep, only to then spend time doing nothing waiting
for the plane to land. Fortunately, this was not the case,
with the crew waking us up a mere 65 minutes prior to arriving
in London to offer us breakfast.
Breakfast was disappointing.
I was delighted to see that the menu offered us a choice of
three different types of tea, and was looking forward to making
my choice known. But instead the crew came around with
pots of generic tea - no choices being offered at all.
One of the other
disadvantages of the generic pot of tea is that it is inevitably
way too strong and has been sitting, brewing/stewing, for too
long. Yuck. One's $15,000 ticket gets one a cup of
tea more like what one would get in a roadside 'greasy spoon'
Why does BA print a menu
that variously offers after dinner drinks and three choices of
tea if such things are not then made available to passengers?
The other disappointment of
an airline breakfast is always the toast. Why can't the
flight crew properly toast a piece of bread? The answer, I
suspect, is that they're so astonishingly lazy they're not
prepared to wait for the bread to finish browning and slap it on
the plate while it is still barely warm and almost completely
When I ask for toast, I
expect crisp browned hot toast, not barely warm pale white moist
bread. Shame on British Airways.
One interesting thing
occurred shortly before we landed. I heard a noise that
sounded like very loud rain, and at first thought it to be
exactly that. But then realized it wasn't rain but hail we
were flying through (regular rain makes no noticeable noise).
Fortunately the plane seemed to emerge unscathed and our on-time
arrival proceeded without issue.
At the Other End
One of the curious things
about getting off a 747 is that the jetway door often opens up
not at the exit door between first and business class, but at
the exit door between the first and second sections of the
business class cabin.
This means that first class
passengers don't get off first, but instead have to wait until
the business class cabin behind them has first emptied out.
It is a small thing, but it does slightly detract from the
exclusiveness one feels one should have in first class.
If the incoming flight to
Heathrow lands in the early morning, first and business class
passengers are given passes to allow them into a priority line
for going through British Immigration. On occasion, the
regular line can involve a 20 minute or longer wait, so this can
be an appreciated benefit, but on this occasion, the priority
line was very slow moving, due to there being several flights
all coming in at the same time and less than half the desks
manned by Immigration officials. It seemed the regular
line was as fast moving as the priority line.
Although first class bags
are supposed to get special priority tagging to ensure they
arrive onto the carousel first, that didn't happen for me and so
I had to wait the usual time for my bags to appear.
British Airways has an
Arrivals Lounge at Heathrow (terminals 1 and 4), Gatwick and (of
all strange places) Johannesburg. The lounges - outside
the secure area after you've left the Customs Hall - give you a
place where you can have a shower and change your clothes,
perhaps have a breakfast, and otherwise generally freshen up.
This is a great way to
switch from travel clothes to business clothes if you're
planning to go straight into a schedule of meetings. And
if you're on vacation and arrived into London ridiculously
early, you can shower and change then go sightseeing for the day
rather than get to your hotel too early to check in and be
forced to go out in your travel clothes unrefreshed.
The Cost of First Class
As of 30 August 2006,
Travelocity advises the following roundtrip fares on British
Airways for flights to London, departing the US on 4 October and
returning on either 7 October or 11 October.
From (to London)
$6,743 - 8,963
$6,743 - 9,425
$5,332 - 7,428
First class travel costs
twice as much as business class and twenty times coach class.
Like many other high end
products, whether it be cars or clothes or anything, there is
clearly a law of diminishing returns and ordinary concepts of
value don't apply.
If you (or your employer)
can afford to travel first class, should you pay the extra cost
to enjoy this? The bottom line is that you'll arrive at
the airport at about the same time, whether you're in first or
business class, for your flight, and you'll probably leave your
arrival airport at about the same time too. You don't save
On the other hand, you will
enjoy slightly better food, slightly roomier seating/sleeping
(but remember that business class also has lie-flat sleeper bed
seats), and a slightly less crowded departure lounge.
On the flight, you'll have
slightly better in flight entertainment options (assuming that
the equipment at your seat isn't broken) and you'll have more
convenient access to washrooms.
British Airways First Class
is undeniably better than their business, premium economy, or
coach class service. But it isn't necessarily any better
than similar first class services offered by other airlines, and
indeed failed to make the 'Top Ten' list in this
Forbes roundup review. Their cabin, seats, and
entertainment options are all dated and in need of upgrades.
You also won't get any of
the other special extras such as limousine transfers to/from the
airport that are offered by Virgin Atlantic.
If you're using frequent
flier miles, the extra miles needed to get a first class award
rather than business or coach class might be well spent.
But if you're using money - especially your own money - most
people will choose not to spend something like $15,000 for first
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13 Oct 2006, last update
19 Dec 2013
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