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!
Article by Tom Stevenson.