Can someone kindly remind me again who said First Class was slowly dying? I recently took a British Airways First Class flight a few weeks ago and proud to share their First Class product is alive and well. For 70,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles + $519.96 (gasp!), I flew from London (LHR) to San Jose, CA (SJC), one of the airline's newest California and second tier city routes and enjoyed a fantastic experience at the front of the plane. The flight was also serviced by their gorgeous new Boeing 787-9.
Airline: British Airways (BA)
Route: London (LHR) – San Jose (SJC)
Aircraft: Boeing 787-9
Duration: 11h 00m
Service: First Class
I dread flying through most major European airports, with the minor exception of a few which I would rate as decent at best. But, for the most part, from Frankfurt to Milan-Malpensa, each one is as terrible as the next. Most facilities have not aged well, still showing signs of its early-1980s glory days with pewter green seats and everything rounded corners. Seriously, why is every check-in counter a washed out puke color with rounded corners?
However, until recently, I had forgotten about British Airways Terminal 5 at London-Heathrow, which was a surprisingly nice experience. For starters, the terminal is humongous from all sides. Going from the terminal’s bottom floor to the departure lobby required 6 extra-long escalators across 6 floors. Once in the check-in lobby, there were easily 200+ counters along the back wall of the terminal in a straight line. I wouldn’t say it’s the most efficient use of space, but I imagine their lobby lines take over the free space during the busy holiday season.
Luckily, First Class passengers can avoid the chaos and take full advantage of British Airways' dedicated private check-in area towards the far right hand side of the terminal. I arrived around 9:30AM after a quick jolt on the Heathrow Express, went up 6 escalators, and checked-in. The First Class check-in area was fully staffed with every counter occupied and just a handful of passengers. Within seconds, I was checked-in and on my way.
From there, passengers are able to enjoy a dedicated security screening area which leads into a hallway and directly into the First Class lounge. You can easily be from curbside to lounge within 15 minutes. It was that seamless.
To be clear, British Airways operates a few lounges at their home hub. Once past security, passengers are shuffled into the Galleries First lounge, which is open to both British Airways passengers and oneworld Emerald members. This space is a catchall and certainly gets quite crowded. The lounge you should spend more time in is the Concorde Room, just on the opposite side of the Galleries First lounge, which is reserved specifically for British Airways First Class passengers. So, once past security, you’ll want to exit and head across the atrium past the Elemis Spa and into the Concorde Room.
Without going into too much detail, as I plan to write a standalone piece on the space, here’s a few pictures to give you a sense of what you can expect.
The lounge also offers on-demand dining with a rather extensive menu. Having not had breakfast, I decided to order a traditional full-English meal, which was delicious.
The Boarding Process
Yikes, the boarding process was simply horrible. It was unorganized and poorly managed. I’m on a roll here with negative thoughts but I promise this is the last one because the flight made up for all the hassles on the ground.
Boarding was scheduled to begin at 11:50AM. I arrived at the gate at 11:30AM and stood first in line so I could take pictures. However, the gate agents did not arrive until 12:10PM. I overheard their gate assignments were not distributed until very late, not giving the crew enough time to get over to the gate. We finally commenced boarding at 12:15PM, around 35 minutes before departure.
This flight was operated by the stretched version of the beautiful Boeing 787, called the B787-9. Most know this aircraft for its extensive production delay adding nearly two years to its delivery schedule, leaving many airlines scrambling to find a plan to extend the age of their fleet. That’s of course since been smoothed out and now, most know this aircraft as the newest and most modern jetliner. The material make-up of the B787 is unique, comprised mostly of composite materials making it one of the lightest yet most durable plane around the world. Secondly, it’s fuel efficiency is incomparable, allowing airlines to fly between more obscure cities while still making a profit. Even more cool is this aircraft is pressured at a lower altitude, so passengers feel less jet lag and greater comfort.
From the exterior, the B787 offers distinctive design traits such as teeth marks behind the engines, its graceful swept back high wing, and rather stumpy nose. Just my opinion but I think the nose could have been stretched out just a bit.
Upon boarding through door 2L, I was welcomed onboard by the purser named Chris and was showed to my seat by the two wonderful crew working the cabin.
I was offered a pre-departure drink, which I selected a glass of champagne. At my seat was a gorgeous all-black amenity kit designed by Liberty London. I was also offered pajamas and selected a Medium, which fit my torso well but the sleeves were a bit short. For measure, I’m 5’ 10”.
The Captain came on to add his welcome, informing us of our flying time of 10h 30m, putting us into San Jose right on time. He also mentioned the take-off queue was backed-up adding an additional 25-minute wait time before getting airborne.
The Cabin + Seats
My mouth dropped once onboard. The cabin is just stunning. I didn’t realize I could love the color black even more after seeing this design. The sleekness, edge, and intuitive design is unspoken for. I would liken the cabin to the inside of a sports car with high-black finishes and carbon fiber materials but to the luxury and space of a private jet. It was immaculate.
Between the first 2 doors of the aircraft is the First Class cabin with 8 seats spread across 2 rows in a 1-2-1 configuration. Behind First Class and before door 2 was the forward half of the Business Class section. The seat itself is of a reverse herringbone design, with the window seats facing outwards, and the middle seats facing inwards. Compared to the popular common reverse herringbone-style Business Class seats, these in First Class were angled at a subtle 10 degrees versus 45 degrees.
Once seated, I hung my jacket in the small closet attached to my suite along the aisle, placed my carry-on bag in the overhead bin, larger items and shoes inside the ottoman front of me, and stashed away my cords and smaller electronic accessories into the vanity cabinet to my left. All-in-all, I found a decent amount of storage to fit all my travel needs.
The seat itself was beautifully designed and also quite comfortable featuring a diamond pattern set into a heavier gray fabric. Now, most would say the seat looks firm given how dense each “diamond” is stuffed, like a tufted couch. My response is, you’re spot on. The seat was definitely a bit more firm than I would have preferred which was more comfortable in the upright position, than when fully-flat. I’m glad BA offers turndown service with a proper sleeping pad, otherwise, sleeping may have been tough particularly for side sleepers.
Now, the most innovative part of the seat goes to the intuitive dial button and central control panel, which adjusts nearly any part of the suite. This product is so advanced, British Airways has designed a brochure to help you make the most of every feature. At first, I found the seat controls to be difficult to use and limiting. However, after a quick tutorial, my lack of appreciation turned into fascination. From the advanced mood lighting down to the highly-customizable seat (there were break points almost throughout the entire seat), British Airways may offer one of the most advanced seats on the marketplace.
We pushed back about 5 minutes late given the delayed boarding and made our way to the queue. The British Airways terminal is built literally at the start of both runways, meaning you can be in the air within minutes after pushing back. On this day though, there was a conga line of planes including an Oman Air A330.
Did I mention how beautiful the sun was?
We took off just about 25 minutes after pushback with a smooth climb out.
20 minutes after being airborne, the team began their service. Chris the purser first stopped by to add his welcome, provided a quick tutorial of the seats, what to expect on the flight, and to remind me of their special a la carte dining options, which they would happily time around my preferences.
Working the aisle was Jessica, who was both warm, professional, and witty. She certainly added a few jokes in between the service, which made for a few good laughs.
To begin, I ordered a glass of Jacquart Rosé Mosaique NV and was served with the most delicious nuts I've ever had. They weren’t your standard Costco bag of nuts but a special mixture of candied cashews, hazelnuts, caramelized peanuts and almonds. They were so delicious I asked for a second serving.
The table was set, followed by bread selection, and the antipasti plate featuring Cumbrian air-dried ham, Cumberland salami, Berkswell cheese, olives, and sun-dried tomato. A simple and savory start to the meal.
For starters, I selected the Severn and Wye orange and fennel cured Scottish salmon gravlax with salmon tartare and dill créme fraiche. The rich flavors combine was delicious.
For my main course, I selected the pan-friend stone bass with tomato and bean cassoulet, wilted spinach and roasted baby fennel. I appreciated the unique flavors, but overall, it wasn't my favorite.
To end, I enjoyed a side of fruit and Madagascan vanilla ice cream. Both were tasty.
The entire meal service was completed in 2.5 hours, with relative attention throughout. I did have to ask for more water, which I find to be a strange request particularly in First Class.
Prior to arrival, I enjoyed a few dishes from their a la carte on-demand menu, which I preferred over the main service.
To begin, I ordered the twice-baked Parmesan and Gruyere soufflé. First impression was - wow - the fluffiness and delicate texture of the soufflé was really nice. I was pleasantly surprised a dish like this would hold up inflight.
For my main course, I went with the wild mushroom risotto infused with soft herbs, Parmesan and mascarpone cheese. A bit rich but overall very well prepared, very delicious, and would very much order it again.
I ended the service with an array of exotic fresh fruit.
The Entertainment + WiFi
Punchline: British Airways does not offer any WiFi and on a brand-new Boeing 787-9. Out of curiosity, I asked the flight attendants if they heard rumors of WiFi being installed across the fleet and they said no. Instead, they passively suggested I sit back, unplug, and enjoy the flight.
In between meals, I opted to work a bit and browse through the movie and TV selection, both of which were fantastic. I watched Rough Night and Baby Driver, which I highly recommend.
About 3 hours before arrival, I noticed the IFE system started to bug out. The team mentioned they were aware of the issue and was in the process of troubleshooting it, however, they were apprehensive the issue would not be resolved before arrival. Jessica asked that I fill out a customer service issue form and she would submit the note to her leadership to ensure I was compensated for the trouble.
A few weeks later, British Airways updated my account with 15K Avios miles as an apology. Incredibly unnecessary but I certainly appreciated the gesture.
After the meal service and a few hours of window gazing, working, and movie watching, I decided to get some rest and asked for my bed to be turned down, which was promptly set-up.
The bedding consisted of a mattress pad, down blanket, and additional larger pillow. I will say the mattress pad and blanket were both a bit narrow. I found the blanket just large enough to cover half of my body, unlike Lufthansa who offers a down blanket which cascades over the side of the seat and onto the floor.
The flight prepared for landing about 30 minutes before departure. We flew over the North Bay, heading South, and directly over the Golden Gate Bridge down the peninsula until we made a U-turn back for San Jose. It was a gorgeous day in the Bay Area and the sun beams made for gorgeous pictures.
Once on the ground, I was off the plane and through customs in less than 10 minutes. The beauty of flying into a second tier airport is amazing.
What a great flight. I went in with relatively low expectations, anticipating to receive a "heavier" Business Class experience. Instead, I left with a renewed appreciation for British Airways and their First Class vision. While their service had less bells and whistles, like caviar and duvet blankets, I found the hard product to be on another level. They've completely scrapped the out-of-box seat design and introduced an impressive suite with elevated and intuitive controls. The airlines innovative arm should receive high-regards for seat design and the intuitive full feature set that comes with it. Now, only if they would slash their fuel surchages in half, we would be in great shape.