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British Airways First Class costs sometimes twenty times more than coach class and twice as much as business class.

Is it twenty times better than coach class, and twice as good as business class?

 
 
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British Airways First Class review

BA's first class cabins are spacious, all seats are on an aisle, and most seats are alongside windows.

 

 

British Airways introduced the world's first ever lie-flat sleeper seat ten years ago, in 1996.

But since that time, their first class cabins and seats have stayed almost unchanged, while other airlines have introduced comparable or possibly even better first class lie-flat sleeper seats, eroding their early lead.

In addition, lie-flat sleeper seats have been appearing in business class cabins as well.  Does it still make sense (did it ever make sense!) to spend $10,000 - $15,000 on a relatively short flight from the US to UK in first class when you get a very similar experience in business class for about half the price?
 

This review is based on two first class flights with British Airways in July 2006 - from Chicago to London and from London to San Francisco.  I checked in for the flights in Chicago and London Heathrow, experiencing the first class and regular lounges in both airports and the arrivals lounge at Heathrow as well.

The First Class Experience and Expectation in General

There is no doubt that first class is the best type of flying experience you can get.  It is vastly better than coach class and somewhat better than business class.  But first class is usually a disappointment for me, whether it be with British Airways or any other airline - see the article on 'Who Flies First Class Anymore' for a discussion on this point.

Like most other first class passengers, I never personally pay for a first class ticket - with the fare for a simple roundtrip to Britain being about $15,000, that is obviously completely out of the question.  Perhaps other passengers are so abjectly grateful to be upgraded to first class as to not view their experience from the perspective of a $15,000 expenditure, but for me, I always think to myself 'The airline is charging $15,000 for this???' and measure the experience by that perhaps impossibly high standard.

Am I being unfair in applying this standard?  I think not.  It is the airlines' choice to charge $15,000 for the ticket, and surely it is only appropriate that the product/service be matched against what they say it is worth - the same price as a new small car, a one month world cruise, an extension to your house, etc.

Pre-Flight Issues

Check-in for the flight in Chicago was quick and simple.

I'd already checked my bags when boarding the connecting Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Chicago, but the downside to this was my bags never received any priority tags, requiring me to wait longer upon arrival in Heathrow.  You'd think that with a $15,000 fare, there'd be a system so as not to penalize passengers who are connecting on to a BA flight from an incoming flight, but apparently this is not the case.

My first class boarding pass entitled me to use a priority lane when going through security, but as often happens, the priority lane was no faster than the regular lane, and possibly even a bit slower (this is because typically there's only one person managing the priority lane whereas the regular lanes might split into four or six or more lanes).

Once getting through security it took a bit of searching, but eventually I found the BA lounge.  Or, in this case, lounges.  On one side of the corridor is their regular lounge and on the other side is a first class only lounge.

The main lounge was jam packed full of people, with no spare seats to be found and people uncomfortably standing up due to lack of seating.  The first class lounge was quiet and peaceful and far from full.

Strangely, neither lounge had magazines or newspapers available.  Usually one finds copies of recent British and local newspapers in the BA lounges, plus the usual range of magazines, but neither lounge offered any of these.  Another cost cutting measure, perhaps?

Strangely, my cell phone didn't work in the first class dining room, but it did work in the rest of the lounge areas.  And regrettably, there was no free Wi-fi (or regular wired internet broadband) access offered in either lounge.  Don't the airlines realize that offering phone lines for modem dialing up are no longer state of the art?

Pre-flight Dining in the Lounge

The flight I was on offered pre-flight dining, with the concept being you can get your eating over and done with before boarding the flight, allowing you more time to sleep.

This is a very good idea for two reasons - firstly, as stated, it means you don't have to waste the time at the airport but can instead use it productively, allowing you then to perhaps get a good night's uninterrupted sleep on board, rather than have the first hour or two spent in an extended meal service.  Secondly, one's taste buds do not work as well at altitude, and of course the meals served are not freshly cooked in a kitchen, so the chance to have a truly high quality and tasty meal is much greater on land.

But there are some off-setting issues, too.  Firstly, I'd much rather get to the airport as late as possible and straight onto the flight, instead of having to arrive extra early to eat.  It lengthens the entire travel experience - at least when eating on board, you're doing two things at once - you're flying towards your destination and eating.  Secondly, I quite enjoy the eating experience on board - it helps kill some time and has become part of the night flying ritual for me - a meal and couple of drinks, then lying down relaxed and full and going to sleep.

There were two dining rooms - a first class and a regular dining room.  I dined in the first class dining room, and for most of the time there was only one or two other tables with people dining.  Service was appallingly bad and very slow.

The menu offered two starters, two salads, three mains and three desserts.  There were two whites and three reds on the wine list; no champagne, and the wines were very ordinary and unimpressive (although there were better wines on offer in the first class lounge).

I peeked into the other dining room and noticed their menu was almost identical to the first class menu.

No bread was offered, and unlike the service on board where one always seems to be given way more knives, forks and spoons than one actually needs, I kept running out of utensils and having to steal them from other tables.

I had two starters and a main, but ran out of patience waiting for a chance of ordering dessert so gave up and left at that point.

The food was okay, but the dining experience was very disappointing and far removed from what you'd expect in a regular high quality restaurant.

This bad service was echoed in their London lounge as well.  Eventually I had to get up and go search for anyone to serve me - various staff members had walked past me while I waited for 15 minutes for anyone to take my order.

On Board

The first class cabin is at the very front of the plane, and there are 14 seats.  Most seats are window seats, and there are two pairs of seats in the middle for people wishing to travel together.

In the front of each seat there is also a small stool that a fellow passenger could sit on so if you wished to spend time chatting with a companion and weren't sitting in the middle adjoining seats, this would be an option too.  BA refer to this rather grandly as being a 'demi cabin'.

All seats have an aisle alongside so you're never stuck having to climb over someone else to go to the bathroom or stretch your legs or whatever.

And, talking about bathrooms, there are two bathrooms for the 14 people in first class, meaning there is seldom a wait to use one (this is about five times the ratio of bathrooms to passengers as in coach class) and the bathrooms remain reasonably fresh and clean all flight long, due to their low amount of usage.

All seats are forward facing.  Although they were miracles of design cleverness when first introduced in 1996, state of the art has evolved over the last ten years and now they seem curiously unsophisticated and dated.  For example, in terms of adjusting them, one can only adjust the back incline, lumbar support and foot rest.

The seats did have good lighting, with two overhead lights and a dimmable light on a gooseneck on the side of the seat.

The individual In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) systems look as similarly aged as the seats.  The LCD screens now seem tiny compared to the much larger ones on many other airlines, and the range of different channels - 18 - seems very limited.

BA do augment this in their first class cabin with a selection of either 29 different videotapes that can be played through the at-seat systems, or 27 different DVDs on planes that don't have the at-seat VCRs.

There is also satellite phone service available at your seat.

As is all too often the case, I had problems with the IFE.  The sound was bad on all channels, and my video didn't work.  This is, I believe, the same IFE system as was originally installed ten years ago in the first class cabins - ten years is a lifetime in the fast moving field of digital electronics and entertainment and BA desperately needs to upgrade this part of their first class service.

I subsequently discovered that the headphones BA supplies to each first class seat have some modest degree of noise cancelling ability, but I didn't realize that at the time and so didn't use them, preferring instead to use my Solitude noise cancelling headphones.

It used to be that one of the highlights of a first class flight was the amenities kit one would receive.  In the good old days, these kits were a treasure trove of all sorts of goodies, even extending to writing paper and pens and small gifts.

Nowadays, the amenity kit that BA offers can only be described as pathetic.  It was sparsely filled with 'smelly junk' but lacked useful things such as a comb or hairbrush (I forgot mine so hoped to find one in the amenities kit).

We were also offered a set of pajamas that we could change into for the flight and subsequently keep.  These were made out of some sort of artificial fiber that probably falls apart after a single washing, and/or pills uncontrollably, but for the brief time wearing them on the flight they were perfectly comfortable and warm.  But one would rather hope that a $15,000 ticket would get one a pair of finest silk pajamas, or at the very least, ordinary cotton.

There was also a heavy weight blanket to keep warm underneath, and this was something that was needed for some of the time but not all the time.  The cabin temperature oscillated between icy and tropical.

I am in the minority, but I have to say I don't find the lie-flat seats very comfortable to sleep in.  I find the mattress way too firm, and although the seat converts to a 6'6" long bed, this isn't really enough for a 6' person because your head doesn't go all the way to the very top, and at the bottom, if your feet point down, you end up being longer than your normal standing height.  So the bed was hard/firm and cramped.

Strangely, there were no magazines or recent newspapers on board for the flight from Chicago, although newspapers were offered on the flight back to San Francisco.  Another money/weight saving?  Is this appropriate when passengers are paying $15,000 fares?

One last small disappointment.  In the 'good old days' one used to be given many hot towels - for example, upon boarding, before/after meals, and prior to arriving.  I like these and always make a point of breathing in through them several times to inhale some steam to moisten my lung tissues - tissues that otherwise dry out in the arid lack of humidity in the cabin.

But these days, even in first class, BA only gives you a single hot towel, offered shortly prior to landing.

Service in general was minimal rather than lavish, and particularly during the overnight section of the flight, there were times when there was no crew to be found - the crew that weren't sleeping themselves would congregate in one of the business class galleys.

Rather than make frequent visits around the cabin with glasses of water, we were given small plastic bottles of water.

Eating and Drinking on Board

In addition to the meal in the lounge prior to take-off, full meal service was offered on board.

The dinner claims to allow you to choose whenever you might wish to be served, but the flight crew absolutely do not give you any hint of having a choice as to when you will be served dinner.

The menu was more extensive than in the lounge, offering four starters, four mains, one dessert and four snacks.

The wines and champagnes were absolutely excellent, and there was also a tempting array of after dinner liqueurs and a couple of fine single malt whiskies listed on the menu, but alas, for some peculiar reason the crew chose not to offer any of these.

Food was reasonably good, and the cutlery included metal knives.  A nice touch was individual salt and pepper grinders - much nicer than little paper sachets which are often insufficient.

I've sometimes complained before about being woken too early for breakfast at the far end of the flight, meaning that one misses out on an extra 30 - 60 minutes of sleep, only to then spend time doing nothing waiting for the plane to land.  Fortunately, this was not the case, with the crew waking us up a mere 65 minutes prior to arriving in London to offer us breakfast.

Breakfast was disappointing.  I was delighted to see that the menu offered us a choice of three different types of tea, and was looking forward to making my choice known.  But instead the crew came around with pots of generic tea - no choices being offered at all.

One of the other disadvantages of the generic pot of tea is that it is inevitably way too strong and has been sitting, brewing/stewing, for too long.  Yuck.  One's $15,000 ticket gets one a cup of tea more like what one would get in a roadside 'greasy spoon' diner.

Why does BA print a menu that variously offers after dinner drinks and three choices of tea if such things are not then made available to passengers?

The other disappointment of an airline breakfast is always the toast.  Why can't the flight crew properly toast a piece of bread?  The answer, I suspect, is that they're so astonishingly lazy they're not prepared to wait for the bread to finish browning and slap it on the plate while it is still barely warm and almost completely not browned.

When I ask for toast, I expect crisp browned hot toast, not barely warm pale white moist bread.  Shame on British Airways.

One interesting thing occurred shortly before we landed.  I heard a noise that sounded like very loud rain, and at first thought it to be exactly that.  But then realized it wasn't rain but hail we were flying through (regular rain makes no noticeable noise).  Fortunately the plane seemed to emerge unscathed and our on-time arrival proceeded without issue.

At the Other End

One of the curious things about getting off a 747 is that the jetway door often opens up not at the exit door between first and business class, but at the exit door between the first and second sections of the business class cabin.

This means that first class passengers don't get off first, but instead have to wait until the business class cabin behind them has first emptied out.  It is a small thing, but it does slightly detract from the exclusiveness one feels one should have in first class.

If the incoming flight to Heathrow lands in the early morning, first and business class passengers are given passes to allow them into a priority line for going through British Immigration.  On occasion, the regular line can involve a 20 minute or longer wait, so this can be an appreciated benefit, but on this occasion, the priority line was very slow moving, due to there being several flights all coming in at the same time and less than half the desks manned by Immigration officials.  It seemed the regular line was as fast moving as the priority line.

Although first class bags are supposed to get special priority tagging to ensure they arrive onto the carousel first, that didn't happen for me and so I had to wait the usual time for my bags to appear.

Arrivals Lounge

British Airways has an Arrivals Lounge at Heathrow (terminals 1 and 4), Gatwick and (of all strange places) Johannesburg.  The lounges - outside the secure area after you've left the Customs Hall - give you a place where you can have a shower and change your clothes, perhaps have a breakfast, and otherwise generally freshen up.

This is a great way to switch from travel clothes to business clothes if you're planning to go straight into a schedule of meetings.  And if you're on vacation and arrived into London ridiculously early, you can shower and change then go sightseeing for the day rather than get to your hotel too early to check in and be forced to go out in your travel clothes unrefreshed.

The Cost of First Class

As of 30 August 2006, Travelocity advises the following roundtrip fares on British Airways for flights to London, departing the US on 4 October and returning on either 7 October or 11 October.

From (to London)

Business

First

Seattle

$6,743 - 8,963

$16,515

Los Angeles

$6,743 - 9,425

$16,515

New York

$5,332 - 7,428

$13,335


Summary

First class travel costs twice as much as business class and twenty times coach class.

Like many other high end products, whether it be cars or clothes or anything, there is clearly a law of diminishing returns and ordinary concepts of value don't apply.

If you (or your employer) can afford to travel first class, should you pay the extra cost to enjoy this?  The bottom line is that you'll arrive at the airport at about the same time, whether you're in first or business class, for your flight, and you'll probably leave your arrival airport at about the same time too.  You don't save any time.

On the other hand, you will enjoy slightly better food, slightly roomier seating/sleeping (but remember that business class also has lie-flat sleeper bed seats), and a slightly less crowded departure lounge.

On the flight, you'll have slightly better in flight entertainment options (assuming that the equipment at your seat isn't broken) and you'll have more convenient access to washrooms.

British Airways First Class is undeniably better than their business, premium economy, or coach class service.  But it isn't necessarily any better than similar first class services offered by other airlines, and indeed failed to make the 'Top Ten' list in this Forbes roundup review.  Their cabin, seats, and entertainment options are all dated and in need of upgrades.

You also won't get any of the other special extras such as limousine transfers to/from the airport that are offered by Virgin Atlantic.

If you're using frequent flier miles, the extra miles needed to get a first class award rather than business or coach class might be well spent.  But if you're using money - especially your own money - most people will choose not to spend something like $15,000 for first class.
 

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Originally published 13 Oct 2006, last update 08 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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