Flight number: BA 007
Aircraft Type: Boeing 777-300ER
Route: London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda
Class: First Class
A mediocre hard product, coupled with a much improved dining experience and genial service
British Airways (BA) celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The century-old airliner now serves around 200 destinations worldwide. Currently, BA is the only European carrier operating commercial services Down Under, not surprising given the expat and tourist traffic between Oz and the UK. Recently, I had the opportunity to check out BA's first class service en route from London to Tokyo in a Boeing 777 (The same aircraft type used for their daily service to Sydney via Singapore.) I was excited to find out what the centennial carrier had to offer and in particular whether it has kept up with the hyper-competitive and ever-evolving aviation industry. Here is my experience of their first class service.
Flight number: BA 007
Aircraft Type: Boeing 777-300ER
Route: London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda
Class: First Class
I redeemed this one-way flight using British Airways Avios – 120,000 Avios plus £383 (AUD$720). The steep BA redemption taxes and surcharge are surely a drawback. But given a typical round-trip ticket for this route comes with a price tag of AUD$13,000, I was not too fussed about paying the overpriced surcharges.
Note: BA has a separate redemption chart for peak and off-peak travel. Flying during quieter times offers a better redemption value. For example, the same flight is available for 102,000 Avios during the off-peak period. In comparison, Qantas Partner redemption for this flight is much higher at 149,800 Qantas points, though without any seasonal variation.
Seats and meals can be pre-selected online through the BA website under the "manage booking" tab. Unfortunately, seats in rows 1 and 2 were blocked off when I logged in, so I selected a pair of window seats on the right. On the same page, you can also pre-select the main course for your flight up to 24 hours before the departure. This is a good way to secure your meal of choice. The online menu consisted of four options: (1) grilled lamb cutlets, (2) soba with Dover sole, (3) baked goose liver and (4) roasted cauliflower. These options were identical to the actual inflight menu, unlike Singapore Airlines, which offers the "Book the Cook" service – an additional menu for pre-booked dishes that are not available for selection on the inflight menu.
A dedicated first class check-in zone in Heathrow Terminal 5 is located at the far end of the departure hall. While there's no red carpet here, self-service drinks and towels are available for those waiting. The wait time was negligible, and the check-in agent who served us seemed quite disinterested. With no official greeting or smile, it was not a great "first" impression to our journey. On a positive note, the check-in area is linked directly to the Galleries First Class Lounge via an exclusive security line.
Generally, Emerald-tier oneworld (Qantas Platinum/Platinum One status) and first class passengers travelling with partner airlines are directed to the Galleries First Class Lounge, but BA offers the Concorde Room for the exclusive use of its first class guests.
The Concorde Room oozes sophistication. The lounge features a tended bar, a formal sit-down restaurant and a terrace along with a business zone nicknamed the "Board Room" and two "Cabanas". The Cabanas are essentially private rooms fit out with a couch and an ensuite bathroom. Although they cannot be compared to the "Cabanas" in Cathay Pacific's "The Wing", they still provide a private space for you to enjoy a power nap or a place to unwind before a long-haul flight. I should mention, the Cabanas are particularly enticing if you are looking to freshen up, as the Concorde Room does not have its own shower facility (the closet showers are located next door between the Concorde Room and the Galleries Lounge). To secure a cabana, advance booking is highly recommended as they are often booked out. Bookings can be made online and are available on a first come, first serve basis.
I visited the Concorde Room during the breakfast period. Continental breakfast options can be ordered from anywhere in the lounge and served to your table, but a more comprehensive menu is served from the restaurant. To start, I ordered a cappuccino and California Eggs Benedict. Shortly after finishing my meal, I discovered our flight was delayed, which meant we had the opportunity to taste test the restaurant menu during the lunch service. I was pleasantly surprised and quite impressed – the grilled scallop starter and confit duck dish were mouth-watering. The wine list on the ground is also more impressive than the inflight offering, so I would recommend having a drink before you fly if you are so inclined.
As mentioned, the shower facility is located outside of the Concorde Room and is shared with passengers in the Galleries First Class Lounge. Unfortunately, the facilities are outdated and cramped, reminiscent of a hospital or a hostel shower room. Sharing the reception desk with the shower rooms is the ELEMIS Travel Spa. ELEMIS offers first class guests a complimentary 15-minute treatment from a select number of treatments. While advanced booking is required, registration is open 28 days before the travel date, so there is plenty of time to secure an appointment. I opted for the power back massage through the advanced booking portal with a confirmation of the appointment time via email shortly after booking.
The actual experience in the spa was rather underwhelming. Not only was my treatment cut short due to the appointment before running over, but the therapist was also actively texting while giving the treatment. The level of service here is a far cry from my experience with Thai Airways' Royal Orchid Spa or Etihad's Six Senses Spa.
Due to technical issues, our initial aircraft was replaced by another Boeing 777. Our gate was located at Terminal 5 satellite building C, a fair distance away from the lounge. I factored in extra time to get to our gate as we needed to use the transit train. When we arrived at the gate, the ground crew were handing out meal vouchers to compensate for the delay. I politely declined, having just left the Concorde Room; however, passengers were subjected to a further 30-minute delay at the gate leading to a sense of relief when the actual boarding process began. As usual, first class passengers boarded first. Crew members welcomed us onboard and they apologised for the delay. We were promptly served pre-flight drinks and a warm towel. A Japanese-speaking crew member also came to our cabin to extend her personal welcome to any native Japanese in our cabin, and I thought this was a nice touch.
This aircraft offers four travel classes: First, Club World, World Traveller Plus and World Traveller. The first class cabin is installed with 14 open suites (i.e. without a sliding privacy door). The suites are likened to a more spacious version of the reverse herringbone seats. Overall, the seat dimensions are not as generous as many other first class products I've tried. Interestingly, BA has no plans to upgrade their first class seats even though they've introduced a closed suite in their business club class on the A350.
In this BA first class cabin, the 1-2-1 configuration offers every suite direct aisle access. While the middle suites are catered for couples, the slidable screen can be applied if you are flying alone and want more privacy.
The first class cabin has quite a pleasant ambience with cabin mood-lighting as well as a bedside lamp. The light intensity can be customised from the control panel to suit your preference. The window shades are also electronically-controlled, with the option of a blue shade or an opaque setting.
Storage-wise, instead of cloaking my jacket with the crew, I was pleased to find a closet at my seat big enough to store my clothes as well as a pair of shoes. Beneath the footrest, there is a storage space for a small bag. However, there are no dedicated compartments for your personal electronic devices.
The seat angles can be customised using a bedside turning dial, which is extremely easy to operate. It is lit with blue light and turns green when the seat is returned to take-off/landing mode. The bed is modest in its dimensions, with a width of 22.5 inches and a length of 78 inches when converted to a lie-flat position.
I didn't like the fact that the bed was not symmetrical like other classic first class products. The bed narrows at the end, which is not friendly for taller individuals. Having said that, it is still a comfortable bed. During turndown service (available at your request), you are supplied with a bolster cushion and ultra-soft 400 thread-count sheets.
Annoyingly, there was only one lavatory for the 14 passengers in first class, which made the post-meal toilet rush painfully long. You may also be disappointed to find that the size and the set-up of this lavatory are similar to economy class.
BA first class features pyjamas and an amenity kit designed by British fashion label Temperley London. A blue suede kit was given to all the gentlemen in the cabin and a floral-inspired kit for the ladies. Within the kits were a variety of ELEMIS skincare products, including items from the ultra-smart pro-collagen range. Instead of perfume, the kit provides a deodorant stick. Slippers were not routinely given out, but were available upon request.
The BA "High Life" entertainment has a pretty wholesome selection of movies, TV and audio programs. You can even get a heads up on what programs will be available on your service before you fly. In honour of the 100th year anniversary, a dedicated channel "BA100 Centenary" showcases the best inflight entertainment over the years.
Meanwhile, the entertainment hardware is noticeably outdated. Their 15.4-inch touchscreen TV is one of the smallest first class screens out there compared to Japan Airlines (23 in), Singapore Airlines (24 in) and Swiss (32 in) on the same aircraft type. The screen is also not very sensitive to touch, plus it needs to be stowed away during take-off and landing. A standard noise-cancelling headset and 2 USB ports are available at each suite. Sadly, Wi-Fi is yet to be installed in this particular aircraft, which is a major drawback for business travellers.
The first class à la carte menu affords a flexibility with regards to the time of dining. British Airways has recently signed a new contract with DO & CO Catering, which is an exciting change from their previous lacklustre menu. While the transition to the new menu will be complete in March 2020, certain long-haul routes including Tokyo are already featuring the improved dining experience. Bearing in mind the Japanese carriers competing with BA on this route typically have excellent culinary standards, this step-up by BA is much welcomed.
To complement the refined menu, British Airways has partnered with leading British brands for their meal service. This includes the Darlington crystal glassware, William Edwards crockery as well as cutlery from the award-winning Studio William. As the suites are large enough to accommodate a second passenger, my wife and I chose to dine together. Admittedly, the second passenger may feel a little squished at the corner as the seat narrows in. The table size is also on the small side. We could hardly fit all the dishes and condiments for two on the same table.
The dinner service, which I requested earlier in the flight, commenced with a delightful canapé selection. Along with that, I ordered champagne Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle. There were four options for starters and mains respectively. While there was no caviar service on this flight, the Japanese appetiser I chose included British caviar as one of its elements. For the main course, I opted to stick with the Japanese theme and ordered the Dover sole with soba noodles. I was quite impressed by its overall presentation and flavour, and I enjoyed the wine pairing with a glass of Chassagne-Montrachet en Piment 2014.
The multi-course dinner was served at a good pace; it was not too slow or too rushed. In between the main and dessert, I was offered a cheese platter, which was a four-cheese combination sourced from different regions in the UK. Finally, for dessert, I had the vanilla ice cream with raspberry and chocolate shards – a dish that was simple, unpretentious and delicious.
Just slightly over an hour before landing, I was served Belgian waffles from the breakfast menu. The two other options on offer were savoury dishes: a mixed breakfast grill and Omelette Arnold Bennett.
BA crew on this flight were attentive and polite. The service manager made the effort to engage passengers on this flight, personally welcoming and farewelling each guest. In my case, we had a great chat about the sights and scenery in Tokyo. I wouldn't say I was blown away by the service as it is not quite in the same league as Qatar Airways or Singapore Airlines; however, it is still a very solid effort by this set of crew.
We arrived in Tokyo-Haneda on a rainy morning, about three hours later than scheduled despite the crew's effort to catch up on lost time. The benefit of arriving at Haneda Airport rather than Narita Airport is its proximity to downtown Tokyo.
During this flight, I enjoyed a very authentic British experience, characterised by polite crew and high-end British products and designs ranging from their silverware to the pyjamas. I appreciated their efforts to spruce up several aspects of their soft product. The catering standards have improved by leaps and bounds, which is the reason I believe this service deserves 4.5 stars out of 6. However, the major letdown of this experience was the mediocre hard product and the mixed ground experience in London Heathrow. In terms of hard product, BA definitely needs a more sophisticated seat offering, a modern IFE system with Wi-Fi plus a lavatory that is more "posh". The Concorde Room has excellent restaurant dining, but the first class shower suites and the spa treatment experience were quite disappointing. All things considered, BA delivers a decent first class experience and I would gladly fly with them again despite several "first world problems".
Have you flown in BA first class recently? What was your experience like?
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