This trip was planned way in advance and all bookings were made in April, even though the planning started a lot earlier than that, around January. Based on a combination of factors including the low dollar, and the better than expected collection of BA Miles and Priority Club points, my girlfriend and I decided to fly to make a 2 week tour of the USA.
Since I am the travel expert (some might even say airplane geek) it was up to me to book all the flights. And I have to admit, I did a pretty good job: LHR-ORD on BA, J class, MDW to DEN on F9, DEN-SFO on F9, SFO-LAX on AA and finally LAX back to LHR on BA, using my BA mile to upgrade us to First.
The original plan was to fly out on August 22nd, Friday afternoon, but due to BA having a 777 on the route at that time, I changed my mind and booked us on the Saturday morning flight, operated by the mighty 747-400 with all the benefits of the upper deck and the Next Generation Club World cabin.
At the time of booking the ORD flight was supposed to operate from T5 but after the disastrous opening and BA’s decision to delay the transfer of some longhaul flights to that terminal, I received a notification that our flight would operate from T4. I haven’t been to T4 since January 2007 but from what I remember it was never a pleasant place to be. Furthermore, not only we would miss out on the Galleries Lounges of T5, but also the Elemis Spa was no longer operational in T4. This proved to be the minor of our travel worries, the major being Frontier Airlines declaring bankruptcy a couple of days after making my reservations. I knew all about Frontier’s financial woes, but I had only heard of good things about this airline and I really wanted to fly them, despite having plenty of other options including Southwest, American and United. I knew that Frontier filing for Chapter 11 would not affect my travel plans, but at a time when airlines like Aloha, ATA, Skybus and the rest collapsed, and oil climbed to almost $150, I did get a bit worried. In the end the worst thing that happened was that a couple of months in advance, Frontier cancelled our 11.30am MDW flight and re-booked us on the 2pm flight, a non-issue really, as in the end the little extra sleep that morning was very much needed.
Even though our flight to ORD was on August 23rd, my travelling started on the 22nd when I got off at work, packed and took the train from Bristol to London to spend the night at my girlfriend’s place. Her parents had offered to give us a ride to LHR the following morning, so all we needed to do was load the car and go.
The big day finally arrived; we got up at 7.30 and left the house at 8.45.
The drive to LHR was quick, and we were there at 9.15, with plenty of time to spare until our 11.40am flight to Chicago O’Hare.
They say that Heathrow is the world’s only construction site with its own airport. T4 is a brilliant example of this, T4 is a construction site and not a pretty one either, outside or in.
Inside the terminal it was very chaotic, the departures are was flooded with people and there was very, very little space to move. Despite that, I quickly walked the length of the terminal to see what the Open Skies agreement had brought to LHR.
We then proceeded to zone D to check in for our flight. The truth is that we had used BA’s OLCI the day before and had already selected our seats, seat 64 A and B on the upper deck.
We printed our boarding passes at the self service machine and proceeded to the bag drop desks. There were 3 desks Serving Club World passengers and it took about 30 minutes until we were able to drop our bags off. We proceeded to security, through the fast track area, and even though there were only a few people in front of us, airport security is not a quick affair these days. Still it was nowhere near as bad as the non fast track area, where the queue was enormous.
After security, I dragged my girlfriend straight ahead towards gates 8 and 9 for some plane spotting, with a nice view of runway 27L, T3 and T5.
After that we headed to the Gate 1 Lounge for some breakfast some more plane spotting and some lounging… The lounge still looked nice and clean but the location was rather inconvenient for us, as our flight was departing from the opposite side of the terminal, gate 25.
One of the new Heathrow residents pushing back
The food and drink selection was great, I had a bacon roll, some fruit and some cereal (I skipped my breakfast earlier in the morning) and Jacqui also had some fruit and a cup of coffee. The food was fresh and tasty and the area we were sitting, by the windows overlooking the ramp, was pleasant and quiet.
At around 11 o’clock we decided to make our way to gate 25, with a stop at the viewing area again. This time the SQ A380 was parked across, at T3 and I was able to take a couple of shots of the 3 biggest passenger 4 holers in the world, parked next to each other.
After walking for what seemed a lifetime and going through the T4 pier...
...we got to the gate area where I was able to snap a few shots of our plane while being prepared for the flight.
We were some of the last people to arrive at the gate but we were by no means late. We went in the jetbridge but there was a somewhat long queue so it took about 5 minutes until we got to the door.
We were some of the last people to board the aircraft, through door L1. Our boarding passes were inspected by one of the crew upon boarding and we were told to proceed up the stairs. On the upper deck we were greeted by Paul and Kirsty, and we were shown to our seats.
I have to admit, when BA showed New Generation Club World to the world, soon after SQ had unveiled their new business class, I was very disappointed by the BA offering and thought it was going to fall behind carriers like SQ, EK and VS. I am glad to report that I was wrong in all accounts. The seat was extremely comfortable, quite wide, with the tv screen perfectly placed and sized for viewing during the flight. As with all window seats on the upper deck, there was extra storage space in the “boxes” by the wall, and even more space between the seat and the boxes. As with NCW, NGCW window seats face backwards which I quite like, especially on the upper deck, where a great view of the wings and engines is provided. The forward/backward seat configuration may be a bit awkward when travelling next to a stranger, but it is great when travelling with a friend/partner/family member. This was the case for this trip, which meant that the privacy divider stayed down for the duration of the flight. It was tested though, and reports that its motor is noisy are very true. Thankfully, people on the upper deck didn’t seem to use them during the flight so our mini cabin remained quiet. The little storage drawer seemed too small to fit anything else than a very small laptop or a small pair of shoes. So no chance for my 15” Dell or my size 13 shoes. Instead the laptop was stored in the overhead and my shoes in the gap between the seat and the wall. The reading light is very cleverly positioned but the switch/dimmer is rather hard to reach. I’m sure there must be a more ergonomical place than over the left shoulder.
Soon after taking our seats the cabin crew came around with the pre-takeoff drinks. There was a choice of water, champagne and orange juice. Both Jacqui and I opted for champagne, and even though I did not ask what it was, it tasted great. While waiting for the doors to close we both familiarized ourselves with the seat and its functions, the guide provided was very useful indeed.
Pushback was on time and we were informed from the flight deck that our flight would be smooth and it would take 8.30 hours. During taxing the safety demo was shown on the PVTs and glasses were collected. Heathrow was busy at that time and it provided a good opportunity to take some pictures of the action during the short taxi to 27L.
As soon as the AA 777 started its takeoff roll we taxied to position and soon after it was our turn to power up and go. Takeoff was powerful but smooth and we flew over Windsor before climbing over the clouds heading west.
About 10 minutes after takeoff the seat belt sign was switched off and soon after that, the food and wine menus and the amenity kits were handed out. The amenity kits were great; I really liked the foldout design and the different “compartments”. One compartment contained the toothbrush, toothpaste and earplugs, the second one the socks and sleeping mask and the third contained various creams.
The post-takeoff drink service begun about 20 minutes into the flight and this time around, orange juice was the drink of choice and I must say, those BA peanuts are great; I’ve had the chance to try them a few times when flying Club Europe and I love them. By that time IFE was available and it was a good chance to test the noise cancelling headphones. I started with the “IT crowd” (I pity those of you who have never seen it), while Jacqui opted to try some of the games. The headphones were great, they completely blocked any outside noise and the sound quality was outstanding.
About an hour into the flight, the meal service begun and I decided to have the seared scallops to start and the chicken as the main. Jacqui went for the asparagus and chicken. The table was set and soon there was a salad and the scallops in front of me, accompanied by a glass of Bonterra Cabernet. Both the salad and the scallops tasted delicious and it only took a couple of minutes to make them disappear.
Soon after, the empty plates were collected, the wine glass was filled up again and the main arrived. It didn’t look much, but that was not only a tasty piece of chicken it was way more filling than I had imagined. I opted not to refill the wine glass for the third time and decided to go with a somewhat more refreshing coke. The crew were more than happy to provide me with a couple of cans. It took a lot longer to finish the main, as there was a lot of food in that bowl.
When I finally did, the plates were collected, another coke was offered and then waited for the dessert. I was already quite full and unsure whether I’d be able to eat more, but when the dessert was served my mind changed in an instant. It was a chocolate mousse with raspberry syrup in the middle and there are no words to describe how amazing it tasted. Simply the best dessert I’ve had on a plane. Tea and coffee was offered as soon as the dessert was served, I had some tea and it was served in a nice mug, compared to some strange looking cups other airlines use.
Both the meal and the service so far were incredible but I need to mention the issue that I had with the table. It is only supported on one side and it’s quite thin and tends to bend under the weight of the tray/food/plates/drinks. As a result I had to support its unsupported side, with my knee, during the meal, otherwise everything would slide down. Hopefully BA will rectify this issue and install a more rigid and robust table.
When everything was cleared, water bottles were handed around the cabin and then it was time to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. Jacqui decided to watch a movie while I went on a quest to find the perfect sitting position. I had high expectations about the “Z” position but I was rather disappointed, as the seat didn’t feel like it “dipped” enough at the waist area and the overall result felt more like an angled lie flat seat, accompanied by that sliding down feeling. This was rectified by raising the footrest to its highest point so my legs were a lot higher than the indicated Z position. Overall I found the seat to be extremely comfortable and great for relaxing during a long flight.
Around that time the cabin lights were dimmed and the window shades started coming down until it was quite dark in the cabin. It seemed like the perfect time to try the flat bed and try getting some sleep. As I am 6’3 / 1.90m tall I had picked a seat with “unlimited” legroom, so I could stretch while lying down. Unfortunately after 30 minutes or so I gave up trying to sleep, as I could not get comfortable. This was partly because I always find it difficult going to sleep anyway, but also because the bed is not padded enough and there was a point between the cushion and seatback that felt like it was going through my kidney. Since I like to sleep on my side, I found it more comfortable lying on my right side, as there was open space for my knees to bend, while if I was on my left side, I’d hit the seat wall and wake up Jacqui in the process. I assume that people less than 6’ who like sleeping on their backs will find this bed very comfortable. Both the pillow and duvet were very nice and soft even though the duvet was not big enough for someone like me. I think a little pad on the bed would make it a lot more comfortable.
Since I failed to get some sleep I decided to head back to the upper deck galley and have a chat with Paul and Kirsty. After almost 3 hours of constantly being on the move, it was their chance to relax a bit. First thing I did was to complement them on their service; they were truly the best crew I’ve ever had on a flight. I was surprised to find out that less than 24 hours ago they had just arrived from another long haul trip. If my memory is correct, Paul has been with the company for 13 years and Kristy for 10. I was even more amazed at their commitment and level of service after hearing this. The conversation went on about life as a flight attendant, the perks and sacrifices and so on. An interesting fact was that the both loved working in the 747 but hated the 777. Apparently the humidity levels on the 777s are much lower and the noise much higher which enhances the after effects of a long flight. It was time for me to mention the A380. They didn’t seem too impressed or too happy to work in it. They both mentioned that it would be too big and too many people to serve. It was time for me to do a little PR campaign on behalf of my company and try to change their mind. After mentioning the low noise, higher humidity, nice crew rests, a few interesting facts and technical details and showing a few nice photos from inside the aircraft and the production line, I think I was successful in making them look forward to the new aircraft. It was indeed really good to talk to them but it was also time to let them get some rest.
I decided to go for a walk downstairs and also check club kitchen out. As club kitchen is located just to the left of the staircase (on the way down) it was the first stop. To be honest, there wasn’t much to see, a little fridge with a couple of sandwiches and soft drinks inside and then a couple of baskets with peanuts and chocolate bars. I grabbed a couple of packets of peanuts and then headed towards the back. The plane seemed 100% full, save for the middle seats of the last row of WTP. I didn’t get a chance to see how First looked but World Traveller and Club World were full. There seemed to be a queue for the lavs at the back so I made a 180 turn and headed back to the front and upstairs.
As I got upstairs Paul, who was sitting on the crew seat facing the stairs, informed me that the Cabin Service Director wanted to see me and went to the galley to let her know I was back. My first thought was “uh-oh what have I done?” I followed Paul to the galley where the CSD was waiting for me. She introduced herself and said that she wanted to know about what I do and a few more things about the A380. Wow, my little PR campaign went too well. She also told me that her brother worked at the same company as me, although a different location, so she was indeed looking forward to fly on the A380, when BA gets delivery of them.
About 2 hours out of ORD it was time for the afternoon tea service. The CSD headed downstairs and Kirsty and Paul came around the cabin to set the tables and begin the service. The tray contained a plate with a sandwich and a bowl with a lemon tart, some strawberry jam and some clotted cream. Soon after the trays were handed out, the crew came back with the bread basket, containing warm scones and tea and coffee. The sandwich, even though served still in the plastic wrapping, tasted great, the scones with the cream and jam were, as always, amazing, and the lemon tart was as good as the dessert we had for lunch. And once again I had to support the table with my knee...
Everything was cleared away soon and it was time to sit back and enjoy a movie. Iron Man was the choice but with about an hour and a half remaining, I knew I didn’t have much chance of watching all of it. As we were getting close to our destination, the window shades started coming up and that’s when I decided to abandon the movie, the views over Lake Erie and Lake Michigan were much more interesting.
Over Lake Michigan
About 50 minutes before arrival the crew informed the passengers that they would switch the seatbelt signs on in about 30 minutes and sure enough, 30 minutes later the sign came on, well into our descend. As the tv screens needed to be stowed away, I could not follow the track of our approach, but based on my excellent geography knowledge and outside views, I determined we were going for one of the “27s”. The view of Lake Michigan was quite spectacular, and soon the Chicago skyline came into view, even though there seemed to be a big cloud looming over the city.
The view confirmed my initial thoughts that we were indeed heading for the “27s” and soon the city centre disappeared behind us as we were getting closer and closer to ORD. It seemed like we flew over Lawrence Avenue and into 27L, or as I found later, runway 28, as they have now re-named it as part of the O’Hare modernization plan.
The approach itself was nothing out of the ordinary, a bit of light chop on final and a few hard left and right turns before coming over the shore, during the descend. The landing was smooth and the landing roll was quite long, we vacated runway 28 via runway 32L and then on to taxiway M for the long taxi to Terminal 5. Sitting on the left side of the aircraft meant that I had great views of terminals 2 and 3 even though there only seemed to have regional jets in those terminals. As we approached Terminal 5, a lot of European and a couple of American big jets came into view and soon after we were docked at gate 19.
On 32L turning right on to Mike.
Before starting the approach I had asked the crew if I could visit the flightdeck after landing. They had informed the captain and he was more than willing to let me in for a chat and a few pictures after landing. And so, while all passengers were making their way to the back of the upper deck, I went against the grain and walked to the front. I had never been in a 747-400 cockpit before so it was a great opportunity to compare it to the Airbus cockpits I’m so familiar with. Funnily enough, the Captain and FO wanted to know exactly the same, especially how the A380 compares, and how are the crew rests. As we didn’t want to be the last people in line at immigration, the visit didn’t last too long and we made our way downstairs and out of the aircraft.
The O’Hare international terminal seemed clean and tidy but certainly nothing amazing in terms of design. After walking for a few minutes we were finally in the immigration line. It took about an hour to get to the front and after all the questions, fingerprinting, and some small talk with the officer about the Blue Angels performing over the lake a few weeks ago, we headed to baggage claim. As luck would have it our belt was right behind our immigration booth and our bags were already there. After picking up the bags we headed out in search of the airport transit system to take us to Terminal 3. Finding that was the easy part. The hard part was finding the L station at terminal 3. After wandering around for a few minutes and asking a couple of people we finally figured out where to go. Unfortunately, our adventure was not over yet. What we didn’t know was that part of the L blue line was shut so we wad to take a bus between Cumberland and Montrose. In the end it took about 2 hours to from O’Hare to the hotel, not ideal after an 8 hour flight.
Finding our hotel was a bit of a challenge, as it is located on top of the Chicago Sun Times building, adjacent to the Merchandise Mart. We got off at Clark/Lake and after a short walk we found it. The hotel was really nice and as a Priority Club platinum member we were given a room upgrade, our room was double the size as a regular room, with a view towards the north side and the Hancock Tower.
Overall, it was a great flight, New Generation Club World is certainly one of the best ways to fly. The seat was very comfortable, the food was simply amazing but the best part was the service. Paul and Kirsty were indeed the best crew I've had on a flight, friendly, professional and very efficient.
Part 2: MDW-DEN on F9
Part 3: DEN-SFO on F9
Part 4: SFO-LAX on AA
Part 5: LAX-LHR on BA First.