You Always Remember Your First:
My First Time In Long Haul First Class, But Is It Worth It?
MIAMI — I have a true “First World Problems” confession to make. Until a few months back, I had never flown true International Long-Haul First Class. Business Class cabins domestically and internationally are my typical haunts.
As much as I adore Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, Qatar’s billed “World’s Best Business Class”, ANA’s sublime Business offering, and American Airline’s world standard 777-300 Business Cabin hard product, those don’t count. I wanted to experience the real thing.
In much of the world, Business Class has become the new First Class. As my colleague, Vinay Bhaskara suggested in an analysis, true international First Class is becoming ever more fleeting as the line blurs between First and Business in terms of hard and soft product.
But there is a remaining niche market for those top one percent of travelers for whom money is no object and for airlines and routes where there remains a a marketing opportunity (I am talking about you Etihad). Long-haul First Class though an endangered species will not become extinct. The Etihad Residence, enclosed suites like those pioneered by Singapore back in 2007, and whatever another airline has up its sleeve in this gilded age of premium cabin air travel, suggests the front cabin arms race will endure.
So out of curiosity to see how this one percent truly fly, I decided to take the plunge and upgrade to the pointy part of the plane. I wanted to see, feel, and taste the difference, especially in contrast to Business Cabins I regularly fly and answer the question “Is it really worth the extra cost?”
On my flight – British Airways (BA) flight BA209 from London Heathrow to Miami in early June, a non discounted one-way ticket in Club World was priced at $7,580 compared to First that was priced at $11,318 –$3,739 or nearly a third more dearer.
I don’t normally pen typical trip reports. They’re not really my expertise unless they involve an historic or inaugural flight, so I must admit there’s nothing scientific about this, nor do I have much of a discerning taste of international long-haul First Class travel. And though I love to eat, I am not a foodie . My review, then is purely subjective. And with that disclaimer, here we go.
For my virgin British Airways International First Experience (see what I did there?), I wouldn’t be flying on a cutting edge new aircraft A350, A380, or 787. Nor, would I wouldn’t be booked in any sort of Uber-First Suite on one of those Gulf 3 or Asian carriers famed for being at the forefront of passenger experience innovation.
Instead, I would be cosseted in a classic cabin onboard a classic plane flown by an airline that proclaims itself as “The World’s Favourite Airline”.
By now you’ve probably guessed it. My conveyance of choice was a Boeing 747-400 operated by British Airways. In many ways, this is an utterly appropriate representation of traditional First Class with a decidedly throw back appeal. And to boot, I had days earlier just flown BA’s Club World business product which allowed me a bit of baseline comparison.
At first glance, this might seem like a pretty pedestrian subject for review – First Class or not. So, before we take to the skies, a little background is in order as to what makes this service just a bit more special. First the aircraft, it’s hard to argue that there’s a more beloved airplane than the “Queen of the Skies.” British Airways obviously agrees. While many of the world’s flagship carriers have retired the original Jumbo Jet, British Airways continues to operate fifty of these iconic birds in strength.
In fact, they were the second carrier to take delivery of the 747-400 in 1989 with a unique double delivery. In spite of the recent arrival of the 787 and A380 (which were both delivered on the same day on July 4, 2013), the enduring 747 is still considered not only a staple of the fleet, but a flagship assigned to fly front-line routes like New York JFK.
In September 2014, BA announced that 18 of its 747s would receive a cabin refresh, including new seat cushions, and installation of Panasonic Avionics’ Android-based eX3 inflight entertainment (IFE) system from nose to tail.
It hasn’t been announced yet if BA’s new First Cabin first seen in the 787-9 will migrate to the 747. Though time is certainly running out for BA’s, The 747s are not due to be completely withdrawn from the BA fleet until 2020-22. By that point, the 747 will have been in continuous service with the airline for fifty years. With over 100 747s in service to BA over that period, this is a remarkable feat!
For the last decade or so, passenger experience innovation mind-share has been focused on the so-called Gulf Three and Asian, carriers, and to some extent Lufthansa. But let’s not forget. Long before there were Singapore’s Suites, Etihad’s Residences, Qatar’s extravagant A380 lounge, or Emirates’ showers; British Airways pioneered an important long-haul first.
Back in 1995, BA was the first airline to introduce a true lie-flat bed seat product in First and would again beat everyone around 2000 with the introduction of the first lie-flat hard product in Business Class as well. There are mixed feelings about BA’s controversial current Club World forward and rear-facing hard product and the new First Class product as well, but you have to hand it to the airline.
When it comes to premium cabins, they don’t buy just anything off the shelf. Like a fine Savile Row tailored suit, everything is shall we say “bespoke.”
British Airways mantra is “To Fly. To Serve.” Now, it was time to put “The World’s Favourite Airline” to the test.
Our Av-enture begins at London Heathrow dowdy Terminal 3 where some of BA’s flights overflow to. Yes, that pre-historic old labyrinth of a terminal doesn’t sound like it would make a good first impression, especially in comparison to BA’s T5 showplace.
But that’s not entirely true. Some of the gate areas, particularly BA’s have been spruced up though they remain small and congested. The BA Galleries Lounge in T3 is not separated between First and Club World as it is at the breathtaking and capacious T5 lounge. T3’s Galleries lacks the dedicated Concorde Room for First Class passengers, Elemis Spa, and visual appeal of T5 but otherwise all the requisite open buffet, full bar, and most of the amenities are in place.
After a brief pit stop for some curry and a Pinot Noir, I hustled down the depressing maze for the twelve minute walk to my gate. Immediately in the crush of humanity, I spot three different sets of passengers taking selfies through the glass with the 747 in the background. Even among non-AvGeeks, the Jumbo still inspires anticipation, excitement, and affection. I too, am caught up in the fervor snapping my own picks of G-BNLK (MSN 24053 • LN 790.)
She’s an accomplished bird. Having plied the skies since 1990 for over 25 years, she is one of the oldest 747-400s left flying. Today G-BNLK would be flying just the sort of route she was invented for, a long-haul ten hour westbound across the pond journey from Heathrow back to my home in Miami on BA209.
As much as I deigned to admire her, I was flying First as in first to board. So I navigated through the filled full house throng of 337 passengers to avail myself of this opportunity.
Enter and Turn Left
I fly British Airways quite often. Generally when boarding a BA 747, I turn right or take a jog up the stairs to one of the 52 seats the Club World Business Cabins. I have always regarded the Club World cabin pleasant enough in catering, in-flight entertainment, and service.
The current hard product, introduced as “Next Generation Club World” back in 2006 is a completely different matter. I’m not a fan of the current low slung forward and reverse facing seats that are adequate lie-flat beds, but as seats they leave something to be desired.
Mounted low to the floor, they force awkward “sit downs and stand ups”. The Club World cabins are all configured with aisle seats facing forwards while middle seats and window seats face backwards. Besides BA, only American and United have adopted this approach.
If you don’t want to make contact eye contact with the stranger in your eye-line (or they with you), there are retractable visors. But those have their drawbacks too. When raised there’s no window view if you’re not sitting on the window. Those obtrusively loud visors being raised and lowered by the cabin attendants detract from the ambience of the flight as well.
In defense of the Club World product, its configuration provides direct aisle access to everyone in its two cabins and the clever use of the real estate allows British Airways to raise capacity while simultaneously granting generous personal space to each passenger with 72” of seat pitch and a 20” seat width.
Look, I shouldn’t really be complaining. These are as they say “first world problems”. I am a relatively high status Ruby oneworld member, so program loyalty does play into it, but there are other ways across the pond and if I didn’t appreciate the BA product, there are certainly other options at my disposal.
But today, I would be living the high-life of an A-List celebrity or high net worth banker from The City. My experience with First Class, begins at the departure lounge as us rarified individuals are asked to board first.
All the regular run of the mill Club World, much less Premium Economy and economy travelers would just have to wait until the Uber Premium guests make our grand entrance. Truth be told, we have to muscle our way through the teeming crowd before our indulgences could begin.
I made my way down the jet-bridge and instead of making a right turn, I do the right thing and take a left turn into the tapered first class cabin in the nose of the 747. Immediate first impressions are a mix of the anachronistic (this is a 25 year old 747 after all) and truly modern. G-BNLK’s impeccable condition with nary a scuff in sight belies her advanced age.
This is one well looked after bird.
The blue LED mood lighting —again a feature pioneered by BA— welcomed us into the intimate yet paradoxically spacious up front cabin. The open suite product exudes elegance, privacy, and over-statement rather than opulence.
First introduced in 2012, this BA First Cabin has been superseded by a new hard product on the A380s, 787-9s, and progressively some of the 777 fleet.
It’s one classy affair with the highlight being backlit, smoked tinted glass window coverings that wouldn’t be out of place on an executive aircraft. Unique to First, the blue backlit electro-mechanically raised and lowered windows visors in pairs of 2 windows, are truly a showstopper.
The 14 open suite seats have a decided throne like appearance. The attractive black leather trim with chrome finishing utilizing the company’s famed Speedbird marge favors tastefulness over ostentation. A massive folding black lacquered wooden table folds out that allow working and dining at the same time. It also pushes far ahead to allow seat egress without disturbing the contents of the table.
The seats, though not enclosed in suite form, boast a 78”! seat pitch and 22” width. The ottoman doubles as a foot rest and an extra seat for a visiting passenger to share a power meeting with. The extra personal real estate immediately makes a positive impression.
Already placed on our seats were the Elemis amenity kits and a set of pajamas which I would pinch from the plane. When I asked if I could keep the pajamas, it was a dead give-away that I was some sort of bumpkin new to this high zoom class.
The side-walls, decorated with a linen texture, and an elegant Pullman train inspired light fixture only add to the ambiance. I sat right in the nose in 1K. In front of me, was the signature 747 garment closet while just to the rear was the buffet monument replete with newspapers, magazines, and decorative arrangements.
These signature 747 features give the Big Boeing character, with the absence of the A380 features like a bar not missed on this bird. I have no doubt, that this hard product would make an MP, MD, CEO, or VIP very happy.
About the only unimpressive aspect of the cabin are the surprisingly down-market, unadorned lavatories. While most airlines these days appoint their lavs with upgraded furnishings, lighting, and textures; BA only goes so far as to add a bud vase – empty I might add. Though this is a “loo with a view” with a window positioned smartly behind the toilet.
The Crew That Makes Flights Click
Hard product is hard, but soft product is more illusive – and I am not talking about the catering. I am talking about the cabin crew. Instantly, upon entering the aircraft I was made to feel special and appreciated, though not in any way overly fawned over. Our purser for the flight personally introduced himself to each passenger in the cabin.
He is very switched on and enthusiastic about all things British Airways. He says the secret sauce for BA cabin crews is that they are trained to be very tactile and feel out individual customers for their preferences, striking that delicate balance between being detatched and too intrusive.
His dedicated First Class cabin crew of a ratio of 3:14 passengers would be equally gracious, warm, and attentive. In Club World, four cabin attendants look after 52 passengers. Regardless of class, over the years I have noticed many BA crews tend to really excel in hitting that sweet spot between being friendly and formal; and dignified and delightful. I realize there are mixed opinions on this, but again this is my own personal experience.
When I asked him what the advantages of First were over Club World, in an understated British way he replied “upgraded ground services and increased privacy.” Clearly, he decided he would let the flight speak for itself.
We were immediately offered not just the obligatory champagne, water, or orange juice but anything that could be proffered from the bar… anything. I chose water, feeling the need to be hydrated as I wouldn’t be able to help myself as I confronted the expansive wine and digestives list later. At this juncture, our cabin crew took our meal orders but did so in an intimate matter actually leaning down at eye level to have a conversation about the options but doing it in a solicitous but equals manner.
It’s a subtle difference in approach but one I surely appreciated.
Front of the bus or back of the bus, all passengers depart at the same time, and in our case that meant a 30-minute late departure. The crush of traffic laboring under Heathrow’s rigid slot controls because there are only two runways were, as usual the main culprits of our delay. But, hey, I wasn’t exactly suffering.
British Airways’ in-flight entertainment system “High Life” works gate-to-gate so I was well into an episode of Louie, and probably wouldn’t cared if we took an additional delay. I had no connections to make, just nowhere to go but home.
Time to Fly. Then to Serve
The four mighty Rolls-Royce RB211s spooled up signaling our rendezvous with the sky was at hand. After a relatively short taxi period and gloriously powerful, cacophonous take-off roll we were airborne heading north west towards Ireland and over the North Atlantic. A Boeing 747 take-off is always a treat to be savored whether it’s your first or one hundredth time.
As we reach cruise, it becomes clear why First Class on a 747 is usually positioned in the nose as opposed to the still highly vaunted upper deck. It’s simply quieter right in the front, owing to the aerodynamics of the fastest airliner in the sky. And well for a little snob appeal, dare I say “In First, you get there first.” On a 747, technically before the pilots!
With the Rolls-Royce Symphony performing in the background, and before the onset of catering, I fired up the Rockwell Collins High Life in-flight entertainment system for a semi-deep dive. The semi-large screen swings out to allow perfect adjustment for the right lighting and seating position.
The dated IFE is the weak link in the First Class passenger experience. The catalog of entertainment offerings is a bit lacking, the user interface is slow and cumbersome, and the image quality so aliased and low quality that many travelers resort to their tablets and laptops like I did.
Fortunately, the USB power port is conveniently located right on the screen and AC power on the floor. BA is proactively replacing this pokey, aging system on 18 of its 747s with the state-of-the-art Panasonic eX3. As for in-flight internet connectivity, currently only two of BA’s aircraft offer it: The JFK – London City A318s with their limited email / SMS service. BA recently signed an agreement with GoGo to equip the long-haul fleet with wi-fi, and some of the 747 fleet will receive the retrofit.
If this were a weekday, I would feel anxious being disconnected for so many hours. But this being a weekend, it was bliss to be off the grid.
A Trip Down Alimentary Avenue
Just 20 minutes after leaving terra firma, our culinary adventure began with a glass of Pinot Noir. In my case I selected, Coronato 2011 and a Domini de la Cartoxia from Priorat Spain. The upgraded wine list over Club World was readily apparent as were the nuts.
In Club World, cold pre-packaged nuts are served; A snack I have always found to be underwhelming. But in First, we were presented with a ramekin of delicious mixed roast nuts of almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, macadamias, sugar, and honey. This even exceeds American’s signature hot nut mix, as it should be – after all, this is First Class.
British Airways aspires to restaurant-quality cuisine in flight in its premium cabins. On par with First Class’ enhanced hard product and exclusivity, catering is where flights can be made or broken, and is a key differentiating product. An hour into the flight, the multi-course lunch service began with a crisp white linen spread out over the expansive table. This would be a harbinger of the gourmet gorging that was about to commence.
The clickety clackety trolleys and pre-fabricated food setups are nowhere to be found up front. All First Class meals look as if they are plated onboard, and indeed they are. One of the cabin attendants works the galley exclusively.
In the highest echelon cabins, presentation matters nearly as much as taste. The famed Wedgwood Bone China produced, especially for British Airways and sterling cutlery cuts a lovely first impression of luxury and class. The delicate Cole and Mason salt and pepper shakers are the most elegant I have ever seen on a plane. I resisted pinching them… barely. The service itself would be unrushed and clearly on the passengers’ schedule.
What’s Michelin style dining without an amouse-bouche? British Airways’ chefs concocted a goat cheese macaroon. It sound well, absolutely unappetizing to me due to my loathing of goat cheese. As a reviewers’ duty, I was hide bound to try it and I was delighted with it.
Then came the bread service, with a wicker basket chock ‘o block full of olive, multi-grain, and sour dough. But what really caught my eye was the dainty packaging for the Netherlands Butter – more suited for a brasserie then an airplane.
The packaging could be the subject of its own unboxing video on YouTube – It was that beautiful.
I always find it amusing when restaurants or airlines for that matter call an appetizer a starter. After nuts, a bread, and amouse-bouche course, I had already started, but I digress. My friendly cabin attendant set down (not plopped down) a beautifully presented cold poached lobster marinated in lemon with heritage carrot, buttermilk gel and ginger crumble.
It was as much as a feast for the eyes as it was for the palette thanks to the lilac flower thanks to the ginger. Mango sauce contributing a sweet contrast to the crustacean.
Like beef, airline salads are rarely something to write home about. If the lettuce rates above wilted, I consider that a score. But up here the expectations are elevated. The fresh seasons salad served with honey mustard was the tastiest and crispiest dish of greens I have ever indulged in aloft.
The lengthy multi-course meal service was beginning to resemble a tasting menu. So far, so very good, but the crescendo was about to come: The Main Event: The Entrée.
The menu offered a tempting array of items including seared fillet of Aberdeen Angus Beef and smoked beef cheek; a beef burger with streaky bacon; Oriecchiete pasta with pea, tomato, mango-tout fricassee; Seared Thai-spiced tuna, and another dish from the sea.
Like many, I consider a steak at high, dry altitudes under the judgment of attenuated taste buds, the ultimate airborne culinary litmus test. I was returning from Germany though and the thought of consuming any more red meat would trigger an alert to my cardiologist so I abandoned that thought.
Reluctantly, I chose pan-fried seabass and dressed crab with compressed watermelon, asparagus purée, potato confit and citrus Hollandaise. The portions were generous to say the least. But the bass was a tad dry as seabass is won’t to be.
The Hollandaise sauce dabs compensated somewhat for this, moistening the fish up. The asparagus was too puréed and over cooked for my taste, but I think that was intentional. The grandly titled potato confit had a recognizable taste… hmmm, what is it? Oh yes, hash browns? The crab on the other hand with its spicy kick was the absolute standout of this tasty, but not exemplary meal. Next time I am reverting back to the beef. Just don’t tell my doctor.
At the suggestion of my cabin attendant, who had the vino knowledge and enthusiasm of a Sommelier, my meal was paired with Mesault Le Clous 2013. This was an excellent choice that augmented the main course. I would continue the wine tasting throughout the flight.
In due “course,” came the desert course. The chocolate and macadamia brownie paired with Madagascan vanilla ice cream sure looked tempting but not enough that I would be willing to suffer the digestive consequences. I am lactose intolerant and don’t have a particularly sweet tooth so I selected the passion fruit and mango tart. Once again, beautifully presented and a delectable balance of sweet and, well… tart.
Just as my stomach was about to explode, came the obligatory cheese plate which I declined, though I was the only one in the cabin who said “no to the queso.” And if I’d thought I’d had enough, I’d be wrong. A selection of fresh fruit, a selection of biscuits, and a chocolate box selection by Laudeb were offered. I declined and my flight attended reminded me that this would all be available throughout the flight until high tea, just in case I changed my mind.
I was beginning to think British Airways’ stuffing of customers’ gullets was some sort of conspiracy to expand their waste-lines and force them to upgrade into premium cabins with wider seats.
If it weren’t for being presented the bill at the end of the meal, I would have thought I had been in a Michelin 3-star restaurant that just happened to be flying at Mach .8, 37,000 feet in the air.
As far as comparing the catering to Club World, I would just say the First Class meal was very memorable. Club World is clearly no slouch, but let’s just say I had no memory of what I had consumed on the flight over in BA’s Business Cabin.
A Throne Fit for a King (or Queen)
At this point, the blue mood lighting was suppressed to near darkness and the cabin became a sanctuary of sleep for most in the cabin. But I had a job to do: review the seat. The seat controls are operated from an ergonomic rotary dial remote that is so pleasing and tactile to use that I found myself futzing with it just for the sheer joy of it. I tend not to sleep on airplanes but I did recline the seat to its full lie flat position.
I asked the puzzled crew to make up the turn down service with mattress for sleeping just to try it. The wide, long bed and soft linens made my 60 minute cat nap quite restful. Anytime I fly, I immediately try to do the “jetlag” push and adjust to the destination time-zone. As this was a long 10 hour westbound daytime flight, I opted not to sleep any further. I had work to do, and I didn’t want to miss the famed High Tea service so synonymous with BA.
The High Point of the Flight
Ninety minutes out from Miami, the gluttony re-commenced with High Tea fit for a King or more appropriately a Queen. I am not a tea drinker, not by a long shot but out of sense of duty. I selected an Earl Gray from the tea box. It was served piping hot in a delicate piece of china that again should have wound up in my carry-on bag.
Afternoon tea is a misnomer. It could be called brunch. We were plied with delicate finger sandwiches: prawn with lemon mayonnaise, chicken with tarragon mayonnaise, Burford egg with cress, and Brie with quince and rocket. I didn’t know what half these ingredients were but wow, were they delicious. And what snack doesn’t come with desert? We were served patisseries stuffed with light and dark Batttenberg, Passion-fruit and coconut slices, and Orange Madeline.
As long as we’re at it, bring on the buttermilk scones accompanied by clotted crime and strawberry preserves. After devouring this decadence, I noticed the attitude of the 747’s nose start to point down a degree as the First Class cabin’s catering had definitely affected the weight and balance of the aircraft. I’m kidding… just.
As we made our descent into a storm-ridden Miami, we were asked to bring our thrones (seats) to an upright position. Cleverly, the blue LED rings changes to green around the rotary dial indicating the seat has reached its take-off and landing position.
Picking up moderate chop as we picked around storms, I could hear the Wedgwood Bone China clattering around, but none of it dislodged. I was actually hoping we’d be put into a hold or diverted to spend more time onboard but alas, my time as a First Class high roller was coming to an end.
With a resounding thump and rush of air noise, the nose gear under us retracted, the flaps retracted further, and we began our final descent into Miami. At 18:33 we touched down on terra firma and a few minutes later, we enjoyed our last perk. First Class gets to disembark first. After that, we joined the throngs of passengers, becoming yet again mere mortals like everyone else clearing immigration at Miami International Airport.
So, was First Class fabulous? Ranking in order the upgrade in privacy, hard product, service attention, and catering; I think you know my answer to that question: A resounding yes! But, did it justify paying a 33% premium? Absolutely yes! As long as I am not buying.
The British Airways First experience is best summed by tweaking one of their advertisements for the VC-10 from the 1960s: “Swift. Silent. Superb” to “Swift, Smashing, Supreme.” Yes, some of their competitors offer more modern frills like enclosed suites, standup bars, and showers, but as an AvGeek I don’t know if it gets anymore “Bloody Awesome” then sitting in seat 1K (or 1A) on a classic British Airways 747 but I am anxious to find out.
How will I ever “slum it” again back in Business Class? Something tells me I will handle it just fine.
British Airways upgraded our Club World Ticket for this flight. As always, our opinions are independent and remain our own.