Welcome to my second report of 2015 – a trip to the beautiful city by the bay of San Francisco, via Dublin and New York (and an unexpected detour to Los Angeles).
If you would like to view the full report, including reviews and photos from the hotels and of the areas we visited, please visit http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-...ium-experience-inc-first-a380.html
The circuitous routing was a combination of a sale fare ex-DUB, wishing to maximize the amount of tier points earned (without being ridiculous with the number of sectors), and – most importantly – a long-held wish of mine to visit San Francisco.
The full original routing was DUB-LHR-JFK-SFO-JFK-LCY-DUB, with all legs in business class, except the LHR-JFK sector which was upgraded to First with Avios. The JFK-LCY sector utilised BA’s Club World London City product, whilst the transcontinentals were on AA’s relatively new 3-class A321. The actual routing ended up being SFO-LAX-LHR-DUB on the return part of the trip, including a trip on the BA A380. Positioning flights LHR-DUB and DUB-LHR were also booked to complete the trip and enjoy a night in Dublin.
LHR-DUB, British Airways Euro Traveller, A319
It was a relatively early start and a short taxi ride to Heathrow Terminal 5 for our positioning flight to DUB. This and the first sector of the ‘main’ trip back to LHR were booked for the day before the LHR-JFK sector, with a night at the very convenient and comfortable Sofitel to start the trip. As I had booked a hand baggage only fare to get to DUB, the taxi dropped us at the Sofitel’s main entrance so that we could store our luggage for the day. There was no queue at reception, and neither was there at Zone H (Club) check-in where paper boarding passes (I’m a traditionalist in certain respects!) were collected. There was an Easter note on the desk reminding BAEC members that only one guest is permitted per member in the lounges. Security South (non-Fast Track) was a breeze and we were through in under 5 minutes.
The area below the South lounges has, over the past 6 months or so, been turned into the ‘luxury’ shopping area of T5. Some works are still on-going, but the area below the lounges is now almost complete, and looking very smart too with new shops and a premium finish to the ceiling and lighting. The seating that used to be just ahead of the escalator up to the lounges has been removed and replaced with a Fortnum & Mason champagne bar, which is much more befitting of the area!
We didn’t visit the lounge that morning, but did a spot of shopping before heading towards Gate A7 for boarding. The usual Fast Track lane was in place, and we were second down the line once boarding was called.
The presence of passengers caught the senior cabin crew member by surprise at the door, but we were promptly welcomed on board our A319 (G-EUPE, delivered new to BA in 2000). This aircraft, as with most in the shorthaul fleet now, was fitted with the new Pinnacle cabin – 30” pitch throughout both Euro Traveller and Club Europe (4 rows of the latter this morning), with slightly tighter pitch in the last few rows, and slightly more legroom in Row 1 (bulkhead) and Row 10 (exit row).
I had selected seats 10A and 10C in the hope that nobody would select the middle seat, and this proved to be the case. The friendly crew member in ET giving us the over-wing exit briefing noted that we had ‘the best seats in the house’ and made a reference to the lack of legroom in most CE rows with the new cabin.
The seat pitch at the exit row was around 36” I would guess. I’ve travelled in the new cabins a number of times now since their introduction last summer, and I do find the seats much firmer than the convertibles, but no less comfortable. In fact, I find them slightly more comfortable, and certainly overall the cabin ambiance is much improved. That said, a panel by the floor next to 10A had already become loose, despite this aircraft having a cabin only a couple of months old, if that.
We took off from Runway 27L at Heathrow towards the West, and were soon cruising at 28,000ft on this short under-1 hour sector. The crew promptly commenced the cabin service, which in ET consisted of the usual post-09:30 Band 1/2 drinks run and choice of nuts, crisps or biscuits from the snack basket. I had some satisfyingly tasty shortbread biscuits, apple juice and water. CE passengers were served the infamous ‘extended breakfast’ – certainly not worth the £105 per person POUG (proactive online upgrade) being offered through MMB and at OLCI.
On arrival at DUB we had an airbridge and were soon in arrivals, with no queue at immigration. This was my first experience of DUB, and I was not enamoured with the airport at all – a lot of building work was going on in departures, but the rest of the terminal (1) was distinctly dated.
DAA Executive Lounge, DUB
After a brief gasp of fresh air outside arrivals (or as fresh as the smokers and buses would allow us), it was upstairs to check-in and collection of card boarding passes at one of the two Club Europe desks. T1 at DUB has a great old fashioned departure board in the check-in hall, which are increasingly vanishing in favour of smaller screens. There was no queue at either desk, and the very friendly agent pointed out Fast Track security and gave us directions to the lounge.
Fast Track had a separate entrance and boarding pass check, but then merged in the main security area for search. However, there was an agent preventing standard security passengers from using the Fast Track lane when there were Fast Track passengers waiting. Whilst I understand the need to keep queues down, this does somewhat defeat the point, as with a completely separate lane for FT, we wouldn’t have had to wait at all.
The airport-branded (but Swissport-operated) DAA Executive Lounge is located one level up from the main departure floor, to the left after Fast Track. We were warmly welcomed and given an overview of the lounge, and the agent even went so far as to introduce herself by name should we need anything – pretty impressive for a third party lounge (used by many different carriers and passes, plus available for pay-in at around EUR20). The lounge has two sides decorated similarly, both with seating areas and a bar. I believe one of the sides used to be the bmi lounge back in the day. The right hand area is smaller and was more crowded on our visit, and featured a family room. The left hand area featured a business centre (two iMacs, several laptop stations and two wireless printers) and was generally the brighter of the spaces.
I think the lounge must be fairly new, because everything was modern and in reasonable condition – with the notable exception of the toilets (located outside reception in the lobby area), which were distinctly dated and poorly maintained.
Newspaper and magazine selections were minimal (mainly Irish papers and airline-supplied magazines), although wifi speed was reasonable and required no code. The wifi did drop from time to time when the lounge was busier.
Food and beverage offerings were very limited – for lunch, the selection was a choice of two ‘homemade’ soups (different options in the two lounge sides), packaged Irish bread, packaged Jacobs crackers and packaged cheese (‘packaged’ is very much a theme in this lounge!). I enquired as to whether sandwiches were offered, but sadly received a negative response. Champagne was… not on offer. The catering (or lack of) really lets this lounge down, as otherwise the space is bright and airy and far from the worst third party lounge in BA’s network.
DUB-LHR British Airways Club Europe, A319
We boarded our flight back to London at Gate 302, in an area that reminded me of Berlin Tegel’s rounded and yet angular architecture. There was a separate Fast Track lane that was un-policed (as is the norm, although the odd outstation will police the line now and again), with CE/Emerald/Sapphire/Ruby called together ahead of ET.
This flight was operated by G-EUPX, an A319 delivered to BA in 2001 and now with the Pinnacle cabin interior. The aircraft was virtually full, necessitating lots of announcements about hand baggage, a recurring theme these days on BA shorthaul flights. The Club Europe cabin had 3 rows, with all 12 seats occupied. Legroom in Row 1 is much improved over all other rows in CE, and is my row of choice in this cabin on all of the shorthaul Airbus fleet. Prior to pushback, I used the hot towel to clean the greasy window, a standard practice of mine after passing the towel briefly over my hands!
Service on this flight was afternoon tea, consisting of three very fresh sandwiches with a miniscule salad garnish, a tasty packaged madeira cake, and fresh warm plain or lemon and date scones from the basket. The afternoon tea is loathed by many who deem it too small, but I genuinely enjoy it every time. I would perhaps prefer the cutoff for afternoon tea to be 16:00 or 16:30 rather than the current 17:00, particularly on longer Band 3 flights where it can be up to 40 minutes after takeoff that service starts after the drinks run. To accompany afternoon tea on this flight, I had a Baileys and some green tea towards the end of the flight.
The purser on this flight made a lengthy announcement as we were descending just north of Wales, advising passengers who would misconnect at LHR (due to the 40 minute delay) which flights they had been rebooked on, and where to meet oneworld support staff on arrival.
For some reason on this flight, perhaps because it was the final sector for this tired (but still friendly) crew, the final clear-in of glasses was forgotten about in CE – I caught the crew’s attention to clear the glasses from Row 1 at least before we landed.
Once on the ground, we taxied to a gate at the Southern end of T5, and arrived via the Common Travel Area cut-through avoiding immigration.
British Airways Concorde Room, LHR
Approaching First check-in in Zone J, we were escorted to a free desk after a very slight wait, with the escorting agent announcing to the desk agent that we were on the New York flight – a nice touch meaning fewer questions asked at the desk. I do like the F check-in area at T5 with its private seating areas, but in the past year BA have downgraded the nice fresh flower displays to some rather questionable fake shrubs, sadly one of many BA penny-pinching measures of recent times.
Fast Track South was very slow this morning, taking over 10 minutes to get through. HAL (the airport operator) have recently ‘upgraded’ Fast Track South to segregate it from the main search areas, and there are now two dedicated FT search lanes within a little ‘box’. This seems to have reduced the queue space, and with many trays being rejected and stacking up waiting for search, there was nothing at all fast or premium about this experience.
Entering the Concorde Room through the door immediately to the right after security, we headed straight to the Concorde Dining area. A table wasn’t immediately available within the dining area, and although there were high tables between the dining area and the Concorde Bar laid for breakfast, we opted to wait the five minutes or so until a table in the main area became available, as these seats are more comfortable and private.
For breakfast, I ordered smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, accompanied by toast, some freshly baked Danish pastries, yoghurt, fresh orange juice and breakfast tea. There was a time when tea in the CCR was loose leaf, but for a couple of years now (I think since BaxterStorey took over the catering) teabags (albeit very nice teabags) have been the only way to have a cuppa. Service was a little on the slow side, and not exactly polished – unfortunately standard for the CCR.
The main inside lounge space was quite busy, so we opted to relax on the Concorde Terrace until our flight started boarding, which was attended to by a very proactive waitress in stark contrast to the service in the dining area.
Overall, unfortunately the CCR is looking dated these days. The inside of the lounge in particular is poorly laid out, with not enough individual seating. BA are rumoured to be imminently embarking on a refurbishment of all of the T5 lounges, so time will tell what’s in store for BA’s flagship lounge. I just hope the beautiful terrace remains, along with the genuine Concorde chairs in the Board Room. That said, the Concorde Room at T5 remains a very good lounge, and is still one of the best oneworld lounges in the network.
LHR-JFK British Airways First, B747
Boarding this morning was from Gate C52, necessitating a trip on the track transit train to the second of T5’s satellite buildings, opened two years after the rest of the T5 complex in 2010. Much has been made previously of BA’s lack of first class ground service, but with the sheer number of daily departures with a First cabin, it’s hard to see any private transfer service being economical. As it is, BA only escort Premier members, selected VIPs and certain high value Gold Guest List members, and even then these are generally foot escorts rather than by car. HAL operate the Heathrow by Invitation service that any F/J passenger can pay for, which does feature a private car transfer to the aircraft.
Boarding was in progress as we approached the gate, and we joined the short Fast Track queue. BA don’t generally board First passengers separately, instead opting for a combined F/J/Emerald/Sapphire/Ruby lane, which on some flights can be 75% of the aircraft load or more! Thankfully on this occasion the queue was moving swiftly, and our BPs were soon being checked by a friendly G4S security agent and a not-so-friendly BA agent.
Unusually for T5C, this gate had only one airbridge, so all passengers boarded through Door 2L. We were welcomed and escorted to our seats in the nose of this 747 – G-BYGA, delivered to BA in 1998 and the same aircraft I flew to HKG on in 2011 in the same cabin. 2A and 2K are, in my opinion, the best seats in the house – forward enough to be out of line of sight of Row 3 and the centre seats, and with a large spacious area between the two sides of the cabin. As with almost all aircraft in the fleet, this aircraft was fitted with the ‘Prime’ or ‘New First’ cabin, first introduced in 2010, with 10/14 seats occupied for the flight. On the seat was a pillow and cushion, with a blanket and headphones laid on the ottoman.
As soon as I’d taken a seat, one of the two female crew members serving in First offered me a drink (I opted just for water), shortly followed by PJs, a washbag and slippers. BA now offer separate male and female washbags in First, in a much more practical and stylish bag than the previous ‘hard case’ type. Amenities in the male washbag are by The Refinery, whilst the female washbag features Aromatherapy Associates products, matching those in the washrooms in First and the Concorde Room. Newspapers were offered and later stored in front of 4EF alongside the magazines.
Hot towels and menus were offered shortly after takeoff from 27L, and the CSD did the rounds welcoming passengers. These are now combined wine lists and menus, rather than the separate lists offered in the past. Drinks orders were taken, and I enjoyed a glass of the Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, accompanied by some delicious and distinctly non-packaged warmed nuts.
Service throughout this flight was amongst the best I’ve experienced on BA. Both crew members were very attentive, constantly offering extras and top-ups. The lady serving the K side of the aircraft addressed me by name every time. The crew can make or break a flight, and this crew absolutely made it for me this time. When I wrote to BA at the end of the trip, I made sure to thank them and was told their managers would be informed of my comments.
Lunch orders were taken about 45 minutes into the flight, and service commenced about the same time later. I like to think of the table service in First as unpretentious elegance – everything delivered on a silver platter, everything placed with precision.
The amuse bouche was some sort of salmon and wasabi concoction that was pleasant if slightly unmemorable, accompanied by lovely warm herb-infused focaccia from the bread basket.
The cream of asparagus and chervil soup was, as is usually the case with BA First soups, divine – perfect texture, and rich in flavour, enjoyed with some more focaccia.
I was tempted by the langoustines, but ended up jumping to the salad with honey mustard dressing. I’m not a huge fan of salads, but when executed properly as this one was, they are enjoyable and refreshing. The sundried tomatoes in this salad gave it a kick, and the honey mustard dressing complemented the fresh leaves without being overpowering. Am I beginning to sound like Greg or John* yet? *A MasterChef UK reference for those who don’t know!
My main course was the seared fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef with morel mushroom sauce, seasonal vegetables and a herb potato cake. I know what you’re thinking – beef on a plane?! Is he mad?! I don’t have too bad a track record with beef on BA (although beef with BA is a different matter…), but this occasion wasn’t entirely successful. The fillet was certainly on the well done side, but not too tough and retained a smidgen of flavour. Unfortunately the vegetables (the tiny sprig of cauliflower and mange tout in particular) had been totally cremated. The herb potato cake was forgettable. I was offered a choice of mustard and was brought both English and French – one in a First pot, and one in a Club World sachet!
For dessert, the caramelised apple and chocolate terrine was insanely good, even more so accompanied by the Royal Tokaji Company Blue Label 2009 dessert wine (presented correctly first, naturally). Some breakfast tea and chocolates by Lauden completed lunch.
Bottles of Highland Spring water were handed out after the meal service, and some fellow passengers opted to have their beds made up for them with the mattress and duvet.
During the flight, I watched The Equalizer starring Denzel Washington, and some best bits of Top Gear with some nostalgia. The Rockwell Collins IFE system on the 747s is clearly not fit for purpose these days – the large screens in First just accentuate the terrible picture quality, and the cheapy non-branded headphones do nothing for the sound quality either. I do, however, like the split-screen view on the screens in First, which allows the viewing of the map alongside the current programme. Whilst relaxing (rather than sitting up or sleeping), the lack of a leg rest in the latest First cabin is very noticeable, and a clear downgrade over the classic First seat. Unfortunately the cappuccino machine was inoperable on this flight, so I had to make do with an Americano with the film.
Afternoon tea was served around 90 minutes before landing. The sandwiches were slightly dry (in contrast to the consistently good Club Europe sandwiches), but the tea service was rescued by the lovely patisserie selection, accompanied by a jasmine tea.
We landed slightly early into JFK, and in a first for me, docked at a ‘tow-in’ stand, requiring the engines to be shut down just ahead of the final docking position, and subsequently being towed into place. I assume this is due to the angled configuration at this particular stand.
The gate had just one airbridge, and instead of docking at 1L as is standard for arrivals (at least at LHR), 2L was used, which meant the forward Club World cabin disembarked before First. The crew at 2L didn’t hold back the upper deck Club World cabin or any of the other cabins on the main deck for that matter, which meant a bit of a disappointing scrum to exit.
Terminal 7 arrivals is generally a pretty drab experience, so I was surprised to see a oneworld ground support agent on the ramp down to immigration calling out our names and handing us our connecting boarding passes – great service! Immigration took around 10 minutes to complete (pretty good going for JFK), and baggage delivery was prompt.
Overall, this was an excellent experience with British Airways. Sure, elements of the catering have room for improvement, and the cabin isn’t the most spacious first class product out there, but it is a distinctly elevated experience over Club World, and simply a very enjoyable way to travel.[Edited 2015-06-12 14:09:00][Edited 2015-06-12 14:15:32]
[Edited 2015-06-12 14:22:46]