Across the Pond with BA, Perfectly Civilized

I had one previous experience with British Airways New First, a glancing, all too brief encounter. Short though it was, it was the highlight of one of the worst travel days of my life.

It was Christmas 2010. I had planned a three-day stop in Miami prior to continuing on to South America for New Years. After narrowly escaping Europe during the height of the snow paralysis at CDG and LHR in the days immediately before Christmas, I was feeling lucky. I thought surely U.S. airports in the northeast would be better equipped to handle snow. The scenes that played out in December ‘10 at Heathrow couldn’t occur in NYC. I was wrong.

Dec. 26th came and went, my flight and all others were either sold out or cancelled. Dec. 27th came and went in the same fashion. My stop in Miami was now completely ruined, but more importantly, I was in serious danger of being unable to get to Miami to make my onward connection to Brazil.

Things did not look good for me on the 28th. Then finally, a break. My family were headed to Palm Beach for their holiday, and offered me a seat on a Citation X out of White Plains.

While a large number of commercial flights were scrapped again on that day, our Citation got out of HPN just fine and made it to Palm Beach in great time. I hopped a car to Miami and checked in hours and hours before my flight.

Thanks to Flyertalk, I knew the AA Flagship Lounge at MIA was closed for renovations and I would be relegated to the Admirals club. No matter, at least I was physically in the airport, at least five hours before my flight. I was home free.

Or so I thought. About an hour before my flight, I received the dreaded phone call and recording from AA. Inexplicably, the Boeing 777 scheduled for the MIA to GRU (Sao Paulo) run that evening went tech about 45 minutes before boarding was to be called.

I had my suspicions that the flight had been scrapped due to low loads since feeder traffic from other parts of the country was disrupted by the weather, but that was neither here nor there.

Thankfully, the agent in the lounge was excellent. She gave me two options. Board a 767 leaving in 1 hour from MIA to GRU and fly in Business Class despite holding a First class ticket (an option I flatly refused as this was a ~10 hour flight and AA’s angled lie flats in J do not allow me to sleep), or hop on the MIA-EZE (Buenos Aires) flight leaving in 45 minutes (a 777 with First Class), then connect EZE-GRU on a British Airways 747 (again in First).

I took the second option, even though this would put me into GRU after my scheduled TAM connection from GRU-GIG (Rio).

The flight to EZE was uneventful, and upon landing, I confirmed my seat (2A) on the beautiful BA bird and noted that when re-booking me, they had accidentally put me into a mileage earning F bucket even though I was traveling on an award ticket. Sometimes the airlines actually do make errors in your favor!

BA 747-400 in "OneWorld" livery for EZE-GRU

From the Admirals Club in EZE, I managed to purchase a seat on the final GOL flight out of GRU into GIG that night, and finally my plans were reset, all that was left, was to get to GRU.

Again, thanks to my time spent reading Flyertalk, I knew BA was in the process of rolling out a New First product, and when I saw the distinctive window shades from the jetway, I knew I was in for a treat.

I made it to GRU and on to GIG, finally arriving after 10PM. This was December 29th I believe. I had been travelling for 30+ hours since walking out the door to drive to White Plains. I was still in the same clothes I’d started the journey in. My bags would not arrive until after New Years. It was a long and awful day, perhaps one of the worst travel days I have ever experienced, but the brief jaunt on BA was without a doubt the highlight.

The flight from EZE to GRU was a very short three hours. After giving BA New First a whirl on this short hop, I knew I would have to try it again.

So I found myself in need of a ticket back to NY for my Mother’s birthday. I already had upcoming longhauls ticketed on Lufthansa, Swiss, and Singapore. I always want to try as many products as possible and this seemed to be the perfect time to try BA. In addition the AMEX/BA 1:1.5 deal was ongoing at the time. Under this deal, which has since expired, 1 AMEX MR point could be transferred to a British Airways Executive Club account for a value of 1.5 BA Miles (now Avios points), it was a no brainer.

At first the only availability shown for my dates was LHR-EWR-LHR. While EWR is arguably an easier airport to get back to Manhattan from, BA flies some of their oldest 777’s on this route. Not only is it unlikely that they have been refitted with the new first product, many of them are so old that they don’t have on-demand in flight entertainment. Still, I booked these flights as a failsafe.

Over the next month, I checked availability daily on ba.com, and eventually (for a $70 change fee), was able to switch both of my longhaul segments to 747’s into and out of JFK. This was a bonus for me on several levels because 1. The 747 is my absolute favorite airliner of all time, and I enjoy flying on them whenever the opportunity presents itself, 2. BA 747’s are further along in the new first refit process and as LHR-JFK is a “flagship” route, it gets almost nothing but updated airframes and 3. I would now get to sample the Concorde Room in both LHR and JFK (the Concorde Room is BA’s premier lounge, a step above their First Class lounge and accessible only to those who hold a 1st class ticket on BA metal, a by invitation only membership card to the Concorde Room, or Premier status on BA).

My journey would begin in Paris. I had swapped to an earlier flight across the channel so that I wouldn’t be rushed in transit at LHR, and would have a decent cushion should there be any delays. This would turn out to be fortuitous.

At the 24 hour mark, online check-in opened, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the aircraft for this ~1 hour flight would be a widebody 767. I always prefer the cabin feel of a widebody aircraft, but it is not often you see such large aircraft dedicated to short routes, especially routes as short and highly serviced as the CDG-LHR run.

I selected seat 3A as the aisle bulkhead seats in row 2 were already taken on both sides.

Check-in at CDG was a breeze. I checked three bags (no fee) and the agent advised me to use the American Airlines lounge. I had previously been to this lounge, and I knew that as a BA premium passenger I would also have access to the Cathay Pacific lounge.

CATHAY PACIFIC FIRST AND BUSINESS LOUNGE

Given Cathay’s excellent reputation as a top-5 airline in the world, I had higher expectations for their lounge. These expectations would prove too lofty. The lounge itself is tiny. Sure there’s wifi and some light cold bites. There might even be a bottle of bubbles in the fridge along with the beer and soft drink selection, but it felt poorly setup. The kicker…the lounge doesn’t even have bathrooms. If you require the facilities they send you out of the lounge to the bathroom across the hall. Most of the benefit of airline lounges (aside from free booze) is privacy and clean bathrooms, when you take this away, there’s not much reason to justify wasting time in them.

Like I said, I’d already been to the AA lounge at CDG before, and the CX (Cathay) lounge was almost directly next to the gate I was departing from so I figured I would just stick it out.

Shot of the CX lounge

Just a note to anyone who might be amused by this…despite the fact that Continental is now in the process of merging with United and all Continental flights are now out of CDG Terminal 1, not Terminal 2A, there is still ancient signage hanging in 2A directing passengers to a now defunct Continental lounge. Nice work keeping things current CDG.

BA 309 CDG-LHR

BA 767-300 for BA 309 CDG-LHR

I went down to the gate about 15 minutes before boarding to snap a picture of our 767-300. Unlike U.S. flag carriers, there was no priority boarding call for BA elites and Club Europe passengers. They began the boarding call from the rear and mentioned elites and CE passengers could board at their leisure.

I settled into seat 3A, and noticed the Club Europe cabin was pretty empty, including the seat next to me (bonus).

Once we had settled in and the main doors were closed, the Captain got on the horn and advised us that due to heavy winds at LHR, there were delays and we had been slapped with a 1-hour plus delay. Since the doors were closed, we were stuck waiting it out in our seats.

The seats in Club Europe are closer to U.S. domestic First Class than the dreadful intra-euro “business” offerings of most other euro carriers, which are generally the same 3-across seating with the middle seat blocked. BA’s CE seats are leather, have decent legroom and recline and are 2-2-2 on the 767, no seat need be blocked.

BA Club Europe Seats

That being said, no one likes to sit on the ground during a delay that is longer than the actual flight time. A steward came around with hot towels, but inexplicably, pre-departure beverages were not offered until we had been in our seats for at least 30+ minutes. I took a Ginger Ale. After watching the Air Transat A330 in front of us take-off, I could tell it was going to be a bumpy climb out.

Meal on BA 309

We got smacked around a fair bit, but once over the cloud layer it was clear skies and smooth sailing. The flight time from takeoff roll to wheels down at Heathrow was 1 hour and 5 minutes. In this time, BA managed to serve a second beverage service, liquor, coffee/tea and a salad and cold cut plate. Considering some U.S. carriers don’t feed passengers on 5+ hour Transcons, this level of service is always a refreshing change.

There were indeed heavy winds on our final approach to LHR, but the Captain and flight crew did an excellent job and managed to set us down rather smoothly. Upon arrival into rain lashed Heathrow we were greeted with more substandard news. The same wind that had been hampering arrivals, was also impacting departures, and as such planes were stuck at their gates, leaving us no gate to pull up to and unload.

We suffered another ~30 minute delay before finally putting into port. Once off the plane I turned right for Terminal 5 connections, sorted myself into the international departures queue, up the escalator, through a second security check point and I was in T5.

I turned right and kept going until I saw the Concorde Room’s doors. Sadly, due to the delays ex-CDG, upon arrival at LHR and the fact that my flight would be leaving from C-57 a satellite gate that could take up to 20-minutes to get to, I did not have time to give the Concorde Room a proper look.

CONCORDE ROOM

Concorde Room Terrace

I managed to pop into the restaurant for a quick lunch. I had the BA burger. While the meat was of pretty mediocre quality, the potato wedges that accompanied it were crispy on the outside, soft inside and nicely seasoned, they were excellent and I highly recommend them to anyone passing through the Concorde Room, as I think this option is one of the mainstays of the menu.

I was starting to feel a bit ill, so I asked a very disinterested BA employee where I could get some Paracetimol. Apparently they have none in the lounge (although even the AA club in EZE was able to give my Tylenol when needed) and sent me to Boots the chemist. With my drugs in hand I re-entered the CCR, grabbed some water to wash the pills down then took a quick look at the terrace overlooking T5. I wish I had more time to check everything out, but it was getting on and I needed to figure out how to get to the C gates in order to make my flight.

Concorde Room Burger and Wedges

I will say that the service in the CCR was not very impressive. I sat at my table for probably 15 minutes before being offered a menu, and both the employee who directed me to the chemist and another who gave me directions to the C-gates seemed to be irked that I was disturbing them from daydreaming.

BA 113

BA 747-400 at gate C-57

Closeup

Against the dreary English skies, the long boarding gate at C-57 jutting out from the main structure to our 747 looked like a metal and glass boardwalk cutting out delicately over the sea.

The crisp white of the BA 747 stood out nicely against the dark gray sky, and upon seeing the plane I was again excited for the flight.

Boarding was probably 10-15 minutes late. I navigated the priority line, and when the gate agent scanned my boarding pass, he apologized for the delay. At the entrance to the 747, a member of the cabin crew took my boarding pass and escorted me to my seat, 1A, right in the nose cone of the 747.

Seats 1A and 1K are generally reserved for pre-selection by British Airways Gold Members (I am not a Gold) due to their popularity. They are right in the nose and the frontmost of the two windows at each seat is almost looking forwards due to the curvature of the nose. Additionally, while still private, 1 A/K are close enough that a couple travelling together can still comfortably talk. This is not true of the other window seats, as they are further apart, and in row 4/5 towards the back of the cabin there are a pair of aisle seats in the middle between the windows. BA 747 SEATMAP.

First Class Cabin

The BA First cabin on the 747 is laid out as follow. Row 1 features 2 seats, A and K which are both windows and aisles in a 1-1 configuration. The same is true of rows 2 and 3. Row’s 4 and 5 have the A/K seats which are both windows and aisles, but in between there are the E/F pair of seats which are ideal for couples as they are the only seats actually next to each other (both are aisles). The layout in rows 4/5 is 1-2-1.

I had flown in row 2 on my previous EZE-GRU experience, so I wanted to try row 1. The seats were available when I checked in at the 24 hour mark and as luck would have it, no one ever selected 1K, so I was all alone in the front of the plane. I would arrive in New York before anyone else, the pilots included, as the cockpit is above and behind the nose.

The cabin crew on this flight were lovely. I took water as a pre-departure beverage and asked one of the stewardesses if she thought we would be getting airborne on time as the weather situation looked to be growing increasingly dire. She said she thought we would be able to get out as scheduled, but the heavy rain and standing water pooling around the plane gave me pause.

Legroom in First

As expected, the Captain soon came on to tell us we would be delayed at least an hour. This suited me just fine as the new first seats on BA are incredibly comfortable.

After about three glasses of water, the stewardess was finally able to cajole me into accepting a glass of champagne (Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle).

Another nice touch…as we were delayed, the crew enabled the in-flight entertainment system while we were still at the gate, and I began watching Super-8.

LUNCH SERVICE

Of course, the cabin crew let me know that the menu was a la carte and that I could order whatever I wanted at my leisure.

PRE-DEPARTURE BEVERAGE

 

 

 

As noted, I took water and a glass of Champagne.

 

 

 

 

WARM NUTS

 

 

 

While still at the gate, a plate of warm nuts was offered.

 

 

 

 

AMUSE BOUCHE

 

 

 

Was some sort of a smoked duck dish. It was tasty but unremarkable.

 

 

 

 

STARTERS

I took the “Twice-baked Cheddar soufflé with piquillo pepper and balsamic dressing,” it was definitely a miss. Not much flavor, poor presentation, and just a bad dish in general.

 

 

The other options were:

– Duo of balik salmon and warm horseradish-crusted salmon with fennel salad
– White onion veloute with chive flowners
– Fresh Autumn salad with your choice of vinaigrette dressing with golden rapeseed oil or creamy mustard dressing.

 

 

MAIN COURSE

For the main, I took the “British Airways Classics” choice, which was “Fillet of Herefordshire beef with caramelized shallots and Parmentier potatoes.” The beef was actually rather rare and pink in the middle which is always a welcome surprise on airplanes. It was an acceptable but not especially impressive dish, even for airline food.

 

 

The other choices were:

– Loch Fyne wild Atlantic cod served with brown shrimp butter, carrot and cardamom mash and broccoli with almonds
– Trio of corn-fed chicken with flageolet bean fricassee and polenta chips
– Salad of vegetables a la grecque with Twineham Grange cheese and caramelized walnuts.

 

 

DESSERT

Now this course REALLY shined. I had the “Chocolate and hazelnut slice with salted caramel sauce,” and I will not hesitate to say this was one of THE BEST desserts I have ever had in my life either in the air or on the ground in a restaurant. If I could order this somewhere in New York, I would not hesitate to go in just for this dish. Best dessert I have ever had on a plane bar none.

 

The other choices were:

– Bramley apple crumble with traditional custard
– Ice Cream Sunday – Custom made to your preference of ice cream, sauces and toppings.

There were also offering of a cheese plate (Channel Island Brie, Yorkshire Blue, Lincolnshire Poacher or Langres) and a Fruit Basket, as well as a passed box of chocolates.

 

 

BISTRO SELECTION

In between the Lunch service and the Pre-Arrival Service, the following were available at your leisure.

– Saddleback sausages with onion gravy and bubble and squeak
– Classic BLT – bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich
– A selection of biscuits
– A selection of cheese and fruit

AFTERNOON TEA

I slept through this second pre-arrival service, but the options presented were:

SNACKS

– An individual selection of sandwiches featuring roast chicken with mustard mayonnaise, aubergine caviar with red pepper confit, prawns with lime mayonnaise and dill and smoked salmon

PATISSERIE

– Plain or fruit scones served with warm clotted cream and strawberry preserves
– Hazelnut financier, strawberry tart and praleine mille-feuille

The flight itself was lovely. The only complaint I can think of is a trifling thing. I fought a Sisyphean battle against an overfull water glass for nearly the balance of the meal service. There was mild turbulence almost throughout the service, and as such my glass would sway a bit. I constantly drank the water level down so that the liquid wouldn’t slosh out of the glass and onto my tray, but the attentive crew kept sneaking up and refilling my glass before I knew what’d happened. As a result, I remained extremely hydrated throughout the flight.

As I mentioned earlier, I started watching Super-8 on the ground on the new and large IFE screen that swings out from the wall of the BA suites. The IFE was turned off during take-off. Once settled in at our cruising altitude, I expected I would have to fast-forward back to my last position, but was pleasantly surprised to see a “resume viewing” option on the screen.

The IFE screen stows against the wall and swings out

After Super-8 and the Lunch service, I asked a member of the cabin crew to make my seat up as a bed for me. This entails cranking the seat back to a fully flat 180 degree bed, then adding a padded mattress cover on top of the already very comfortable and soft seat, a duvet and a second, larger pillow.

I am a tall drink of water at 6 foot 4 inches (roughly 195cm for our metric friends) and in bed mode I could comfortably stretch my feet completely without hitting the end of my suite. A truly spacious and extremely comfortable product.

Still, I wasn’t quite ready to sleep even though I had been tucked in, so I scanned the IFE and watched “Hanna” which was surprisingly entertaining.

After the second movie it was lights out. I turned off my in-seat torch, closed the very stylish new first blinds and put my head down.

Seat in bed mode, curtains closed

I slept until we were about 15 minutes out of JFK. With the delays and headwinds, it was probably 10 hours from the time I sat down in Seat 1A at the gate in LHR to the time I rose to deplane at JFK, that being said, the seat was so comfortable that you could have told me to stay put for a 14 hour non-stop to Hong Kong in the same spot and I don’t think I would have flinched.

 

 

 

 

 

THE SWAG

No trip report would be complete without an accounting of the free stuff provided.

SLIPPERS

 

 

The slippers were soft and appeared to be very nice. That being said, they were a bit too short for my feet (US size 13, Europe size 45/46) and when I tugged them on one of them ripped a bit along the side, shoddy craftsmanship.

 

 

 

PAJAMAS

 

 

BA offers nice 100% Cotton PJ’s, the set I received were black. Over the left breast there is an embroidered BA logo with the word “First” stitched below.

 

 

 

 

AMENITY KIT

 

 

We received Anna Hindmarch amenity kits that contained socks, an eye shade, lip balm, hand & body cream, toothbrush & toothpaste, mouth wash, facial cream, eye gel and ear plugs.

 

 

 

 

THE FINAL VERDICT

BA New First is an excellent product. That being said, it is not a top-5 product. While I have had better catering on BA (even on the EZE-GRU flight) and the dessert was excellent, the food overall is not up to the level of SQ, CX, LH, etc…

The IFE system is excellent. The screen is large and even if the resolution is not that crisp there is a terrific selection of movies including many that were still playing in the theaters near me in Paris.

The seat is beautiful. The blue tones around the window shades are very stylish, the seat controls are intuitive and easy, there’s ample storage space between the private in-seat wardrobe and the extra stowage in the front coat closet as well as the overhead bins. The tray tables are sturdy and huge, perfect for working on, dining alone or dining with a companion sitting in the buddy seat.

The bed is long and very comfortable. As many people have noted in the past on flyertalk, sometimes the cabin can be kept a touch too warm, but it wasn’t an issue. It would be nice if there was a bit more privacy in each seat, but again, not a huge deal.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable flight. I look forward to my return on BA and my next two sectors with them in November.

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One response to “Across the Pond with BA, Perfectly Civilized

  1. Pingback: A Civilized Hop Across the Pond CDG-LHR-JFK CE, CCR, BA NF - FlyerTalk Forums

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