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Review: British Airways A380 World Traveller Economy — Johannesburg to London

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In late-January, TPG Contributor Katie Genter completed an Austin (AUS) — Johannesburg (JNB) — Houston (IAH) mileage run in her quest to earn AA Executive Platinum status by June. For the third long-haul leg, she flew on a British Airways A380 from JNB to London-Heathrow (LHR). Here’s her review of British Airways’ World Traveller Economy product. (All photos are by the author).

I’d looked forward to flying on the world’s largest commercial passenger aircraft — the Airbus A380 — for a long time and was thrilled to be able to book a British Airways A380 for this leg of my trip.

Booking

This review is part of a series of long-haul reviews from my AUS-JNB-IAH mileage run. As such, more of my booking details — like how I got British Airways to change my initial departure city for free — are available in my first long-haul review of American’s 777-300ER Los Angeles (LAX) to London (LHR) in Main Cabin Extra.

For $804, I was able to obtain a cost of just 3.42 cents per mile by stretching the mileage of my run to 23,510 miles, and ended up earning 23,820 elite-qualifying miles and 49,640 redeemable miles (including 2,000 bonus miles from flying a transatlantic round-trip). These redeemable miles are valued at about $745 under TPG’s current valuation of 1.5 cents per AAdvantage mile.

I booked my mileage run using my British Airways Visa Signature Card, so I also earned three British Airways Avios per dollar spent. Based on the April valuation of 1.5 cents per mile for Avios, the 2,412 Avios I earned on this trip are valued by TPG at about $36.

Airport and Lounge

The Gautrain provided a quick and comfortable ride to the airport.
The Gautrain provided a quick and comfortable ride to the airport.

I took the Gautrain from downtown Johannesburg’s Park Station to O.R. Tambo (JNB). The trip cost R153 (~$10) and took 33 minutes. The Gautrain was clean and safe — I saw many security personnel actively checking cars and preventing non-airport passengers from boarding “airport” train cars that were running on the airport line. These “airport” cars featured luggage racks, a higher sense of security and more spacious seating in a 2-2 layout instead of the usual 3-2 style of seating.

The free airfield viewing deck at JNB seemed to captivate those who found it.
The free airfield viewing deck at JNB seemed to captivate those who found it.

Once at JNB, I followed signs, walking past many support offices, to a free “Aircraft Viewing Deck,” which featured exhibits as well as a nice view of the airfield — but oddly enough had just one seat! If you have some time to kill at JNB, I highly recommend checking out the viewing deck.

Contract security staff checked your documents before allowing you to approach the bag drop counter.
Contract security staff checked your documents before allowing you to approach the bag drop counter.

After enjoying the viewing deck, I quickly and easily checked my bag using the Priority Bag Drop lane (available to Oneworld elites as well as first-class and business-class passengers) since I’d already obtained my return boarding pass at LHR.

The agent who helped me at the bag drop counter was extremely friendly and helpful — he even provided directions to the British Airways Galleries Lounge without me having to ask. Security and immigration were both very quick and I was in the lounge within 15 minutes of leaving the bag drop counter.

The British Airways Galleries Lounge is located upstairs shortly after immigration.
The British Airways Galleries Lounge is located upstairs shortly after immigration.

There are many lounge choices — especially for those with a Priority Pass membership through Citi Prestige — but I chose the British Airways Galleries Lounge.

The lounge shower rooms were well organized.
The lounge shower rooms were well organized.

Upon arrival, I requested and immediately received a shower room, which was well laid out. I particularly appreciated that a hanger and floor towel were provided and loved the mint-scented shampoo, however the room could have been cleaner — I found short hair on both the walls and the floor. Additionally, I was disappointed that the bath towels weren’t very fluffy, the trash can was difficult to open and the hair dryer was broken.

One of the many bars containing drinks and food.
One of the many bars containing drinks and food.

There were no airfield views in the lounge so I settled for a seat overlooking the main concourse. The lounge was small and certainly filled in before the A380 left for LHR. Despite it’s rather small size, there was an impressive variety of soups, desserts and snacks on offer — among them were chicken and pasta, spinach and squash lasagna, deli meat and cheese platters and take-away sandwiches. There were many vegetarian and vegan options as well, which British Airways always seems to be good about providing and labeling in their lounges.

Boarding

Passengers were organized into three groups for boarding the giant A380-800.
Passengers were organized into three groups for boarding the giant A380.

When I arrived at gates A16 and A17 — yes, the A380 required two gates — I found that the seating area had been arranged to create three separate corrals. One corral — the center one — held the first-class, business-class and Oneworld elite passengers. The other two corrals were separated by row number, where upper level rows were in one corral and lower level rows were in the other. Contract security staff checked passports and boarding passes before allowing anyone into a particular corral. Most people were sitting or standing patiently in these areas, but not forming lines.

Boarding of the priority corral began on schedule at the time the check-in agents had written on my boarding pass. The priority queue then split into upper level and lower level queues once we reached the jetways.

A flight attendant waited to warmly greet passengers as they entered the upper deck World Traveller economy cabin.
A flight attendant waited to warmly greet passengers as they entered the upper deck World Traveller economy cabin.

All the flight attendants I encountered during boarding were super-friendly and seemed excited about working on our flight. I was one of the first people in my section — and taking photos for this review — so I was gushing to my section’s flight attendant about how excited I was to finally be traveling on the A380’s upper deck. With this encouragement, he began excitedly talking about the plane’s design, its features and how quiet it is — he seemed really excited to be on this plane too!

Cabin and Seat

The upper deck window seats featured storage compartments between the seat and the window.
The upper deck window seats featured storage compartments between the seat and the window.

I purposely reserved 74K — an upper-level World Traveller economy window seat — in order to obtain a compartment and a two-seat row. As a Oneworld Sapphire member, I was able to select this seat for free at booking — Oneworld Ruby passengers would need to wait until seven days before departure and those without Oneworld status would need to pay extra to reserve this seat before check-in.

Since the airplane’s walls slope inward sharply on the upper deck, the World Traveller economy cabin on the upper deck is 2-4-2 configuration with storage compartments located along the windows. The flight attendant said these compartments were installed to somewhat make up for the small overhead storage bins against the windows, which were so shallow that even my daypack needed to be turned sideways! As the cabin was almost completely full, it took some luggage movement and effort from the flight attendants near the end of boarding in order for everyone’s larger bags to fit into the much larger center overhead bins.

The compartment beside my window seat held everything I would need for the flight.
The compartment beside my window seat held everything I’d need for the flight.

The storage compartment beside my 74K seat ended up being much deeper than I expected. It easily fit all the belongings I might want during the flight, including my laptop and the provided blanket and pillow. Strangely, but likely to prevent bickering between passengers, every window seat had only one bin — all of the additional bins were locked and in order to open them, you had to push down lightly on the lid. One annoyance was that the passenger behind me kept trying to sleep with his foot on my bin, which prevented me from opening it until he moved his foot.

The entertainment box split the window seat's leg room in half.
The in-flight entertainment box split the window seat’s leg room in half.

One downside of the window seats upstairs is that an in-flight entertainment box is placed in the middle of your leg space, and it would have been difficult to put anything of size — like a daypack or duty free bag — under the window seats due to the placement of this box. With a 31-inch pitch, I expected that this entertainment box would significantly impede my legroom, however I found that despite this box, I was generally comfortable enough because I could put my feet on either side of it.

The pillow and blanket were standard economy grade, but the toothbrush is a nice touch.
The pillow, blanket and earbuds were standard economy grade, but the toothbrush was a nice touch.

A pillow and a packaged blanket, toothbrush, toothpaste and earbuds awaited each passenger at their seat. I found these earbuds provided good enough sound quality to discourage me from retrieving my own headphones from my carry-on bag.

The seats featured head cradles that were height — but not width — adjustable.
The seats featured head cradles that were height — but not width — adjustable.

The seats were comfortable and felt adequately wide — which was surprising for their reported 17.5 inch width. The seat-back pockets were very tight, but they could expand significantly if needed. The seats didn’t have adjustable head support wings, but they were contoured to somewhat support your head while sleeping. For those who like to sleep against the wall, I found that it was too far from the window seats to cozy up to. Additionally, the window compartment was too low to serve as a comfortable headrest — although a couple of my fellow passengers did manage to fall asleep this way. I found that the surface of the storage compartment served as an excellent “extra” table.

A simulated "sunrise" in the cabin.
A simulated “sunrise” in the cabin.

One of my favorite features of the A380 cabin was the lighting. All lighting changes in the cabin took place very gradually. After dinner the lighting in the cabin simulated a sunset and darkened until the cabin was completely dark. As dawn approached before breakfast, several light blue ceiling lights became illuminated. Shortly before breakfast, light pink lights illuminated near the windows to simulate a sunrise. The changing lighting was very peaceful and gradual enough to have likely gone unnoticed by most passengers.

In-flight Entertainment

The entertainment system featured a highly interactive map.
The in-flight entertainment system featured a highly interactive map.

I was excited to see large, crisp entertainment screens for this flight. The in-flight entertainment system included the normal features expected on newer British Airways planes — a wide variety of movies, television shows, audio books, music and games.

From trivia games and sleep mixes to the chat network and an entire kids’ module, no one should get bored unless they travel a lot. There was even a selection of daily news, including an entire show with Premier League soccer highlights.

The seatback screens were large and able to tilt.
The seat-back screens were large and able to tilt.

My in-flight entertainment system was very responsive and only required soft touches. The handset was stowed in the seat-back, but I never had the need to use it. I was happy with the size, height and definition of the screen as well as the fact that it could tilt to improve the angle when the passenger in front of me reclined. There were USB outlets at each seat and universal power outlets between every two seats.

Food and Beverage

The dinner options — beef tips or chicken — were announced shortly before the beverage service began, about 40 minutes after take-off. Note that no vegetarian options were available without pre-ordering — the flight attendant said this was unfortunately common for departures from places other than LHR, so vegetarians should remember to request a vegetarian meal ahead of time.

The main dish and dessert of this dinner were impressive!
The main dish and dessert of this dinner were impressive!

Dinner was served one hour and 40 minutes after take-off. The meal started with a salad that was fresh and tasty — outside of a few pieces of wilted lettuce at the bottom of the salad — as well as room-temperature plastic-wrapped bread and commercially packaged crackers and cheese.

The main dish — chicken for me — is where the meal really began to impress! The squash, broccoli and potatoes were all well cooked and seasoned. The white meat chicken was the highlight though, as it was tender and perfectly seasoned. The chocolate cake with lemon sauce provided the perfect combination of zest and sweetness.

Tea and coffee were served 20 minutes after dinner, but most people didn’t partake.

Breakfast tasted better than it appeared.
Breakfast tasted better than it appeared.

Breakfast service started with special meals being delivered first. After the special meals were passed out — about 90 minutes before landing — the rest of us were given a choice of a vegetable omelet or a sausage omelet. Either choice came with creamy fruit yogurt, a moist chocolate muffin that was cold but not overly sweet and a small mixture of excessively sugary apple and orange juice.

The vegetable omelet main dish contained some plain but well-cooked mushrooms, overcooked yet cold unseasoned potatoes and a delicious egg, spinach and cheese mixture on top of tomato paste.

Service

Flight attendants frequently passed through the cabin to ensure everyone was satisfied.
Flight attendants frequently passed through the cabin to ensure everyone was satisfied.

There were two flight attendants serving each side of the upper deck World Traveller economy cabin and I was impressed with both their friendliness as well as the level of service provided. When a communication issue arose with a French-speaking woman during beverage service, the flight attendant knelt down to the woman and sincerely attempted to understand what she was trying to convey.

I thought it was a very caring gesture, especially in comparison to the kind of passenger treatment I’ve seen on other Oneworld long-haul flights recently. Across multiple interactions, the flight attendants provided very solid customer service and certainly went above my expectations for economy.

The cabin was extremely dark during the night.
The cabin was extremely dark during the night.

It was so dark through the night that the flight attendants carried discrete little flashlights when they brought juice and water through the cabin. In general, the flashlight-toting flight attendants passed through quietly offering water and juices every 45 to 60 minutes throughout the night.

The flight attendants left a self-service box of snacks and tray of drinks in the galley.
The flight attendants left self-service snacks and drinks in the galley.

I visited the rear galley multiple times during the night to stretch and obtain drinks and snacks. The flight attendants had set up — and seemed to replenish throughout the night — a snack box as well as a few trays of water and juices. Each time I visited the galley two flight attendants were present. In each case, they seemed surprised to see me. Despite this, they offered to get me anything I needed — but I almost felt like I was intruding when I stood around for an extended period of time and stretched.

Overall Impression

Would I fly upstairs on a British Airways A380-800 again? Certainly!
Would I fly upstairs on a British Airways A380 again? Certainly!

I’d 100% fly in the upper deck World Traveller economy cabin of a British Airways A380 again. The A380 has a slick, thoughtful design — even in economy. I enjoyed sitting in an upper deck window seat because of the large compartment between my seat and the window, which was great for storage and served as an additional table.

Additionally, all the British Airways staff I interacted with on this JNB to LHR route — from check-in agents to contract lounge workers to flight attendants — were wonderful and provided an experience you normally don’t expect when traveling in economy. It certainly made the trip enjoyable.

Have you flown on a British Airways A380 yet? How was your experience?

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