Tested to Destruction - BA's new economy-plus
Probably the loudest complaint voiced by passengers on long-haul flights is the lack of legroom in economy class. Many protest that they would willingly pay extra for more space and comfort, without the extravagance of business class.
Now, they can do just that.
British Airways is installing a fourth class on its long-haul routes, starting with the popular hop between London and New York. It is known as World Traveller Plus (WTP). The dedicated cabin on both the Boeing 747 and 777 contains five rows of seats in a 2-4-2 formation, compared with 2-5-2 in economy. The seat pitch - the distance between the backs of the two headrests - is 38in compared with 31in in economy. In business class, most airlines now offer 50-60in. Arguably of greater importance is the quality of the seat itself, which is significantly wider in WTP. Features include adjustable lumbar support, an adjustable headrest and a flip-up footrest.
WTP is a no-frills product but it is aimed as much at business people as well-heeled tourists. Hence each seat is fitted with a phone and a powerpoint for a laptop, and the carry-on allowance is double that of economy: two items totalling up to 12kg. This does not come cheap. While return economy fares to New York during November can be had for less than £250 if bought through a consolidator, the best deal in WTP is an official published fare of £827. However, Virgin Atlantic's Premium Economy cabin costs about £1,100 and when British Midland launches its transatlantic services next spring, it will offer an "enhanced economy" cabin, also with a 38in seat pitch, for about £1,500.
But is WTP worth the extra? Earlier this month, I took the 6pm flight out of JFK, which takes a shade less than seven hours and gets into Heathrow at about 6am local time. I was hoping to get some work done on the Tuesday, so I needed to sleep without the aid of pills.
First, the seat. This is notice-ably more comfortable than in economy, with ample legroom and generous padding, although the angle of incline is rather mean, making sleep a challenge: the seat tips back 7in compared to 5in in economy. The arm rests are twice the width of those in economy, but are still shared. There is just enough elbow room to operate a laptop comfortably. I was stuck beside a window, and grateful for it. There seemed significantly more room there - enough to squeeze my bag between seat and cabin wall.
Although WTP is curtained off from economy, both cabins share the same crew and same food, although WTP is served first. Like economy, the in-flight entertainment comes via a seat-back screen.
The crew were efficient and friendly, but not prepared to bend the rules. Knowing some of the little treats taken for granted in club, I pleaded for a British newspaper and a personal bottle of mineral water. Both requests were politely declined. The amenity kit was disappointing: socks, toothbrush, toothpaste and a cheap nylon eyeshade. This is a far cry from the array of lotions and potions handed out in club, where earplugs come as standard. Earplugs are cheap - why don't we get them in economy?
Two more grumbles: the lumbar support mechanism didn't work on my seat (although my back was adequately supported); and, when the seat in front was tipped back fully, my television screen was angled so that it pointed at my midriff - a simple design fault, I presume.
How was it for me? Well, by skipping dinner I managed to squeeze in five hours of low-grade sleep before waking for a light breakfast. This was a lot better than I would expect in economy. I didn't feel pampered but, then again, I didn't feel like death warmed up.
So, a thumbs up.
The best fare on World Traveller Plus is £827 including all taxes for a 21-day advance purchase Apex fare based on travel in November. A similar fare in economy costs £248. Bookings: 0345 222111