Airline: British Airways
Flight Number: BA286
Aircraft: Boeing 747-436
Seat: 01K (First)
Distance: 5358 miles
Duration: 9hrs 6mins
Date: Tuesday 13th May
Photo © Mark Beckwith
Photo © Florian Kondziela
Our almost 6000 mile journey to Britain began in the back of my brother in law's BMW as he took us and all our luggage to the nearby BART station. Unfortunately we missed the train we were hoping to catch and so were left waiting for a few minutes until another arrived. As we passed through the middle of the city more airport bound people boarded and as we crawled into the final stop we gathered our bags and made the convenient walk across to the British Airways desks. Unusually signs were splitting passengers up between desks depending upon which of the two flights they were taking that day. It seemed First and Club World were still combined and so I headed for the far end of the bank of desks to be stuck behind a sport jacket type flying Club World with assistant doing every petty task for him.
When my turn came I handed over my first coupon book of paper tickets with passports and asked if our bags could be checked through to just London, we had a flight leaving the following day 23hrs 40mins after our scheduled arrival from San Francisco so were technically connecting passengers. The agent looked a little confused, typed some more and asked whether we had checked-in online to which I responded yes. "It seems you unloaded yourselves, but I'll put you back on" was the return. Some 22hrs earlier I was checking in from cyberspace and the internet connection had gone down, I was quite surprised to hear that resulted in an offload though! I asked about whether the TSA were available on the concourse to screen checked bags and was told they were not. For an airport the size of San Francisco I was quite surprised by that.
With two boarding passes, a note about a fifteen minute delay and an 'Arriving in Terminal 5' pamphlet in hand we went off to security. A rather short line took far too lang thanks to San Francisco's own Real Man of Genius, 'Mr Over-Enthusiastic Boarding Pass Checker'...
We went straight down to the First 'Room' as it was called by the lounge warden and found it surprisingly busy, as was the Terraces. I stuck it out with the wife in the First room though and found myself close to the sport jacket Gold in J and his groveling assistant who was apologizing for the fact they had run out of champagne glasses for him.
First lounge at SFO
I got a glass of water and fired up my laptop, using the free wireless internet BA provided; the password wasn't too hard to guess so I'm sure some people outside were using it too! As it turned out one other Flyertalker and companion were also in First on this flight, they'd even pinched the seats my wife and I were after so he came over and introduced himself and we chatted for a few minutes about his trip to the city and the flight over.
At around 6.30pm, ten minutes before scheduled departure a staff member walks in and says our flight is ready for boarding from the library. It isn't every day you hear that! The lounge empties rapidly and we make our way through the still busy Terraces lounge into the gate area where non-premium boarding is underway. Trying to cut across the stream of traffic to get to the First/Club World jetbridge was quite problematic but a BA staffer was on hand to prevent a hit and run.
First seemed pretty well occupied tonight although seat 1A was free and the front locker empty. In absence of my own overhead in 1K I put my roller bag in the closet, emptied my things for the flight at the seat and put my over the shoulder bag in the locker above my wife's seat, 3K.
Before I can blink I'm offered a sleepsuit and washbag and make my way to the toilet to change. I settle into my seat with a pre-flight glass of Bollinger La Grande Annee, plate of Macadamias and copy of The Times from the table in front of 4E and 4F. A few minutes pass and then notice I don't have my washbag. I dash back to the bathroom to find it yet to be pinched!
The bear enjoying the 'short-hair' Anya Hindmarch washbag and Bollinger
My 'neighbour' in 1A is one of the last to board and spends the remainder of the boarding process creasing the pinstripe suit he's wearing and inducing "BlackBerry thumb". At around 7pm, twenty minutes after scheduled departure we get the call that we're ready for pushback and head to takeoff to the west, the captain gives us a brief run down of the route and departure even noting to 'have cameras at the ready if you are on the right side of the aircraft'. From my seat I could see a mix of aircraft landing on the 28s and get to experience the unusual sensation of feeling like you are about to run off into the grass before swinging around to take the turn.
We depart on runway 28R and after a very long takeoff roll as we rise, over the 101 and the hills of South San Francisco, the city appears off to the right. As we climb further we turn to starboard and are treated to a stunning view of the entire city and the bay area behind it.
1) Does this city need an introduction?
2) The answer is no, but this might. A prize for the first non-Bay Area resident to figure out the main feature of this picture. It isn't the bridge!
Wine lists were handed out and drinks orders taken with a hot towel service performed. I went off to speak to my wife in 3K and show her my photos of the departure and by the time I return my PTV is blank and the overhead lights appear unresponsive. I sat around for a few minutes waiting for my post-departure beverage to be delivered but it wasn't to be seen. I could see that not only is 1A supping on his still water but also a tasty looking plate of canapes. At this moment I thought it was going to be one of those flights to forget and I unusually decide to hit the call bell . Several minutes pass and it remains lit above my head. At this time the CSD comes around with menus, introducing herself to each passenger using their names and it didn't seem remotely awkward whereas it sometimes can. Not wanting to sound like the miserable Gold cardholder I kept quiet about my involuntary opt out from the inflight service so far. A flick through the menu provided some quite interesting cuisine for this flight, and in some cases I really could have been very happy with three of the four choices.
One of the two excellent FAs came round asking if everything was OK and I mentioned the drink, canapes and call bell. I received an immediate apology and was within the blink of an eye brought the items in question. Apparently when the AVOD system gets reset, as it was, the call bell system and overhead lights go offline too. Bizarre I know!
The canapes and second glass of Bollinger
Anthony came round with orders for dinner and I told him my wife and I would be dining together at my seat. He asked us when we wanted to eat and I noted that the sooner the better...I lobbed all the duvets, earphones and miscellaneous garb into the cubby hole just beside the seat and my wife came over just as some minor turbulence began.
Dinner service began around 1hr 30min after takeoff with bread and too many drinks top-ups to keep count. Although I did discover the not-so secret secret about how the crews remember what drink each passenger is on...they keep a wine list with the seat number and what drink that passenger is currently drinking written on. There was me thinking they remembered So folks chop and change your choice frequently to keep staff on their toes
To keep things interesting my wife and I didn't order the same thing for any of the courses to try a variety of things from the menu.
Nearest: Warm rocket and goat's cheese tart with eight year old balsamic olive oil.
Furthest: Smoked salmon, shrimp and smoked trout salad with truffle oil
My wife was really impressed with her lobster salad and my tart had a really nice texture and quality to it, it didn't taste like airline food! A nice turn for the service based on my past First experiences.
This was followed up by a soup course...
Vegetable and lentil soup
My wife thought this was really good, whereas I personally just thought I wasn't into a mix of vegetables and lentils as much as I thought I was
Fresh salad leaves with balsamic vinaigrette
This was quite tasty, especially the chunks of tomato but the vinaigrette just wasn't particularly good. It is a personal choice but I don't see why a really good balsamic vinegar needs to be 'vinaigretted'. It just ruins something with real bite into something wishy washy...
Nearest: Lobster-salad with warm sesame chicken, couscous-filled red pepper dressed with coriander dressing.
Furthest: Prawn curry with jasmine rice.
My wife's curry was pretty good and the prawns very big despite what the pic shows. I presumed the lobster salad was going to be the main feature for my dish as it was listed first on the menu. Instead it seemed to come a distinct second place to the masses of chicken! It was quite tasty but not exactly what I was expecting when I ordered.
By this time I was tiring rapidly and bailed out early, skipping dessert and sending my wife back to her seat for cheesecake.
Anthony in particular was exceptionally on the ball and immediately asked if I wanted to have my bed made. He said it was take a few minutes (as the crew member had to come from Club World to do it) and so I took a few items from the washkit and brushed my teeth. On my return I could see even from row 5 that one of the crew had found my bear and was holding it up a me in front of the whole cabin. I joked we had a stowaway on board and they tucked both of us up in bed, asking if we wanted anything to aid our slumber. Debating a scotch I asked for a bottle of Highland Spring and it was soon beside my PTV. Anthony asked me if I wanted to be woken for breakfast and I declined his offer.
The next thing I know is waking up around one hour from London and reaching up to sup on my bottle of water. I headed straight for the bathroom to freshen up and Anthony wished me a good morning asking if there is anything he could get, or cook up for me. An orange juice sounded just perfect and by the time I return, feeling a little more human and after enjoying the porthole view of the Isle of Man, it is there at my seat. It takes me a few seconds to notice what was a bed is now back to being a comfortable seat! The service really was superb on this flight, putting a smile on my face.
Birmingham - I think, hopefully some Brummies can confirm
We headed into a stack, most likely Bovingdon based on our moving map position, and after seeing an unidentified twin widebody below we break free from the stack, performing a couple of turns just to the west of Maidenhead. This is a part of the country I know well. My trips up the M4 often yielded impressive sights of large aircraft circling gracefully just a few thousand feet above me.
The cabin is quiet for some time, only being interrupted by what sounded like BlackBerry chimes, surely not. It wasn't either of us in row 1 or 2 so it remained an UAN, unidentified annoying noise...
The reassuring sound of the landing gear going down is unmistakable in the nose of the 747 and some of the familiar scenery indicated we were arriving onto 09L. Even before we reached Windsor I could see the newest leviathan to be added to the Heathrow landscape, Terminal 5. The quasi forward view that is possible from row 1 and 2 on the 747 is very cool, especially if you get a crosswind error in your favour.
We touch down at exactly 1.30pm taxiing round for my the beginning of my first Terminal 5 experience. Like many other, if not all, widebodies we parked up at T5B and were off the aircraft very quickly. It was quite odd for me to find myself in unfamiliar territory at Heathrow, particularly when flying BA when I could even function in a severely inebriated state.
Anyways back to Terminal 5. Following the signs for Arrivals took us down so many flights of stairs I wasn't sure if it was a tunnel to the transit or the other side of the planet. When we did get to the platform the doors on the train shut and left and we had to wait a couple of minutes for the next. When it did arrive and the other passengers disembarked we all got on, waited for the doors to close and set off for the fifteen second or so journey to the main building. What a waste of time! Why not just have a moving walkway? This may be the first time in history someone has said 'CDG, let's copy that idea'' but even that horrible concrete donut, Terminal 1, has moving walkways that go down an incline, under the apron and up the other side. Maybe BAA decided against this due to their track record with moving walkways.
At the end of the transit we went up more escalators to immigration which was empty and well staffed, then down another escalator to baggage reclaim. I was beginning to wonder whether BAA/Ferrovial have some massive stake in an escalator company! Other than that the building is quite impressive, though the baggage hall which I expected to be like an enormously long cathedral wasn't quite the jawdropper I thought it'd be. I knew I'd get to see T5 from a departing passenger's perspective a week or so later...
This is usually the part where I moan about how rubbish baggage handling is on BA but even as one of the first to arrive at baggage reclaim I only had to wait less than a minute before bags starting coming through, and our two were amongst those to make it. A fluke? I'm not sure.
My mother was around the corner through the other end of customs to greet Kirstin and myself. Back up to the car park which is now charging for the first two hours and out back onto the M4 and home...
Verdict: Apart from the cock-up at the beginning of the flight the service was really top notch. Anthony, in particular who seemed to be looking after me was great. The food seems to be heading in a new direction for the better which is never a bad thing. The one thing I did find problematic was the AVOD which was screwed up for the most of the flight. It has been a while since I was on a 747 flight where the system tanked as badly as it did. Pity.
I can't really gauge T5 on this one passage (though it probably wouldn't stop the media!) but if this was how it'll work day in and day out then it is good news from a formalities process, however arriving in T5B (and C when completed) which be really annoying with the overkill on the escalator count and pointless transit affair.