Pax Britannica: British Airways (747-400) in First Class From Accra to London
After having a wonderful trip with the TPG team at the PeaceJam conference in Accra, it was finally time to begin the journey home. That journey was to begin in London, where I was going to spend a few days before returning to New York. British Airways provides the only nonstop option between the two cities, and since I was short on time, it was by far the best option for me. And, even better, BA first — a product I'd never tried — was available with Avios when I needed to fly. The cherry on top? The flight is operated by the Queen of the Skies — the Boeing 747 — a plane that is held in very high regard among the whole TPG team. Having flown to Accra in Emirates business class, BA had a tough act to follow — here's what my first time in BA First was like.
As you could guess, British Airways first-class flights don't come cheap. The one-way flight between Accra (ACC) and London-Heathrow (LHR) normally goes for around $4,200. As I mentioned before, though, there was award space on the day I needed to travel, which made the flight much more attainable. TPG booked this flight for me using 68,000 Avios, which were transferred at a 1:1 ratio from American Express Membership Rewards, and $425 in carrier imposed surcharges. According to TPG's most recent valuations, those 68,000 Avios are worth about $1,020, so we spent about $1,445 in total for the flight — a significant savings over the cash price.
Accra's Kotoka International Airport was a stressful place... to say the least. When I was departing from Singapore a few days earlier, I didn't even bother checking in online and simply showed up at Emirates' counters, where the whole check-in process took just minutes.
However, when we arrived at the airport in Accra in the evening, we found out that we couldn't check in or drop off bags in the VIP section of the airport, which BA First passengers are supposed to have access. Thus, we had to make our way through the regular baggage line, which moved extremely slowly and was definitely causing some stress, as our time cushion quickly eroded. Despite all that, the airport workers were all very friendly. One staff member was so amused by my last name that she even recognized me an hour later, when she was taking us to the plane. That was certainly a first for me.
Once I was finally able to check-in and drop my luggage off, I then had to pass through immigration before going through security. And, yes, there was another long line in front of me. Luckily, there was a separate line for first and business class, which was much shorter, but it still took another 15 minutes, which added to the stress of being late. Luckily, security was relatively quick. I’m not an anxious traveler, but I can never really relax until I’m happily waiting at the gate — or even better, in a lounge.
However, there was no time for a lounge visit this time around — I got to the dark and dingy gate five minutes before boarding. I've learned my lesson for the next time I'm in West Africa — give yourself more time than you would normally, and then add even another cushion on top of that.
Our 747-400 was waiting for us at a remote stand, which meant we'd be shuttled via bus to board the jumbo jet. While I was on the bus, I got to chat again with my new friend from the departures hall! Once we arrived, I managed to snap a quick photo of the plane before being reprimanded by one of the ground staff.
Cabin and Seat
After a quick jog up the jet stairs, I found my seat in the first-class cabin, which lies in the nose of the aircraft and sports a unique — and relatively dense — configuration. There are a total of 14 seats — 10 arranged around the sides of the cabin, and four smack dab in the middle, in two rows of two seats. Those two rows are obviously ideal for couples traveling together, but aren't great if you're alone. I was originally assigned one of those middle seats but the cabin wasn't full on my flight, so a flight attendant offered me one of the window seats instead.
The ceiling featured some cool blue mood lighting, but the overhead bins looked pretty last-generation, and extended far into the aisle, almost over the middle seats even.
I immediately noticed how comfortable the pitch of the seat was when in its upright position. Oftentimes I find airplane seats, be it in economy, business or first class, are way too upright when positioned for takeoff and landing. I could almost have fallen asleep without reclining at all!
We had to head all the way back to the gate because of issues in the cargo hold, which resulted in an hour delay in taking off.
Shortly after takeoff and dinner, the flight attendants put my seat into lie-flat mode, which was comfortable. But because I was charging my phone using the plug near the footwell, the cable was sheared off when it got caught in the reclining mechanism — the flight attendants didn't see the cable before adjusting the bed. The BA first-class seats are heavy machinery! (Update: British Airways has since reached out and offered to replace the charger for me!)
I didn't mind too much, though: As soon as my head hit the pillow, I passed out and slept the whole rest of the way to London. It wasn’t until we were 20 minutes from Heathrow that I stirred.
Food and Beverage
Before I slept, though, I ate. And a glance at the menu before takeoff told me dinner service was not to be missed.
British Airways offers real Champagne from Champagne, France, a product above the more generic sparkling wine you typically find on other carriers or in lesser classes of service. My glass was followed by an amuse-bouche of tasty air-dried beef, which tasted similar to the South African speciality biltong, one of my absolute favorites.
To start, there were four choices: poached lobster tail with mango, celery and pine nut salad and a sweet chili sauce; double backed cheese soufflé with oven-dried tomatoes and mesclun salad, green pea soup with star anise and sour cream; and a salad with crème fraiche or Asian sesame dressing. I chose the poached lobster tail, which I found to be fresh and yummy.
For the main course, there were five options: grilled filet of beef with potato and onion quiche, braised spring onions, shiitake mushrooms and a balsamic and plum dressing; grilled kingklip with basmati rice and vegetable jalfrezi; chicken agushi with brown rice, curry flavored courgettes and mixed peppers; polenta and spinach with a tomato, basil and black olive ratatouille; and a garden salad with lemon poached salmon, baba ghanoush, cherry tomatoes, green beans and cumin carrots. I went with the filet of beef, which was top-notch. The beef was melt-in-the-mouth good, and the quiche was light and fluffy.
The first-class amenities were provided by Liberty London, a high-end department store in central London, so I knew I was getting a quality product.
The kit included nice pajamas (which I now wear to bed regularly at home), facial creams, shaving tools, toothpaste, toothbrush and pen.
I appreciated the small closet in the seat vestibule that could accommodate coats and shoes, which definitely helped me eliminate the clutter that normally builds up around my seat. It looked like only the window seats had closets close at hand, though.
The TV screen wasn’t my favorite, because it was folded into the side panel of the seat, which made it tricky to pull out and stopped me from watching when we were on the ground or during takeoff and landing. Like I mentioned before, though, I slept almost the entire way, so it didn't bother me too much this time around. Check out that window shade, too!
Just as we were about to land, the flight attendants handed out Fast Track papers, which if I didn’t have an EU passport (I’m a British citizen) would have helped me get through immigration faster. Landing at 7:00am on a Monday morning, when so many international flights are coming in, would make for a long wait at immigration without an EU passport.
Although I was in first class, I would consider this flight to be more or less on par with the Emirates business-class flight I had taken a few days before. The configuration was superior to Emirates' 2-3-2 business class, but 14 seats in the nose of the 747 is a lot — Lufthansa only has eight first-class seats in its 747-8s, not to mention the privacy you'll get in a product such as Emirates First or Singapore Suites. I can't complain about my flight with BA, though — it was smooth and the bed was comfortable, which I consider to be the most important factor for a flight that departs late at night. I also really liked the amenity kit we received at the seat — all high-quality items worth hanging onto even after the flight. I would fly this product again in a heartbeat.