When Avios Save the Day: A Review of British Airways' 747 in Economy From NYC to London
With transatlantic airfares hovering at historic lows, there's never been a better time to fly to Europe. But when it's possible to find sales for as little as $99 one-way on a plucky low-cost carrier, does it ever make sense to pay more to fly on an older full-service legacy airline? Or are there still times when redeeming miles on a major carrier actually makes more sense than paying cash?
That's the question I faced recently when I needed to buy a ticket for a same-day departure from New York to London. As most people know, when you're buying an airline ticket within a few days of the actual flight, you're looking at a huge potential expense. But that's exactly when points and miles can come to the rescue and save you a ton of money. It also gave us a chance to test out if you're really getting anything more with the extra no-fee "perks" included in an economy ticket on a behemoth like British Airways flying its classic Boeing 747-400 versus what you'd get with a no-frills airline.
The morning wakeup call comes in: You need to be in London in time for tomorrow morning's wakeup call. Where to start?
How about Google Flights to find out just how bad the damage will be? But you're not likely to find any sweet discount fares when you're buying your ticket less than 12 hours before departure. Instead, you're going to be looking at something like this ....
For me, the cheapest same-day one-way economy flight from New York to London showed up in this instance at over $1,000, and that included a three-hour layover in Warsaw, Poland (WAW). For a nonstop flight, we were talking over $1,700. Legacy airlines still like to penalize you for buying international one-way tickets, so I could've lowered these prices a bit by tacking on a round-trip return flight, even if I didn't intend to actually use it. But the prices wouldn't be lowered by much — I'd still be looking at $700+ for the very cheapest routing.
However, this was the perfect time to go to my stash of points and miles, because you might be able to get incredible value for redeeming them in a situation where your plans aren't flexible. Under normal circumstances, using points and miles on economy flights to Europe often isn't worth it because of the annoying carrier surcharges that many international airlines tack onto their flights. Because if you're going to spend $200 on surcharges, why burn miles at all if the cash price is only $350?
Except in my case, the cash price wasn't anywhere near $350, and at $1,000 or more, those $200 in surcharges didn't look quite as bad. To get to London, I took a look at availability on British Airways — since it has 10+ flights a day between New York and the British capital, I wasn't surprised to see multiple flights with economy seats available ....
Unlike with some other international airlines, there wasn't any real way to get around British Airways surcharges — every partner passes them along to its customers at roughly the same amount. So booking a BA transatlantic flight through Alaska Mileage Plan at 32,500 miles (as seen above) or American AAdvantage at 30,000 miles wouldn't have drastically changed the amount I'd pay in surcharges.
But while we normally don't recommend it, this was actually the rare ideal use of British Airways Avios for a transatlantic flight. That's because not only was the base award cost for New York-JFK to London Heathrow (LHR) just 20,000 Avios plus the same amount in surcharges as the other programs, but I could also take advantage of BA's Avios & Money award options to further reduce the number of Avios I had to shell out.
For this same-day nonstop economy flight, I could choose to redeem as few as 7,000 Avios with a cash copay of $333. TPG valued Avios at 1.5 cents apiece, so 7,000 Avios were worth about $105. Add that amount to the cash copay, and the total cost of this one-way flight came to about $438 in points and cash, a savings of almost 60% compared to paying outright for the cheapest available cash ticket (which would have also included a stop).
A ticket on British Airways comes with a number of features that would cost extra on a low-cost carrier, but an advance seat assignment isn't one of them. The airline will charge you to pick a seat ahead of time until you're within the 24-hour check-in window, at which point it's free to grab whatever available seat might be left.
Of course, since I was flying on the same day I bought the ticket, online check-in was already open and I could pick a seat immediately after purchase. However, as you might expect so close to departure, most seats had already been taken, and I was lucky to be able to still score an aisle seat.
While I was able to complete check-in online, I still needed my passport checked at the airport to get a boarding pass. So a few hours before the scheduled 9:00pm departure, I headed to JFK's Terminal 7, which British Airways shares with Alaska Airlines, Finnair, LOT, Iberia and a few others.
The crowd at the check-in desks was minimal, but I was able to avoid it entirely by using one of the British Airways check-in kiosks. Oddly, I had to try three different kiosks before I found one that would actually scan my passport and print out a boarding pass, but once it worked, I was able to head for security and be on the concourse within 10 minutes.
The Brits have an affectionate nickname for Terminal 7 at JFK — they call it "a bloody mess." No, wait, it's New Yorkers that call it that, and we use a different adjective than "bloody." The reason is that Terminal 7 is in the middle of a $65 million renovation, so much of it looks like this ....
So I was looking forward to taking advantage of my Priority Pass membership to access the relative solitude of the brand-new Alaska Airlines Lounge, the only Priority Pass lounge in JFK's Terminal 7. With so many airlines in this terminal, it's quickly become a popular lounge since it opened in April, which is why I guess I shouldn't have been shocked to find this sign when I walked up.
Blocking Priority Pass members because of overcrowding has become a common yet frustrating occurrence at Alaska Lounges around the country. In fact, the three Alaska Lounges at Seattle-Tacoma (SEA) recently dropped out of the Priority Pass network. While it's theoretically nice to have a Priority Pass lounge in Terminal 7, it's not much use if you can't access it.
With no other choice, I ended up grabbing a few snacks from the concourse eateries and waited by Gate 10 until my boarding group was called.
Cabin and Seat
British Airways is currently the largest remaining commercial operator of the 747, with 36 of them in its fleet. As so many airlines are no longer utilizing this mammoth four-engine bird, it was nice to once again have a chance to fly on the Queen of the Skies.
The configuration used by British Airways on this 747 between New York and London was heavy on premium cabin space. As a result, there were surprisingly few regular economy seats. The economy cabin, at the back of the plane on the lower level, consisted of a total of only 145 seats — 11 rows with a 3-4-3 layout plus a few rows of 2-4-2 at the rear of the aircraft.
This particular 747-400 (registration G-CIVV) was first delivered in April 1998, making it over 20 years old, but it was in relatively good condition and didn't feel dated or neglected, likely thanks to a makeover in 2016 that included new high-definition in-flight entertainment screens, seat cushions and mood lighting.
In comparison to the seats on low-cost carrier Norwegian Air's 737 MAX, which that airline uses for some of its transatlantic flights, the seats on this British Airways 747-400 were downright spacious. On paper, the economy seat pitch on this plane was listed at 31 inches — but my measurements put it closer to 32 inches. The width between armrests matched specifications at roughly 17.25 inches, and the seat cushion itself (including the armrest space) measured 18.75 inches.
One feature of this economy seat that I particularly liked were the pull-down cushions on the left and right side of the headrest. I have a great deal of trouble sleeping on planes, partially because of how my neck cramps when my head has nowhere to rest. I also don't like to cart around a giant neck pillow (and the inflatable ones are generally mediocre), but these built-in headrest cushions were perfect for me to be able to sleep without waking up to a major (and literal) pain in the neck.
When I first arrived at my seat, waiting for me were a blanket, pillow and lightweight in-ear headphones.
The pillow wasn't really neck-worthy, but since I relied on the headrest cushions to support my head, I instead used the pillow down at my lower back. I didn't use the blanket at all because the cabin temperature, even at cruising altitude, measured a relatively warm 77 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity at 15 to 20%. The cabin actually felt more comfortable than those numbers would indicate, but it was certainly warm enough that covering myself with a blanket would have likely meant waking up overheated.
Food and Beverage
We pushed back from the gate a few minutes early and, after a 20-minute taxi, rolled down the runway and were on our way to London's Heathrow airport. Approximately an hour after takeoff, the flight attendants reached me with the first drink service. I was offered both a pre-dinner drink and a choice of red or white wine with dinner, so I requested a gin and tonic and white wine, which were delivered with a small bag of sour-cream-and-onion pretzels.
Obviously, being in economy, neither of these were top-shelf brands, but the Airén sauvignon blanc from Spain was completely adequate, and Gordon's, the bestselling London dry gin, served its purpose in my self-mixed drink.
Dinner was served about 20 minutes after the drink service, and I had a choice of chicken curry or a cheese-and-tomato pasta dish. I went with the chicken curry, which also came with a salad, rice, roll and brownie.
The food was truly best described as "airline food" — not great, not terrible, but exactly what you'd expect from typical airline food. The rice in the chicken dish was dry, though the curry sauce helped give it a little kick. The salad was also dry, and adding dressing to it only helped slightly. The one part of the meal that was memorable was the brownie, which was moist and tasty.
While dinner was sufficient if not particularly remarkable, the sandwich served for breakfast about an hour before landing was highly disappointing.
Note that this is how I received this sandwich — in a plastic wrapper without any sort of tray or accompaniment aside from a choice of juices. While I never thought I would be put off by any snack that included a pretzel roll as a key ingredient, the enormous amount of cream cheese inside the roll overwhelmed everything else. I was only able to take two bites before discarding it.
Between the two meals, I had time to explore a few features of the economy cabin. Every seat in economy featured Panasonic's eX3 IFE touchscreen system, loaded with first-run movies, TV shows, music, games and more.
I was impressed by the IFE system. Not only was it robustly loaded with 136 movies in multiple languages, including a number of recent Hollywood hits, the touchscreen was highly responsive and extremely easy to use. It was a massive improvement over the IFE system I used in business class on British Airways' 777-200 last year on the way back from London to New York.
The same could not be said for the headphones that were at my seat to use with the IFE system.
These headphones were flat-out unusable — the right side didn't work at all, and the left side sounded tinny and thin. I could have asked for a replacement pair, but the IFE system used a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, so instead I used my own headphones without problem.
If there's one area that British Airways is woefully behind even its low-cost competitors, it's Wi-Fi access. For years, the airline's planes have featured zero internet capability, which in this day and age is unacceptable on long-haul international routes, especially business-focused ones like New York to London. Nearly two years ago, BA said it would begin rolling out Wi-Fi on its short-haul flights, but it was only this past February that we saw actual British Airways long-haul planes with internet capability.
Unfortunately, the airline started with a grand total of three planes. Yes, three. So you can imagine how excited I was when I turned on my laptop's Wi-Fi and saw an actual network available. I connected to it and found myself automatically directed to a British Airways splash screen ....
But though I had come this far, I was to go no farther. As the splash screen noted, Wi-Fi was "currently not available," and it was to stay that way for the duration of my flight, despite my checking back from time to time on various devices.
British Airways claims it will have Wi-Fi rolled out to 118 planes over the next two years, which is already years behind its previous schedule. So while we'll likely have internet service on British Airways one day in the future, you probably shouldn't hold your breath hoping for Wi-Fi to show up on your British Airways flight in 2018.
Along with Wi-Fi, the other major missing piece of technology in the BA 747-400 economy cabin was electrical outlets. While there was a USB port that could be used for charging small devices, I didn't find any 110/220V standard outlets at my economy seat, even in the renovated 747s (note there are electrical sockets in the overhauled first, business and premium-economy cabins).
Of course, during a seven-hour flight, you're likely to find nature calling at some point. Given the small size of the economy cabin, there were an ample four lavatories available at the back of the aircraft, with a fifth lavatory between the economy and premium-economy cabins.
I found them to be generally clean, well-lit, properly stocked and not excessively small. The only issue was that one of them had a loud suction noise coming from the sink drain, which didn't prevent the sink from operating but was rather annoying.
Finally, while most people have come to expect mediocre service when flying economy, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of service offered by this British Airways crew. I found them to be highly attentive, personable and quick to solve any issues. For example, during the dinner service, when I found that the salad dressing was missing from my tray, my flight attendant tracked down another one within 90 seconds of me bringing it to his attention, then later asked if I would like another salad as well.
While that's the level of service I would anticipate receiving in a premium cabin, it was unexpected — but certainly welcome — to see it in economy. I certainly wouldn't assume I'd get this type of economy service on every BA flight, but credit to a solid flight crew working hard on an overnight redeye.
Our flight landed in London at 8:32am local time, a full half hour ahead of schedule, and pulled into an available gate relatively quickly at Terminal 5. It did take a while before the economy passengers all the way at the rear of the plane were able to begin disembarking, but with a huge aircraft like the 747, that was not entirely surprising.
When you purchase a ticket on a low-cost carrier such as Norwegian or WOW Air, you need to be aware of all the extra fees you're likely to encounter, as well as a lack of complimentary international amenities like dinner and alcoholic drinks. While flying in economy on British Airways wasn't anywhere close to luxurious, it did almost feel like a small return to the old days when almost everything (sans seat assignment) was included in the ticket price and the seats weren't entirely mashed together with neighbors practically sitting on top of each other.
I wouldn't pay a lot of extra money to fly BA over another carrier, but if the price were close to equal — especially after adding in any ancillary charges — I would certainly fly its revamped 747-400 economy cabin again on a transatlantic flight. And when it comes to making a last-minute journey across the Pond, it's hard to beat saving hundreds of dollars by using Avios and paying a relative modicum of carrier surcharges for the British Airways economy experience.
All photos by the author.