Upper Deck Economy: A Review of British Airways' A380 From San Francisco to London
[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="83" ground-experience="8" cabin-seat="22" amens-ife="8" food-bev="23" service="22" pros="Friendly and efficient flight attendants, cabinets next to window seats on the upper deck, relatively comfortable seats and actually decent economy food." cons="No Wi-Fi, limited amenities (even for economy) and poor neck support." /]
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Airbus' A380 program may be coming to an end, but there are still plenty of options for flying on the world's largest passenger plane. One such options is British Airways, which even has some economy seats on the upper deck. I've flown this aircraft twice now in economy -- unintentionally in the exact same seat both times -- and reviewed both flights. Here's my take on my most recent experience with BA's superjumbo.
My husband JT and I needed to get to Berlin, Germany in early March for a conference, and then we wanted to go to SXSW in Austin, TX a week later. So, when we saw flights from SFO to Berlin (TXL) via LHR and from TXL to Austin (AUS) via LHR for just $409 per person we jumped on the fare. These were hand baggage only fares though, and British Airways excludes hand baggage only fares from getting the "additional checked bag in any travel class" that is normally provided to Oneworld Emerald elites.
JT and I booked separately and ended up flying different flights on the outbound. I put my fare on my new Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, as I was still working toward the minimum spending requirement to get the sign-up bonus. The Ink Business Preferred earns 3x on travel, so I earned 1,227 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which are worth $25 based on TPG's latest valuations. I credited my flight to American Airlines; for the SFO to LHR leg covered in this review, I earned 2,953 award miles (1,342 base miles plus 1,611 elite bonus miles) which TPG values at $41.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="8" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="G-XLEJ" age="3" late="32" avg="0" avg-2="17" departure="21" departure-2="06" duration="9" duration-2="39" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
There were no lines when I arrived to check-in, and I completed check-in within a couple minutes. I didn’t check a bag because I was traveling on a hand baggage only fare. Checking a bag on this fare would have cost $55 before the airport or $60 at the airport.
The British Airways lounge at SFO is closed for renovations so premium cabin passengers and Oneworld Sapphire and Emerald elites are sent to the China Airlines lounge.
This lounge is simple, with a large main room as well as a smaller room for first-class passengers and Oneworld Emerald elites. The main room was crowded, with very few seats available within a hour of boarding. But, the first-class room became no more than about 30% full. There are three individual toilet rooms just off the main lounge room, but no showers.
Food in the first-class area is limited to a small selection of light snacks. Likewise, drinks are limited to Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, bottled water, tomato juice, red wine, white wine, rose wine and sparkling wine.
There's a larger selection of foods and drinks in the main lounge room, although I wouldn't try to make a meal out of the selection. The Wi-Fi speed in the lounge tested at 22 ms ping, 16.23 Mbps download and 9.50 Mbps upload. But, outlets are limited to a few power strips located in each room. So, if you need power be sure to sit near one of these power strips.
My boarding pass listed a 7:40pm boarding time and boarding began at 7:43pm. Groups 1, 2 and 3 all used one boarding lane, but passengers didn't gather before Group 1 was called and I was easily the third passenger to board.
Two boarding doors were used -- one for the lower deck and one for the upper deck. I was the first passenger to reach the upper deck boarding door and was greeted by a jovial British Airways crew. The boarding door closed at 8:16pm and we pushed back right on time at 8:30pm.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="2" configuration-2="4" configuration-3="2" width="18" pitch="31.5" tray="16.5" tray-2="8.5" lavs="4" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
The seats are comfortable and have a height-adjustable headrest. There isn't much lumbar support, but the provided pillow can serve this purpose.
Each headrest has wings to support your head or neck while sleeping. Unfortunately, though, these wings aren't bendable, so you'll need to bend your neck to rest your head against the wing.
The arm rests are can raise about 3/4 of the way, which means you can sleep beneath them if you luck into having a row to yourself. The arm rests are two inches wide and are at an appropriate height for relaxing.
There's a tight mesh pocket on the back of each seat.
Each seat reclines about 5.25 inches, as evidenced by the seat pitch expanding from 31.5 inches to 36.75 inches when I reclined. The flip side of this: your seat pitch will decrease to 26.25 when the passenger ahead of you reclines.
Storage space is limited under many seats due to seat supports and entertainment boxes. This means there's about 5.5 inches of space between the entertainment box and the wall and about 11 inches of space between two entertainment boxes. The aisle seat has space that's 12.5 inches wide between an entertainment box and a seat support.
There's more space under seats in the center section of four seats. But, the two middle seats have to share one larger space.
My laptop fit nicely on the tray table. When both seats were upright, it was comfortable to work. But, when the person ahead of me reclined, this became much less comfortable.
Each seat has a USB plug and there are universal plugs between each seat. So, there's one outlet shared by two seats on each side and two outlets shared by four seats in the middle section.
I highly recommend getting a non-bulkhead window seat on the upper deck. Although these seats don't have much under seat storage and the storage bins above these seats are barely large enough to hold a personal item, there are storage compartments next to these seats, which is great for storing items that you'd bring on board.
This compartment also forms a fairly wide counter when closed.
The bulkhead window seats on the upper deck don't have compartments next to them. But, they do have plenty of legroom.
There are two sections of economy seating on the upper deck, in addition to premium-cabin seating. Of the two economy sections, the back section is smaller with just four rows.
On the upper deck, there are four lavatories for economy passengers: two at the front of the first economy cabin and two between the first and second upper deck economy cabins.
The lavatories weren't overly spacious and didn't have any amenities besides the expected hand soap, but they remained relatively clean throughout the flight.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="8" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="8.75" movies="94" tv-shows="157" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
When I boarded, each economy seat contained a packaged blanket, ear buds with a Change For Good envelope and a pillow in a disposable case.
My pillow didn't fit well in its case because the filling had been stretched out. The blanket was simple, but it kept me comfortably warm when needed.
The ear buds had a single prong plug and provided okay sound. I didn't use them for long, but they were adequate for watching a quick show during meals.
The IFE was intuitive and quick to respond. The screen was crisp and could be tilted up and down.
The screen responded to touch, but there was also a remote if you prefer to control it that way.
In addition to movies and TV shows, there were also games, audio books, radio stations, music, podcasts and a flight map. The advertisements before each TV show or movie rotated -- one that stood out to me was for British Airways' Carbon Offset fund.
Wi-Fi wasn't available on this aircraft. Additionally, simple amenities that are often found in international economy cabins -- such as ear plugs, dental kits or eye masks -- weren't provided.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="23" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="2" comp-alcohol="Yes" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Flight attendants came through the cabin about 40 minutes after take-off offering sour cream and chive flavored pretzels with a choice of drinks. The flight attendants also distributed drinks for dinner at this point, so I ended up with two Coke Zero mini cans and two small bottles of white wine.
The departure meal -- a choice of vegetarian pasta or chicken curry -- was served about 90 minutes after take-off. I opted for the pasta, which had tasty olives and mushrooms as a topping. A salad and crackers with cheese were served with the pasta. The salad was crisp and fresh, served with balsamic vinaigrette on the side. Dessert was a caramel-topped chocolate cookie crunch cup, which wasn't overly sweet. Tea and coffee were served about fifteen minutes after meals were served.
Trays were collected shortly after passengers finished eating by flight attendants walking through the cabin. The flights were dimmed once all trays were collected -- just over two hours after departure. The lights were turned back on about six and a half hours later when the arrival meal was serviced. The meal service reached my seat just 55 minutes before landing, which meant passengers were able to squeeze in some extra sleep.
The arrival meal was a selection of two breakfast pastries, one of which was vegetarian. I asked a clarifying question about the two choice, so the flight attendant offered to let me try both. Both options came with a fruit cup, sweet muffin and a cup of strawberry yogurt.
The vegetarian option had mushroom, spinach and potatoes and was a good combination of flavors. The other option had bacon, eggs and cheese but was a little too oily. Both varieties were evenly heated and weren't soggy.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="The flight attendants were friendly during boarding and throughout the flight. It would have been nice if they'd occasionally walked through the cabin with water and juice, but they were welcoming and quick to assist when I visited the galley mid-flight." /]
The flight attendants were active before and during meal service, but were rarely seen in the cabin between meal services. I stayed awake for a couple hours after the departure meal service and never saw any flight attendants pass through the cabin offering water or juices. However, when I visited the rear galley, they happily chatted with me and provided additional drinks. And, when I pressed the call button during the flight for help with the compartment beside my seat, a flight attendant appeared within thirty seconds.
I've experienced a lot of good and bad long-haul economy flights across the more than 450,000 miles I've flown in economy cabins over the last four years -- including a 2016 review of this exact product. And, this flight was certainly one of the better ones because the flight attendants were friendly and efficient, the seat was comfortable and the food was more than just edible. I especially appreciated that the arrival meal service was served within an hour of landing, as this allowed passengers to maximize their sleeping time. Admittedly, seat selection can play a large part in your enjoyment. Personally, I highly value the large compartment next to the non-bulkhead upper deck window seats -- but if you're considering one of these seats, be aware that the under-seat storage is limited.
This flight wasn't perfect though. I don't like the immovable headrest wings on the seats and not having access to Wi-Fi can be difficult. Additionally, it would be helpful if simple amenities like dental kits, ear plugs and eye masks were openly provided either in the lavatories or galleys. Even with these minor complaints, I'd happily fly British Airways' A380 in economy again.
All photos by the author for The Points Guy.