ABBA? When Air Belgium Meets British Airways: Flying an A340 in Club World From London to Newark
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Great, friendly Air Belgium crew, very good British Airways catering, and comfortable seat.
Old, limited and nonfunctioning inflight entertainment and no Wi-Fi.
British Airways, like many other airlines, has had to think creatively, given the ongoing engine issues with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which has seen a number of 787 operators leasing aircraft from other companies in order to continue a normal schedule. British Airways wet leases an A340-300 from Air Belgium, meaning that Air Belgium crew operate the flight even though it has a British Airways flight number, BA meals and BA amenities. For a few months, this aircraft has been flying on BA’s Heathrow-Newark route, so I was eager to give it a try on a recent trip to TPG headquarters in New York City.
Air Belgium operates a fleet of four A340-300. Initially, the airline tried to run its own scheduled flights, but these ceased after a short period, and the airline has since focused on services largely for other airlines.
There was no Avios availability on the desired Air Belgium A340 flight, so we booked this flight using cash and purchased an itinerary that originated in Dublin (DUB) to reduce the cost of the ticket. You can read this guide on how starting in European cities can save substantial amounts of money as well as how to best position to your departure point. Given my 7:30am flight from Dublin to London Heathrow (LHR), I flew to Dublin the night before and stayed in an airport hotel. Being on an international business-class ticket meant I was also booked into BA’s short-haul business class, Club Europe, for the short hop from Dublin to London Heathrow.
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Connecting in London from Dublin was easy: We landed 30 minutes early, so I had two hours between flights and was through flight connections in just a few minutes. Connecting at LHR Terminal 5 is easy, and has only gotten better in recent years thanks to improvements in the Fast Track security process.
Generally speaking, when BA moved into its current Heathrow home at Terminal 5, it introduced two deadlines. First, passengers flying from T5 need to have cleared security 35 minutes before their flight is due to depart. That’s an automated cutoff — if someone tries to go through security 34 minutes before their flight, their boarding pass won’t work, and they won’t be able to get through.
Secondly, at flight connections, BA has largely automated things so that if a connecting flight lands into LHR late, and less than 60 minutes before a passenger’s next flight, BA will often proactively rebook that passenger onto the next flight.
Upon landing, I saw the Air Belgium A340 parked at the B gates. My boarding pass for the New York flight had the dreaded “SSSS” printed on it, meaning I was subject to extra security checks at the gate, so I headed there right away.
Most British Airways long-haul flights depart from B and C gates (there’s only one gate in T5A capable of handling a wide-body long-haul airplane) and there’s a BA lounge in the B gates.
I stopped for a coffee in the lounge at the B gates before proceeding to the gate. As TPG UK content producer Dan Ross has said, it’s a hidden gem and quite a pleasant space, both for those extra spare minutes before the flight boards but also actually for longer periods, especially if the two Galleries lounges in T5A are particularly busy.
I arrived at the gate at 9:45am, an hour before departure, to get the additional security checks out of the way but also take photos before the cabin filled up. My AvGeek excitement won over the staff, who conducted their checks right away and let me wait by the jetty downstairs so I could get on first, which I did, at 10:30am.
Taxiing out to the runway, we passed two of British Airways’ retro jets. We were airborne at 11:25am and had a stunning climb past Heathrow, having taken off toward the east before performing a 180-degree turn.
Cabin and Seat
The business-class section of this 11-year-old A340-300 was split between two cabins, with seven rows at the front of the aircraft and three behind the galley and lavatories.
Seat rows alternated between a 2-2-1 and a 1-2-1 layout with the single throne seats (those with console armrests on both sides) in even rows on the port side and two seats in even rows closer to the window.
On the right side, the seats with a single console armrest alternated between being closer to the aisle in odd rows and closer to the window in even rows.
Solo travelers should try to get A seats in even rows followed by the nonthrone seats also in even rows. Couples should either choose A and C seats in odd rows or any of the middle seats.
I picked 2L, as there were no A seats available when I booked and I was keen on being closer to the window.
The rear business-class section was smaller than the forward one.
There were two lavs in the front galley as well as one in the middle galley, making a total of three for the 45 business-class passengers. The two in the front had a window, which made them light and bright — and who doesn’t like a loo with a view?
These were pretty basic, with BA’s standard premium amenities, such as moisturizing lotion but no other noteworthy premium products.
First impressions of the cabin were mostly positive: I liked the feel of the cabin as well as the color scheme, and the seat was similar to that of American Airlines on their refurbished Boeing 767. However, the cabin was much more open and less private than the typical British Airways Club World cabin, which it was standing in for.
The upside of this cabin layout was that very few passengers had to climb over others to get out of their seats, which remains the biggest criticism of BA’s Club World seat (at least until the new Club Suites rolls out across the fleet between now and 2023).
The seat itself was comfortable. Various controls allowed positions from eating to lounging to fully flat. The armrest by the window went down to give me more space in bed mode.
Seat controls were straightforward, though getting the table out was clunky, and storing it was even worse. The tray table itself was wobbly, though of a decent size. It was the same issue as with AA’s 767: Returning the table involved aligning a few arrows perfectly, pushing a bit, pulling a bit, pressing down and sliding it into the side.
There was a USB and a conventional charging point to the side of the seat, as well as an adjustable reading lamp (in addition to lights for each seat, which were controlled via the old-school remote control).
The footwell was enclosed and under the side table of the seat in front, and there was a little storage space for shoes.
There was a storage next to the TV that housed the safety card (though no other BA or Air Belgium literature) and that I used to store my laptop and newspapers. The side table provided plenty of space for drinks books and phones. The overhead bin space felt tight — my bag just about fit, but I don’t think a bigger rollaboard bag would have easily fit into the space.
One thing I liked, though it’s sadly missing from most wide-body aircraft, was the individual air vents about each seat. I like being able to control the temperature and air flow at my seat.
Amenities and IFE
Hot towels were provided just after takeoff, and they felt bigger and better than the BA ones, which are small and flimsy both in Club World and First. I’ve actually had better hot towels in Singapore Airlines economy class than in BA First, but that’s another story.
There was no Wi-Fi on board this A340. Though that felt somehow last decade, British Airways is only in the midst of rolling out Wi-Fi across its fleet.
The IFE screen was old and quite small compared to most offerings. The entertainment was limited to movies, a standard moving map and a downward and forward camera. There were 41 movies, which in itself felt limited, given there were no TV shows or shorter programs. Most were recent releases (mostly 2018) and classics such as “Notting Hill” and “Love Actually.”
The headphones were similar to BA’s — not quite noise-canceling but decent. When I tried to watch a film after lunch, the sound was scratchy and unintelligible. A fresh set of headphones didn’t help, and a crew member eventually apologized and explained that someone had reported that the system on my seat wasn’t working properly on the previous night flight and that a maintenance crew had told the flight crew it had been fixed, which it clearly hadn’t. The cabin crew said I could use an empty seat in the middle section of the row behind or (once they saw my face at the suggestion of leaving my single seat to join a child in the middle row) in a window seat at the back of the business-class cabin. Since I intended to work anyway before sleeping, it wasn’t a big issue for me, but it would have been for someone else on a full flight.
The bedding was standard BA Club World bedding by The White Company: a big, comfortable pillow, a mattress cover (that didn’t fit the seat well), a day blanket and a sleeping blanket.
BA have really raised their game in this space (in line with other carriers such as American and United). I liked the pillow a lot, and the blanket was a big improvement on the previous version.
The White Company amenity kit had all the essentials: a good-sized and comfortable eye mask, socks, earplugs, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a pen, and White Company moisturizer, lip balm and a relaxation pulse point.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
The normal BA Club World menus were on each seat upon boarding. Crew offered Champagne, water or juice after boarding and took orders for starters and main courses before takeoff.
I was addressed by name when my drink order was taken shortly after takeoff, and drinks were served with coated nuts.
To start, we could have Severn & Wye Scottish smoked salmon, goat cheese, pea-and-mint soup or seasonal salad.
I got the smoked salmon, which was a big portion for a starter and, whilst exactly as described on the menu, could have done with a bit of excitement, like horseradish cream or something along those lines. The bread was a big and tasty muffin.
The main courses were seared fillet of beef, corn-fed chicken curry and burrata-and-spinach tortellini. I went for the chicken curry, which was great — tasty with good levels of spice.
For dessert, I had the baked chocolate tart, which was small but tasty. The flight attendants offered to give me the lemon-and-lime slice and dulce de leche flan, too, but I stuck with just the chocolate dessert and coffee.
There was a rather cheap-looking paper ad on the tray advertising phone software, which I had not seen before on BA (or any other airline). I’d be very curious about the economics of these, as it cheapened the feel of a British Airways premium product.
Just under 90 minutes before landing into Newark, afternoon tea was served: sandwiches with a scone or a tapas plate, both of which came with a chocolate dessert. I had the sandwiches which were presented nicely and quite tasty. Not long ago, BA served a wrapped sandwich on a plate as the second meal, so this was a big improvement.
BA’s relatively new catering partner, Do&Co, has definitely improved meals. The crockery and glasses were both classy and practical (BA’s previous glasses were so tiny that one had to constantly ask for a refill), and with the minor exception of the starter — which was exactly as described, so I can’t really fault BA — my food was great.
From the moment of boarding right through the arrival into Newark, the crew were friendly and genuinely welcoming — it really felt like they enjoyed their jobs and making sure passengers were comfortable. They were more playful with younger passengers and friendly-formal with others (including myself — I have been told I have a serious side).
I was greeted by the cabin service manager by name with a handshake. I didn’t see her greeting all passengers so this must have been a “BA Gold greeting” or something like that. The crew member serving my side used my name whenever taking orders, which felt nice and was an added value that cost the airline nothing.
As soon as I woke up from a nap, two crew members asked me if there were anything I wanted. When my Diet Coke arrived, it came with a bag of crisps. Other passengers had caramel popcorn with their teas and coffees, so the crew must have generally been proactively adding that little bit extra (probably from the onboard self-serve Club Kitchen).
Air Belgium operates a minimum of eight crew on the A340-300, though for British Airways services, it’s at least nine. On my flight, there was an additional crew member observing (and working), taking the total to 10, with half of them working business class.
Crew told me that they enjoyed working on the A340 for Air Belgium as well as British Airways, and that they liked the Newark route. That they were enjoying their job was obvious throughout the flight. Overall, this was one of the friendliest and most attentive crews I have encountered in quite some time.
We landed at 1:25pm, 10 minutes ahead of schedule despite the late departure. Immigration at EWR was a breeze — I have Global Entry, which can be a huge time saver, but normal immigration lines also looked quiet.
A wet lease can be a gamble for an airline — and its passengers — as it can lead to inconsistencies and service issues. But this flight brought out almost the best of both Air Belgium and British Airways: great crew who loved their job, a comfortable seat, improved BA catering. One of the few minuses was the broken inflight entertainment.
I’d fly Air Belgium again any day, and any airline using Air Belgium as wet-lease partners would be wise to capture some of that loving-my-job spirit for their own crew.
Or, as ABBA would say, “Take a Chance on” Air Belgium who shined with their “Super Trouper” service.
All photos by the author.
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