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Traveler: Across The Pond with British Airways’ Airbus A380… (+Photos)

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Traveler: Across The Pond with British Airways’ Airbus A380… (+Photos)

Traveler: Across The Pond with British Airways’ Airbus A380… (+Photos)
September 30
09:45 2019

“And there’ll be no hanky panky with Widow Twankey” in the 35 years since Open All Hours first hit British TV screens tight-fisted shop keeper Arkwright has inspired an entire culture of wit and wisdom.

What do the A380 and Widow Twankey have in common, much like the old dame, I always think of the A380 a convenient pin-up girl in this case for airlines rather than a Broadway theatre house?

The plan for this review was to consider the differences between the much-loved B747 and the fairly modern A380. Many consider the A380 to be the natural replacement for the B747-400.

The outbound flight was simply amazing, we had a crew who went over and above what I would reasonably expect and the lovely ladies and gentlemen were absolutely phenomenal.

Out of fairness to this crew, myself and fellow contributor Tom decided not to review this flight as we did not want to play down what this crew did for us or present an unbalanced view of British Airways crew overall, as many crews would not go the extreme level of this crew but still be still provide an excellent level of service. Therefore this review of the A380 will stand alone.

BA A380 Departing London Heathrow

The question I seek to answer is a simple one. Is the A380 more than just a flamboyant costume covering an empty shell or does the aircraft have substance and style to back it up? British Airways you have ten and a half hours to convince me either way. Go!

Originally this flight was booked in the economy which British Airways stylise as World Traveller but upgraded in cash to World Traveller + which is how BA choose to stylise premium economy.

Flight Details

Flight Number: BA 286
From: San Francisco SFO/KSFO
To: London Heathrow LHR/EGLL
Ticket Cost: £109
Seat Reservation: £72
Upgrade: £321.40 (£115 fare difference + £206.40 taxes and fees)
Total: £502.40
Departure Time Planned: 19:35
Departure Time Actual: 19:27
Arrival Time Planned: 14:00
Arrival Time Actual: 13:46
Aircraft: G-XLEC A380-800
Seat: 66A

Booking


As I have reviewed the BA mobile app in a previous review and it is still basic in its functionality, I will not dwell on it here. Needless to say it hasn’t changed much!

Airport Experience


San Francisco Airport is well connected with a whole pack of complimentary shuttle buses running to the many hotels in the area. As well as the air train which connects all the terminals, the immediate surrounding area and the car parks.

The terminal is rather strange, it is one enormous building built in a horseshoe shape and the terminals interlink with each other. It is easy to transfer either by the air train or on foot. It is, however, a clean and modern building.

Our flight was to depart from the international terminal, BA has its own check-in desks which were easy to find.

The queue was fast-moving and my one suitcase was tagged and whisked out my site very quickly.

Security as with all American airports was an absolute joke. I am sure people have had missing person bulletins filed against them waiting to be molested in an American airport.

35 minutes to be screened through, I wasn’t expecting to be home until Halloween.

Once airside the terminal has a few little burger places but very little in terms of variety. Newsagents and the duty-free shops had the usual array of alcohol, perfume, books, magazines and gadgets, but there were no specialist clothing shops, electronics shops or anywhere to buy a local model aeroplane.

On the flip side of that, the terminal building was clean, easy to navigate and had decent air conditioning.

Boarding


Widow Twankey at San Francisco

Boarding was organised and managed by the gate staff. Our gate was A9 at the very end of the pier. Boarding is done by group number which is printed on your individual boarding card.

As a premium economy passenger, I was to board in Group 3, as my group was called the usual boarding card and passport check was done at the gate. As the A380 uses three airbridges a member of staff was on hand directing people to correct entrance based on seat number.

Gate A9

I was greeted at the door and addressed by name which I thought was a pleasant and dignified touch.

I was directed to my seat towards the rear of the plane on the left hand side of the cabin.

On-Board Experience


The WT+ cabin is upstairs on the A380 and laid out in a 2x3x2 configuration. It boasts more legroom than regular economy, a wider seat, more recline, built-in footrest and better amenities including a basic comfort kit, noise-cancelling headphones and upgraded dining service including after dinner cocktails. That’s the theory anyway.

Headphones and Amenity Kit

My seat 66A, was already set up for the flight, with a pillow blanket and goody bag waiting for my arrival. The goody bag contained a set of noise-cancelling headphones, an amenity kit and a flying start donations envelope.

WT+ A380 Seat

The pillow and blanket were in a deep red and blue pattern fleecy and surprisingly warm.

WT+ A380 Legroom

The headphones cheap and scratchy, so I soon discarded them and used my own for the remainder of the flight, enjoying a Paul Heaton playlist on my phone.

WT+ Amenity Kit

The amenity kit contained a pen, eye masks, socks, lip balm, toothbrush and toothpaste, it was basic but functional.

The WT+ seat is upholstered in blue cloth and features a pitch of around 38 inches.

Each seat has an inbuilt IFE screen, 2 USB sockets, a dual headphone port and a remote for controlling the IFE screen, as well as a footrest. The tray table is built into the armrest and each seat pair has a small cocktail table between the two seats.

WT+ Tray Table

The tray table is easy to use and slides up and out the armrest easily. As it folds over, it can be used for lounging with drinks and snacks or fully flipped over for a full meal service, my tray table operated smoothly and easily.

IFE Remote
IFE Remote

The IFE monitor is at a guess 12 inches wide and can be controlled by either the remote or touchscreen. The touchscreen was slow, laggy and difficult to work. The remote control which was cheap and plastic was even slower had more lag and the buttons were very, very difficult to use.

IFE Controls and Cocktail Table

Overall I was not impressed. The IFE had a wide selection of films including Wallace and Gromit and the Were-Rabbit and number of television series including a Handmaids Tale, which due to the gruesome and barbaric nature of this story I do not believe it belongs on an aeroplane in any way shape or form. The music options were very repetitive with various chart topping artists and a Take That concert but nothing that appealed to me.

A380 Airshow

The airshow was basic at best and had very little information. On the BA 747, there is an excellent HUD style screen, which mimics the flight deck instruments overlaid on the map.

This feature is sorely lacking from the A380 IFE. Though a basic flight information box can be overlaid to the map it is certainly not as aesthetically pleasing as the equivalent 747 system.

From a general perspective, the aircraft handles fairly smoothly, however it does feel rather claustrophobic.

I certainly don’t think the cabin is any quieter than any other long haul aircraft and on the landing roll I felt like I was riding on a rodeo horse, it was so rough I was unable to take any photos until we had come down to taxi speed.

We had light turbulence for the majority of the flight, which did not seem to be cushioned or any better or worse than a 747 or 767. 

A380 With an Excellent View

It never ceases to amaze me why the cabin crew were draconian on window blinds being shut to the night sky, whilst allowing half the cabin to bask under the high-intensity white LED spotlights.

I have heard of dropping off to sleep gazing at the stars, Jupiter and a half-moon but certainly not a high-intensity spotlight. I’m not sure who designed the windows on the A380, but it’s a safe bet that they won’t be winning any design awards. The inner pane of plastic is about three times the size of the outer pane, making photography very difficult.

A large amount of window frame that gets in the way is most irritating. Sometimes the galley windows offer a great view but on this aircraft, they are absolutely tiny and have a fisheye lens that distorts the view.

I personally felt rather trapped, hungry and dehydrated.

Inflight


Considering I paid a not-insignificant amount to upgrade this flight, I am on the fence as to whether it was worth the money. Maybe the meal would convince me it was the right decision; the theory looks good on paper, but there again so does Sky TV.

Pre Departure Drink

Once I was seated a pre departure beverage was offered, there was a choice between water or sparkling wine. I opted for water as there was no wine left on the tray. It is nice to be served a drink in actual glassware.

WT+ Menu
WT+ Menu

A menu card was presented to each passenger before departure; it detailed the service structure for the flight and laid out the options for dinner, breakfast and finally the cocktail service for after dinner (maybe).

After our stunning departure over San Francisco bay, with a great view of both the bridges and Alcatraz Island, I was offered a tiny hot towel which was strangely refreshing.

WT+ Hot Towel Service

Around 35 minutes after departure the first drinks service was started with each passenger being offered a range of cold drinks, alcoholic drinks, beers, spirits and wine.

The crew will serve what you choose in this case diet coke which was served with a small package of pretzels. You will also be offered wine or additional drinks to go alongside the meal. I chose a white wine at this time to accompany the meal.

WT+ Drinks Service

The meal service was commenced about 20 minutes later. Each passenger received the same starter and dessert, however there was a choice of two meat-based and one vegetarian main course.

WT+ Dinner Service Meal Tray

On the tray was a fresh salad, made with crisp lettuce, mozzarella balls and pesto. My main choice which was mozzarella, tomato and basil pasta and a tiny slice of chocolate and orange cake. Along with a bottle of water, real metal cutlery wrapped in a linen napkin, salt and pepper.

BA Branded Cutlery

There was no bread and no cheese and biscuits, which seemed a little peculiar as these are served with the meal in the economy. Bread was offered to about half the cabin, just not my half.

The cabin crew did, however, offer me cheese and biscuits from economy. Whilst this was a kind gesture, why does an upgraded cabin receive less than the economy and why should I have to chase what should be part of the meal anyway?

All three courses were perfectly pleasant but nothing exceptional. The salad served was crisp and fresh but had no dressing.

The main course was perfectly edible and the pasta cooked well so it had not turned into a starchy rubbery brick. The dessert was a very small portion but did taste fresh and chocolatey.

BA do make rather a song and dance about the after dinner cocktail service offered to WT+ passengers, clearly, this flight did not receive the memo as there was no cocktail service, despite it being on the menu and advertised online and in promotional media.

WT+ Galley Snacks Selection

After the evening meal was cleared the crew disappeared without a trace and were not seen or heard from for the next seven or so hours.

Usually, BA crew will wander through the cabin every half hour or hour with a tray of drinks for anyone awake to take if they so choose. On this flight, a tray of drinks was laid out in the galley along with with a box of chocolate bars and crisps, very much the self-service model.

During the flight I went to lurk in the downstairs galley as the sun came up. I had a sort of view of Greenland but it wasn’t great.

The lovely crew in this galley packed me off back upstairs when I was ready, with a huge goody bag of chocolate crisps and bottled water, it made up for the lack anything at all happening upstairs.

Around an hour and a half before landing the smoke and mirrors cleared and the crew came to serve breakfast.

WT+ Breakfast Tray

The core of the breakfast offering was simple but pleasant, a sweet muffin, carton of orange juice and tea or to accompany the meal. A vegetarian main was available, egg and spinach frittata with spicy tomato relish and three rather sorry potato quarters, or a meat option containing sausage, bacon and an omelette.

True to the character I opted for the vegetarian main, the lady next to me opted for the full English breakfast which she commented was an improvement over the main course served at dinner.

Both meal services were adequate and palatable but also nothing to get excited about. As elements of the dinner service were missing this really did let the whole dining element of the trip down.

Breakfast was again perfect edible and pleasant but nothing remarkable, I think I would have preferred a savoury muffin to the sweet option, but that may have been playing with fire based on the evening meal service.

I still want to know what happened to bread and cheese and even a week after the flight I feel a bit hot under the collar about it.

Arrival Experience


Terminal 5 at London Heathrow, is far better to arrive into than it is to fly out of. The process of leaving the aircraft was quick and we were soon on the shuttle train to main arrivals hall in Pier A. Whilst the shuttle train goes about 300 yards it would be quicker to walk but alas there is no such option.

My only issue is with the passport gates, as a British taxpayer I feel somewhat mugged on the basis that only about half of them are ever operational. I feel this is a very poor return on investment.

Suitcase delivery was quick, indeed they outpaced us to the carousel.

It is easy to connect with Central London. Using either the Heathrow Express, the Underground or the wide range of National Express bus services, which also connect to many other parts of the United Kingdom.

Overall Thoughts…

Sunrise over Greenland

The moral of this story is contrast and better the devil you know. On the one hand, part of the service was poor or non-existent but then it was rectified further down the line, certain aspects of the flight were excellent but then let down by the minor details.

The seat was very comfortable and wide with a generous amount of recline. However, the laggy IFE screen and remote that was tacky, slow and unresponsive seriously let it down.

The footrest when extended was positioned in such a way I had my foot crashed into the IFE control box. A UK size ten is not abnormally large paw, therefore, I have to conclude this bit of the design is very poor. The IFE itself had a lot of content but nothing that was of any interest to me.

The meal service left a lot to be desired, when I know for a fact passengers in the economy cabin received a better service and more food. This does leave me with a somewhat bitter after taste.

More specifically why on earth should I have to chase for cheese and biscuits which should be served as default and a bread roll would have been lovely with the tomato and mozzarella pasta. Perhaps had the advertised cocktails service been carried out I might not have spent the flight pacing and growling like a caged, angry and hungry tiger.

The crew were underwhelming and very inconsistent the team upstairs were indifferent to the point of appearing complacent the lovely people downstairs were significantly friendlier and less stingy with snacks and drinks.

Departing San Francisco

The windows on the A380 are simply horrific for photography. The upstairs windows have a huge inner pane and a tiny outer pane hence half the window cross section is the plastic surround.

The galley windows have a fisheye lens making it hard to take any photos without distortions or optical defects. I did struggle to take decent photos on this flight due to the shape of the windows.

The comfort benefits of the premium economy cannot be ignored but that was the only benefit, the meal, overall service and ambience were considerably worse than the economy of my much-loved B747-400.

At the start of this review, I asked if the A380 was the airline equivalent of Widow Twankey? The answer is clear to me, the A380 does have a flamboyant dress but underneath there isn’t substance or style to back it up or justify it. So yes I will stand by the new nickname of Widow Twankey!

I wanted to be wowed and convinced that the A380 was a suitable replacement for the B747-400. I was crying for it to happen, instead, I am left with no other option but to conclude the queen of the skies will ride another day as a very special lady in mine and many others hearts, minds and souls!

And the A380 is certainly big and grand, but it’s nothing more than a toad with lipstick painted on.

I think to make an informed decision of the value of WT+ I would need to experience it again on another aircraft to make a fair comparison and judgement. I am on the fence at the moment, so perhaps my flight back from Toronto next year will be the deciding factor. As for the A380, I would avoid unless I had absolutely no choice.

In a previous review, I had some rather strong words to describe the safety video. A new version has now been released, that is arguably less tacky and churlish, so it is a vast improvement and far less cringe-worthy.

All I ask now is that the queen forgives me for defecting; after all it was only for one flight!

Overall

Key Area Score Out of 10
Booking 8
Airport Experience 8
Boarding 7
Onboard 4
Comfort 7
Catering 4
Crew 6
Arrival 8
Overall 52/80
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Ryan Taylor

Ryan Taylor

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