The best seat in a middling cabin: Reviewing British Airways’ business class on the 787-9 from Boston
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I’ve missed transatlantic travel. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I haven’t flown across the ocean in more than 18 months.
I also missed the United Kingdom, which I typically pass through at least a few times a year, visiting friends, watching soccer (football), or checking out new places.
So when the opportunity arose to review British Airways’ business class service from my new home city of Boston, I jumped at the chance. I was especially curious to see how the airline would modify its service during the COVID-19-era, and whether I’d be able to sleep in a fairly uncompetitive 2-3-2 business class cabin.
In short: There were definitely drawbacks. But I also got a few hours of great sleep. It turns out you just need to know a few tricks to make the flight ideal.
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My flight was part of a round-trip itinerary that included this business-class seat on the outbound and a return in first class so that I could sample British Airways’ limited-time Sunday roast special. Ordinarily, I might book my ticket via Amex Travel using The Platinum Card® from American Express to earn 5 points per dollar. That earning rate is good for tickets booked through Amex or directly with airlines, on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year. The entire round-trip fare came to $3,582. That would earn 17,910 Amex Membership Rewards points, which are worth $358.20 based on TPG’s current points valuations — a 10% return on the spending.
However, we ended up paying with TPG’s business version of Centurion Card from American Express in order to take advantage of its improved Pay With Points rate of 2 cents per point, so we covered my flights with 179,100 Amex points.
I could have booked a one-way business-class ticket by redeeming 60,000 British Airways and paying a whopping $729 in taxes and fees. Alternatively, I could have redeemed 57,500 American Airlines miles plus the same $729 in taxes and fees, or 60,000 Alaska Airlines miles plus $738 in taxes and fees. Unfortunately, those massive taxes and surcharges are the main reason why redeeming miles for British Airways flights to and from the U.K. is generally a terrible value. So in this case, we just ended up paying for the tickets through Amex and racking up those valuable Membership Rewards points instead.
I arrived at Boston’s Logan airport (BOS) a few hours before my 9:35 p.m. flight, wanting to leave some extra time for any document checks given the COVID-era entry requirements imposed by the U.K.
British Airways shares Terminal E with the bulk of Logan’s international airlines, but it was easy to find the check-in counter.
There’s a dedicated line for first- and business-class passengers, and I only waited about three minutes for my turn at the counter. I showed the agent my passport, negative COVID-19 test results, and the printout of my U.K. passenger locator form, and he printed out my boarding pass.
British Airways has an incredible-looking lounge at Boston Logan. Measuring in at over 10,000 square feet, the lounge features huge windows with lots of natural light, fine dining with a full menu available, specialized cocktails and wines, plenty of seating, and sometimes even direct boarding, so passengers don’t have to leave to walk to the gate ahead of boarding.
I wouldn’t get to see any of that.
I asked the check-in agent about the lounge, and he told me it was still closed due to the pandemic. That wasn’t noted on the airline’s webpage, though searching later, I did find mention of that on Oneworld’s website.
Although there were a few open lounges in the terminal, British Airways had not arranged access to any of them for its own first- and business-class passengers.
British Airways participates in TSA PreCheck, and even though there isn’t a separate security line, I was able to keep my belt and shoes on and walk through a metal detector instead of a body scanner.
Once I was through security, I decided to seek out the Air France lounge, which gives access to Priority Pass members — though it turns out the lounge is also selling access to anyone, taking advantage of the shuttered lounges in the terminal.
The lounge is easy to find — there are plenty of signs and arrows — but the whole time you’re walking towards it you feel like you must have made a wrong turn somewhere. It’s essentially underground, at the end of a long, dark hallway.
The lounge is a fairly pleasant space — especially for an underground room at an airport — with plenty of seating, a small buffet with sandwiches and snacks, and a small, modest bar. On this particular day, though, it was quite crowded, and after a quick snack, during which I watched plenty of unmasked people coughing, I decided to find a nice quiet gate in the terminal.
There were a few open restaurants in the terminal alongside an equal number of closed ones, but they all looked crowded, so I decided to skip them rather than wait for a free table.
Eventually, a few minutes before our originally scheduled boarding time, I hiked over to gate E12 at the other end of the terminal. My flight was delayed about half-an-hour, but that had been communicated well by BA through the app when I went to check in for the flight — it was because of a late incoming aircraft, which had to route around the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
A few minutes after our original boarding time, passengers who needed extra time were invited to pre-board, followed by first and business class passengers.
Cabin and seat
British Airways’ Club World business class has, for years, been fairly uncompetitive on the U.S.-U.K. market.
American, Delta, United, and Virgin Atlantic all offer a premium cabin with a 1-2-1 layout, facilitating direct aisle access for every passenger. Even JetBlue offers a sharp product with its 1-1 Mint Suites and Studios aboard its Airbus A321LR narrow-bodies.
British Airways, meanwhile, flies a unique 2-3-2 or 2-4-2 layout on most of its routes, depending on the aircraft. It’s seven seats across on the 787-9. The business-class cabin is split into two by a boarding door, and every other seat is rear-facing.
The good news is that there’s a new product out there: the Club Suite, which was introduced on the airline’s Airbus A350s and some 777s, and is slowly being installed on other aircraft in BA’s fleet.
In the meantime, unfortunately, passengers are stuck with these older models on most aircraft, which are rather tight at just 20 inches wide and that recline to lie-flat beds that are just six feet long, so taller flyers might not be comfortable.
Passengers must choose between facing forward or backwards, and either stepping over a sleeping seatmate’s legs to get into the aisle, or potentially being stepped over as you snooze. But there’s one trick, a not-so-well-kept secret, that can make this cabin layout virtually perfect — especially if you plan to sleep.
If you’re in row 7 on the sides, the last row of the mini-cabin, you can actually get out between the seat and the bulkhead, rather than stepping over anyone’s legs. The same is true for row 10, the first row of the larger Club World cabin.
I snagged seat 7A, a window seat with this makeshift direct aisle access.
Ironically, considering the fact that this is a fairly uncompetitive cabin, this particular seat was possibly the most private option I’ve flown transatlantic
Another quirk of the Club World cabin is that, because you have to keep privacy dividers down during take-off and landing, you end up awkwardly facing your seatmate. But there were free seats in the cabin, and my seatmate ended up moving, meaning the seat next to me was empty.
Aside from that quirk, once we took off and the divider was up, I felt like I was in my own little world.
The Club World seats feature a folding foot rest that comes down when you lay the seat flat into bed mode. While it looks like it could be used as a buddy seat, it definitely can’t accommodate a whole person — it’s not strong enough to hold the weight of an entire body.
There wasn’t a ton of storage space — I left my backpack in the overhead compartment, which meant getting out into the aisle every time I wanted anything — but there was a compartment down by my feet that slid open and had some space to store things like a phone or an iPad.
Unfortunately, the passenger before me seemed to have left some trash in the compartment, and the aircraft cleaners missed it.
There also isn’t any surface storage space in the seat, so nowhere convenient to put your glasses or phone while you sleep — or your pre-departure drink as you get settled.
There was, however, a full-sized power outlet, and a USB port for your phone.
Seat controls were located along the side wall, just before the screen.
There were three lavatories for the business class cabin, all stocked with the standard amenities.
One thing conspicuously missing: individual air nozzles. These are less common on airlines outside of the U.S., and as someone who tends to get hot, I always find that disappointing.
It was ultimately a comfortable enough seat, and I got a good night’s sleep, although note that the seat can feel rather narrow.
Amenities and in-flight entertainment
British Airways offers a solid amenity kit stocked with essentials. Instead of waiting at each seat, the kit is handed out by flight attendants, along with the in-flight service menus (more on that in a bit).
The kit comes in a faux-leather bag designed by The White Company, and held all of the usual essentials — an eye mask, earplugs, socks, a toothbrush and toothpaste, lip balm, moisturizer and a pen.
A pillow and duvet waited at each seat — flight attendants offered to put these in the overhead compartments for takeoff.
There’s a decently sized in-flight entertainment screen, which folds away during take-off and landing.
The software on the screen is a bit dated, but the movie selection was solid — I watched Godzilla vs. Kong during dinner.
There’s an airshow available, but as soon as I tried to access it my IFE system froze. I had to ask a flight attendant to reset it, which took a few minutes, so I didn’t try the airshow again.
The remote for the IFE system is retractable and stores in the side of the pod just next to the seat.
British Airways offers a pair of noise-canceling headphones to business class passengers. They’re not made by a major brand, and felt somewhat cheap and sounded a little tinny, but they certainly worked well enough.
There was also Wi-Fi on this flight. I pad £15 GBP — that’s about $20 in U.S. dollars — to connect for the entire flight. Speeds were solid throughout.
Food and beverage
Flight attendants came around offering glasses of champagne or water shortly after I boarded. I went with the former. Another flight attendant handed out water bottles, too, before take-off.
Menus were distributed along with the amenity kits a few minutes later, and flight attendants came around to take orders before take-off. I guess the taxi must have been quicker than expected, because they skipped me, and came back for my order once we were above 10,000 feet.
I went with a glass of Singleton 12 year old single malt whisky to start. Since I planned to try the special roast dinner on my way back, I also decided to order the grilled beef fillet, just so I could compare it. Otherwise I think I’d have gone with the spinach and cheese ravioli.
Dinner came just shy of 20 minutes after the flight attendants took my order, or about 25 minutes after take-off.
The beef was surprisingly rare inside– in a good way. Beef is incredibly hard to do well on an airplane thanks to the way food is reheated. Unfortunately, that was about the only redeeming quality. It was fairly tough, and virtually flavorless. I ended up pouring my salt packet onto it to try and make it tastier — it worked — but that’s a lot of salt for an already sodium-laden airplane meal.
Everything else on my tray was delicious, though, from the roasted potatoes and tomatoes to the butternut squash salad.
The black cherry cheesecake was delectable and moist, too, and I enjoyed the small cheese board.
After dinner was cleared, flight attendants asked if I wanted another drink. I decided to go with a beer from Scottish brewery-turned-global-phenomenon BrewDog — their JetStream American pale ale is an exclusive creation that you can only get aboard British Airways flights. It was tasty and refreshing, very drinkable.
About 30 minutes before landing — cutting it close — breakfast was served. I ordered the egg sandwich and a cup of coffee.
The sandwich came out barely two minutes later. It was surprisingly tasty, served on crispy toast. The coffee was still being brewed, so it was brought out about a minute later. Given the tight timing, I was just finishing my meal when we prepared for our final descent, which didn’t give me much time to tidy up or use the lavatory, but I did appreciate the extra time the service scheduling had given me to rest.
British Airways is sometimes knocked for their service — I get e-mails to that effect every time I write a review or talk about flying the airline.
I’ve never had anything but good experiences, though, and this was no exception.
If I were nitpicking, my only complaint would be that service seemed rushed, with dinner quickly delivered and cleared, and breakfast brought over mere minutes before landing — I only had about 5 minutes to eat it and chug my coffee. In that sense, the flight definitely didn’t feel like a “luxury” experience.
On a red-eye, though, especially in business class, I see that as a positive. I planned to catch a shower in the arrivals lounge before my connecting flight and had a full day of activities ahead of me, so I wanted to get as much sleep as possible. Our flying time was less than six hours, so the quick service meant that I was still able to get a little over three hours of sleep. Not enough to be considered a “good night’s sleep,” but plenty to let me feel awake and be active the next day.
The flight attendants were also helpful and nice throughout the whole flight, with none of the awkwardness that sometimes comes with business-class service flow.
To me, this was a perfect red-eye. Quick dinner service, a private-feeling sleeping berth with direct aisle access, and enough time to catch some z’s.
The thing is, I had to put in some effort for that. I only had a good seat because I knew the secret of row 7 and snagged the most private seat.
The cabin is ultimately uncompetitive, lagging behind pretty much all of the other airlines running the transatlantic routes between the U.S. and the U.K.
On the ground, I would deem the lack of a lounge or some kind of substitute at a major airport is unacceptable at this point. Closing it earlier on in the pandemic made sense. But if the airline still doesn’t have the business to support reopening it, it needs to figure out an alternative for its first- and business-class passengers. Contracting with another airline’s lounge, setting something temporary up, offering drink vouchers to a terminal restaurant, or something else.
With all of that in mind, I’d definitely consider this flight again, on one condition — that one of the prime seats was available. Otherwise, I’d try to fly with another carrier until BA brings its updated cabin to the Boston-Heathrow route.
Featured photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy.
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