Trifecta of Mediocrity: British Airways' Premium Economy on the Boeing 787-8, 787-9 and 747
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While US-based carriers are finally getting around to installing true international premium-economy products, British Airways has had a premium-economy cabin called World Traveller Plus on its long-haul aircraft for years. And with dozens of flights a day between the US and London, it's past time for TPG to review the product. So I made up for it by flying it thrice — once on the newest Boeing 787-9, then on an older Boeing 747-400 and finally on the Boeing 787-8. Here's a review of all three of my experiences.
These three long-haul flights stemmed from two bookings. The first was a cheap fare from Berlin's Tegel (TXL) to San Jose, CA (SJC), costing €672 (around $775) round-trip. My wife, Katie, needed to get to a conference in California, so I tagged along for a mileage run, as American Airlines AAdvantage is quite generous on partner premium-economy flights. Credited to AAdvantage, these BA-marketed flights earned a total of 25,114 award miles (after my Executive Platinum elite bonus), 16,828 Elite Qualifying Miles and 2,284 Elite Qualifying Dollars. And that's even with my SJC-LAX leg never posting.
Since this booking was on the cheaper end, we paid for it with my Citi Prestige — valuing 3x ThankYou Points and excellent trip-delay protection over getting 5x points with The Platinum Card® from American Express.
The second booking was the return leg of a open-jaw round-trip from Amsterdam (AMS) to Houston's George Bush Intercontinental (IAH), returning from Montreal (YUL) to Amsterdam a few months later and costing $1,358 round-trip. Since this was booked with AA flight numbers, I earned 1.5 EQMs per mile flown in premium economy. This booking didn't get the sweet EQDs that the first one did, however. Since the whole booking had AA flight numbers, the EQDs were based on the actual cost of the flight rather than the formula of 20% of flight miles that's usually applied to BA flight numbers. I charged this booking to my Amex Platinum Card for the 5x points on airfare purchases.
Travelers can book British Airways' premium-economy flights with a variety of mileage programs, but the infamous British Airways fuel surcharges generally make it a poor redemption.
Cabin and Seat
On the 787s, the World Traveller Plus cabin was arranged with seven seats in each row (2-3-2) vs. nine seats in each row (3-3-3) in economy. On the 747, World Traveller Plus had eight seats per row (2-4-2) compared with 10 per row (3-4-3) in economy. On both the Dreamliner and the Queen of the Skies, British Airways' unremarkable business class had the same number of seats in each row as premium economy. But there was an important distinction between lie-flat seats in business class and recliner seats in premium economy.
Across all three aircraft types, the pitch, or legroom, was identical, at 38 inches and 18.5 inches between the armrests. Despite these significantly better-than-coach dimensions, it seemed rather crowded on our flights — especially in the four-seat middle section on the 747.
The two-seat window options, seen here on the 787, were especially nice for couples traveling together, though.
The three aircraft types had similar seats, but there were noticeable differences. The new Dreamliner seats were sleeker, with narrow armrests and more armrest table space but narrower padding and immovable headrest wings.
Meanwhile, the 747 had better-padded seats — which was great when you were trying to relax but definitely reduced legroom when arranged with the same pitch. The headrest wings could be adjusted to cradle your head, but they weren't stiff, likely due to the seat's age.
Noticeably, they all lacked storage. While the overhead bins were sufficient for carry-on bags, there was minimal storage for personal items at the seats. The seats came with only one pouch built into the seat in front of me, and they always came filled with plenty of BA materials. Even worse, these pockets had open sides, allowing smaller items like phones and passports to slip out.
The underseat storage was another problematic issue. On the Dreamliners, the aisle seats in the middle section had an equipment box and seat supports blocking bag storage. There was just a single large open gap in the middle for the seats to share. Similarly, there was a single large gap for the window seats, squeezed in on either side by an equipment box.
The seats reclined significantly. This was good for when I was trying to sleep but a big negative when I was trying to work on a laptop or access the aisle. The IFE screens also tilted to compensate against the recline, but the viewing angle still wasn't ideal.
The windows on these three were quite different. Of course, the 747 had the classic pull-down shades, but the windows differed significantly between the 787-8 and 787-9. I awoke midway through my red-eye flight on the 787-8 to the sun rising. Even at their darkest setting, the sun glared through the early-generation Dreamliner windows. This wasn't an issue on the 787-9 windows, which blocked most of the light.
The bifold tray tables felt especially small, measuring 16.5 inches wide by 10 inches deep when extended. They were only barely large enough to hold meal trays, and there wasn't any spare room for drinks or other items during meals.
At boarding, each seat was stocked with a plastic-wrapped pair of noise-canceling headphones, a basic amenity kit, a plastic-wrapped blanket and a small pillow.
The amenity kits contained a cheap plastic eye mask, socks, a pen, earplugs, toothbrush and toothpaste.
The three aircraft had similar screens and entertainment systems despite the differences in age. While it wasn't surprising to have good IFE systems on the new Dreamliners, I was impressed by the crisp and responsive IFE system and screen on this aging 747. It seems that this 747 was one that British Airways has refreshed to keep it flying for another 10 years.
The screens measured between 10.5 and 11 inches diagonally. Impressively, the screens were crisp when I was looking straight at them, but my immediate seatmate could only see a blur, at least in bright light, giving me privacy when it came to my viewing choices.
The systems had more than 40 new movies and numerous classic movies, TV shows, audio selections and games. I especially appreciated the latest album and a two-hour set by my favorite DJs, the British trio Above & Beyond. And I was able to zone out and enjoy the set thanks to the noise-canceling headphones provided at each seat at boarding (and not collected before landing).
The Dreamliners had large remote controls built into the armrest, complete with a full set of buttons and a keyboard on the back. The 747 had a much smaller, simpler remote.
Another point of difference between the aircraft types: The Dreamliners had two USB plugs under the IFE screen, while the 747 had only one.
Two universal power outlets were in the console between each pair of seats.
British Airways started operating aircraft with Wi-Fi in February, but none of my three flights had Wi-Fi. Hopefully, BA's retrofit will come soon for those who need to stay connected.
I received cold and impersonal service from most flight attendants across my three flights. The only exception was Rob B., a flight attendant on my LAX-LHR flight. We struck up a conversation during boarding, and he fondly recalled working as a British Airways flight attendant on the Boeing 747-100, the first model of the Jumbo Jet. He was the only BA flight attendant I recall smiling on any of the three flights. Having had pleasant service on past British Airways flights, this was particularly disappointing.
Food and Drink
Catering can vary from route to route, but I didn't expect the drink selection to vary as well. On my London-San Jose and Los Angeles-London routes, water, juice and sparkling wine were available as a pre-departure beverage. But the flight attendant reported that they weren't allowed to serve alcohol until they left the ground in Montreal, blaming "customs" — likely meaning that the airline would have to pay a fine or fee for serving alcohol on the ground in Canada, rather than an actual prohibition.
Passengers were provided small menu cards during boarding. They could make even the smallest hands feel large.
The meal on my flight from Heathrow was the best of the three flights. The salmon and smoked haddock pie with baby fennel, duchess potatoes and a white-wine cream sauce was a very British and delicious choice.
The catering was also good on the flights out of Los Angeles and Montreal. The braised short rib on my flight from Montreal was cooked perfectly.
Based on my experiences, I'd certainly try to book the Boeing 787-9 again if I had the choice. While identical to the 787-8 cabin in many ways, the difference in the darkness of the windows is fundamentally important. The 747 seats were comfortable, and the IFE system was refreshed, making it a good option. But with more padding comes less legroom, making the 747 feel a lot more cramped than the Dreamliner.
The one area that the 787-8 excelled at was humidity. While the flight dried out to under 10% humidity on both my 787-9 and 747 flights, the humidity never dropped below 14% on the 787-8 flight. The temperatures varied widely between the three flights: 70 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit on the 787-9 (LHR-SJC), 75 to 86 degrees on the 747-4 (LAX-LHR) and 74 to 82 degrees on the 787-8 (YUL-LHR).
Would I fly British Airways in premium economy again? BA offers a good overall product, excellent AAdvantage mileage earnings and good deals on fares from Europe, so I'll surely be booking British Airways World Traveller Plus in the future.
That said, for most US-based travelers, I'm not convinced that the slightly wider seat, extra legroom, somewhat improved catering and extra recline are worth the price premium that British Airways is charging. When it comes to premium-economy products, British Airways turns out to be rather mediocre.
If you're deciding between splurging for premium economy and saving in economy, compare our reviews of British Airways economy to this one. If you're going to fly premium economy and are deciding between airlines, check out our transatlantic-flight reviews of Aeroflot, Air France, Iberia, LOT Polish, Virgin Atlantic and United's new premium-economy seat. If you're specific to Oneworld, I'd suggest flying American Airlines aircraft from London and British Airways to London.