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Well-intentioned service, wide-open award space made even cheaper by an Amex transfer bonus
Lack of privacy and storage, crowded cabin, slow meal service and a malfunctioning seat
While British Airways is one of the last airlines to operate the 747-400, the beloved Queen of the Skies (and it’s even dressing them up in beautiful retro liveries), the bulk of its long-haul fleet is actually composed of 777 aircraft, including both the 777-200ER and 777-300ER.
Over the years, British Airways first class has earned a reputation for being the world’s best business class (though with the introduction of Qatar Qsuites I’m not sure it even holds that title anymore). The seats are narrow and aging, the cabins overcrowded, and don’t even get me started on the ridiculous taxes for awards to and from London Heathrow (LHR). A majority of people who have ever flown British Airways first class have walked away with this impression, but I had to try it for myself. While we had perfectly smooth skies for the 12-hour flight from Shanghai Pudong (PVG) to London, the entire British Airways first-class experience on this flight could only be described as rough.
British Airways uses a distance-based award chart, which means its Executive Club program is not normally the best option for booking long-haul awards. We were, however, able to snag this seat while Amex was running a 40% transfer bonus to British Airways. While the flight cost 120,000 Avios (102,000 if you were traveling during off-peak times), we only had to transfer 86,000 Membership Rewards points to book it. We also could have gone through American Airlines AAdvantage, which charges 90,000 miles on the same route.
I was very lucky that I was flying from Shanghai to London instead of the other way around. This award came with $276 in taxes — not great but not terrible, either. Flying the exact same route in reverse would have cost us a whopping $506, making it much harder to justify this redemption. With cash prices hovering around $7,500 on this route, we were able to get a redemption value of just over 8 cents per Membership Rewards point after subtracting the taxes. That’s more than four times as much as what TPG values them at.
British Airways departs from Terminal 2 at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. I arrived about 20 minutes before check-in opened and waited in the dedicated first-class check-in line. People began queuing in the other lines as well, but before the check-in counters actually opened, an employee came out and asked everyone, regardless of cabin or status, to form a single line outside of the check-in area.
While I was waiting in line, I learned that BA 160, a second daily flight between Shanghai and London that British Airways operates about three times weekly, had been canceled the day before. Most of the passengers had been rebooked on this flight, so we ended up with an almost completely full plane.
Check-in opened exactly three hours before our scheduled departure time, and I was helped immediately. The agent was quick and was able to issue my boarding pass for my connecting flight to Amsterdam (AMS), even though it was booked under a separate reservation. Customs and security were the fastest I’d ever seen at Pudong, and I was in the lounge no more than 15 minutes after checking in.
British Airways premium-cabin passengers can access the China Eastern No. 77 lounge in Terminal 2. This lounge contracts with most of the airlines operating out of Terminal 2, so it’s normally very crowded. It’s also accessible with a Priority Pass membership, so this is normally where you’ll find me preflight.
The lounge is on the upper level of the terminal and branded as a China Eastern lounge, which I always find surprising, given that China Eastern operates almost exclusively out of Terminal 1 on the opposite side of the airport.
The lounge has ample seating spread across several sections stretching up and down the concourse. A few of the sections had signs for specific airlines (like Cathay Pacific), but once you entered the lounge, there was no enforcement of where you sat. Many of the seats had easy access to outlets, which is such a little thing that so many lounges get wrong.
Still, sitting at one of the tables or clusters of couches meant you might have to hunt a bit harder to find somewhere to charge your phone.
The lounge featured a self-serve bar that was getting a surprising amount of use, given how early in the morning it was.
There were a number of hot foods, including fried noodles and vegetable buns. I also spotted a salad bar, and I’ve seen a made-to-order noodle bar on previous visits, though it wasn’t open during breakfast hours.
All in all, this was a decent lounge, and the Wi-Fi was nice and fast, but I wouldn’t recommend arriving early just to visit the lounge. Given how far Pudong is from the city of Shanghai, and the huge variation in customs and security wait times, you might find yourself with extra time to kill. In that case, this lounge more than gets the job done, but I don’t think I’ll ever be truly impressed with the ground services at PVG.
Cabin and Seat
Boarding started on time, and as I made my way down the jetway, I caught a glimpse of the still-grounded 777 from the previous day’s canceled flight.
I was greeted at the door and directed left into the first-class cabin. I was escorted to my seat by the flight attendant, and I could immediately tell that this flight was operated by one of British Airways’ mixed-fleet crews. British Airways has two sets of flight attendants: worldwide crews and mixed-fleet crews, the latter of whom are generally younger, less experienced and paid significantly less.
While the cabin appeared very fresh, I was immediately struck by how cramped it felt. British Airways puts 14 first-class seats into the nose of its 777s, more than twice as many seats as other airlines use. Some, like Singapore and Air France, opt for a single row of four seats, and Cathay Pacific is also incredibly spacious with a six-seat cabin. The more standard number is eight seats (like on ANA or JAL), while British Airways opts for four seats along the windows on each side and three pairs of two in the middle of the cabin.
The middle seats are ideal if you’re traveling with someone, but if you’re flying solo, there’s a privacy divider that can be closed as well.
I was in Seat 2A, a window seat on the right side of the aircraft.
Because of the cramped cabin layout, the seats themselves felt a lot like a standard reverse-herringbone arrangement you would find in business class. These seats were 22 inches wide, the same width of many business-class seats on a 777.
The only part of the seat that felt really first class was the copious amounts of legroom, whereas in business class you’re usually trying to fit your feet into a smaller cubby.
To the left of the seat were a reading lamp, the seat controls and headphone jack.
I liked the wheel you could spin to recline your seat to your exact specifications. Above the seat controls was a small console that opened to reveal the IFE remote.
I actually ran into a problem trying to return my seat to the upright position before landing. Both the dial and the preset upright button weren’t working, and the seat even started beeping and flashing a red fault warning. The flight attendants ended up resetting my seat several different times with no fix, before eventually suggesting I move up to Seat 1A. As we were descending, the purser came by to explain that the problem was likely that I was trying to adjust the seat while I was sitting on it (which is a design issue I’ve never encountered before), but as he went to show me how easily the seat would move with no one on it, it displayed an error again. The seat malfunctions didn’t impact my flight at all, but I have to take serious points off for the hardware not working.
To the left of the seat was also a counter where the tray table popped out from. There was no convenient storage at the seat, so I ended up leaving my wallet and phone out here for most of the flight. There must’ve been a good 6 inches of wasted space between this counter and the window, cutting into seat width and offering nothing in return.
While the seat had plenty of charging options, they were in about the worst spots you could imagine. The USB ports were on the side of the tray-table console such that you couldn’t plug anything in without bending your cords.
Meanwhile, the standard outlet was in the footwell under the seat, making it completely inaccessible when reclined into bed mode.
Each seat also had a small closet big enough to hang a jacket but not to store anything.
I was also disappointed that my seat only had two windows — other first class layouts offer three — and they were covered by a glass panel.
The mechanical drapes looked classy but this also made it impossible to get any good views out the window during takeoff or during the flight itself.
After lunch, the flight attendant made up my bed, complete with a mattress sheet, a blanket and an extra pillow. I had no problem getting comfy with all of the room for my feet, but the cabin was kept swelteringly hot, and I woke up sweating under the blanket a few times.
Amenities and IFE
Waiting at my seat upon boarding was a pair of headphones and a light blanket. The headphones looked decent, though I used my Bose instead. There wasn’t a water bottle at my seat or even a bottle holder anywhere, which made it harder than usual to stay hydrated during the flight. British Airways also didn’t offer slippers on this flight.
British Airways had just refreshed its soft product a few weeks before this flight, and I was excited to see how the changes held up in real life (because the marketing photos sure got me excited). Before takeoff, I was presented with a sleek, black amenity kit by Temperley London. The kits were gender-specific, with the female ones featuring a brighter, floral design.
The kit was stocked with Elemis products including shaving cream, moisturizer and lip balm, socks and a toothbrush.
I was never offered pajamas and had to ask if there were any available about four hours into the flight. I strongly preferred the old pajamas BA used to give out, which featured the iconic ribbon logo and first-class branding. The new iteration was
bland minimalistic and didn’t have any pockets. That alone was reason enough for me to leave them on the plane instead of taking them home.
The IFE system was also a bit of a disappointment for a first-class product. The pop-out TVs (which had to be stored for takeoff and landing) again made me feel like I was in business class. The only other airline I can think of that has pop-out TVs in first class is Cathay Pacific, and there it’s a small price to pay for a sleek and private cabin design. You can’t say the same thing about BA.
The selection of TV and movies wasn’t great either. There were a number of classic sitcoms and newly released movies, but the system was organized in a confusing way that made it hard to find what you were looking for. The touchscreen was just too far away to use, so I ended up relying on the slow remote to make my selections.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Shortly after settling in, I was offered a glass of sparkling wine as a predeparture beverage. British Airways, like many airlines, doesn’t serve the good stuff on the ground to avoid paying taxes, so this first glass was Gusbourne limited release, which normally sells for about $50 a bottle and is served in business class. I was looking forward to enjoying the delicious Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle after takeoff, but on multiple occasions the flight attendant serving me brought a bottle of Gusbourne to my seat to refill my glass. I’ve never had to explicitly ask for the first-class Champagne before, and I really felt like he was either indifferent to the quality difference or trying to deceive me.
We had to taxi the long way around Pudong, past a number of grounded 737 MAXes, before we were finally cleared for takeoff. About 45 minutes into the flight, drinks were served along with a trio of canapés: camembert with apricot glaze, a foie gras praline and a Chinese grilled fish. I was expecting a slightly drawn-out meal service, given how packed the cabin was with 13 or 14 seats taken, but this slow start was indicative of things to come.
My meal order wasn’t taken until over an hour into the flight, and it was another half an hour before the starter was served. With my table fully set, I started to notice the odd shape of the tray table. It was twice as deep as it was wide, meaning I constantly had to stretch out of my seat to get the pepper or my glass.
I started with the shrimp and celeriac puree with papaya, which was fresh and delicious. I decided to tempt fate and order the beef for my main course, a huge mistake. While the carrots and Brussels sprouts were fine, the beef itself felt like cutting into a hockey puck. The port sauce was necessary to choke down a bite, but even then I sent most of the dish back.
For dessert, I had the white-chocolate lava cake with caramelized-pineapple-and-vanilla sauce, which was heavy but not all that tasty — a disappointing end to an otherwise mediocre meal.
Throughout the meal, I noticed that the woman seated across from me was being served the new glassware British Airways was supposed to roll out to all first-class flights by April 7. I was only ever given one of the normal glasses, though my plates and bowls did have the new patterning, as you can see in the above picture. I understand that a new product takes time to introduce, but if you’re going to make a point of improvements to the product, you should make sure that every passenger actually gets to experience them.
BA offered a pretty tame midflight snack menu on this flight, including a hamburger, barbecued duck, chips and popcorn. There was a small walk-up bar in the galley between first and business class, but the food looked limited to a couple of sandwiches and the two yellow canisters of insecticide they sprayed before landing. Yummy!
I was still full from my puddle of white-chocolate lava, so I waited until the last moment to eat again. I started with chicken breast in a cucumber-yogurt sauce, which was just all right.
For my main, I went with the vegetable curry with rice and naan. I find that curries usually hold up well at altitude, but there was barely any sauce at all, just some veggies cooked in curry. The naan was unnecessarily oily, and with no sauce to dip it in, I happily passed.
There was only one choice for dessert: truffle chocolate cake with raspberry mousse. It was hands down the highlight of the entire meal service.
I asked if it would be possible to get some fruit at this point, and the flight attendant told me they’d run out in the first-class galley but he would go back to business and try and find some. He returned about 10 minutes later with a simple bowl of fruit that did the trick.
I ordered a cappuccino with breakfast, but they were having issues with the machine and it took them a good 40 minutes before they brought me out a cappuccino. Machines break, I get it, but it would have been nice for a flight attendant to check in and offer me an alternative drink instead of just waiting it out.
If I could give this crew an “A” for effort, I would, as they were incredibly well-intentioned. When I first boarded, I was asked how I wanted to be addressed, and the flight attendant serving my aisle knelt by the seat at every interaction to address me. Still, in many ways this simply didn’t feel first class.
I mentioned before that it took four hours and a little prodding to get a pair of pajamas, but that barely scratches the surface of how disorganized things felt. From my seat, it was easy to see that the flight attendant was bringing out pajamas, amenity kits and menus and taking meal orders in a seemingly random pattern across the cabin. When I first boarded, he introduced himself and then turned to walk away. He got halfway across the cabin and turned back, because he realized he’d forgotten to offer me anything to drink.
Sometimes my call button was answered within a few seconds. Other times it took five to 10 minutes and became clear the crew hadn’t noticed it or had forgotten. When my seat began malfunctioning and wouldn’t move with about four hours left to go in the flight, I felt like I was inconveniencing the crew asking for help. A flight attendant would come to my seat with a smile, offer to reset my seat and then disappear. We repeated this process several times with a few different flight attendants, and not one ever came back to check if the reset had fixed the problem. I had to push the call button, wait, explain the problem to a new crew member and repeat. It honestly felt like a bad customer-service hotline where I kept getting transferred instead of anyone fixing the problem.
I was hoping that some recent improvements in British Airways’ soft product might help them buck an age-old reputation of mediocrity in premium cabins, but even that effort fell flat. The 14-seat first-class cabin featured frustrating design decisions and business-class seat width at first-class prices. The food was mostly edible, though far from memorable. We got a great deal on this flight thanks to a well-timed Amex transfer bonus, but I don’t think I can comfortably call British Airways first class an aspirational redemption.
All photos by the author.
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