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Excellent new soft-product elements, such as bedding and glassware and crockery, lighthearted but professional service and a super-spacious seat.
Poorly cooked meat and an annoying boarding process at Heathrow.
There was a huge amount of noise across the aviation world with the introduction of the new British Airways Club Suite, leaving poor first class and its new soft product a little in the shadows.
I flew the previous first-class product a number of weeks ago and had a fantastic experience, so I was eager to try the new soft product, which launched on March 31 and rolled out across the fleet within a matter of days.
With a huge amount of preparation for the launch of TPG UK underway in London, it was going to be a very quick trip. A search of award availability using British Airways Avios threw Chicago O’Hare (ORD) up as a possible destination, with a seat on the very same plane back to London Heathrow (LHR) two hours later. I am never one to say no to first class or an A380, so I pushed the button.
Booking a British Airways flight like this is relatively easy to do with miles. You can book through BA’s own Executive Club, where a seat will run you 68,000 Avios off-peak or 80,000 peak. It’s also bookable through American Airlines’ AAdvantage program — there a ticket will cost 85,000 miles. Another good option is to use 70,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles for the flight.
Aside from the miles required, flights to/from London are subject to high surcharges and taxes, in this case about ~$580, regardless of which program you book with. Considering tickets on this route consistently sell for anywhere from $3,000 to over $5,000 round-trip, you’re still coming out ahead by using miles and paying the steep fees.
If you’re low on BA Avios, there’s currently a 30% bonus from Chase Ultimate Rewards. If you’d prefer to book with AA, the Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard is offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 American AAdvantage miles after spending $2,500 in the first 3 months of account opening., meaning you could earn quite a large chunk of the miles you’d need to book this flight through American just with the bonus — not too shabby for just signing up.
Finally, if you don’t have a Chase card or don’t want to sign up for the Citi card, you could buy 70,000 Alaska miles for about $1,300 thanks to a generous buy miles promotion. Although a significant sum, it is objectively cheap for a long-haul first class ticket.
I took an Uber from home to Heathrow’s Terminal 5 on a glorious Monday morning. The sun was shining, and the outside of the terminal was buzzing with Easter holiday traffic.
On entering, however, as is often the case in the huge departure hall, there was a sense of serenity.
I headed up to the First Class Wing and checked in for both the flight to Chicago and my return to London later in the day. For some reason, the BA app wouldn’t allow me to check in for either flight, so I couldn’t head straight to security.
Security was as quiet as usual and, apart from a random liquids test, was quick and painless, with no lines.
I passed through the Galleries First Lounge, which the First Wing initially spits you out into, passed through a bizarre installation advertising Heathrow personal shopping, and walked across to the Concorde Room. This lounge is reserved for British Airways first-class passengers and Concorde Room card holders — look for a full review coming very soon as part of TPG UK‘s plan to review every lounge at LHR.
I went straight out to the terrace area and took a seat that I didn’t really want. The position was ideal, though, to give my best death stares to the lady who was loudly FaceTiming her equally loud friend while swigging Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle Champagne in the seat I really wanted. After a couple of silent prayers in my head and a few minutes, the lady finished her annoying call and left. Finally, I settled into the corner of the terrace and ordered lunch from the a la carte menu.
I ordered the West Country crabcake starter, which was crispy and delicious.
For main course, I took the roast cod loin and pancetta. It looked nice, but the cod was slightly on the tasteless side. Overall, it was a good dish, though.
For dessert, I had a nice cheese plate and an exceptional chocolate mille-feuille, with a half-decent cappuccino.
It was a serious work day, so no boozing!
I had earlier stopped by the Elemis spa, as I was eligible for a free 15-minute treatment. The spa had nothing available within the time I had, but I took them up on their offer of an appointment at the B gates Galleries Club lounge spa. I took the train to the B gates and enjoyed a facial, combined with a massage given automatically by the huge chairs in each treatment room. The treatment was both relaxing and refreshing, and it was a great pit stop before the boarding gate.
I then decided to take a walk underneath the apron to the C gates rather than get on the train. I always love the fun of these underground pathways, which are usually completely empty!
Even though the departure boards said the gate was open, they were not even nearly ready to board when I arrived. I joined the Group 1 line, and after about 15 minutes, they announced that the cleaners had taken longer than expected on board, and we should expect to board soon.
There isn’t an option to hang around in the Concorde Room when you need to factor in the time it takes to get to the C gates (I usually allow 15 minutes to get from lounge to gate), so this kind of delay, causing passengers to stand in line for 20 to 30 minutes, was quite irritating — even more so for first-class passengers, who on another airline might be whisked to the door of the plane in a swanky car. I’m not so precious that this ruined my flight, but I had to read the inconvenience in the context of expecting first-class service.
Once the gate was finally open, I skipped off down the exclusive jet bridge for rows 1 to 4 (the first-class rows).
Cabin and Seat
I reached the door and was greeted with an incredibly warm welcome.
I have experienced first class on all the British Airways aircraft types except the A380, and I was quite taken aback on boarding. The cabin, on the lower deck with 14 seats in total, was arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration and felt far more spacious than any of the others. There were no overhead bins down the middle of the cabin, compounding the airy feel.
I was seated in 3A, a window seat, which offered even more space than usual, due to the distance between the edge of the seat and fuselage. I usually find the first-class seat comfortable, but there was such a wealth of additional space on this seat that it felt even more comfortable with endless space to stretch out.
A footrest dropped down for extra comfort whilst I was seated.
I didn’t notice much difference between the Row 2 and Row 3 window seats, and would recommend either. The further forward the better in this cabin, if it’s quiet you’re after. The galley was at the back, and although the lavatories were at the front, they were only used by first class, and the stairs at the front of the aircraft were out of use to passengers during the flight.
The seat had various storage compartments. The wardrobe at the side of the seat was big enough for my large carry-on case, with even more room above on a shelf, and a hanger for a jacket. There was another storage bin to the left of the seat with plenty of room to keep everything needed for quick access during the flight.
This bin also housed the power outlet and two USB outlets.
The seat featured the standard tray table, which folded out and then doubled in size and then was large and sturdy, with way more than enough room for working, even on my 15-inch laptop.
The seat extended into a fully flat bed with completely unrestricted and wide legroom — perfect for me as I tend to move around quite a bit while sleeping. The brand-new bedding, pillow and thicker mattress really made a difference and made the bed very inviting. However, on this day flight, and with lots of work to do, sleep was not in the cards. Still, I know it would have been excellent and was pining for this as a bed on the way home.
Putting the space on offer to the test whilst the bed was made, I could confirm that it was even possible to practice some yoga. Even a headstand was not off limits in this seat.
There were two lavs dedicated to first-class passengers at the front of the cabin. They were pretty tight for space, but did feature the standard-issue White Company white-rose hand wash and lotion, and cloth rather than paper towels. It was such a shame that, due to the configuration of the cabins, BA gave the use of the cavernous bathrooms upstairs to Club World passengers, though I did manage to sneak up there halfway through the flight.
Amenities and IFE
I’ve experienced a number of different BA first-class amenity kits over the years, and I really enjoyed the new offering. I cheekily asked for both the men’s and women’s versions so that I could check each of them out, and the crew actually obliged. Each bag contained soft, blue socks, a blue eye mask, a decent toothbrush and toothpaste, a first-class-branded pen and earplugs, an Elemis cleansing facial wipe, lip balm, moisturizer and eye cream.
The men’s came in a black, velvety Temperley bag with funky inner lining, and also contained Elemis shave gel and tissues which the ladies strangely did not get!
The women’s Temperley bag came in a snazzy floral design with a silky, also with funky inner lining, and included Elemis face mist, hand cream and soothing facial wipe, and a fold-up pocket mirror.
Also new were the Meridian noise-canceling headphones, which looked smart and came in a cool, First-branded case.
Black Temperley pajamas were also provided. These came with unisex bottoms and different-fitting tops for men and women. I took a medium set, which was a little too big on the top, and managed to replace it with a small top. The PJs were a real improvement over the last ones, although a negative was there was still no pocket on the bottoms. They were still great, though, and I will definitely be wearing them back on the ground.
A new, soft and comfy cushion and blanket were also provided, both of which added an additional element of comfort and class to the product.
The inflight entertainment was OK, with a decent selection of movies and TV shows. A moving map was provided, but no tail cam. I didn’t watch a movie, as I had the first episode of the new “Game of Thrones” season loaded up and ready to go.
No Wi-Fi was available on board, not a good look on a modern aircraft in this day and age. A revamped IFE and fast Wi-Fi across the board would really have made this product more special, but this was more of an overall British Airways blight than a first-class one.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Shortly after boarding, a predeparture service was served, including drinks (I turned down the Champagne and went for sparkling water), warm nuts and a warm towel presented on a new glass tray.
BA offers a dining-on-demand service in first class, and the crew asked what I wanted from the menu and made it clear that I could have it whenever I desired.
In order to test out the new glassware, I ordered plenty of drinks in order to try the four new glasses. Champagne came in the form of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, red wine was Chateau Prieure-Lichine, a classic gin and tonic tested out the beautiful crystal tumblers, and sparkling water completed the quadrant. They really did look lovely.
Canapes of Shropshire blue cheese, smoked salmon with cream cheese and caviar, and salami with olive and sundried tomato came on a stylish trio dish.
I ordered the goat cheese and asparagus and Vichyssoise soup (which came poured over a poached duck egg and potato salad) as starters, both of which were absolutely exceptional, especially the soup.
For the main course, I ordered the seared filet of beef with wild mushrooms, and asked for all the available sides: glazed carrots, broccoli with almonds, and potato fondant with truffle salt. The sides were good, but the other than the tasty mushrooms, the beef dish was a disappointment. Steak is notoriously difficult to nail in an aircraft oven, but I have seen it done before, so I suppose it is a great benchmark test.
The chocolate-and-orange delice came recommended by the crew and was truly excellent, more than making up for the so-so beef!
Halfway through the flight, the crew came through with a basket of Magnum ice cream treats. It was made clear that this was not a standard service in first but rather a treat from down the back. It was a good bit of fun.
Cappuccino was next up. It was pretty decent for an onboard coffee — it had a nice taste and froth that was about as good as you would ever get on a plane.
It was finally time to watch “Game of Thrones,” so I ordered tea, chocolates and a fresh fruit platter to accompany the viewing (which for the record was mind-blowingly good!).
Later in the flight, afternoon tea, featuring the elegant new tiered stand, was served including sandwiches, cold cuts (smoked salmon and quail eggs), a mixture of cakes (the fruitcake was particularly delicious) and scones and jam, along with a choice of teas. Of course, the English breakfast was my selection. The new crockery and cutlery were incredibly stylish.
With an incredibly light load of four passengers out of a potential 14 in first class, I was expecting a great ride from a service perspective, and I was certainly not let down.
The main cabin crew member who looked after me, Samantha, could not have been more attentive, and was fascinating. She was an avid diver with a doctorate in zoology and marine biology which was a refreshing change from some of the younger, more inexperienced mixed-fleet crew. Her worldliness and experience really shone through. Along with the cabin-service manager, Brian, and the rest of the crew, they really brought the flight to life.
By way of example, when I pressed the call button, someone was by my side in six seconds flat. The Diet Coke with ice and lemon I ordered were with me 60 seconds later.
It was just the right mix of fun and informality, alongside efficiency and professionalism, that made for a fantastic flight.
A solid ground experience, (although marred by the long, unnecessary wait in the queue at the gate), combined with an exceptional flight in terms of service, spacious cabin and almost all food (bloody steak!), left me feeling really positive after this flight.
Because I’m such a people person and love interactions, service levels hugely govern my opinion on a flight in any class. Furthermore, it could be argued the the small things that make up a soft product cannot dramatically alter an experience, and they certainly would not make up for shoddy service.
However, if BA get the service right, and they truly did on this flight, the new soft-product additions really can shine, and it made a real difference to my experience. From the gorgeous glassware and crockery to the comfy new bedding and pyjamas (the old ones were a bit thin and itchy), it was all positive. Thirteen years after my first First experience, I think I may just have fallen in love with BA First all over again.
Know before you go.
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