This Old Bird’s Still All Right: A Review of British Airways 747-400 Economy, San Francisco to London
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A friendly and professional crew, delicious meals, extension drink selections, solid Wi-Fi, extensive inflight entertainment and comfortable seats made the flight a surprisingly good experience at a rock-bottom price.
Poorly trained agents and a closed lounge in SFO didn't get the experience off on a good foot. The cabin, seats and bathrooms reflect the 20-year age of the plane.
Even though I’ve crossed the Atlantic dozens of times in the past few years, it’d been a while since I’d flown in economy one of the biggest transatlantic players: British Airways. So, I jumped on booking a flight when I got a flight-deal alert for a cheap British Airways flight from San Francisco to Berlin.
Here’s what it was like to fly in the second-to-last row of the Queen of the Skies.
The deal alert seemed tailor-made for me: San Francisco (SFO) to Berlin (TXL) for $316 round-trip. I was ending up in San Francisco after a Cathay Pacific premium economy Cyber Monday booking to Singapore, which I used to attend an aviation conference in Singapore. And I needed to go to Berlin for ITB Berlin, a massive travel trade show where Qatar announced its new economy product.
While $316 round-trip between San Francisco and Berlin via London was amazing, this fare and routing were just the starting point. Sure, I wanted to go from San Francisco to Berlin, but not necessarily back to San Francisco after the conference. Playing around with open-jaw destinations, I found that I could return from Berlin to Austin (AUS) just in time for SXSW for around $100 more.
But this open-jaw itinerary meant that I wouldn’t be able to apply the AARP discount code to this booking. And yes, as a 33-year-old full-time employee, I’m a member of the American Association of Retired Persons. After all, the organization has no age or employment restrictions, and you can save $65 to $200 off British Airways flights for the $16-per-year membership.
Since all four flights were operated by British Airways, I could still take advantage of the Chase Visa 10% discount meant for British Airways Visa Signature Card card holders. In practice, you can use any Chase Visa card and apply the latest discount code to save 10% off the entire purchase price. including base fare, taxes, fees and British Airways’ infamous carrier-imposed surcharges.
After this discount, I paid $410 using my Chase Sapphire Reserve. The purchase earned 3x Ultimate Rewards points, and I knew that I’d be covered for trip delays, trip cancellations and baggage delays and receive other travel protections.
Since transitioning to our lives as digital nomads in June 2017, Katie and I live out of our Osprey backpacks. They’re technically too large to carry on, and we travel with large liquids (e.g., contact-lens solution, sunscreen), so we typically check our bags. We were curious how our first experience trying to fly with our bags on transatlantic basic economy would go.
We knew that the BA hand-baggage-only fares we purchased didn’t allow a free checked bag — even for Oneworld elites like us. British Airways stands alone in the Oneworld alliance with this policy. American Airlines, Finnair, Iberia and all other Oneworld carriers allow Oneworld elites to check a bag for free.
When we arrived at the British Airways check-in counter about two hours before departure, there were no lines at all.
As a Oneworld Emerald, I entered the first-class check-in line, but the agents at these desks were busy. An agent from the economy section waved me over. Her inexperience was immediately obvious, from my asking about baggage allowance as a Oneworld elite to entering my Known Traveler Number so I could experience TSA PreCheck for the first time flying British Airways.
She eventually called over a supervisor to help with my inquiries. While inexperienced check-in agents can be expected, I’d imagined the supervisor would be able to explain the situation smoothly. Instead, I got a long, rambling, incoherent explanation of why I didn’t get a free checked bag as a Oneworld elite on British Airways. I pointed out that American, Iberia and Finnair allow a checked bag on a basic-economy fare, and all I got in response was, “You can talk to American.”
While the supervisor’s explanation was incoherent, I knew that the decision to charge for the bag was correct, so I didn’t push any more. I’d already selected Southwest for my Platinum Card® from American Express annual airline-fee credit and I’d already maximized the $250 travel credit on my Citi Prestige and $300 annual travel credit on my Chase Sapphire Reserve, so I pulled out my Ritz-Carlton Rewards credit card (no longer open to new applicants) to pay the $60 checked-bag fee, knowing that I could apply part of the $300 airline-fee credit to cover this purchase.
British Airways’ San Francisco lounge was closed for renovations, so eligible customers were directed to the China Airlines lounge at check-in. No lounge pass was given at check-in, so British Airways had an agent at the lounge to scan boarding passes.
As a Oneworld Emerald, I got a chance to go into the separate first-class lounge section, which was far from British Airways’ typical quality of lounges.
A small buffet offered sandwiches, cookies, bread, scones and candy. Fittingly for being right around the corner from California wineries, the lounge offered only California wines — a white, red, rose and sparkling.
Interestingly, the food and drink were better in the main part of the lounge, where guests could find liquors, mixers and additional snacks.
Also in the main lounge area was a buffet of sandwiches, fruits, cheeses, meats, roasted vegetables, fried rice and chicken wings.
Boarding for the 4:10pm flight was scheduled for 3:20pm. At 3:15pm, Katie — who was on a later flight — said an announcement was made in the lounge that boarding would begin in 10 minutes. Meanwhile, at the gate, passengers were already clustering around two boarding queues for the five boarding groups. On the right, groups 1, 2 and 3 gathered around the priority-boarding totem while groups 4 and 5 stood in front of general boarding.
At 3:30pm, Group 1 was called to board. Predictably, this created a mess of passengers trying to board with their group while others stood blocking them, not wanting to lose their place in line. The same inexperienced agent that checked me in was running the priority-boarding podium. After struggling to scan boarding passes, she resorted to manually typing in each passenger’s seat number to board them in the system.
Cabin and Seat
On this version on BA’s 747-400 — V3 on SeatGuru — economy consisted of one large cabin in the back of the aircraft. While mostly 3-4-3 throughout the cabin, there were three rows of 2-4-2 seating as the aircraft width tapered off. In the very back, there were two rows of 0-4-0 seating with exits on either side.
There were four bathrooms for the 145 economy passengers, all in a cluster in the rear. The bathrooms clearly reflected their 20-year-old age.
Seat selection came for a fee for most passengers. However, as a Oneworld elite, I was able to select a seat in the back in one of the two-passenger rows. I was hopeful that we’d be able to change Katie’s flight so we could fly together. That didn’t work out, but I ended up with an empty seat next to me for the long flight to London.
These seats were lined up with the seat in front of them on the aisle, leaving a gap between the window and the seat. However, this meant that the inflight entertainment screen was right in front of you instead of being off to the side.
Pitch in my row measured 31.5 inches with 17 inches between the thick armrests. The seat itself measured 19 inches wide.
While 31.5 inches of pitch isn’t bad, the legroom wasn’t as spacious as this pitch could have been, due to the older, thicker-style seats.
A 3-4-3 configuration is a tough one for passengers, with four middle seats per row and near certainty that either you are going to have to climb over someone or someone is going to have to climb over you. If you’re a fan of aisle seats, I’d recommend getting one of those in the middle section of the back of the cabin, as the middle seats next to you are going to be the least likely to be filled.
The seats had quite a bit of recline, which was nice for sleeping but not particularly nice when you wanted to work on a laptop and the person in front of you reclined.
Speaking of sleep: The seat’s headrest wings folded down instead of the standard bend-inward headrest wings. This was a lot more effective for holding your head in place while sleeping but wasn’t compatible with wearing larger over-ear headphones.
The overhead bins were old, small and quickly filled up. So make sure to board promptly in order to stow your bag overhead.
Under the middle section of four seats were only three large stowage areas — which is sure to lead to arguments for whose bag gets to go where.
During the flight, the cabin ranged between 8% and 46% humidity, with much of the flight between 8% and 14%. The temperature ranged from 71 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit from gate to gate, but most of the flight ranged between 71 to 74 degrees before the cabin heated up during descent. There were no individual air controls in economy — just one overhead light.
Amenities and IFE
At boarding, seats were stocked with a square pillow, plastic-wrapped soft blanket and a pair of earbuds plastic-wrapped with a Flying Start donation envelope.
The 747 cabin retrofit was obvious when it came to inflight entertainment. Gone were the days of an old and murky screen with limited options. The crisp, 9-inch screen came packed with 188 movies, 263 different TV shows and a whopping 533 audio options, from podcasts to music albums.
I was a bit disappointed that an Above & Beyond audio mix wasn’t available — as I’ve been happy to find on past BA flights — but there were enough options in a wide variety of genres to keep passengers occupied.
The earbuds that were left at each seat at boarding weren’t great, so I switched over to my personal headphones after a short test.
One major issue on this aircraft: no power outlets. Passengers only had one USB plug under the IFE screen to slowly charge their devices. If you plan on working on a laptop, you’re going to want to board with a full charge and toggle battery-save mode to extend the life of your battery.
I didn’t initially see a Wi-Fi network broadcasting, so it wasn’t until a couple of hours into the flight that I discovered that this 20-year-old bird had received a Wi-Fi retrofit. Prices depended on how long and how fast of a connection you wanted.
The Browse plan promised “minimum 250 kbps experience to a user device. First 35 MB downloaded within an hour, throttles to 400 kbps maximum download speed” and prices from $6.50 to $20 for one hour to a full flight.
The Stream plan promised at least “0.66 Mbps experience to a user device. Individual user data cap 300 MB per hour. Session will be managed to stay within limit.” This plan was priced from $10 for an hour to $30 for the full flight.
After doing some mental math on what I assumed the exchange rates were, I purchased the Stream full-flight plan, paying with pounds. Only once I was online was I able to figure out that I should have chosen US dollars instead.
An important note: Wi-Fi was only valid for the device on which you purchased the plan. You couldn’t toggle between your phone and a laptop. Don’t make the same mistake I did by purchasing on your phone if you plan to work on a laptop.
The Wi-Fi was quick at points — especially on approach in London — but sluggish at northern latitudes. At points, I certainly didn’t get the promised minimum download speed of 0.66Mbps. However, the upload speed was remarkably consistent through the flight.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Shortly after takeoff, flight attendants passed through the cabin from back to front with bar service. And this service offered more than just the typical soda, juice and water you might expect in economy. Individual bottles of El Muro wine, cans of beer, nips of liquor and even individual bottles of sparkling wine were available for free.
When both the passenger behind me and I ordered a cocktail, the FA asked if we’d also like a bottle of wine to go with dinner. We both did. The drinks were served with an appetizer of sour-cream-and-chive pretzels.
About 30 minutes later, dinner was served. On the ground, the options were announced as “chicken tikka masala … the Indian version of the Italian version of masala” or a vegetarian pasta. As the crew passed through from back to front with the meals, the options were shortened to “chicken or vegetarian.” When I inquired about the vegetarian, the hurried flight attendant only would respond, “It’s a pasta.” I chose the chicken.
The tray was served disorganized but packed with food. A salad with balsamic vinaigrette; a cold, plastic-wrapped-yet-fresh roll with butter; and crackers with cheese served as appetizers to the hot meal. The three-part hot dish consisted of beans, rice and creamy tomato chicken tikka with just a hint of spice. Overall, it was a great meal for economy, topped off by a caramel-topped chocolate dessert.
After the meal trays were collected — about an hour and 15 minutes after the meal was served and two hours after takeoff — the cabin lights were dimmed for the night.
Midflight, a wide variety of packaged snacks, juices and water was available in the forward galley for the peckish.
About an hour and a half before landing, or 12:40am Pacific and 8:40am in London, the lights were switched on in preparation for an arrival meal. 15 minutes later, flight attendants passed through the cabin to serve breakfast. Again, they served from back to front. Choices were described as “turkey and egg or mushroom-and-spinach burrito.” I chose turkey and egg and found that it was also a burrito.
The wrap/burrito was unevenly cooked, with both mushy parts and crunchy parts. Passengers had the option of either coffee or tea with breakfast.
Equal parts professional and friendly, this BA crew earned nearly a perfect score.
Service can make or break a flight — and a TPG flight review rating. While the touch points can be few in economy, this British Airways “worldwide” crew nailed the experience. Equal parts professional and friendly, they were perhaps one of the best crews I’d had in economy — and that’s saying a lot, with my experience.
During boarding, flight attendants were friendly and welcoming. The flight attendant in the back happily AvGeeked out with me about the Queen of the Skies — including the fact that this was a retrofit aircraft with the “newer, lighter, slimmer” seats with new IFE screens. We together mourned BA’s planned phaseout of the 747. (But those BA Queens are certainly going out in style.)
While waiting on the ground for pushback, between boarding completing at 3:55pm and pushback at 4:20pm, crew took their time passing through with immigration forms. While I didn’t hear what led up to it, a group of four travelers in a middle row ended up getting their photo taken together by one of the friendly crew members.
The service element was capped off upon arrival with an announcement from the captain once we arrived at the gate thanking everyone for flying British Airways and wishing a safe onward journey.
The crew fell short of a perfect score because there was a lack of water and juice service during the long night for those of us who were awake, and a little shortness in attitude during meal service. Still, it was just about as good as it gets in economy.
Between British Airways’ older aircraft and absurd carrier-imposed surcharges on awards, I wasn’t too motivated to fly the British flag carrier — particularly in economy. However, this experience certainly has me reconsidering British Airways for my next cheap journey across the pond.
The crew was a delight, the food and drink were solid, and there was plenty of inflight entertainment. Wi-Fi was on board my flight, but it’s hit-and-miss with BA just one year into a multiyear retrofit project.
It’s understandable that British Airways doesn’t want to put money into these 747s before they’re retired in a few years, but the interiors are certainly showing their age. As British Airways retires old aircraft and takes delivery of new planes, hopefully the onboard experience will get even better.
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