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While the British Airways Club World business-class cabin is somewhat dated, it still provides a decent lie-flat experience between the US and Europe. The Pros: true lie-flat seats with aisle access, adequate food options. The Cons: too many seats squeezed together, a sluggish IFE system and no Wi-Fi.
Complaining about a business-class product is almost certainly the textbook definition of “first world problems.” But transatlantic airfares for seats up front can easily cost thousands of dollars, so if you’re laying out that kind of money, it’s reasonable to ask what you’re getting in return. And since airlines have put millions of dollars into creating and installing new and innovative business-class seats, there really isn’t any reason to settle for a sub-par product.
Which brings us to British Airways’ much maligned transatlantic business class, a product the airline refers to as “Club World” but which many flyers have referred to somewhat less affectionately. As part of our ongoing Business-Class Battle — last week, we took a closer look at Lufthansa’s 747-8 vs. United’s 777-200 on the Washington, D.C. to Frankfurt route — we’re comparing Oneworld partners British Airways and American Airlines on the extremely popular New York (JFK) to London (LHR) route. Check back this Wednesday to see how AA did and this Friday for the official comparison review.
So how did BA’s 777-200 Club World fare? Let’s find out.
British Airways flights are notoriously tricky to book with miles because of the ridiculous carrier surcharges the airline passes along on award tickets, which can turn a “free” transatlantic flight into one that costs hundreds of dollars or more plus the miles, even when booking with Oneworld partners such as American Airlines. For instance, this round-trip itinerary runs either 100,000 British Airways Avios (for the off-peak dates) or 115,000 AAdvantage miles, but would have an extra $700 in surcharges tacked on as well.
Fortunately, this was a perfect opportunity to use flexible bank points, which can be transferred to travel partners, but in this case, are best utilized to purchase tickets directly. With the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card, Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed at 1.5 cents per point, meaning this $2,874 round-trip flight would cost 191,600 UR points. While it’s a bit high, there were no additional cash surcharges to worry about when I was purchasing my ticket that way.
Note that when we booked this flight, the Amex Pay With Points 50% rebate on the Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN was still in effect — it’s since been reduced to 35%. With the rebate, the net point cost was only 143,700 Membership Rewards points for the entire business-class round-trip ticket with no additional cash co-pay.
If you’re thinking that a nearly $3,000 ticket means you can pick any seat in the business-class cabin ahead of time, think again. On a “cheap” business-class ticket like this one and without any elite status, British Airways will charge you to choose your seat before check-in. Yes, in business class. And the prices start at 62 pounds (~$80).
I decided to pass on adding an additional 80 bucks to the thousands of dollars I already spent on this trip and instead let the chips fall where they may, which is a bit risky in British Airways Club World, as you’ll see in a bit. But in this case, the gamble paid off — barely. When I went to check in online right at the opening of the 24-hour window, when seat assignments become free, there were six open seats in the dreaded middle section and one lone seat by the window. This was 15A, a rear-facing seat at the back of the cabin normally reserved for passengers with infants because there’s a bassinet. If no one with an infant has claimed the seat, however, it becomes available at check-in. It also has a little more legroom and offers easier aisle access.
My trip was originating in Frankfurt (FRA), with a stop in London so I could catch the flight to New York (JFK). Before I left Germany, I was able to spend a little time in the JAL Sakura Lounge in Terminal 2, which I could access since I was traveling on an international business-class ticket with a Oneworld partner. The lounge is not huge — it’s basically one big room cut into a few sections with dividers as part of its design — nor is it particularly fancy or modern. But it does have a reasonable food spread for a small lounge, and ample drinks.
There were cold cuts and bread that you could use to make sandwiches.
You could also choose one of the already prepared finger sandwiches.
There were also some hors d’oeuvres-style hot dishes available.
I spotted a selection of very basic liquors and wine, along with a refrigerator full of beer and non-alcoholic drinks. While the lounge was nothing spectacular, it was certainly a pleasant place to sit and enjoy a little pick-up food before my flight.
Boarding and Cabin
Unfortunately, my flight from Frankfurt to London was an hour late in departing, while my flight from London to New York ended up leaving right on the dot. That turned my relaxed 75-minute connection at Heathrow into a 15-minute dash between gates, during which I also needed to re-check through security in order to access my flight to the US. As a result, I was literally the last person to board the plane.
This particular British Airways 777-200 was built in 1998, making the aircraft nearly 20 years old. But BA has put some money and effort into its planes and as a result, the business-class cabin only felt about 15 years old. OK, that’s an exaggeration — these seats were first rolled out roughly 10 years ago, but that does put them somewhat on the older side for lie-flat business seats. And these are narrow. If you’re unfamiliar with the British Airways Club World cabin, the 48 business-class seats are in arranged in a standard 2-by-awkward-by-2 configuration. The “awkward” part of that equation is the four seats that are side-by-side next to each other, with the outer ones reversed and facing the lucky two folks in the middle. In other words, yes, we’re talking eight-across in business class. Eight. Across.
Each pair of seats on both the aisles and in the middle have one forward-facing seat next to a rear-facing seat. This sounds reasonable until you realize that the ones facing each other are only 21″ in width and separated by a partition that goes up and down. A lot.
When the partition is down, your face is about three to five feet away from the person sitting next to you, who is facing you and who is likely a complete stranger. So you’re looking directly at each other even if you’re actively trying not to, which is mostly what you’re doing any time the partition is down. And while the partition can go up after takeoff, it doesn’t stay up for long because every time the flight attendants arrive to offer you something, the first thing they do is reach over and drop the partition without warning. It’s startling and unexpected the first time it happens, but over the course of the flight, it just becomes horribly annoying. Actually, I don’t know how annoying it becomes because after the flight attendant did it for a third time within 30 minutes after takeoff, I somewhat testily asked her to please stop it. Which to her credit, she did.
While this seat configuration is, in my opinion, one of the worst designs in a modern business-class product, 15A at the back of the cabin is slightly better than most of the others. Since it’s at the end and next to the windows, it feels a bit more private than other seats and has a little extra space, although this 360-degree photo makes it look much bigger than it is.
Post from RICOH THETA. – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA
It’s accessible by a small “aisle” at the end of the cabin, which is only 12″ wide, yet it makes this seat slightly easier to get to than the other window seats.
When you sit down, on your direct left is the IFE controller, along with RCA video and audio inputs and a USB port.
Controls for the seat itself are farther forward on the left. They’re pretty basic but do what they’re designed to do.
The tray table folds out to a full size of 18″x14″, which is not huge but was enough for my needs. It can also be partially unfolded, as seen in the photo below. Note the shoulder of the person in the seat facing me on the left, which gives you an idea of how close you are to your seat-mate when the partition between the seats is down.
Another USB port and a standard AC outlet are located at the floor next to a storage drawer that can fit a pair of shoes but is pretty much the only storage available. While some people might not like the AC outlet being on the floor instead of up at arm-level, I actually preferred it because I was able to plug in my long laptop adapter and not have its cord lying across my body or running all over the place.
A nice bonus on a plane with seats this old is that everything shakes. Everything.
When you’re in the air, the seat does fold out into a fully lie-flat bed, which is not bad, even if it is narrow.
I didn’t have any issues taking a short nap on it, though I think it would feel fairly claustrophobic for a longer snooze. The seat at full length is 52″ long, but the footstool at the end can be lowered and adds another 20″ of length for a total seat length of 72″. That’s fine for me since I’m not terribly tall, but it would probably be unpleasantly short for someone like The Points Guy who’s 6’7″.
I’m sure you’ll be surprised at this point to learn that the IFE systems on these aircraft are old. The screen, which measures 12″ diagonally, folds flat against the divider during takeoff and landing, and can then be opened during flight to face you directly. If you then let it go from that position, it slides backwards and comes to rest at a 45-degree angle, where the picture is only partially viewable from the seat — or at least that’s what mine did, since the screen wouldn’t actually lock in place in order for me to watch anything. This is how the IFE screen came to rest each time I attempted to lock it in place:
When I brought this to the attention of a flight attendant, he examined the screen for about 15 seconds, then declared “Alrighty, we’ll get ya a piece of cork!” and left. I presume he meant he was going to jam a piece of cork between the screen and the divider in order to hold it in place, but I don’t know for sure because he never returned.
Other than my screen being off-kilter, the IFE system itself was rather sluggish and not terribly responsive. It was also fairly limited in content. I counted 41 movies I could watch — with first run selections mixed in with some classics — so long as I strained my neck 45 degrees in order to see the unlockable non-corked screen.
Food and Beverage
Once I was settled into my seat, I was greeted before take off and offered a pre-departure beverage choice of either orange juice or Champagne.
The Champagne was fine, nothing special but always appreciated. After take off, I took some time to peruse the lunch menu.
I decided to go with the buffalo mozzarella starter, the Heritage beef cheek for my main course and the lemon cheesecake for my dessert.
To go with my meal, I asked for a glass of the Montecillo Gran Reserva 2009, a red wine from Spain. I’m not a wine connoisseur, but I enjoyed this glass of wine, at least up until it spilled all over me and my seat thanks to my loose armrest, as you saw in the video earlier. Fortunately, the crew had plenty on board and brought me another glass.
The mozzarella and tomato starter was well presented and quite delicious. It was probably the best part of my meal, though in all fairness, I do like cheese.
On the other hand, the main beef course was too heavy on the sauce, which practically drowned the entire plate. While the beef itself was somewhat tender, the sauce tended to overwhelm the flavor of everything and certainly didn’t make the presentation of the meal terribly attractive. Still, meat is difficult to pull off in the sky and this dish was average on that score.
The dessert cheesecake was rather tasty — as you can see, it looked so good that I dove right in before remembering to take a photo of it. It didn’t disappoint.
If you’re hungry or thirsty after the meal service, there are self-service snacks and drinks located in the galley.
This has become a relatively common feature in premium cabins and I think it’s a solid addition, as it allows you to get what you want when you want it, or perhaps grab a snack or drink while you’re up from your seat after using the lavatory.
Approximately 90 minutes before landing, it was time for what British Airways calls “Afternoon Tea” service. While I personally don’t drink tea, this service includes a choice of snacks — either a selection of individual sandwiches or an antipasti plate of king prawn with goat cheese and salmon. I chose the individual sandwiches, which made a nice light snack to have before landing began — though frankly after the lounge food, meal service and self-serve snacks, I probably didn’t need any more food at that point. Still, it was appreciated.
The crew was generally pleasant but not terribly available, undoubtedly because this is a business-class cabin with a lot of seats, so there are many people to handle. This also led to one or two incidents where I would have expected a little more attention to detail on a pricey business-class ticket.
For example, early on in the flight, I requested a gin and tonic. If I was sitting in economy, I think it would have been fine to hand me a glass, a bottle of gin and a can of tonic. But in business class, the drink should arrive mixed. Is this nitpicky? Sure, but it’s a $3,000 ticket and for that amount of money, I think it’s reasonable to be nitpicky. I’ve flown many times in domestic business class on US airlines — which aren’t exactly known for their high-end service — and I almost always received a mixed drink actually mixed.
In at least one case I thought it was fine that it took a while for trays to be picked up after each course because it gave me the chance to jam my empty butter dish into the gap between the IFE screen and the divider, finally getting it locked in place so I could watch something on it.
At boarding, I found a blanket, pillow and headphones waiting for me at my seat, wrapped in plastic, along with a small postcard advertisement. The pillow definitely wasn’t the thickest in the world, but the blanket was more comfortable than it looked. The headphones performed adequately.
Each passenger also received an amenity kit. I’m not a huge fan of amenity kits in any case, but the container holding this one seemed more like a small sack than a travel bag.
However, the contents of the kit, while certainly not high-end or ritzy, had everything you would expect or need from an amenity kit, including a toothbrush, toothpaste, pen, Elemis lotion and lip balm, earplugs and a sleep mask.
Finally, this is the part of the review where I would normally touch on the Wi-Fi service — the cost, the speed, ease of use and so on. But that isn’t possible in this case because there was no Wi-Fi service. None. This has been the situation on British Airways for years, and only in 2016 did the airline announce it would finally begin installing Gogo 2Ku service on its planes. The rollout is beginning this year with short-haul flights getting Wi-Fi this summer and as far as I’m concerned, it can’t come soon enough.
Is this the worst business-class ever? No, not by far. It’s still a lie-flat seat which, although narrow, isn’t terrible for getting some sleep. If this was the business product on a transcontinental US flight and cost $600 each way, well, it still wouldn’t be competitive with what’s available today at that price, but at least it wouldn’t be sorely lacking. That being said, if I had spent nearly $3,000 of my hard earned cash on this experience, I would be one extremely dissatisfied customer. Because for that kind of money, there are significantly better options out there in pretty much every facet of the in-flight experience — so, if at all possible, I’d avoid buying tickets on British Airways Club World between London and New York. And if you can’t avoid it, at least make sure to bring your own piece of cork.
How did American Airlines stack up to this British Airways business-class flight? Check back Wednesday evening to find out — and Friday evening to see the official head-to-head comparison between the two. Or, see how Lufthansa’s 747-8 compared with United’s 777-200 in last week’s Business-Class Battle.
Have you flown in business class aboard British Airways’ 777-200? Tell us about your experience, below.
All photos by the author.
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