Still better than business class: A review of British Airways First on the 777 from London to Washington
Does international first class have a future?
With quantum leaps in business-class comfort and amenities and the increasing popularity of premium economy, some airlines like Delta and United have done away with first-class cabins altogether on their long-haul jets. British Airways still offers first class on many medium- and long-haul routes, though the retirement of its Boeing 747 fleet during the pandemic, all of which were equipped with first-class sections, means British Airways operates fewer flights with its fanciest cabin aboard than it did in 2019.
As an avid traveler based in London, I fly British Airways regularly, holding elite silver status in the airline's Executive Club program, and earning and redeeming hundreds of thousands of Avios each year. I've flown the airline's World Traveller economy, World Traveller Plus premium economy as well as both the old Club World and new Club Suite business-class products countless times, but have never made it into its first-class cabin. To be honest, it wasn't something I was terribly interested in doing.
That's because there is a long-running joke in frequent-flyer communities that British Airways first class is "the world's best business class," meaning it's not worth the extra cost in cash or miles over the excellent new Club Suite business class. The reason aviation enthusiasts deride British Airways First is that the seats basically look like what are now standard business-class seats on other airlines, in a typical 1-2-1 reverse-herringbone layout. What's more, descriptions and photos I'd seen of the airline's pre-pandemic First menus did not seem appealing enough to book it over business class.
On a recent jaunt across the Atlantic, however, the opportunity arose to try British Airways First out for myself — and to see how it measured up to the airline's swanky new business-class cabins.
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British Airways operates one to two flights daily from the airline's hub at London's Heathrow Airport (LHR) to Washington's Dulles International Airport (IAD), with a morning departure operated by a Boeing 777-200 aircraft and the evening service seeing either a 777 or the double-decker Airbus A380 depending on the time of year. The morning departure, flight BA217, leaves London at 11:15 a.m., touching down in D.C. eight hours later, at 2:15 p.m.
Using points and miles for international first class can be tricky with many frequent-flyer programs, but British Airways remains one of the most generous airlines when it comes to releasing seats for your next redemption. Availability is outstanding on this route — over the quieter upcoming winter period, there are at least two first-class seats available with points and miles almost every day for months. With British Airways charging a staggering $12,000 one-way for first class on this route, it was a no-brainer to use its points currency, Avios, instead.
We booked this flight using 68,000 Avios plus $649 in fees, taxes and surcharges for an off-peak date — a combination of the United Kingdom's APD tax and British Airways' notoriously high fuel surcharges. The fees, taxes and surcharges were paid with The Platinum Card® from American Express which earns 5 Membership Rewards points per dollar on purchases made directly with airlines (on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year), picking up a further 3,245 Membership Rewards, worth $64.90 by TPG's current valuation.
You can earn the Avios required to book this flight with a single welcome bonus. The British Airways Visa Signature Card earns 75,000 Avios after you spend $5,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. There's also a 10% discount on British Airways flights originating in the U.S. when booking through a dedicated site, up to $600 in statement credits for those frustrating award flight fees, taxes and surcharges every year, and the ability to earn a Travel Together ticket after you spend $30,000 on the card in a calendar year.
British Airways' largest hub, Terminal 5 at London Heathrow, was relatively quiet at 8 a.m. when I arrived considering this was a peak summer travel date. I always love seeing the very British "A warm welcome to our home" signage in the terminal.
British Airways First passengers, as well as Executive Club Gold and Oneworld Emerald elites, can use the dedicated first-class check-in wing, located at the far south end of the Terminal 5 check-in hall. It was a relaxing and tranquil space with plenty of available, smiling agents waving me over to their counters. My boarding pass was printed in under a minute, with the agent then inviting me to use the dedicated security line to the right of the check-in desks. There was no wait for security here, though my journey was hampered by the passenger in front of me attempting to squeeze some two dozen different types of makeup into a clear liquids bag with limited success.
After security, I passed through a dark corridor, at the end of which was British Airways' iconic horse statue and the entrance to the Galleries First lounge. Don't be fooled by the name here, this lounge is for Oneworld Emerald passengers flying in lower classes of service, in compliance with alliance lounge entry rules.
First-class passengers should look for signs to the Concorde Room, an exclusive retreat reserved for British Airways first-class passengers and the most frequent of frequent British Airways flyers (I would need to have flown the equivalent of 1,000 short-haul, discount economy flights in a year to gain access without a first-class ticket). My boarding pass was carefully checked to make sure I was indeed flying in First and I excitedly entered the famed Concorde Room for the very first time.
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Unfortunately, I thought the space was rather dark and gloomy on this bright and sunny London day. There was a dedicated dining area that had two rows of private booths with tables set carefully, but beyond the privacy, the dark wood made the space feel uninviting and bleak. The huge cocktail bar along the back wall was stocked with countless bottles of spirits from around the world. Despite the early hour, the jovial bartender, with two cocktail shakers in hand, was entertaining a pair of travelers keen for a tipple.
My favorite part of the Concorde Room by far was the outdoor terrace, which is a much brighter, airier and more pleasant space than inside the lounge. It was open-air, which provided great views of the fleet of British Airways aircraft at the A and B gates of Terminal 5 as well as a bird's-eye view of the sea of passengers in the airside area below. The cabana-type layout and furnishings reminded me of an upmarket beach club in Dubai and I could have happily spent all day there.
A handful of tables were set for dining on the terrace and I chose to eat there, as it's a much more pleasant space than the darkness inside. Right next to me was an actual nose from a British Airways Concorde aircraft, registration number G-BOAF, which flew 5,000 flights for the airline from 1979 to 2003.
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As I sat down I was quickly furnished with a menu and offered Champagne, juice or coffee. To celebrate gaining access to arguably the most famous airport lounge in the country, I said yes to all three. British Airways serves Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle in the Concorde Room (and in the first-class cabins on board). Retailing at almost $200 per bottle, this is a serious drop, and I was excited to try some for the first time. It was served in a large glass, perfectly chilled.
I'm not a Champagne expert, though I can tell the difference between Champagne and other sparkling wines blindfolded. That said, it tasted great.
The two brown dots on the froth of my latte were a tell-tale sign it came from an automatic machine, however, rather than being crafted by a barista. If British Airways is going to spend so much on Champagne for this luxury space, the airline might also consider employing a barista.
Perusing the menu, I selected the poached eggs with smashed avocado, chili and a side of bacon. The numerous lounge staff members insisted I have two eggs rather than one and quickly shuffled off to place my order. It arrived 10 minutes later, and while it initially seemed like a small portion, it turned out to be just right given the cornucopia of food that was to come on my flight. The eggs were poached perfectly and paired well with my pricey Champagne.
Overall, the Concorde Room was an excellent lounge and it is definitely worth arriving early before your flight to enjoy it.
An hour before departure, I headed downstairs to the painfully slow terminal transfer train to the B gates, where my flight was departing. All wide-body aircraft depart from the B or C gates of Terminal 5, so allow extra time to make it to your gate. Boarding started slightly after the scheduled time of 10:30 a.m., in strict groups with passengers in First boarding as Group 1.
Cabin and seat
British Airways operates numerous cabin configurations across its 777 fleet. On the 777-200 variant that operated my flight to Washington, there were 235 seats in four classes of service. At the front was the First cabin, with just eight seats spread across two rows in a reverse herringbone 1-2-1 layout. As a solo traveler, I had selected seat 1K, a window seat in the front right of the cabin that was angled slightly to face the window; each center seat skews toward the center of the cabin.
Couples traveling together may wish to select the center E and F seats so they can communicate more easily during the flight.
There is a large pleated privacy screen between the pairs of center seats that can be closed if either passenger wants more privacy.
Walking through the shiny new Club Suite business-class cabin immediately after boarding through door two, it struck me as strange that the business-class seats featured sliding doors for privacy, while the seats in First did not have doors — or much privacy at all, for that matter. In fact, the first-class seats basically looked like the business-class ones, just with a few extra bells and whistles and a little more space.
These bells and whistles included a frosted reading lamp located next to the window, as well as double windows that reminded me of a luxury train carriage. These had concertina shutters that could be electronically lowered with a flick of the switch next to my seat.
The privacy wings around the headrest provided only a small amount of seclusion. I would have much rather had the high walls of Qatar Airways' Qsuite so I wouldn't be disturbed by the crew or other passengers as they moved about the cabin. The navy blue and white color palette of the seats was a sensible idea, as the dark blue was great for hiding stains and appeared to be in a good shape even after years of heavy use.
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As I settled into the seat and began to explore my home for the next eight hours there were a number of subtle touches that I realized did give the seat more of a first-class edge over Club Suites. There was a huge amount of personal space. So much so that a companion could dine with you in your seat sitting on the footrest facing opposite the main passenger, though foot space admittedly would be tight with two people sitting so close together. While the 22-inch seat width doesn't sound much more than economy, it was enough to feel spacious, and the 78 inches of pitch was positively opulent — my feet could barely touch the leg rest in front of me.
A very large tray table slid out from the oddly-shaped and -positioned armrest-type console below the window, and had plenty of room for my laptop. Storage-wise, my personal closet located at the front left of my seat was so large I probably could have squeezed into it myself; it easily held my backpack, shoes and excess items. I could also store some small items directly below the window in the dead space to the right of the console.
Had I not wanted to use this area there was also space below the footrest to store shoes, along with a universal charging point to the side of it.
As you would expect from an international first-class product, the seat reclined into a fully-flat 78-inch bed by simply turning a green-lit knob under the window lamp. The crew gladly made up the bed with the provided bedding so I could take a quick post-lunch nap, starting by lowering the armrest to increase the sleeping surface.
The footrest could also be raised and lowered using the buttons below the green knob.
There was more linen than I needed, with a full-size fluffy pillow, a smaller day pillow, a mattress pad, a thick duvet and an additional blanket on top, all from the White Company. It was like sleeping on a cloud — arguably more comfortable than my bed at home, making it easy to doze off for an hour or so. While this was a daytime flight where sleep was not a priority (there were far too many goodies to enjoy), I doubt I would have had trouble sleeping through the night on an overnight journey.
Amenities and inflight entertainment
A small day pillow was resting on my seat when I boarded, with the rest of the bedding positioned at the footrest.
Special First-branded, noise-canceling headphones were quickly presented to me, as was a "his" amenity kit by Temperley London, a British fashion house.
I could not get over how many items the amenity kit contained. Along with the usual inclusions like an eye mask, earplugs, sleep socks, and a toothbrush and toothpaste, there were numerous toiletries from Elemis including shaving gel, pro-collagen marine cream and even a deodorant stick. This was probably the most well-stocked amenity kit I had ever received.
The crew handed out Temperley slippers and lightweight cotton sleepwear, which I changed into shortly after takeoff. The large size was a good fit for me.
The battered and scratched 23-inch inflight entertainment screen at my seat seemed very out of place among the other luxurious amenities. It swung out from the console next to the aisle and the sturdy metal seemed to weigh a ton — an odd choice on an aircraft where more weight equals more fuel. It didn't swivel up or down, which was not ideal for watching anything in a reclined position.
The entertainment options listed 54 new release movies including the new "West Side Story," James Bond in "No Time to Die" and "House of Gucci." Among the hundreds of TV series options were "Below Deck Mediterranean," "Hacks" and "Britain's Got Talent."
These were controlled by a dated, sluggish controller housed near the window or the fairly unresponsive touchscreen on the screen itself.
If British Airways decides to add a sliding door to this product, as I hope it will soon, an upgrade of the IFE system is also urgently needed. The resolution was not very crisp, the touchscreen and remote were not super responsive and the interface was not particularly modern.
There was also a fairly low-resolution moving map.
Wi-Fi was provided free for all passengers seated in First simply by logging in and entering your seat number and name. I appreciated the perk and found acceptable speeds of 10 Mbps download — but only 0.07 Mbps upload.
There was only one bathroom for the first-class cabin of eight passengers, but I never needed to wait. Unfortunately, the lavatory was the same as you'd find in economy, cramped and scuffed. Beyond a few Elemis toiletries to wash and moisturize your hands, this was a very basic bathroom.
Food and beverage
A flight attendant came by to offer me the same Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle Champagne served in the Concorde Room as soon as I sat down, and I gladly accepted another chilled glass served in Dartington crystal, along with a choice of hot or cold face towel and some mixed nuts.
Serving the nuts in a packet did not feel very first class considering the otherwise impeccable quality of the experience so far — these could have been warmed in a ramekin instead.
I was presented with a comprehensive menu of food and drinks during boarding and invited to dine on demand at my convenience. Given the departure and arrival times, I chose to eat a leisurely lunch shortly after departure, with a British afternoon tea shortly before arrival.
First up for lunch was a trio of canapes — prosciutto with melon, smoked salmon with cream cheese and cucumber and fire-roasted red pepper roulade with goat cheese. All three were tasty, though if you don't like cream cheese you'll want to skip this course entirely, as it was in every bite.
My table was then set with military precision by the crew with William Edwards Ltd. crockery from Stoke-on-Trent in the United Kingdom, which was designed just for British Airways first class, and Studio Williams cutlery from the Cotswolds region. The crockery, especially, was a beautiful design, with its gray and white color scheme reminding me of something you might find in the first-class cabins of Middle Eastern airlines such as Etihad.
While no caviar was on the menu, I chose a beef tataki from a whopping five appetizer options. It was as delicious as it was elegant, accompanied by a herbed bread roll with butter, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. After hearing the business-class cabin behind me had been served their entire lunch meal on one tray on this flight, my experience up front felt noticeably more upscale. Being served distinct courses allowed me to focus on one course at a time, as I would in a fine-dining restaurant, and meant everything could be served fresh and at the right temperature.
Next up was the main course, again with a choice of five options. I usually enjoy a nice steak or slow-cooked piece of red meat on such flights but decided to mix things up and go for the Indian option instead — a chicken tikka masala served with jeera pulao and dal makhani. Curry is notoriously difficult to serve elegantly (it is usually just poured in a bowl) so I practically gasped when this dish was carefully placed down in front of me.
A crispy papadam had been cleverly curled during the cooking process and artfully placed atop the chicken breast. Even having dined multiple times at Dishoom, one of the most well-regarded Indian restaurants in London, I had never seen this presentation before. The chicken was moist and not too spicy, and the dal makhani was a nice, mild accompaniment. I spied a red wine I love on the list, Domain Drouhin Pinot Noir 2019 from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, which retails for around $45 per bottle, so I ordered that to have with my main course.
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I was very full by this point so I passed on the cheese and dessert courses to save some space for afternoon tea later in the flight. To aid digestion I settled for an herbal tea — served in a full-size William Edwards Ltd. crockery teapot with the same motif as the rest of the crockery — and some shortbread cookies.
Around two hours before our arrival, I pressed the call button to order afternoon tea, which began with another glass of Champagne. This time I switched to the rose, which was the Lanson extra aged rose brut NV, retailing for around $100 per bottle. It was served with a choice of a hot or cold towel.
My table was then immaculately set for a second time and a fresh pot of tea (I went for Earl Grey this time) was delivered along with my choice of plain or fruit scones with the traditional strawberry jam and clotted cream. A small, two-tiered selection of dainty sandwiches and sweet cakes also was presented. All were fresh and high quality, a testament to the airline's smart decision to use award-winning airline caterer DO & CO, which also prepares Turkish Airlines' legendary inflight cuisine.
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The crew advised me that a "charcuterie plate" also was available as part of the meal service. While that is not a common feature of a traditional British afternoon tea, I was intrigued and so I ordered it as well. What arrived was more of a Mediterranean rare beef salad, which was a light and fresh end to what was otherwise a sweet but delicious meal.
I enjoyed every single thing I ate on this flight and would go as far as to say that overall, considering the taste, variety and presentation, this was the best food I have ever eaten on a plane.
Cabin crew member Megan looked after me throughout my flight to Washington and was a gem from start to finish. She immediately set the tone for the experience by handing me the menu and telling me, "The flight is yours to enjoy as you wish. Whatever you want to eat or drink, whenever you want to eat or drink it."
My flight attendant service requests were always answered in under 10 seconds. Megan continually offered me more of anything I was having, from Champagne to snacks, and was on hand to make up my bed. My table was set for each meal with nothing even an inch out of place. There were little touches that reminded me this was absolutely first-class service. For example, I asked for a pot of herbal tea without sugar after lunch. When I ordered a pot of black tea later on in the flight, Megan said, "Now I know you don't take sugar with your herbal tea. I just wanted to make sure you didn't want any for black tea."
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Likewise, before she filled my glass with Champagne, she always presented the bottle for my perusal and offered a taste first.
I went into this flight with fairly low expectations of British Airways First, believing the seat would be more akin to a business-class product. While luxuriously furnished, the seat did lack privacy; that could be solved with the installation of a sliding door, like the ones the passengers behind me in Club Suites were already enjoying. The creaking, clunky IFE screen was unwieldy and could also use an update.
The rest of the experience, however, was excellent and a huge step above business class. The First Wing check-in area was a classy way to start the journey and the sun-drenched terrace at the Concorde Room was a peaceful place to relax and enjoy a generous glass of three-figure Champagne, away from the hustle and bustle of Terminal 5 below.
The onboard food was the best I have eaten on a plane, with the presentation carefully thought out.
I will tell anyone who listens that Qatar Airways Qsuite is the world's best business class, and the Qsuite is certainly a better hard product than first class on British Airways thanks to its incredible privacy. For the soft product, however, this flight in British Airways first class was superior — with better food than I've found aboard Qatar and very personalized service thanks to the small number of passengers compared to flight attendants.
I doubt I will have the chance to fly first class on British Airways regularly, but for a special occasion, given the abundance of award availability on a route like this, it is definitely worth the extra points and miles (even if the surcharges are still hard to bear).