Background: Flying the Russian private “Diamond” airline to Sochi
Alrosa-Avia is a charter airline which is owned by diamond mining company “Alrosa”. The airline in its first name “Mirninskoye Aviapredpriyatie” was founded few month later after Alrosa started mining expensive gems in 1992.
Now it operates a fleet consisting of 13 aircraft and thus can develop regular routes to such popular tourist destinations as Saint-Petersburg, Krasnodar, Sochi, Tomsk, Ekaterinburg and Novosibirsk.
These flights are operated by Boeing 737-800s. But in the early ages, Alrosa faced a problem of transporting miners between home and work: Udachny and Mirny mines. Even until now it is the main function of the airline. As these airports are located literally in the middle of nowhere – the landing conditions there are awful – short runways with old, cracked concrete; essentially what could be described as the “Severe Russian north”. The only plane suitable for that kind of place is the Tupolev Tu-154 – the mighty “Tushka”…
These flights are closed for the mere mortals, but if you want to get on that hop anyway – be ready, the cost for that kind of ticket starts from 30.000 roubles, which is about £380 – and that’s only economy class. However, I was lucky when my flight from Moscow to Sochi was substituted for a Tupolev. The best part? The ticket was just £24.
Airport Experience: Domodedovo International
Domodedovo is one of three major Moscow airports. Modern, clean and following the 90 seconds experience rule. Most international flights depart from here. DME is also the base airport for Alrosa’s fleet. (apart from the 5 non-flying Tupolevs, which are stored at Mirny). Moscow Domodedovo would be where my journey began!
In-Flight: Moscow Domodedovo – Sochi
At 10:00 AM it was announced that the bus will take us from gate to the plane. The boarding was well organised and completed right in time, but it was rather easy as the plane was fulfilled for just one half. The bus has taken us to the faraway stand where the “Tushka” was parked. As bus doors opened, I realized that our plane for today’s flight is going to be the RA-85684 “The Hero of Izhma” – the famous Tupolev which was restored to the flying state after the emergency landing on the abandoned airfield of Izhma, caused by complete blackout during the flight.
The plane is now painted in Alrosa’s fashionable livery and is still flying 7 years after the incident.
All of the aviation enthusiasts immediately start taking pictures of the great trijets exterior. Passengers got a little bit scared by the *klick-klick* sound of many cameras around. But they were about to find out, that this sound will follow them during the whole flight! As I enter the plane I’m met by the warm “Dobro pozhalovat na bort!” (welcome on board) from Elena Vladimirovna Razumova, who was awarded Order of Courage as the head flight attendant of the Izhma flight. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_Courage).
As she knows that the plane is going to be half empty, she offers me to choose any cabin to seat, but I decide to stay with my pre-checked-in place – 23F – as the best view on the wing is in the second cabin.
As I was the first to enter the plane I had some time to take a look on the cockpit and cabin interior. As you can see – one of the best features of old soviet seats is that the one in front of you can be easily folded if no one seats there! So, you can stretch your legs out in front of you; I took full advantage.
The boarding took us about 20 minutes, and after that our plane got towed to the starting position – I got my legs off the row in front and returned to the normal position.
Finally, we are in the sky! And 30 minutes after takeoff the service has started! The food was simply amazing! Everything was packed into the sky blue lunch box – filled with different cold snacks or as we call them in Russia – “zakuskas” (the sides for the vodka).
In addition to the service above, you can have a second cup of any drink of your choice. A slightly odd exchange happened between me and the flight attendant!
FA: – What kind of juice do you want? The options are: apple, orange and tomato.
Me: – Apple juice, please!
FA: – OK. But you know, young man, You can easily drink apple juice at home, with comfort. People mostly choose tomato juice when flying on a plane. But no worries, I’ll give you the one you asked for…
After the meal, I began taking shots of those all important wing views. If you ever have the privilege to experience the Tu-154, the seats with the best views ever are 25A/F. Also, keep in mind, that rows 26/27/28… etc. aren’t suitable for any kind of photography – no windows there, just a plain wall. I seized the opportunity to make a 360 degree inflight cabin tour of the rare Tupolev’s cabin.
The flight to Sochi took us 2 hrs 02 minutes (too short a time on the Tu-154) and we arrived about 20 minutes ahead of the scheduled arrival time.
This guest review was written by Innokenty Grigoriev. If you wish to apply for next month’s guest review, contact one of the team.
American Airlines’ 787 Dreamliner dominates most international routes out of Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD). I was supposed to be flying from Chicago O’Hare to Shanghai Pudong (PVG) with the service of Main Cabin Extra in seat 11A. However, due to adverse weather conditions and my previous flight from Dayton being late by 45 minutes, I missed miss my connection to Shanghai. American then rebooked me on a flight to Tokyo Narita (NRT) and then connecting from there with ANA on flight NH921. Luckily for me, the flight to Tokyo is also on a 787-8 Dreamliner. Although I wasn’t too pleased to find out I was moved to seat 19K (a middle seat in the exit row) which American still considers as Main Cabin Extra; they wouldn’t refund me the difference for the seating. I wasn’t happy about being stuck in the middle seat after $189 for my original window seat.
Once on board, I got to my seat and it wasn’t all that bad, I ended up having 8 feet of space in front of me which offered some consolation for the middle seat! Minutes after we finished boarding, the captain informed us that we would have to wait around 20 minutes for deicing which turned out to be a huge lie as we sat for 90 minutes before we even stated de-icing, owing to a large queue at O’Hare.
After a long 2 hours of waiting at the gate, we finally started taxiing to the runway – which, surprisingly, took a relatively small amount of time.
Around 20 minutes after departure, cabin crew started serving us drinks. American has a very good selection of drinks onboard and I chose Dr Pepper. Soon after the drink service, they began to serve meals, there was chicken with shrimp or beef noodles, I chose the beef noodles, to my surprise it tasted phenomenal, good job American!
Mood lighting then came on after they collected litter. Although the mood lighting created a very relaxing atmosphere, I wasn’t tired so settled in for a movie. In the exit row of seats, you have to pull the tray table and IFE out of the armrest, thus slightly hampering seat width. However, to make up for that, they offered the movie “IT” which has been one of the films on my “must see” list!
The seats on the Dreamliner were fairly comfortable for the 13 and a half hour flight however I would of liked them to be a bit wider. My original plan was to lean on the window to sleep but I found myself having trouble in the middle. I only slept for 2 hours on this long flight which wasn’t fantastic. I did manage to sleep through the distribution of landing cards for immigration in Japan and when I got up to ask the flight attendant about this, she was rude and said she couldn’t help me because she was “busy” for whatever reason. This was disappointing.
A bit later, we got a little snack which consisted of a Turkey Sandwich and some ice cream, the sandwich was great but the ice cream was hard as rock so I didn’t eat that. In the galley, there was a little snack bar with chips, breads, and cookies that anyone could walk up and take, I didn’t take a lot of food but I did hang out there for quite a while, serving as a good place to stretch and walk around on these long trans-pacific journeys.
Soon after, we recieved our final meal service and began our descent, that meal was a ham and cheese filled croissant which was really good, the croissant was soft and the meat was warm along with the cheese. A nice touch. About 20 minutes before landing the flight attendants told my neighbours and I, since we are in the exit row, that we had to put our bags back in the overhead locker and after we did, in what felt like a blink of an eye, we touched down in Tokyo.
Once I got off the plane, there were lots of gate agents helping everyone with connections since our plane was delayed, I had around 25 minutes for my connection which was not enough for me at all but lucky for me an agent helped me rush through security and she took me on a bus to my gate. The bus ride was around 10 minutes and it gave a really good view of the airport but it was night time so I couldn’t snag any good pictures without glare. To conclude the trip, due to the delayed arrival of my flight, I missed my onward connection and wasn’t able to be with my family for Christmas.
In conclusion I have to say this wasn’t my greatest experience in the skies, however not my worst either. The Dreamliner is a fantastic plane to fly on however, I feel that American would have made my trip a lot better if I wasn’t stuck in that middle seat for so long. If you are ever flying to Japan, I would definitely recommend ANA or JAL over a US carrier just because, at least in my experience, Japanese carriers are more enjoyable to fly on.
This guest review is written by Fengning Liu. To apply for our February Guest Review position, go to www.londonspotter.co.uk/guestreview, fill in the form and send us a sample of your work.
On the 11th of December 2017, Air Canada achieved a milestone in their history as Canada’s National Carrier; their first revenue Boeing 737 MAX flight. This is a huge moment for Air Canada as their short to medium haul fleet is in dire need of replacement. Air Canada’s A320 type aircraft have an average age of 23.9 years. Unfortunately, their due date is fast approaching.
The MAX will open up many opportunities for the airline, ranging from sending them overseas to regular fights within Canada and to the USA. It is imperative that the MAX will become the workhorse of the airline and will become the common sight of the airline.
Air Canada has ordered 50 MAX 8 type aircraft and significantly reduced their MAX 9 order to 11. Despite Air Canada’s desire to make the MAX the backbone of their short haul fleet, there is speculation that Air Canada is more interested in Boeing’s MoM and would make more sense economically than the larger MAX. Others say that Air Canada is planning to keep their A321’s for longer than expected and would deem the MAX 9 irrelevant. To further enforce this point, all current A321s are going to be retrofitted in Air Canada’s new interior which we will see in the new MAX.
So, background information over, lets get on to the all important flight experience. Before enjoying the experience of an inaugural flight itself, I must first get to Toronto, then jet off to Calgary for the celebrations, turning around and coming back to Montreal (again on the MAX), then finally return home to Halifax. I knew, this was to be some journey.
Route 1: YHZ-YYZ
Aircraft: Airbus A320-211
Age: 26.8 years old
This is my first leg of my four-leg journey across Canada and back. This morning’s flight is AC608, departing from Halifax at 05:25 and arriving in Toronto at around 06:30. A prime example of the ageing nature of Air Canada’s short haul fleet – this flight is operated by a 26.8-year-old Airbus A320-211 C-FTJO.
Upon arriving at gate 22, I went to see the gate agent if I could get a seat change as I was sitting in 23B which is a middle seat. The kind lady at the desk changed my seat to 17A, an exit row (SCORE!).
Boarding started on time at 04:50. I was Zone 5 so I was one of the last to board. Once at my seat, I settled in. Being that this row was an exit row, the seats didn’t recline, however, what lacks in recline is made up of legroom, a lot of it. I am 5 “ 11 and I had ample legroom, in addition, the middle seat was vacant allowing me to spread out. Frankly, I was very comfortable.
The captain made his announcement with the details of the flight: 2h3min flight time, 2h43mins gate to gate and stated that we should be expecting a smooth flight right into Toronto where it was currently -6 Celsius (brrr).
We pushed back on time at 05:15 and taxied to the deicing pad. De-Icing took around 10 minutes, we then made the short taxi to runway 25 and took off at 05:40.
The “Onboard Café” service started right after the seatbelt sign was turned off, following the drink service. I had opted out of food as I had just eaten back at the airport, for drinks; I had the usual: a coffee and water. This is always my go-to for early morning flights – basically, as much caffeine that I can get.
Flight attendants distributed water, about 10 minutes after the main drink service. This is one aspect that I greatly appreciate from Air Canada, as a frequent flyer, water is a key to surviving these long days. I try to have at least 3 glasses of water a flight, this way, you stay hydrated and alert.
We started descending about 30 minutes prior to landing. The seatbelt signs came on as we neared our final approach onto runway 6R. The landing was smooth and within 10 minutes, we were at gate 26 and disembarked.
Now, the inaugural ceremony!
Route 2: YYZ – YYC
Aircraft: Boeing 737 MAX 8
Age: 3 days old
I had just arrived off of my Halifax flight, the gate of the inaugural was only a couple of minutes walk down the hallway. Upon arriving at the gate, there was a banner saying “ Welcome aboard Air Canada Boeing 737 MAX”. Lying in wait, there was a large table with multiple croissants, water, fruit and muffins.
The MAX was parked at the gate in full view of the lounge area. The livery on the aircraft looks amazing in person, even better than in photos.
It was evident that there was a lot of employees and so called av-geeks around, people were taking pictures and everyone seemed in high spirits given the time of morning (07:00). Boarding started a little late at 08:00. I Was sitting in seat 31E, a middle seat. Upon entering the jet bridge, all passengers were handed a small gift pack that includes a small package of Air Canada sticky notes, an Air Canada rondelle pin and a keychain.
Once aboard, I settled into the middle seat. First impressions of the cabin are really good. It is modern, clean and has that distinctive new plane smell.
One thing that immediately jumped out at me was the lack of legroom; although not terrible, It closely resembles the legroom onboard Air Canada Rouge A319s and A321s, it is definitely a little tight. My knees were up against the seat pocket.
Once everyone boarded, the enthusiastic captain came onto the loudspeaker to introduce the new aircraft and give us flight times. Flight time for today is 3h50 minutes with a relatively smooth ride. Once pushed back, for the second time of the day, we taxied to the de-ice pad where we stayed for 15 minutes.
One thing I’d like to note when sitting in the very back of the plane, it is just as loud as an a320 on takeoff roll, I am told that in front of the engines is where the real difference is. On my return leg, I’m sitting in preferred so I’ll be very close to the engines. Service started with a champagne service for all economy passengers to celebrate the new aircraft! The drink and food service soon followed. Since I was sitting in the rear of the plane, I got served one hour into the flight. I bought a small chicken wrap, it was very tasty.
I then decided to venture off the bathrooms. A320 bathrooms are very generous compared to the rear economy bathrooms on the MAX. Although doable, the bathrooms are super small. You can barely move around in them, I couldn’t imagine it for larger passengers, they wouldn’t be able to fit! Literally!
Besides the point, Boeing did a really good job micro-sizing the bathroom and everything is compact and easy to use.
We started descending into Calgary and landed a little after 11 am. We got to the gate and disembarked. I was taken back to the fact that there was no water cannon salute as when Air Canada first flew their 787, there was one.
Route 3: YYC – YUL
I now embarked on my next journey – with the same MAX I had just disembarked. At the gate, there was a similar setup to the inauguration ceremony in Toronto; a small table with cupcakes and water. Complimentary, of course. The flight was delayed approximately 30mins due to the crew needing to do a safety check of the aircraft as it was new.
I was seated in 15A in the new “preferred section” of the plane. There are 8 rows of preferred behind the business class cabin.
I was relatively restless as the flight prior, I was squished into that dreaded middle seat in the normal economy with limited legroom. And oh boy what a treat this was: The preferred section has legroom compared to business class! At least double the legroom of the normal economy, I could stretch out and for an added bonus, the middle seat was free!
This was great, however, the only drawback is that the window in 15A is aligned ahead of the seat. In order to see out the window, I must lean forward. Besides that, despite my best efforts to make the most of the flight, I fell asleep right after takeoff and didn’t wake up until the meal service started around 1 hour later.
The preferred experience is the perfect balance between Air Canada’s Business class product and Economy product. It is tailored to the passenger that don’t necessarily have the money to spend on a big Business class ticket but still wants to be comfortable and have decent legroom.
The difference between Preferred economy and Economy is night and day. I would highly advise anyone to pay the extra fee to upgrade as I believe it is only $70, you will arrive at your destination much more relaxed and fresh.
The rest of the flight was uneventful. We started our descent with 20 minutes left into the flight and landed on 24R. It was another couple of minutes to get to the gate where we were parked for about 15 minutes in order to conduct tests.
A320 VS 737 MAX: How do they compare?
To settle all arguments regarding the A320 and the 737 MAX 8, I will do a quick comparison between the two. I’ll go over Legroom, window alignment, seat recline bathrooms, the IFE and overall comfort.
Window alignment on the 320 is good, it is just below or at head level for me. The windows are typical A320 windows that offer good visibility. However, as an added bonus, the exit windows have a shade that slides up from the bottom allowing full view of the window without that typical notch that is left on the top when the window shade is up.
I have flown on Air Canada’s A320s countless times and the legroom in typical economy is good as it is. Normal economy legroom is usually enough for me while still leaving room for my knees to spread out. The exit row allows more legroom and more room to spread out. As a typical exit seat, the seat doesn’t recline but are matched in legroom.
Seat recline in normal economy is typical, nothing special. It allows for a relaxing position if you want to call an economy seat relaxing. However, one thing on the 320 is that when the seat in front of you reclines, your personal IFE comes right up in your face, you almost always need to adjust it.
Bathrooms on the 320 are yet again, nothing special. Simply typical aircraft washrooms, small with one wall being a mirror. There are no windows (unlike the 787 and the 777), and it is clean. The IFE on the A320 offers Legacy type Personal touch-screen TVs. This Legacy IFE system was one of the first generations of personal IFE. Compared to Air Canada’s new Panasonic ex2 on their 777 and 787 type aircraft, the Legacy system is slow and relatively outdated as this system has been in all of Air Canada’s mainline jets since 2005. Having said this, selection is extensive with all kinds of new movies, TV shows, and documentaries, it is sure to keep you entertained for your flight
To have a completely fair comparison, I will compare my earlier a320 experience with my later Calgary-Montreal Experience as I was in preferred.
To start off, legroom is about the same as in an A320 exit row, nice and spacey, enough to stretch out. The seat itself I find more comfortable as the ones on the 320 as the ones on the max are fully padded leather. Window alignment is okay, its a minor issue, but the Airbus A320 takes the prize for this one.
The biggest difference between the two is without a question, the IFE. The IFE on the MAX is state-of-the-art, it boosts fast response times, an incredibly user-friendly layout, an awesome interactive 3D map and probably the best quirk of them all; A city guide to whichever city your destination is. This is really ingenious on the part of Air Canada, instead of passengers not really knowing about a foreign city, they can go on to their IFE’s and read up about the best places to stay, eat and shop. It is truly impressive and I’ve never seen it elsewhere.
Overall, unless sitting in preferred in the MAX, the old-school A320 is better for passenger comfort, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the MAX is uncomfortable, If you were sitting next to people you knew like your family, you could obviously stretch out a little more, also, if you had a free seat next to you it would certainly augment the experience and be more comfortable, and it goes without a doubt that the preferred product on the MAX is nothing short of amazing. It is definitely worth the extra money!
It goes to say that the MAX is the new generation of Air Canada. We will all get used to it over time, it will become the norm.
Wow, what an amazing trip, traveling 7855 km in one day, across Canada and back, it was definitively worth it. To be the amongst the first 169 individuals to fly on the first flight is a very special feeling. To think that there will be thousands and thousands of people that will sit in that same seat that you did on the first flight is a surreal thought; you are making history. Also, it’s not very often that you get to experience that ‘new plane smell’.
Overall, the MAX is revolutionary, it is an amazing piece of machinery. Air Canada is going to use this plane as their workhorse. From sending them overseas to operating Rapid Air flights, it will change the scene completely.
This month’s guest review is by Will Dalton (@halifaxplanes).
Interested in being featured on LondonSpotter.co.uk? Email one of the team, or email@example.com – to receive an application form and this could be you in January 2018.
During my two-week visit to Jeddah to meet my dad, I had a space of time and an urge to fly. Coincidentally, during this time, there was a discounted business class offer from Saudia so without further ado, I decided to take the opportunity and discover what Saudia had to offer in their medium haul business class cabin. This offer stated that you could fly discounted rates on J class to any of their sub-continental destinations. After some quick research on the website, I came to find out that the cheapest option was to Karachi in Pakistan so I booked it at $850 return packed my bags and within a few days, began my short but sweet business class experience.
Keep in mind, one of the greatest factors for this journey included the fact that a Boeing 777-200ER was the equipment used on the Karachi sector. The first leg was flown by an old A330-300 but I won’t be discussing that here because it represents Saudia’s outdated product, so instead I will be reviewing my second flight.
Airport Experience: Karachi
I reached the airport 3 hours prior to departure. Karachi Airport has retro-style boards which you don’t see a whole lot often these days!
The check-in hall at the airport is huge and very airy which I like a lot, however the age of the terminal cannot be hidden. For convenience, business class passengers and SkyTeam members enjoy a priority kiosk.
Despite the security officer warning me not to take pictures, I managed to get one shot of the lounges at Karachi. All international airlines use the Civil Aviation Authority lounge at Karachi – except PIA who have their own lounge. The lounge attendant glanced at my boarding pass, before leading me into the lounge.
There were both hot and cold foods but the sandwiches seemed rather stale and the hot foods – which included Pakistani Cuisine – were very average as compared to what you’d get outside in the city. Despite the wide-ranging selection, I wasn’t that hungry, settling instead for a drink and crisps.
The lounge had Wi-Fi which had a moderate speed and some computers. The funny thing is that the computers had Windows XP which you also don’t see quite as much in 2017!
Overall, even though the lounge was rudimentary, a range of cuisine was available and the added luxury of Wi-Fi was a great convenience.
About 25 minutes prior to boarding, I headed for the observation area. There wasn’t much action but my Saudia 777-200ER headed to Jeddah came into view soon enough.
As well as many passengers, this flight would be carrying mangoes to Saudi Arabia – a major export of Pakistan.
I then headed to my gate, and began the boarding process.
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200ER
Age: 16.7 years
Route: Karachi (Pakistan) to Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) (3.45 hours)
Interestingly, HZ-AKV is one of Saudia’s newer 777-200s and it’s a survivor because most of Saudia’s 777s are being stored and replaced by their newer competition from Airbus; the A330 Regional variant.
I boarded from Door L2 and the F/A greeted me with a warm “Ahlan Washalan”, meaning ‘welcome’ in Arabic.
I had allocated myself seat 2A for this flight. The seats were the classic shell type much like what you’d find on carriers such as Air India or Pakistan International. They’re lie flat which is quite nice considering it’s a very short flight, and is a major positive when considering when comparing Saudia with their competition on these medium-haul sectors.
The seat configuration in Saudi J class is 2-2-2, unfortunately meaning direct aisle access for all passengers is not available. For a short flight, however, this is just a minor point. (Seat controls) below
Saudia has a seat pitch/legroom of 58’’ so there’s lots of space to stretch your legs. Hot towels were offered to the guests before pushback.
Dates and Traditional Arabian coffee was also distributed.
Saudia is a strictly dry airline so the pre-departure drink included Orange Juice, Lime juice and apple juice. I went for the Orange Juice.
Noise cancelling Headphones were then distributed, which looked substantial and of good quality, but I used my Bose headsets instead.
Entertainment and screen remote:
Shortly afterwards, the menu orders were taken. Here were the options business class passengers had:
Unfortunately, everyone had the same dessert which I’m not going to complain about, considering the fact that you get a chicken Caesar salad and a banana on US Transcontinental LAX-JFK/ SFO-JFK products. As we taxied, I could spot a variety of traffic including a PIA 777-200LR arriving from Toronto(YYZ) in the distance. The extremely bland safety video aired and soon we had a short take-off from runway 24R.
30 minutes into the flight, meal services began.
I love how the table cloth has Saudia engraved on top of it. Little touches such as this really differentiate the service between a lower and higher class of travel on such a short flight. Service began by bread rolls which were freshly baked and warm.
Followed by appetizer! I opted for the Arabic mezze which, although the presentation was polished, was lacklustre compared to the Arabic Mezze you’d get on airlines such as Emirates.
And then came the main course which was splendid. Even though it might not look as appetizing, it was full of flavour and spices.
Lastly, the dessert was chocolate mousse cake which was excellent as well. It had the perfect amount of cream and was presented very well.
Overall, Saudia impressed me with their offerings on this medium haul journey.
After the meal service was done, the cabin quieted down a little bit. Window shades were dimmed and the most people caught some sleep. In case you wanted some sleep, the seats had a small privacy partition which was a nice touch. The cabin was darkened, to help people enjoy a couple of hours of rest.
During the time in which the cabin was dimmed, I decided to visit the lavatory which was quite plain and offered no real business class touches.
We then hit a light bit of chop but it calmed down as we started our descent into Jeddah following a sharp right, with final approach into Jeddah.
We touched down 10 minutes ahead of schedule, which was great for passengers making connections onto Saudia’s network in Europe and North America. After a long taxi, we parked next to a company 744 leased from Air Atlanta Icelandic. While exiting, I decided to take my chances and asked the F/A for cockpit access; to my surprise, she said the captain has left but you can still take a picture.
After a quick chat with the skipper, I bid farewell and headed out of Kilo Victor from door L1, concluding what was truly a fantastic journey and experience.
If I said the entire flight was perfect, it would be a lie. It had its flaws but the crew were truly trying to work with their heart, not robotic like most are; the food was also quite nice and well presented. The plane was quite aged but in terms of Business class, it was well maintained. On the bottom line, this flight was a positive experience and – with a couple of refinements – Saudia has a lot of potential.
Ground Services Experience: 6/10 Aircraft: 8/10 Dining Onboard: 8/10 Friendliness of the Crew: 8.5/10 Comfort of the Seats: 7.5/10
Thanks for reading my trip report. Any feedback would be appreciated.
This month’s guest review is by Hassan (@MhSpotter). If you wish to apply for next month’s featured guest review, email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact any of our author’s via their Instagram pages.
Featured photo: Mior Faizal Affandy (Planespotters.net)
British Airways is preparing to retire its fleet of 747s. This is sad. The Jumbo Jet has been around for about as long as I have. There are better aircraft, no doubt, more fuel efficient, cheaper to run, better for the environment. But she remains the Queen of the Skies.
With the end in sight, I decided to take advantage of a business trip to Boston to sample my first and probably last flight in BA’s 747 First Class cabin. With the cost of an upgrade just £200 one way, it was a pretty easy decision.
I decided to go First on the outward leg as this would give me the chance to enjoy the Concorde Room at Terminal 5. This made double sense because I was planning to fly out in the evening, which meant I was able to get to Heathrow in good time to really enjoy the experience. My flight out of Logan was going to be an early morning rush.
The pre-flight experience
Arriving at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, the first thing to remember is to get dropped off at the far end of the departures hall. This is where those lucky enough to have a turn-left ticket are sheltered from the rest of humanity and enter a dedicated check in area via the doorway below.
Once in, I strolled over to the check in desk (no-one in front of me, of course) and got the first good news of my trip. Would I like to swap my assigned 3K seat for 2K? Even a first-class newbie like me knew that there was only one answer to this question. 2A and 2K are, in my opinion, the best seats in the First Class cabin, better even than the two in front of them.
The reason is that these are the only seats out of all 14 in the premium area to be completely private. I could see what the man in 1A was watching and rows 3 to 5 are, to be quite honest, a bit squished up for such a pricey ticket. Row 2, as you can see below, is definitely position A.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I got to see my seat, I was whisked through the gate with a flash of my boarding pass and into the dedicated first class security. This is probably the best reason of all to go First. Security took about 90 seconds, there was no queue, and I was treated as a guest rather than a potential threat. Here’s how empty and relaxed it all is.
Devices back in my bag and I was on my way, through the space-age tunnel shown below and into the Emerald Lounge. By the standards of most airport lounges this was pretty glamorous and normally I would have been more than happy to linger for an hour or so here.
But in the strict hierarchy of air travel at this end of the market, the Emerald just didn’t cut it, I’m afraid. Why? Well quite simply because it was not exclusive enough. Anyone with a First or Club ticket, or even someone with a Gold membership who’s slumming it in Economy can hang around here.
For the real celeb experience, I had to duck out of this lounge, past the BOAC memorabilia and pictures (nice) and over to the Concorde Room. To enter this inner sanctum you need a First Class ticket, no ifs no buts.
The Concorde Room
The top of the range waiting room is not particularly big but it does feel pretty exclusive. The centrepiece is the large, brightly-lit bar, with plenty of comfortable seating around, a restaurant-style eating area with private waitress-served booths and, perhaps the nicest part, the Concorde Terrace, an area overlooking the main concourse below.
The room is pretty classy, if a little tired in places. If I were being hyper-critical I would also say the service didn’t make me feel massively special. The eating area could have been cleared away more quickly to avoid guests sitting down next to someone else’s empties. But, hey, the champagne was flowing and I had a pretty nice club sandwich, just to try the food out without ruining my appetite for the flight.
Soon enough my flight was called and I wished my new friends bon voyage to Chile. Her grandfather had been the finance director at the John Player factory in Ipswich where I had my first holiday job as a lift boy. Small world!
Quibble number two
Now you can get used to travelling First Class pretty quickly so the next bit of my journey was a bit of a shock. To get from Concorde to gate B46 you need to re-acquaint yourself with the real world for a short while. Specifically, you need to go down the escalator into that concourse you’ve been looking down on for the past hour or so, then you head down further to the train that links Terminal 5’s A, B and C gates. And then it’s more mingling with the hoi polloi at the gate.
My experience here was a bit prolonged by a half hour delay to the flight, which it would have been nice to hear about in the lounge (or maybe I just didn’t look closely enough after a couple of glasses of champagne, I can’t quite remember). Anyway, queuing up with my fellow ‘premium’ customers didn’t feel particularly premium at the time.
The good news was that First was called before everyone else, so I did have the enjoyment of knowing that everyone else knew that I was about to turn left. Small things…
So, into the nose of the plane and the first thing you notice is quite how small the cabin is. Nicely lit, comfortable, but pretty cosy.
First things first, I hung my coat up in the big cupboard right at the front and managed, just, to get my very small hand baggage into the overhead locker. If you had a decent sized wheelie, you would struggle to get it in.
I liked the ambience of the seat. A proper reading light, blue-lit blinds on my two windows, a nice hanging area for a jacket had I been wearing one.
Rachel, who was serving one side of the cabin introduced herself, brought me some bubbly, my First Class pyjamas and a pretty fancy wash-kit from Liberty. Then I experienced the main difference between First and Club – choice. When would I like to eat? There are no set times in First – you’re in control and the cabin crew really are super attentive.
I pressed the button to call Rachel over at one point and I swear my finger was still hovering when she arrived at my shoulder.
Anyway, push back finally came (40 minutes late – the delay had been caused by the tractor pulling the plane to the gate breaking down!) and we were off, heading north west through a battle scene of Bonfire Night firework parties all the way up to the Irish Sea.
While we flew above the pyrotechnics, dinner arrived and here too the difference between First and Club was apparent. No trays, no cutlery pre-wrapped in a napkin. No, it was real restaurant service. My table was made up for me on an elegant white cloth, nice salt and pepper shakers, all very sophisticated.
First an amuse bouche of charcuterie, washed down with a nice Pouilly Fume, then smoked salmon (excellent) and finally a main of beef, a bit overcooked but tasty, accompanied by a really fantastic South African red from Stellenbosch. All in all, the food was good when you consider the conditions in which it was produced and served.
The Lazy Bit in the Middle
On a seven-hour flight, there’s plenty of time to settle down and enjoy the in-flight entertainment in comfort and so that’s what I did next.
I’d say the film selection was pretty average but I did find a couple of movies I wanted to watch. It was a toss-up between Hampstead and Churchill. I went for Hampstead (sentimental, don’t bother if you haven’t already seen it).
The best thing about the lie-flat experience in First as opposed to Business is that it really does feel like going to bed. I could have had a proper mattress laid out but didn’t bother as I only intended to be horizontal for a short while. But the duvet and full-size pillow was a lot nicer than the Club blanket I would not bother with five days later. After the film, I was therefore able to get a decent hour or so of zzzzz.
Now for Some More Food
I have to say at 3 in the morning UK time, after a decent feed the evening before, the last thing on my mind was classic English afternoon tea but, as you can see, that’s what came.
It was delicious, the tea tasted fantastic after a few glasses of wine and was poured out of a nice china teapot with milk in a jug.
And that was pretty much it. We arrived in Boston at midnight (the clocks were still two hours away from going back, a week after they did in the UK, so the time difference was only four hours). That’s actually a very good time to get to the US. We were the only flight so customs, even in these hyper vigilant times, was a doddle and the taxi into downtown took about 15 minutes and was less than $30.
So what do I think of BA’s 747 first class? The pre-flight experience is excellent. It takes all the stress out of flying even if it a shame that you have to duck back into the real world for a bit on your way to the gate. On board the service is very attentive (thank you Rachel Ward), the food is very good, the wine selection excellent.
I do think the cabin is a bit pokier than I would have expected and as part two of this report will show not as comfortable in some ways as the upstairs Club experience on the same plane.
Would I pay for First again over Club. Probably not. But I’m glad I did it once before this wonderful plane heads off to the desert for a well-earned retirement.
Back Home in Business
So five days later, it was goodbye Boston and back home again. This time, I was flying in the upstairs cabin which holds 20 Business Class seats in 10 opposite-facing pairs.
I’ve only experienced this layout on BA flights and I have to say it is pretty rubbish if you don’t know the person you end up facing during the parts of the flight (safety instructions, getting your food served) when the divider between the two seats has to be down.
For a £3,000 seat, you really do expect a bit more privacy and it is not a patch on the seat layout I’ve experienced on Emirates, for example.
That said, compared with the pretty cramped quarters in First Class, the upstairs cabin does feel very spacious and I would always head up behind the flight deck given the chance.
My seat on this return flight was right behind the pilot, which was probably the most private place to be because the only reason to go past my seat was to the bathroom. It was the quietest corner of the cabin and I had access to four windows which gave me plenty of different views onto the Maine coast and up over Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.
Food Service – Back to Reality
So, the accommodation in Business is definitely not a massive step down from First. When it comes to the food, however, it really is back to earth with a bump.
I have to say the food on the return leg was pretty disappointing. For one thing it comes on a plastic tray which feels cheap. My choice for brunch – smoked salmon and mixed grill – was also pretty uninspiring.
After that I settled down to a film (Churchill – worth catching if you haven’t, the great war-time leader as a kind of raging King Lear figure) with a glass or two of pretty decent Aussie Shiraz. No complaints on that score.
Coming home from the States is quick – five and a half hours – so after the film and writing this review, we were already coming into land, dark already thanks to the time difference. A very easy and comfortable flight.
First vs Business
I would say that once you are on the plane, upstairs Business is more than adequate and the extra for First is probably not worth it.
On the ground, the Concorde Room experience is nice but not materially better than the Business lounge. Other than that, what you really get for your upgrade is the millionaire’s security search and a pair of free cotton pyjamas.
Oh and in the Queen of the Skies being able to say you’re flying in front of the pilot!