Operation Oahu: British Airways Club and American Airlines First Class to Hawaii
After the best part of four years as BA Silver (oneworld Sapphire), it was time to return to Gold (Emerald) in anticipation of a much busier travel year for 2017. There’s only one way to do this relatively quickly and inexpensively - the famous HNL tier point run! After finding the routing and fare on the excellent ITA Matrix, this trip was booked around 3 months prior to travel on AA’s website, which has the advantage of charging ex-EU bookings in GBP (thus avoid any forex fees on credit cards), together with no credit card payment fee. The positioning flights to and from Dublin were booked with Avios.LHR-DUB
Departure day didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts as my taxi was 20 minutes late arriving having evidently forgotten completely about my booking - my first and last time using this new company. Thankfully I had left ample time before my positioning flight to DUB, and still arrived at LHR T5 with a good couple of hours to spare. I’m increasingly using mobile boarding passes through apps these days when travelling with hand baggage only as I was on this trip, but for some reason my notes inform me that I used one of the self service check-in machines in Zone H (Club check-in) to print a paper boarding pass, having received a friendly welcome from the lady guarding the entrance.
After a quick stop at Travelex to collect some pre-ordered dollars it was on to Fast Track North, as South looked pretty busy. This is consistently the better of the two Fast Track departure options at T5, although I’m looking forward to the opening of The First Wing next month in Zone J, which will provide First and Gold passengers a direct route from check-in to the Galleries First lounge (and onwards to the Concorde Room through the main lounge lobby). This should also have the advantage of relieving pressure on the two existing FT options for Club and Silver passengers. A typically officious security officer tried to make me decant my liquids into one of Heathrow’s plastic bags, despite my own being completely compliant and having been used on countless previous occasions through the same airport. Thankfully another officer nearby heard my response and let me continue on.
I dropped briefly into Galleries Club North for no reason other than I hadn't been in the lounge for a few months and wanted to see if anything had changed. Rather predictably it hadn’t (and was still an odd shape and typically crowded), so I quickly decanted to its Southern sister. I headed straight away to the grandly titled but always disappointing Chef’s Theatre for a spot of lunch - the chicken, root vegetable and barley casserole with rice was adequate in the way a Waitrose microwaveable meal is. I like to sit at one of the small tables for two to the left of the buffet area before moving to an armchair to relax. In BA’s ever-increasing desire to eek out every ounce of revenue from their space (and passengers), for many months space in all of their T5 lounges was occupied by Samsung promotional stands - with the main one in Galleries Club South occupying the space where the individual dining tables normally are, meaning I sat at one of the less than comfortable communal white tables. Thankfully by the time of my return visit the next day, the stand had disappeared as presumably the contract had ended - not before time.
I whiled away the last hour before my flight in the quieter area of the lounge near the Cinema, with a latte and my book (an always excellent Poirot). The magazine selection in the Club lounges is notably poor, with no copies of The Economist to be seen.
Boarding at Gate A9 was an efficient affair with Club Europe and Gold passengers called first. I was second down the airbridge, and after a short wait at the door for a visually impaired passenger to be escorted down to their seat and the escort to come back up the aisle, was welcomed onboard 16 year old G-EUOC, my third time on this particular A319. My jacket was hung as I settled into 2A in a four-row CE cabin, that ended up having 9 out of 16 seats occupied and an off-duty member of flight crew in the last row. I’m pretty sure the windows seats in rows aft of the first offer less legroom than the aisle seats, as legroom felt tighter than the advertised 30”. My preference is usually for window seats in Club, but when in Y I’ll normally opt for an aisle seat to avoid feeling trapped by anybody in the middle seat. I used the hot towel to clean the rather smeary window just as the captain announced a long 20 minute taxi time and the usual one hour flight time across the Irish Sea.
The curtain behind Row 4 was closed shortly after takeoff from 27L and the attentive crew jumped into action, distributing small trays with the familiar Club Europe afternoon tea service as we were treated to a beautiful sunset above the clouds.
The crew addressed me by name which is always a nice touch on these short flights, and offered warm scones from the basket along with several drinks top-ups. The afternoon tea product is much maligned, but I find it quite acceptable - the sandwiches were fresh and nicely flavoured, and the pistachio madeira cake (which I saved for dinner at the hotel that evening) was moist.
I closed my window shade to avoid blinding the passenger across the aisle just as we started descent from our 32,000ft cruise. As there was nobody behind me I was able to try out the full extent of the recline on these latest Club Europe seats - surprisingly good for a standard shorthaul product, although I try and avoid reclining on short flights if there are passengers behind.
As is the norm at DUB, the gate didn’t have an airbridge and so we descended via stairs (both 1L and 2L were used) before walking the short distance to the terminal building across the apron. There was a short queue at immigration, and then out to find the poorly signed shuttle bus to the Radisson Blu Dublin Airport. I spent a good few minutes walking around the short stay car park at the front of the terminal building before realising I needed to walk back to the bus lanes, all in an area that looked distinctly uncared for that clearly hadn’t seen a paint brush since the last century. Thankfully my sojourn to the car park hadn’t made me miss a shuttle bus, as one rolled up within a couple of minutes of my arrival.Radisson Blu Dublin Airport
With the DUB-LHR sector departing at 08:45, a night at the airport was a must. I opted for the reasonably priced Radisson as it was the closest chain hotel to the airport - there is a Hilton, but it’s a little farther out and every second counts when you’re waking up early. The shuttle driver was pretty informal but I was at the hotel in 5 minutes. First impressions weren't the most positive, as the welcome was less than warm but check-in was nevertheless efficient and I was soon on my way up to the 4th floor where my standard room awaited.
Described as featuring ‘stylish, modern decor’ on the website, it was clear that my room hadn’t quite got the message and had yet to be refurbished as although spacious and clean, it was very dated. The furniture in particular was rather odd, including a random desk with no chair and the two armchairs by the table disgustingly stained. Other annoyances included an empty minibar - defeating the point of convenience, no safe or ironing board, no power sockets near the bed, a stained towel in the bathroom, slightly smeary windows and a lack of green teabags. The room in general was just a little run down - the bathroom featured old fixture marks in the tiles for instance.
However, it wasn’t all bad as the free wifi was a fairly fast 22mbps, there was a nice large space for suitcases (something which so many hotels don’t provide these days), the TV had HD channels with no fussy menus (what a concept!) and the bed did the job of providing an adequate night’s sleep, despite a few noises being audible from the corridor and water pipes.
The bathroom featured rather boring thisworks amenities and was pretty stark, with a distinctly odd placement of the toilet facing the wall with little legroom. The basin tap was pretty fierce which caught me out on the first use.
After calling several times for room service and getting no response, I resorted to walking down to reception to order. The lady at the desk was apologetic and gave me some complimentary bottles of water instead of adding them to the room service order, which was welcomed. My requested ironing board and slippers arrived promptly in the room just ahead of my light dinner of a salmon salad, which was perfectly adequate but otherwise unremarkable.
Check-out the next morning was quick and efficient, and once again I’d unintentionally timed the shuttle well as it left just a minute or two after check-out. This time I shared the ride with three other guests, and we made a quick stop at T2 before proceeding to the next door T1 from where BA flights depart.DUB-LHR
I wanted to use a desk this morning to check my AA ticket was in order, particularly as I hadn’t been able to check-in online for the flight to Newark later that day. As I suspected, when the agent at one of two empty CE desks printed off my boarding passes, I saw that I had been selected for secondary screening for that flight. The agent commented that I ‘had a long day ahead of me’ as she handed me four boarding passes all the way through to HNL. I noted happily that I was, unsurprisingly, sequence number one to check-in for both the EWR-PHX and PHX-HNL sectors both of which were the following day. Fast Track security was quick and efficient, and even had friendly security officers manning it, perhaps still merry from New Year celebrations.
Since my last visit to the airport-operated DAA Executive lounge in 2015, the security area had encroached somewhat on the stairway entrance. Once inside, I was welcomed at the desk and opted to use the left hand side of the lounge, which seems to be consistently quieter (and is more spacious) than the right. The lounge has had a light touch refurb recently, with new and re-covered seating and flooring, with the effect of making the space seem brighter and more welcoming although there are sadly no more power sockets than there were previously. As third party lounges go, this one is not bad at all, and I enjoyed a light pre-breakfast of a granola pot and pastry, with some juice and coffee. The breakfast selection was attractively laid out and featured fresh smoothies amongst other welcome surprises.
Boarding was already in progress as I approached Gate 204. With just a short queue at Priority Boarding and General Boarding not yet having started, I was onboard G-EUOF (an A319 delivered new to BA in 2001) in no time at all and settling into the fourth row of a seven-row CE cabin this morning. 4F seemed to have more legroom than 2A on the outbound. My jacket was hung and hot towels were passed around as a flight time of 50 minutes and cruising altitude of 29,000ft was announced by the flight crew.
After a prompt pushback and short takeoff roll the cabin crew were quick to commence service on this very short flight. Breakfast today was a choice of traditional English or continental option, and as usual I opted for the vegetarian hot option (I don’t eat certain processed meats) which is on request only. This morning the vegetarian dish was a pepper omelette with mushrooms, tomato and potatoes, all drowning in a sea of greasy water. Whilst visually unappealing, these CE breakfasts are without fail unhealthily satisfying. Warm pastries and breads were offered from the basket, but as I had just eaten in the lounge I passed on these and instead concluded the meal with the fresh but slightly mean-looking fruit plate. The single grape that used to grace these fruit plates appeared to have been enhanced away. Further breads and pastries were offered along with drinks as the flight progressed, and I popped my headphones in as the young children the row ahead of me increased in volume presumably at the prospect of another croissant.
A landing on 27L afforded the usual great views of London on approach, and we arrived at the Southern end of T5A into Gate A23, one of the few gates equipped to handle Republic of Ireland arrivals at T5. A lot of passengers on this flight were transferring as almost the whole CE cabin ended up getting onward BPs checked at the gate in order to enter the international arrivals area. As is often the case at T5, the queue for connections was lengthy but after a little navigation between barriers I found the Fast Track to be thankfully empty. As my BP was scanned the agent reminded me that my flight to EWR would be departing from C Gates and that there was no lounge in that satellite. LHR-EWR
Through security in an acceptable but not exactly record beating 7 minutes, I popped along to Galleries Club South for a brief visit before deciding to decant to the Galleries Club lounge in T5B, which was as expected much quieter than the T5A lounges.
This lounge, being slightly newer and less trafficked than the lounge in the main building hasn't yet had new flooring fitted, but does benefit from a smattering of the new-style furniture as well as a dubious collection of items from the old LGW lounges. I whiled away the next few hours reading my book and the day’s Times, occasionally glancing down to the gates, at one time observing a rare perfectly executed boarding procedure for a flight to Shanghai from Gate B45. One thing I do like about the recent partial refurbs of the T5 lounges is the inclusion of tables with power and USB sockets, a much needed improvement in a world much changed from the mid-2000s when these lounges were being designed. Sadly the same cannot be said for the washrooms which are falling apart across T5, in stark contrast to the non-lounge toilets which are still in pretty good condition after 9 years of much heavier use.
Instead of waiting for a transit train I opted to use the walkway to T5C, where there was a short wait for boarding to start at Gate C61.
After pre-boarding, Priority Boarding commenced with First, Club World and Golds all being called together, although I’m not sure the line was enforced to weed out Silver/Bronze passengers. I didn’t hang around to find out as I already knew I would have to go through the secondary search before boarding. Sure enough, I was led downstairs from the desk by a G4S agent for a rather perfunctory check of my laptop bag, case and a brief pat-down.
The aircraft stand for Gate C61 is one of the furthest from the satellite building, and so a rather long walk later I was boarding G-ZBKM, a 787-9 delivered last year, through the single airbridge to 2L. I had selected 7K for this flight, the last row in the mini J cabin behind F. As a rear facing window seat, 7K has direct aisle access (unusually so for window seats in Club World), as the seat faces the bulkhead to the galley at Doors 2. I like the subtly updated design of the CW cabin that BA have used on their 787s and A380s - the darker colours are more practical and add a more refined air than the 747/777 cabins, although there’s no hiding the fact that the majority of seats do not have direct aisle access or much storage, and the cabins are still pretty tightly packed. Let’s hope the rumoured new seat for the A350 makes some improvements in these areas.
Headphones, a pillow and blanket were on my seat when I arrived, and shortly after I had settled in my jacket was taken and PDBs of champagne, water or orange juice were offered. Naturally, I opted for champagne (which I believe was the inoffensive but unremarkable Castelnau). Our flight crew announced a flight time of 7h10, cruising at 38,000ft. This announcement was swiftly followed by the cabin crew passing through with newspapers and menus.
Pushback came ten minutes late as a few bags had to be offloaded. A change in wind direction since landing from DUB that morning meant 09R was this afternoon’s takeoff runway for us to power almost silently into the sky.
Once airborne, landing cards were distributed along with amenity kits - the usual rather basic CW offering, featuring Elemis products to match the onboard washrooms and worldwide lounges.
Hot towels swiftly followed, once again coming in handy to clean the window. I was addressed by name as orders were taken for a late lunch - this is usually the sign of a good crew, and today was no exception. Lunch commenced with a bar service, which I took as my cue to slip my shoes off, change into the amenity kit socks and fire up the IFE to watch the latest Jack Reacher film.
It took me a good while to work out where the split screen mode was to see the map and film side by side, as unlike in First on the Rockwell Collins-equipped aircraft there is no button on the screen. Instead, on these Thales-equipped aircraft, there is a small airplane icon on one of the buttons on the handset; pressing this will reveal the split screen mode which I find useful to dive in and out of as the flight progresses. I found the Thales system to be pretty laggy at times, but the content choice was reasonable (except for the limited music selection), as was the picture and sound quality. One slight annoyance was that the progress timer didn’t count down to show how much of the film was left, only showing how much of the film had elapsed. A back button on the handset would also be very useful to save having to interact with the laggy touchscreen.
As the meal service commenced we began chasing the sunset across the Atlantic, a truly beautiful sight to experience, made all the more wonderful by the cracking view of one of the aircraft’s Rolls-Royce engines and wings without so much as needing to turn my head.
A consequence of having the table in use for lunch was that the lack of seat storage became magnified - aside from the low level drawer, inaccessible if the table is deployed, there is no storage whatsoever, leading to the need to balance items such as my phone on the armrest.
To start I opted for the wild mushroom, quail egg and artichoke salad, which was very nice indeed, and one of the best starters I’ve experienced in a business class cabin - a good combination of flavours and nicely presented with it. The starter was presented on the fairly new CW china, on a tray alongside the fairly ordinary but fresh and crisp side salad, with warm bread offered from the basket. I do find it odd that BA insist on placing chocolates on the tray when they could so easily be handed out with the hot drinks service at the end of the meal - it might be irrational, but I don’t like sitting through the whole meal service looking at the chocolates! The small paper sachet of salt and pepper is also distinctly un-premium.
The roasted breast of corn-fed chicken, hand delivered from the galley, was above average for a CW main course, despite its dubious presentation and unimaginative ingredient combinations. Ignoring the slightly hard and not very well roasted potatoes, the rest of the dish was edible and the chicken itself was nicely moist. As further bread was offered, I fashioned a bread plate from the base plate of the main course. I was drinking the Chardonnay with this meal which was… nice. You’ll have to forgive the lack of description as I’m very far from being a wine buff.
Desserts were delivered via trolley as with the starter. The salted caramel slice was divine. I rounded off this late lunch with a peppermint tea, which was brought by the cabin crew along with a little dish for the teabag - a great practical touch and something I haven’t experienced before. Bottles of water were handed out before the cabin lights were dimmed and the galley curtains (strangely on my side of the cabin only) finally closed.
After my film concluded I went for a little wander down the aircraft through the main CW cabin to the World Traveller Plus cabin, but found my route into World Traveller blocked by the trolley so made a hasty retreat back to my seat, stopping at Club Kitchen along the way. The selection was fairly limited although nicely presented, and comprised chocolates, biscuits, nuts and crisps along with a small selection of drinks, including some fresh (as opposed to from concentrate) orange juice which I thought was only for First. I recalled that the menu had stated ‘a selection of whole fresh fruit’ was available, so asked in the galley only to be rather gruffly told that unless there was any in the Club Kitchen (or ‘larder’ according to the crew) they didn’t have any loaded. I returned to my seat and started watching the latest Jason Bourne movie.
When the CSD came around offering drinks, I asked again about the fruit and was kindly brought a (rather large) selection of cut fruit from First (albeit on CW service-ware) which went some way to undo the sin of the salted caramel slice earlier.
The washrooms on BA’s 787-9s are pretty unremarkable, and I think they have missed a trick by not opting for a window. One of the washrooms had a rogue Aromatherapy Associates hand wash bottle in it, which seemed to have made a bid for freedom from the First cabin and got cosy with the more usual Club World Elemis products.
The mood lighting was switched to sleep mode around 2.5 hours out of Newark, something I’ve never understood on day flights arriving before night time even by UK body clocks. With Jason Bourne having finished terrorising London some time ago, I switched to a few episodes of Family Guy as afternoon tea was served with 70 minutes of the flight to run. Would it kill BA to unwrap the sandwiches and plate them properly? Despite the poor presentation, the sandwiches were fresh and the Dundee wedge and chocolate Opéra cake pleasant. Warm scones were offered from the basket.
We landed around 10 minutes early, the captain apologising on the taxi in to stand at Terminal B for some turbulence earlier in the flight. There was a reasonable queue at immigration, principally due to very few officers being on duty despite a flight from China having arrived just ahead of us. This did, however, mean that there was a huge queue for customs, with a lot of students being escorted to the side to have their bag searched. When I eventually got to the front of the queue a good 10-15 minutes later, the officer waved me through after collecting my landing card and I was out to the train for the couple of stops to the pickup point for the shuttle bus to the Hilton.