The British Airways A350 Club Suite Experience
The summer of 2019 might now feel like a distant (and rather fond) memory, but it was July of last year that British Airways took delivery of the first of 18 of their long-awaited new flagship aircraft; the Airbus A350-1000. Introduced primarily to replace the Boeing 747 Queen of the Skies on selected longhaul routes, over the space of several summer months BA operated their new A350 fleet to Madrid for crew familiarisation and training, with flights scheduled as regular commercial services.
This report details a brief one-night excursion to Spain’s capital city in August 2019, the sole purpose being to experience BA’s newest aircraft and their much-anticipated new Club World seat – the all-aisle access Club Suite – on both sectors. I’ll also include here a brief review of my home for the night, the Crowne Plaza Madrid Airport.LHR-MAD
As is often the case when departing from one of the T5 satellites (and not having access to the Concorde Room), after lunch I chose to spend the bulk of the wait before this afternoon’s flight in the Galleries Club lounge in T5B – this is usually a much quieter retreat than the Galleries First lounge in T5A, and today offered the added bonus of a fairly clear view across the taxiway of my ride to Madrid, the aptly-registered G-XWBA. This is BA’s first A350-1000, and at the time of travelling was the only A350 in the fleet until joined by G-XWBB the following month.
Gate C56 in T5C offered a cracking close-up view of today’s aircraft – note the UK flag livery on the inside winglets, together with a glimpse of the Negus-liveried 747 in the distance at T5B.
Despite C56 being equipped with three airbridges (designed for A380 use), only one airbridge was connected to the aircraft today at Door 2L. This didn’t stop the gate node information display screen signposting passengers in Rows 1-11 (the forward cabin) to use the unconnected forward airbridge, which caused a small amount of confusion for some passengers ahead of me.
Although BA no longer check boarding passes at the aircraft door on narrowbody aircraft, widebodies are still blessed with this practice (presumably due to multiple entry doors and aisles) and so I was welcomed at the door by name and directed to the left into the A350’s forward cabin.
As I headed to Seat 3A, my initial impression of the cabin was one of understated sophistication – the cabin felt distinctly British Airways, but with a modern, fresh and exciting edge. In a smart design feature, each of the 56 Club Suites included the seat number alongside the British Airways Speedmarque on the exterior of the seat.
It was immediately clear that today’s cabin and flight crew were very proud of the new aircraft; personal seat-side welcomes from the cabin crew were made (normally a Qatar Airways staple but rarely a BA feature outside of First cabins), along with tours of the Club Suite and a mention of the aircraft’s special status in multiple flight and cabin crew announcements.
BA are phasing out safety videos on their narrowbody fleet in favour of a shorter manual safety demonstration – this is mainly due to newer narrowbody aircraft being delivered without overhead screens, but also better accommodates shorter taxiways from the gate to the active runway. Safety videos continue to be a feature on widebody aircraft, all of which are equipped with personal video screens at every seat in every cabin. Despite this, for unconfirmed reasons but potentially training-related ones, today’s safety demonstration was a manual one.
As we pushed back from the gate, we rolled past the most elegant of BA’s aircraft; the BOAC-liveried 747, parked at T5B.
Each Club Suite is equipped with a shoulder harness in addition to the regular lap seatbelt; this additional harness must be worn during taxi, takeoff and landing, but not inflight when the seatbelt sign is on.
Unlike in the same seat on Qatar Airways, British Airways do not allow any item to be placed on the seat’s side ledge (outside of a compartment) during taxi, takeoff and landing, although a handbag or similar can be placed all the way under the footrest.
BA’s initial batch of A350s are being delivered in a 3-class configuration, featuring 56 Club World seats (Club Suites) in a 1-2-1 layout spread across two cabins of eleven and three rows, 56 World Traveller Plus seats in a 2-4-2 layout in a single cabin of seven rows, and 219 World Traveller seats in a 3-3-3 layout spread across two cabins of six and twenty rows. At just six seats less but with far greater fuel efficiency, this configuration most closely resembles the Mid-J-configured 747, albeit without a First cabin (on the initial A350s, at least).
Originally introduced 20 years ago, and last majorly updated 14 years ago, BA have rightly long been maligned for their ageing Club World seat. Lacking storage, direct aisle access and privacy in the majority of seats, this seat has not been competitive for many years. And so, years in the making, BA took the opportunity of the introduction of the A350 to their fleet to debut the replacement hard product for their longhaul business class cabins – the Club Suite. Shunning a bespoke design for the first time in 20 years, BA have opted for a modified version of the excellent and now widely used Collins Aerospace Super Diamond product as the base for the Club Suite.
Settling into my seat, I found an adjustable and dimmable reading light to my left (including satisfying clunk sound when rotated), adjacent to an enclosed panel housing a mirror and top-loading literature pocket. For unknown reasons, there were no High Life or Business Life magazines loaded onboard, although the top of the unit was endowed with a traditional amount of BA-sponsored dust.
Additional reading lights are available overhead, one angled over the table, and one over the side ledge. Disappointingly, BA have chosen not to include personal air vents, either in the overhead panel or within the seat.
The ample side ledge is home to two storage compartments, the larger of which includes a touchscreen wired remote control for the IFE, together with power and two USB sockets – these sockets were not enabled whilst the aircraft was on the ground, which was somewhat inconvenient. The larger compartment features a gap between the lid and the base of the ledge, allowing devices to be charged whilst still being used by the passenger with the lid of the compartment closed – this is very smart.
Below these compartments, a smart built-in touchscreen panel allows convenient seat adjustments, alongside three more traditional adjustment buttons. I often find these sorts of screens are slow to turn themselves off between use, but this screen was response and quick to dim, minimising light pollution in dark cabins. This is another benefit of having the wired remote control for the IFE located within a compartment rather than seat-side.
Footrests in these seat types are traditionally fairly limited in size, and the Club Suite is no exception to this, without being amongst the worst of offenders. Even bulkhead seats suffer the same fate, as I would experience on the return sector and shown in the second image below.
Next to the footrest, a secondary literature pocket houses the safety card, with a further open storage compartment being the perfect place to store a bottle of water.
The aisle-side armrest is lowerable to allow additional width when in bed mode and easy egress from the seat with the table deployed. This armrest does not feature an internal storage compartment as it does on the same seat on Qatar Airways.
I popped the seat into fully flat bed mode – there was ample space and plenty of privacy, with easy access to the seat’s in-built storage compartments – all in stark contrast to BA’s existing Club World seat.
The large IFE screen offers touch controls, although given its distance from the seat, I found it more convenient to use the remote control. In a neat feature, on boarding the screens all stated Club Europe alongside the seat number; I had expected this to say Club World given the aircraft’s intended market but was impressed at this attention to detail. Additionally, the IFE was programmed with Spanish as its alternative language, Madrid obviously being one of the destinations loaded into the system. Many of the safety notices dotted around the cabin were also in Spanish, reflecting BA’s Madrid-based parent company IAG.
The A350 fleet features the same system as that on fully refurbished 747 aircraft; the excellent Panasonic eX3. On the A350, this allows for one of my favourite setups; the moving map to be displayed on the remote control screen, with other content playing on the main screen. Sadly, BA opted not to install an exterior camera system to their A350s – whilst clearly not an essential feature for passenger comfort, I do enjoy having this feature enabled for takeoff and landing where fitted.
Wifi was enabled on this flight, although with a measly 150MB of data chargeable at close to GBP18, I chose to gaze out of the A350’s expansive windows instead. BA did not choose Airbus’s slick option of electronic window blinds for their A350 fleet, instead opting for traditional plastic manual pull-down affairs.
Adjacent to the IFE screen within the seat shell, a coat hook can be found, whilst below the screen, a decently sized table is stored. This is deployed along a rather ungainly runner fixed to the side of the seat and can be doubled in size once fully deployed by folding over the second leaf. Once the table is pushed back towards the screen into its second fixed position, it can’t be folded away unless it’s pulled back towards the passenger; this is somewhat annoying initially, although in time will become a familiar routine. Naturally, the table was somewhat dirty despite this being amongst the first of the aircraft’s passenger flights.
The Club Suite’s standout feature, at least on paper, is the door. This is unlocked by the crew after takeoff (and is locked open again before landing), although an announcement was made shortly after takeoff requesting doors remained open during the meal service to aid cabin crew service. Sadly, given the door’s limited height (matched to the surrounds of the seat and with a decent gap to the floor), it offers limited additional privacy over the already perfectly adequate seat shell. With the door closed, the amount of space offered by each seat is less than that afforded by QR’s Qsuite, although not dramatically so. Indeed, in comparison to the same Super Diamond seat on QR, BA’s version feels much more private, with a higher seat shell.
The door is somewhat flimsy, and I fear that over time through passenger use and abuse, many will become inoperable and require regular maintenance. For instance, on my return flight, the door somehow locked itself in the open position, with the cabin crew having to show me how to unlock it from the outside of the seat (a setting normally reserved for crew use only).
Centre seats have a fairly substantial moveable divider between each pair.
At each seat, there were of course limited amenities given the duration of this flight; longhaul-style unbranded headphones were provided in one of the side ledge storage compartments (although I used my own pair of Bose headphones), with a White Company pillow on the seat.
As we climbed through the clouds, I took a moment to study the seat’s materials in a little more detail. The walnut-effect trim to the side ledge, dark vinyl to the ledge top and seat shell, and the understated navy blue fabric to the seat itself are all visually appealing, although the silver trim to the storage compartments looks a little cheap, with visible signs of wear and tear on an aircraft barely two weeks into its British Airways career at the time of flying. The flock-effect covering of the inside of the seat shell and the suite door is really not to my personal taste, although blends well with the overall design aesthetic of the seat. Whether a build quality issue or by design, the seat itself shook audibly during taxi, and on occasion as cabin crew or passengers passed in the adjacent aisle; this will be less than ideal during a night flight.
As we levelled off, cabin service commenced with a hot towel and the offer of a menu. Presumably due to the narrow aisles in the Club cabin on the A350 (and trolleys not featuring as part of the Club World service), dinner service on this flight was entirely hand-run from the galley. Although a pre-dinner bar service is usually offered on Band 3 (and Band 4) Club Europe sectors, cabin crew can choose to skip this on busy flights, instead offering drinks alongside the meal; with today’s flight virtually full in the forward Club cabin, the bar service was skipped today.
The British roast chicken, runner beans, garden peas, potato risotto and thyme jus was excellent, accompanied by a quarter-bottle of the Sauvignon Blanc. Given the A350’s large table, I could even excuse the lack of a bread plate for my bread roll, which incidentally was pre-selected and pre-placed (in a distinctly non-premium manner on top of the dessert pot) rather than being offered from the basket as is the norm in Club Europe.
After dinner, I headed aft to the Doors 2 galley where the Club Kitchen is situated; on longhaul flights, a selection of drinks and snacks is available here for Club World passengers to help themselves to. The product offering in the Club Kitchen has taken a cut virtually year-on-year since its introduction, so I was pleased to see a healthy-sized space for a hopefully equally healthy-sized selection.
The cabin crew on this flight were an unusual mix of Mixed Fleet and Worldwide crew; I had a brief chat with a member of the A350 Integration Team, who explained a few of the aircraft’s features and noted that due to the small size of the Doors 1 galley, Door 1L would not normally be used for boarding or disembarkation.
Visiting Club Kitchen also offered a brief glimpse into the aft Club World cabin; at just three rows, enhanced privacy can be obtained here, although I would be concerned about traffic to and from the washrooms, potentially not getting my first choice of meal, as well as noise from the World Traveller Plus cabin behind.
Talking of World Traveller Plus, I popped into this cabin for a brief look, taking advantage of the fact that on this flight, the cabin was not being occupied by anyone beyond a handful of cabin crew in the front row – one of whom didn’t see me enter the cabin initially and came back to ask what I was doing, presuming I was an interloper from the World Traveller cabin.
The 38” of legroom felt more than adequate thanks to the slim design of the seats. Each seat offers a manual foot rest, coat hook and a handy water bottle holder situated between each pair of seats. An open storage compartment is available below the decently sized IFE touchscreen, above a literature pocket upholstered in the same smart fabric as the seat. A shared drinks console is available at the end of the centre armrest, with an IFE remote control and two manual seat adjustment buttons (one for recline and one for the leg rest) located directly below. Power and USB sockets are available at the base of the centre console.
Overall, the World Traveller Plus cabin felt airy and spacious, although with every seat occupied, I’m not sure it would feel the same way.
Whilst WTP passengers have to venture aft to one of the six World Traveller washrooms, Club World passengers have three dedicated for their use – one in the forward galley on the port side, and two in the centre of the Doors 2 galley. None of them are endowed with windows, but all have the usual White Company hand wash and hand balm.
Parking at T4S, airbridges were brought to both Doors 1L and 2L, although with 2L opening first this is where I exited my first BA A350 flight. The cabin crew held back rear cabins, allowing the forward cabin to disembark first.
Despite the usual lengthy transit train ride to the main T4 building, there was no queue at immigration, and with hand baggage only I was soon kerbside in the arrivals area fighting my way through a mass of people searching for their hotel shuttle bus. Crowne Plaza Madrid Airport
Madrid Airport is rather odd in that, despite being a major international hub airport, it lacks any ‘proper’ hotel connected to, or within the immediate vicinity of, its main terminal (T4). To this end, faced with a mandatory hotel shuttle bus experience, I chose the closest half-decent IHG offering for my brief overnight stay between flights; the Crowne Plaza.
Hotel shuttle buses are usually a rather stressful experience, and the Crowne Plaza’s was no exception this evening. Scheduled to run every 15-20 minutes during core hours, my wait amongst the crowds of the arrivals area was pushing the top end of this limit. Once I’d secured my space on board the clean but cosy bus, it took around 15 minutes to reach the property, at the side of a main road in an unattractive industrial area on the airport’s boundary.
The CP’s lobby is unassuming at best. Busy with guests checking in and with no priority desk for IHG Elite members (despite this being a published benefit at all IHG properties), it took around ten minutes for formalities to be completed, including reserving a spot on one of the morning shuttle buses to get me back to the airport in good time.
My Suite on the second floor was large and represented a several-category upgrade from my booked Deluxe (standard) room. Entering the suite, a walk-in closet to the left housed two dining chairs of all things, with the bathroom off to the right.
Ahead, the spacious rectangular bedroom featured a king size bed, two deep armchairs and occasional table, together with a desk/minibar adjacent to additional luggage storage. Amusingly, the bedroom also included two further dining chairs, oddly placed adjacent to the bedside tables. There was no view to speak of from the window – from what I could tell it was mainly of another side of the hotel.
The white-painted walls, together with the bright wall lights, ceiling spotlights angled onto the wall, and vinyl faux-wood floor throughout (with no hint at a rug near the bed) lent a stark and clinical atmosphere to the bedroom and was not even remotely luxurious. The overall design was rather cobbled together, a mix of more recent elements (such as the modern ‘artwork’, lighting, flooring and armchairs) combined with dated wooden furniture pieces. Perhaps the most surprising design feature was the shower cubicle protruding like some sort of sleazy spaceship into the bedroom – I was just thankful that I was travelling alone on this occasion.
The bathroom itself was decently sized, with a large jacuzzi bathtub, dual sinks and separate room housing toilet and bidet. Amenities were by Hierbas de Mallorca, an unknown brand to me and one that didn’t make it into my suitcase at the end of the stay. Whilst there was plenty of bath and shower gel, body milk and hair conditioner, in an obvious oversight there was no shampoo; it took me a few attempts to get through to housekeeping on the phone, although the shampoo arrived promptly in the end.
There were a few thoughtful inclusions in the room; pillow spray and chocolates by the bed, slippers and bathrobes in the bathroom (albeit placed in the bathtub…), complimentary water on the minibar tray, and a Nespresso coffee machine. Other elements confused me; a charger for a non-existent phone on the bedside table, only unbranded black tea on the minibar tray, and no room service menu.
Check-out the following morning was a much more efficient affair with no queue, and with the shuttle bus all to myself I left the hotel with a more favourable view than at my arrival. In booking this hotel I had considered staying at the InterContinental in the city centre, a property I’ve experienced and enjoyed a couple of times before. Whilst staying at the IC would undoubtedly have resulted in a more comfortable stay, and whilst the trip from the airport might have been a little quicker in an on-demand taxi despite the longer distance from the airport, this would have been at three times the cost of my CP stay. The Crowne Plaza might not be perfect, but it represents a functional and good value choice for an inter-trip stay. MAD-LHR
With mobile boarding pass in hand and no luggage to check in, I headed straight for Fast Track security on arrival at Terminal 4. I’ve always had good experiences with security here, and this morning was no exception with the dedicated area processing passengers quickly with virtually no queue.
I’ve reviewed Iberia’s spacious light-filled Premium Lounge Velázquez in T4S on several occasions previously, most recently in its refurbished state in 2018 here: https://www.flyertalk.com/forum/iberia-airlines-iberia-plus/1919857-pictorial-lounge-review-mad-iberia-premium-lounge-velazquez.html
. After a bite of breakfast, I headed along to Gate S29 where G-XWBA was waiting for me once again. Almost all gates at T4S are equipped with at least two airbridges, allowing for easy separation at the gate of priority boarding-eligible passengers (despite only one airbridge to Door 2L being used for boarding today).
Once all passengers were settled in their seats with me this time in 1A, there was a short wait before pushback as hold luggage had to be rebalanced to ensure even weight distribution; I assume Madrid’s ground handlers were not very familiar with the A350 at this point, and was glad that the issue had been identified before departure. During the ground delay, the cabin crew (including some familiar faces from the previous day’s flight) took the opportunity of distributing menus to Club Europe passengers, although hot towels weren’t provided until after takeoff.
As with the outbound flight, the crew chose to skip the bar service before lunch and completed the meal service entirely from the galley with no use of trolleys. Service was a little more haphazard than the previous flight, with the majority of the cabin crew seemingly flying on the A350 for only their first or second time. For instance, my meal tray was served initially without the main course as it was still being heated in the galley, and the bread was handed to me in a serviette by (an apologising) cabin crew member rather than it being offered from a basket.
The tray that I did receive was a ‘top-up’ tray, loaded at Heathrow for use on this inbound flight, but featuring the outbound starter, cheese and dessert. Top-up trays are loaded when there are additional last-minute passengers booked to travel, although the crew clearly did not work through the trays to ensure it was these passengers who received the non-menu matching trays. Despite this, I was actually pleased to receive the outbound options again, as the cherry tomato and mozzarella salad starter listed on the menu would not have been to my taste.
My main course of baked risotto, sautéed asparagus and mushrooms in panna sauce was well worth the wait; I’d had this option previously on a flight home from Warsaw the previous month, although on that occasion it had been rather overcooked. This time, it was perfectly baked, allowing the true flavours to make themselves known.
As we approached Runway 27R at Heathrow in rather windy conditions, the aircraft performed what was my first (and presumably its first in-service) go-around; it was quite a powerful climb out of our approach, due to what the captain announced was a wind shear warning. Our second approach, despite being fairly bumpy, ended in a safe landing, although for the A350 things were less plain sailing with a trip being required to the maintenance base for checks; it was rumoured that these checks were a result of the go-around having been performed at high speed with flaps extended. These checks meant that evening’s and following morning’s A350 rotations to Madrid were cancelled, replaced with a far less interesting 777.
Parking at T5C and exiting from Door 2L (with the cabin crew sadly not holding back rear cabins), I reflected on what had been two highly enjoyable flights. Whilst some of the materials BA have chosen to use in the Club Suite do not appear to be entirely durable, and the suite door is something of a gimmick, the product is so far removed from the seat it replaces that these issues pale into relative insignificance.
At the time of writing this report in April 2020, the Club Suite was being fitted to all new longhaul aircraft deliveries, with refurbishments in progress on the majority of the 777 fleet through to the end of 2021. The Club Suite will not be fitted to the 747 fleet (due for retirement by 2024), the small midhaul-configured A321 fleet or the lone A318 plying the LCY-JFK route, although it is expected to be fitted to the existing 787 and A380 fleets, although the latter type may not be long for this world given its operating cost.
The Club Suite represents an exciting new product for British Airways, which coupled with the new Club World service (as I experienced in 2018), places BA firmly back in the game of longhaul business class products.
Thank you for reading, and as usual I look forward to your comments and questions.