There is no other way to truly fly across the Atlantic, is there? In this review, I will look at my round trip with British Airways (BA) starting at London-Heathrow and jumping across the pond to New York onboard the majestic Boeing 747-400.
British Airways has come under scrutiny in recent years, for turning to a low-cost model on European flights, then for notoriously poor long haul catering, that was however given a makeover in 2018.
I will consider the service provided on two sectors both on the 747; then I will look into how pleasant London-Heathrow and New York JFK are to fly through, and most importantly, consider that critical question: Does the Queen of the Skies still hold her crown in the 21st century?
Flight Number: BA173
From: London Heathrow Airport LHR/EGLL
To: New York John F Kennedy Airport JFK/KJFK
Ticket Cost: £436.774 (including taxes)
Seat Reservation: £49.00 x 2
Departure Time Planned: 11:20
Departure Time Actual: 11:32
Arrival Time Planned: 14:05
Arrival Time Actual: 13:56
Aircraft: G-CIVF B747-400
Flight Number: BA116
From: New York John F Kennedy Airport JFK/KJFK
To: London Heathrow Airport LHR/EGLL Departure
Time Planned: 20:10
Departure Time Actual: 20:05
Arrival Time Planned: 08:20
Arrival Time Actual: 08:20
Aircraft: G-BYGC BOAC Liveried B747-400
Booking the Flight
The flight was booked through the ever-mysterious BA app for iPhone. It is always a mystery to me as it is basically the website squashed into a mobile app, rather than a bespoke and customer-built app.
I used the best fare finder which is the easiest way to find some of the excellent deals BA offer across the Atlantic and indeed the world.
Seat reservations and additional baggage cannot be added at the time of booking and need to be added in later. This can possibly be done through ‘manage my booking.’ Or there again possibly not depending on what mood it is in.
The BA best finder does, however, make it very easy to see what the best fare options are for your combination of flights. Making it easy for you to select the best value fare or the fare that suits your needs. It will also show options via One World connecting partners.
I always like flying from Heathrow—it is easy enough for me to reach directly on the train. In this case, I arrived via the Heathrow Express directly to Terminal 5.
For the second time in two weeks, I found myself fighting with the BA self-check-in machines. The majority of check-in with the exception of families and first and business class passengers are now done at one of the self-service kiosks.
Despite being easy to use, I always find they wield ever more interesting results, making it very difficult to print the necessary baggage tags and a new boarding card if required.
The physical baggage drop is done at an integrated baggage carousel; it is a simple case of scanning your baggage tag and then off your suitcase is whisked into the great void.
Baggage drop in New York was equally painful, with long queues and very few staff on hand to process bags. Similarly to Heathrow, a baggage tag needs to be printed at the self-service machine then you proceed to drop your baggage off in person. It took nearly 40 minutes to drop my bag off.
Despite seven counters being open only three staff were accepting passengers and dealing with the actual baggage drop.
Security at Terminal 5 in Heathrow was very quick and efficient; I was through in just a few minutes. The TSA checkpoint in Kennedy T7 is however woefully inadequate.
For a terminal that handles predominantly long haul flights, there are only four screening lanes and it took another 35 minutes to snake through the queue.
The TSA screening is very thorough and rigid and conducted with little decorum or dignity. However, the checkpoint at Heathrow was thorough but a little more dignified at least.
Terminal 5 at London-Heathrow has three satellites. A, B and C pier, the A pier handles the majority of shuttle flights as well some intra-European flights.
Piers B and C handle all long haul flights and some regional flights. Pier A I feel is very poorly designed.
With a lot of shops, retail and catering outlets squeezed into a very small area, the boarding gates and on top of the walkways around the terminal making it feel very cluttered and stressful to me. It felt very illogical and poorly thought out.
Pier B where we were to board from is a short ride on the transit. This pier is very basic and functional but has no clutter. A small boots and WH Smith and about 15 boarding gates, designed to handle the long haul flights.
Terminal 7 at Kennedy is arranged in a horseshoe shape. There are a small number of eateries and a small shop selling magazines, books, sweets and some New York branded memorabilia. The gate area is very small, especially for handling a fully loaded 747.
The views are reasonable, it is possible to find somewhere to sit and wait to watch the world or the aircraft go by.
Departing from Heathrow, our flight was completely full. Boarding was delayed by about 20 minutes due to waiting for the catering to be loaded onto the aircraft.
We were kept updated by the gate staff with several announcements being made.
Boarding is done by groups each group has a clearly defined queuing maze, with groups 1 and 2 boardings first.
Group 1 and 2, is predominantly business class, first-class and higher status travelers with Oneworld Alliance.
At Heathrow, all groups were assembled into an established and clearly defined queue. Before boarding some passengers were called for additional screening and a document check, this done before the general assembly call.
As the return flight was much quieter, boarding in New York did not require the use of a queuing maze, and each group was just called in number order. The gate agent was extremely friendly even escorting people past the front of the boarding gate to photograph the beautiful BOAC liveried 747.
Once onboard, both crews were friendly welcoming each passenger and directing them towards either the far or near aisle for their seat.
BA 747-400 aircraft are decked in a 3x4x3 configuration down the back, which is standard for the economy class long haul.
The legroom is estimated at 30 inches. It is a comfortable enough layout for medium-haul flights such as London – New York or London – Dubai, but I am not sure I would want to be here all the way to Los Angeles or San Francisco.
On each seat were a pillow blanket and a complimentary set of headphones for the flight. The pillow was soft and comfortable, the blankets stayed firmly in the packaging and the earphones are average quality.
As I have ridiculously small ears, I have to use headphones, the seatback IFE has a standard 3.5mm socket so any headphones or earphones can be used.
The seatback TV screen I would describe it is perfectly usable, albeit showing its age and it can be a little sluggish at times. There is a wide selection of movies, TV shows, music and games that can be enjoyed. As well as a dedicated kids section, which had episodes of Tom and Jerry and Scooby-Doo.
On the way across, I watched two episodes of the Great British Bake Off and listened to a Van Morrison concert. On the way back I enjoyed the wit and wisdom of Van Morrison again and then moved on to Blondie.
The sky map is intuitive and has various different modes, as well as some basic information about the places you are flying over. While none of the films took my fancy, I could watch the sky map and listen to music at the same time. Which to be fair is fine for me.
The inbuilt charging sockets are very slow to charge on the way back my socket did not work, the cabin crew did offer to reset the seat but the lady next to me offered her socket for use.
On both flights, the meal service was done to a very high standard and was consistent. Although the catering out New York was slightly superior to the service offered out of London.
After departure around an hour into the flight, the service started with complimentary refreshments. This included a range of alcohol, beers, wines, orange and apple juice, water and soft drinks.
Served with a small bag of pretzels, the crew actively offered additional drinks at this time to go with the meal.
On the outbound flight, I had a Diet Coke and white wine; both were served as double measures. On the return, I had the same order but was only given one of each, until the member our cabin crew working our aisle, changed then the drinks flowed a little more freely.
About 30 minutes after the drinks service, special meal requests were distributed by the crew, then the main service was offered.
The design and core of the meal were very similar, but the starter, main course, and dessert varied in each sector.
On the tray I received, a starter, a main course and a dessert, as well as a bread roll, crackers with butter cheese, salt, pepper, milk and sugar, and a bottle of water.
On the London to New York leg, the starter was potato salad, the main course was a choice between pasta or a spicy chicken dish and the dessert a chocolate mousse cake.
I opted for the pasta main course; it was very pleasant, served in a tomato and herb sauce with a light dusting of Mediterranean vegetables.
The starter was a potato salad in some kind of tomato sauce, though it could have been blood or mud, as the over seasoning didn’t render much taste other than salted salt. The dessert was moist and sweet, however.
On the return, the starter was mercifully not a salt salad, but a fresh and crisp seasonal salad served with balsamic vinaigrette the main was pasta, this time in a cream sauce with a tomato and herb crumb finally the light dessert was a custard pudding with a fruit coulis star.
I thought the catering out of New York was fractionally better; the bread was fresher and had not taken on the texture of a house brick. The cheese differed as well, on the outbound flight it was cheddar on the return a red Leicester.
Whilst neither meal was bad, the meal outbound felt rough around the edges and whilst it was a solid foundation the execution left a bit to be desired. On the return flight, the entire meal was spot on.
After the meal service the crew passed through the cabin with a drinks round offering the usual selection, every hour thereafter a further selection of orange juice, apple juice or water was offered from a tray. As I was the only clown awake on the night flight home, I had the first choice every time.
Just before landing, about an hour and fifteen minutes out, a snack was offered. On the outbound flight, this was a chicken roll, with a dairy milk chocolate bar.
The roll was fine, it was fresh and flavourful and had a chicken mayonnaise filling. Dairy Milk is, unfortunately, the devil’s creation of chocolate. It is grainy far too sweet and really not nice.
Before arriving in London, the offering was a cream cheese and tomato croissant. The filling was fresh, however, after being stored in the fridge overnight it was hard and dry, much like pastry. Both pre-landing snacks were served with tea, coffee or water offered by the cabin crew.
After touchdown in New York, it took us about 15 minutes to taxi to the gate. Due to the very tight nature of the gates at Kennedy, it was necessary for us to stop short, shut our engines down and then be towed the final bit of the way.
The arrivals hall in Kennedy was extremely busy. The border control checks are very strict and thorough, though I found the agents friendly.
From landing to getting my visa stamped was about an hour. There were no toilets between the aircraft and border controls so do take precautions on board. As seems to be a common theme with JFK, the area was small and not really equipped to handle a large number of long haul flights transiting through the terminal.
Border controls in the UK can be very much hit and miss. As we arrived at Pier B another ride on the transit was necessary as the main checkpoint is within in Pier A.
The queue was very short and I was through within about 20 minutes of landing. The baggage was quick to be unloaded and was waiting when I got to the carousel. Though in New York there was no real excuse for it not to be after the long wait for immigration.
I would like to conclude this review by first paying tribute to the excellent crew on both flights. Our cabin crew was friendly charming and very well polished. They were pleased to serve and deliver excellent, courteous service.
The flight deck crews more than happy to accommodate a visit allowing me to take any photos I wanted and even taking a photograph of me sat in the Captain seat of a 747.
The catering was a little inconsistent, certain parts of the meal stood out, certain parts were really not good. Such as the salt salad on the flight to New York and breeze block bread roll. The catering on the way back was more refined; however, the croissant had the texture of sandpaper.
The seat was comfortable but the legroom somewhat tight, for six or seven hours to New York it is perfectly acceptable, but for the West Coast of America I would be a little dubious and probably starting to get restless somewhere along the lines.
The airport experiences were hit and miss at both ends, I have flown through worse and I have flown through better. Terminal 5 at Heathrow satellite A is very chaotic however satellite B is much calmer. The passport control at Kennedy was as slow as to be expected. There are no toilet facilities between the gate and the queue so take precautions on board.
All things considered, I enjoyed both flights and was kept well fed and hydrated. I was bowled over by our excellent crew and look forward to flying BA again to San Francisco again in September with Airways contributor Thomas Saunders on standby for a Dastardly and Muttley bumper review.
I am however forced to deduct 10 quirky points for the awful safety video. It does not scream, hey we are a legacy airline. It screams help was mad. I do however award five quirky points back to BA for the fleet of four retro jets. One of which was my proud chariot back home across the Atlantic.
However, does the Queen of the Skies hold herself well in the 21st Century? Yes, she does, forever in our hearts, minds, and dreams.
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