British Airways First Class has an international reputation the airline would probably prefer it didn’t. “Business +”, “J +” and “The best Business Class in the sky” are among the less complimentary descriptions of BA’s most prestigious cabin.
While airlines across the world have developed their First Class products, and in some cases their Business Class products, into large enclosed suites, even incorporating double beds and showers, there’s a strong opinion that BA has failed to keep up with international competition.
Does the product deserve to be labelled in these ways though? We recently flew from London to Washington on the airline’s Boeing 747-400 in First Class to find out.
- Flight: BA293 London Heathrow T5 to Washington-Dulles International
- Class: First
- Seats: 2A & 2K
- Aircraft Type: Boeing 747-400
- Aircraft Registration: G-CIVO
- Aircraft Age: 20.7 years
- Date: 5th July 2018
- Departure / Arrival: 17:10 / 20:20
- Flight Time: 7h 10m
- Cost: 68,000 Avios + £371.21 per person
The ‘First Wing’
If like us you’re departing from London Heathrow, you’ll be eligible to check in at the new British Airways ‘First Wing’ at the far south end of Terminal 5 in Zone J. Drop-off by car should be at door 5 (the last door).
You can also take advantage of this facility if you hold British Airways Executive Club Gold status, or oneworld Emerald status, and are flying on a oneworld operated flight.
This area is designed to whisk you through the check in process, through a dedicated security lane, and straight into the British Airways Galleries First lounge. Perfect not only for those travelling First, but BA Gold and oneworld Emerald status holders, as we were about to discover…
Perhaps we were unlucky but when we arrived at the First Wing to check in for our flight, we were greeted by a sizeable queue.
It wouldn’t be the last time we stood in a queue that day, so if anything it was good practice!
It took about 15 minutes from joining the queue at the First Wing to completing the process. The staff member who checked us in was very friendly and helpful, also assisting with a minor name issue on one of our ESTA visas.
From the check in area you proceed straight through the private security channel.
Since we were busy snapping photos we were reminded by the staff who scanned our boarding cards not to take any pictures of the security area itself, for obvious reasons. We can confirm this media image accurately depicts the setup.
There are bench seats and tables for you to repack your items after security screening, and the whole process is quick and efficient. Security staff were friendly and courteous, but of course they are employed by a third party security firm not by British Airways.
The final stage of the First Wing, for many passengers at least, is the corridor from the security screening area into the Galleries First lounge.
If you’re heading to the Concorde Room, you’ll have to exit this lounge, then you’ll see the Concorde Room entrance directly opposite.
From clearing security to arriving at the Concorde Room (via the Galleries First lounge) took just 4 minutes. In addition to the time spent queuing for check in, the whole process therefore took about 20 minutes.
In essence, the First Wing, while a nice idea, was a waste of time. We spent more time queueing than anything else. At the time the nearby Club World check in desks (adjacent to the First Wing) were empty and as a First Class passenger you can check in there, walk through priority security and then take the first right straight into the Concorde Room (via the ‘secret’ back door).
Maybe we were unlucky with the time of day, but queuing just to join a First Class check in area, whose private security channel leads you into a lounge you aren’t even destined for, doesn’t make much sense.
As we were flying in First Class, we headed for the Concorde Room. This lounge is exclusive to BA First Class passengers and Concorde Room cardholders, it is not for oneworld guests.
The gate for our flight was only displayed on the screen in the lounge 45 minutes before departure time.
As usual at Heathrow T5, it meant taking a train to one of the satellite piers (B in this case), so we packed up our things and made our way out of the Concorde Room about 40 minutes before departure time.
The journey was actually quick and we arrived at gate B45 just 10 minutes later, 30 minutes before departure time.
The scene however was quite chaotic. Boarding had not commenced and banks of queues had already formed.
It wasn’t particularly clear where the First Class passengers should wait, and seeking assistance from one of the gate staff met with a rather curt response with us being directed to the back of the ‘Group 2&3’ queue. We decided that probably wasn’t right and joined the back of the Group 1 queue.
Only then did we realise our boarding passes did actually say ‘Group 1’ on them (we hadn’t even noticed before), which means you are boarding with Club World, BA Gold and oneworld Emerald status passengers. Lots of them.
Families with young children boarded first (which was a little confusing as initially we thought they might be First Class passengers and that we were just waiting in the wrong place!).
Finally Group 1 boarding commenced, 19 minutes before departure time. Only it hadn’t really commenced. What happened is we were all assembled into the (hot, windowless) airbridge where we then stood waiting for boarding to actually start. Around 7-8 minutes went by stood here. Not a First Class experience by any means.
Once boarding actually started, it quickly became apparent the entire 747-400 was being boarded through only the second main left door, via a single airbridge.
Finally, 11 minutes before the scheduled departure time, after a walk through Premium Economy, we were the first two passengers to arrive in the First Class cabin (everyone ahead of us was apparently destined for Club World, or were status holders).
Not a problem of course, we aren’t all that precious about being first on the plane, but the way it was arranged just didn’t feel very ‘First Class’ to us.
We were shown to our seats by the crew, who were friendly and welcoming but did seem a little flustered. We got the impression this late gate assignment and delayed boarding through a single door was all a bit of a last minute change for them too.
We were each offered a welcome drink and opted for a glass of Champagne, the excellent Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle (LPGS) as served in the Concorde Room and in flight, so there’s no skimping on costs even at the boarding stage like with many airlines.
Emirates, for example, served Veuve Cliquot on the ground in First Class on our recent trip, before cracking open the Dom in flight. This is done to save duty (tax), which is payable if the aircraft doors are open in most countries.
The cabin decor is by London-based design firm forpeople, and despite being nearly 10 years old remains elegant and stylish.
The window blinds in particular, which sit behind a perspex screen and completely black out the light from the two windows at each A or K seat, are very ‘business jet’. They are electrically controlled, can be stopped at intermediate positions, and incorporate mood lighting controlled by the cabin crew based on phase of flight.
Unfortunately they don’t feature on the slightly newer two versions of BA’s First Class seat, as installed on the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787-9.
From a distance everything about the seats looks nice and new, however on closer inspection they have certainly seen better days with a number of scratches, marks and general wear and tear apparent.
There were eight of us in the First Class cabin on this flight, around a half load, with three cabin crew serving.
The crew came round with a menu for the flight.
Later in the review we take a full look at the dining options offered on this evening flight to Washington.
Shortly afterwards the crew brought round the amenity kit and pyjamas. We’ll also take a close look at these later in the review. Slippers are available on request, but they were not proactively offered so we’re not sure how most passengers would be aware.
We thought it was quite nice that these items weren’t rushed, or waiting at our seat from boarding for example. It’s a nice touch to be offered a drink, then progressively be offered a menu, then amenities a few minutes later etc. It also gives the impression that you are being attentively looked after and the service isn’t rushed.
The Captain then made an announcement apologising for the delay, apparently the aircraft had arrived at the gate late and then there was a catering delay, which led to delayed boarding.
To cut a long story short the situation progressed for over an hour, blamed on the air traffic control slot, followed by a passenger visa paperwork issue for the US authorities, followed by another air traffic control delay, then continued visa issues.
The pilots kept us informed regularly but even they were beginning to sound exasperated by the situation towards the end! The air conditioning on the 20-year old 747 was also apparently not coping well on the ground in the British summer weather, which the pilots acknowledged and promised would improve once the engines were running.
In First Class though, it seemed ok. Slightly warmer than usual but perfectly bearable.
The good news is that the crew remained attentive and our Champagne was continually topped up during the delay. We chatted together at seat 2A using the ottoman seat without much concern as we were heading straight to the hotel on arrival in Washington for our first night, with no dinner plans given the late arrival time and the fact we’d eat on board.
We finally pushed back at 18:23, 1 hour and 13 minutes late, and took off at 18:51.
After takeoff the crew took another drinks order, so we again stuck with the LPGS. This was served with mixed nuts.
The British Airways First Class seats are a little lacking in readily accessible storage space, however there is a large wardrobe fitted to the back of the seat in front of you with hanging space and a place for your shoes.
We found that the small magazine rack to the side within easy reach can actually comfortably accommodate the 12″ MacBook or an iPad, though that’s not its purpose.
The single power socket at each First Class seat is at floor level, which isn’t ideal as it becomes inaccessible when the seat is in bed mode.
There is an additional USB charging port underneath the TV, which works quite well for smaller devices like your mobile phone, which can then rest on the side console while charging.
Table and workspace
A large table extends from the side console. It’s an ample size for working, eating and as noted later in the review for ‘buddy dining’ too.
It is a little tighter in the latter case compared to some other First Class seats we’ve flown, so it may not be particularly comfortable for your companion to sit on the ottoman side for too long.
Amenity Kit and Pyjamas
It’s a good selection of products in an attractive toiletries bag, which is ideal to reuse in future.
The kit includes:
- Shave gel
- Revitalising moisturiser
- Deodorant stick
- Lip balm
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Eye mask
If you are a fan of Liberty, the amenity kit also includes a £20 off voucher if you spend £200 or more at their Regent Street store.
The pyjamas are nicely presented with a bow and have the BA ‘First’ emblem. They are good quality but we didn’t try them, as we both prefer to bring our own clothes to sleep in on flights.
There are two toilets for the First Class cabin on BA’s 747-400, both are located at the back on the left side. Two toilets to a maximum of 14 passengers is not a bad ratio at seven passengers to each toilet, though there are much better out there like Cathay’s 777 First Class (3:1) and Singapore Airlines 777 First Class (2:1).
On this flight with only eight First Class passengers there was never a queue.
The toilets themselves are absolutely standard size and not finished much differently than you would expect in Economy Class.
Toiletries are provided from Aromatherapy Associates London, in common with the amenity kit.
If you’re an in-flight entertainment addict, this is where the BA 747 really starts to show its age. We were flying on one of the non-refitted aircraft with the oldest system, a (very) Standard Definition 15.4″ screen with only around 20 movies available.
Even the refitted 747s don’t have high-definition, but do have a better quality 16″ screen with more choices.
Frankly you’ll get a much better in-flight entertainment experience if you fly on one of BA’s newer planes, those being the A380, 777-300ER and 787.
The seat has a sort of ‘preset recline’ in the upright position, which we found quite comfortable. On many Singapore Airlines seats we find the ‘bolt upright’ takeoff and landing position a little too vertical to be relaxing.
It reminds us of a sports car ‘bucket’ seat, low slung and hugging. The design company behind the BA First product has also worked with Jaguar and Aston Martin in the past, so perhaps this theme carries through here.
The seat is controlled through a rotary switch, which you move out of its detent in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction, hold until the seat position is the one you want, then simply release. This goes all the way to bed mode if required.
The background light is green when the seat is in the takeoff or landing position, so the crew can easily check.
The all in one rotary switch means you are unable to control individual parts of the seat, but it does make it extremely simple to use. There are a few customisations possible though, the three buttons below the rotary switch allow you to return the seat to takeoff and landing mode, adjust the headrest and the lumbar support respectively.
As always, we check on the Vivino rating (out of 5 stars) for the Champagne and wines offered on this flight.
These are mostly good or excellent scores, though they don’t quite match up to our recent First Class reviews, with Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Qantas all pipping the overall average rating slightly.
I tried a glass of the English sparkling wine from Cornwall, and would certainly recommend it. It’s lighter than the LPGS and has less complexity, but is sharp and refreshing with a dry finish.
Our regular readers will know that we’re great fans of ‘buddy dining’, where you can enjoy your meal as a couple at the same table. British Airways offers this option in their First Class cabin, with the exception of the Boeing 787-9 where it is unfortunately not possible due to the fixed position of the IFE screen.
Space is quite tight for the passenger seated on the ottoman however, with limited shoulder room. Most people won’t want to be sitting there for long, and some larger passengers will find it practically impossible.
Dinner was served on this flight, with our orders taken shortly after takeoff. The menu shows the options available.
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BA offers on-demand dining in First Class, but in our experience it is not proactively offered by the crew. Even the menu no longer mentions it, and on this flight it was not suggested to us.
That was fine because we were happy to have dinner at the ‘regular’ time after takeoff, but not all passengers are on the same time zone and some have already been travelling the same day from distant parts of the world.
Given that a one-way First Class ticket from London to Washington on BA sells for around £9,000 (S$15,750), we think it’s reasonable to at least be offered the option. Otherwise, most passengers simply won’t know about it.
To commence the meal service, once our table had been set up the crew came round with a bread basket and cute little packs of salted butter from Netherend Farm in Gloucestershire.
BA certainly pushes the ‘local’ supply of items on their menu strongly. As you can see from the dinner menu for example, almost every dish has a regional UK influence or ingredient.
Service commenced with an antipasti amuse-bouche, which BA now refers to as a ‘pre-appetiser’. On this flight it was air-dried ham, salami, cheese, olives and sun-dried tomato.
Like Cathay Pacific, British Airways removed the amuse-bouche from the First Class meal service, only to later reintroduce it. It’s a welcome addition and we’re pleased to see it back. It doesn’t look much but was a very tasty start to the meal.
I went for the smoked salmon starter. It was well presented, a more generous portion than I expected, and overall I thought an excellent dish.
The fennel and kasha salad was a perfect accompaniment and the dill and mustard dressing gave the salmon a sharp edge.
Eddie opted for the Asparagus with soft poached quail egg. It was good, however the presentation was a bit of a let down here in terms of the quail egg, a typical airline catering ‘fail’!
For main course I chose the beef fillet.
Again presentation was very nice. I must say it wasn’t the best beef fillet I’ve had on board an aircraft, and certainly didn’t live up to my recent experiences of similar dishes with Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific in First Class, but it was good. The cook was medium, again a little too done for my taste.
Eddie went for the fillet of cod, which was unfortunately very average.
We didn’t have room for dessert, but there’s always room for cheese so rather than deliberate over the menu again, we shared a plate with ‘a bit of everything’, as suggested by the crew.
It was a nice end to the meal and was served with grapes, chutney and a selection of biscuits.
BA’s First Class seat on the 747-400 converts into a fully flat bed. Technically in fact it’s a 177-degree recline, to take account of the typical cruise angle of the 747, which is 3 degrees above the horizon. It measures 78” in length. While the seat itself is only 22.5″ wide, the armrests automatically retract to bed level allowing some additional width.
We took the opportunity after dinner to get a few hours sleep prior to landing in Washington. The cabin crew will make up your bed while you head to the restroom to change into your pyjamas, or like us you might prefer to bring your own comfy sleepwear.
A large mattress topper makes the bed very comfortable, and you have a thick duvet with a large comfy pillow.
On BA flights in First Class I’ve flown on in the past if the cabin is not full, the crew will usually offer to make up your bed in an empty adjacent seat. That’s a great idea if it is offered, because if you’re unable to sleep you can simply return to your seat and read or watch a movie for a while then return to bed later without any hassle.
It’s worth noting the noise level at this point. Being in the nose of the 747 is a peaceful experience and we measured a 78dB ambient noise level during the cruise (on a rather rudimentary iPhone app, but still).
Better still, with both passengers in row 1 also opting to sleep, there was no foot traffic at all in the forward section. The galley and toilets are at the back of this cabin, so the crew and passengers had no need to walk forward beyond row 3 for several hours.
We can’t fault this bed – it’s really comfortable despite being slightly smaller than some other First Class ones, like on Cathay Pacific and Qantas. The narrowing at the foot end is nowhere near as pronounced as you get on some reverse herringbone Business Class seats, or in many Singapore Airlines Business Class beds.
We both enjoyed a good few hours sleep and skipped the pre-landing refreshment, which was basically sandwiches / cake with tea or coffee (or Champagne!). The flight landed around 1 hour behind schedule in Washington.
The crew on this flight were good, without being excellent.
Having flown British Airways several times in Club World and First, once thing you tend to notice is that the crew are quite inconsistent. We’ve had fantastic service (on a 777 First Class flight from Sydney to Singapore), where the crew were warm, friendly, engaging and nothing was too much trouble.
We’ve also had downright rude service (on a 777 Club World flight from London to Malé), and pretty much everything in between the two extremes.
For this flight we certainly have no complaints of the crew, though the service seemed a little disinterested at times.
It’s probably a good time to discuss where in the 14-seat First Class cabin we had chosen to sit, and which seats you should aim for if you’re going to be flying it.
The first thing you’ll notice is the density of this cabin – BA squeezed 14 First Class seats into the nose of the 747-400. In the same space on the Boeing 747-8, Lufthansa has just eight First Class seats.
The cabin offers the most space and the most privacy at the front, in rows 1 and 2. Row 1 is ideal for couples as seats 1A and 1K are sufficiently close together to be able to have a conversation, and have high privacy.
As the toilets are both located at the rear left side of the First Class cabin, and the galley is also at the back, there is almost zero foot traffic at the very front.
These seats are reserved for advance selection for British Airways Executive Club Gold status members, however you may be able to select them at online check in.
I have also been allocated 1A on a last-minute redemption booking a couple of days before departure, only because all the other seats in the cabin were occupied, so it’s possible to ‘get lucky’.
We went with row 2, seats 2A and 2K. These are probably the next best seats in this cabin because of the huge space between them. They are very private as no other passengers are able to see into your seat area, unlike the solo window seats (A and K) further back, which are slightly overlooked by the middle pairs.
Indeed some passengers actually prefer 2A and 2K over row 1 for this reason, especially if flying alone.
The middle pairs themselves, seats 4 E/F and 5 E/F are also good for couples, but space feels a lot tighter back here and you miss out on the attractive window blinds at the A and K seats. There is a manual privacy partition in case you are sitting in one of these seats next to a stranger.
There are no overhead lockers in the middle section of the cabin ceiling in First Class, so if you do select a middle seat be aware that you will have to use the lockers above the A and K seats for your bags.
Some of BA’s refitted 747-400s are now Wi-Fi equipped. These planes also feature slightly larger touchscreen IFE systems in First Class. Unfortunately the aircraft we flew on had not been refitted and so did not offer Wi-Fi, and had the older IFE system.
If you are lucky enough to fly on a Wi-Fi equipped BA aircraft, the pricing is as follows:
For simple browsing and email (the ‘Browse’ package):
- 1 hour: £4.99 (S$8.75)
- 4 hours: £10.99 (S$19.25)
- Full flight: £14.99 (S$26.25)
For a higher bandwidth package supporting video streaming (the ‘Stream’ package):
- 1 hour: £7.99 (S$14.00)
- 4 hours: £17.99 (S$31.50)
- Full flight: £23.99 (S$42.00)
These certainly aren’t the cheapest packages around, but they are in line with several other carriers. First Class passengers and status holders also have to pay the same for Wi-Fi on BA.
Which BA aircraft feature First Class?
All Airbus A380s, Boeing 747s and most Boeing 777s in the British Airways fleet have a First Class cabin. The Boeing 787-9 also features First Class, but the smaller Boeing 787-8 does not.
There are principally three kinds of BA First Class seat currently in the sky, the ‘original’ like we flew in, which you’ll find on all 747s and those 777s featuring First.
Then there’s a version unique to the A380 which features around 50% more personal space (but effectively has the same seat).
Finally there’s the newest version, unique to the 787-9.
The biggest drawback of the First Class seat on the 787-9, which is flying daily from Kuala Lumpur to London among other routes, is the fixed IFE screen which precludes the ‘buddy dining’ option. An unfortunate retrograde step in our view.
How can you experience BA First Class?
BA flies 28 First Class seats each evening from Singapore to London (14 on the 777-300ER and 14 on the A380). There are also 14 seats each evening on a 777-300ER service from Singapore to Sydney.
Elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region you can pick up the airline’s newest First Class product, as fitted to the 787-9, on a daily flight from Kuala Lumpur to London, with a daily A380 and 777-300ER also flying to London from Hong Kong.
Note that the daily 777-200 service from Bangkok to London does not feature a First Class cabin.
These are the mileage rates you’ll pay to fly British Airways First Class from Singapore to London (also applicable for Kuala Lumpur – London):
|British Airways First Class redemption Singapore – London|
These rates apply for the shorter Singapore – Sydney flights:
|British Airways First Class redemption Singapore – Sydney|
It’s relatively cheap to upgrade a British Airways Business Class (Club World) ticket to First Class using Avios. Even discounted Business Class fares can be upgraded. For this 7-hour flight from London to Washington it would have cost 18,000 Avios to upgrade, which isn’t bad assuming you got a good Business Class deal in one of BA’s sales.
There aren’t many opportunities left to fly in a Boeing 747, especially in the nose section, so from an ‘AvGeek’ point of view we really enjoyed our experience despite the shortcomings. British Airways, the largest user of the type in passenger operation, is refurbishing around 17 aircraft and keeping them in service well into the 2020s.
BA may therefore be your best chance to fly these aircraft in the next few years, if you’re a die-hard jumbo fan.
As we mentioned at the start of this review, British Airways First Class gets nicknamed “J+” and that’s for a good reason. While in its prime it was an advanced product which stood up well to competition in the market, airlines around the world have progressed increasingly to 1-2-1 flat-bed seating layouts in Business Class.
Many of those with First Class cabins have had to evolve that product even further into suites, to provide differentiation. Unfortunately British Airways has not significantly changed its Business Class or First Class seats for 10 years, leading to even their most expensive seats now resembling a Business Class product on many other airlines.
Our summary of this flight:
- Ground experience – from queue to relative serenity, to queue to relative serenity again! This is not on a par with First Class on other airlines and didn’t feel that special.
- Crew – good, but not excellent. This is so variable with BA in our experience.
- Product – a very nice Business Class experience, but completely left behind by competitors in the First Class sphere. The bed is the sole exception, very comfy and pretty much up to First Class standards.
- Toilets – bog standard, if you’ll pardon the pun. No particular effort to make these much nicer than those in Economy or Business Class.
- Amenities – a high quality amenity kit and pyjamas.
- Food – good, not exceptional but presentation was nice, probably slightly above most Business Class offerings, but again it’s below the latest First Class standards.
- Wine and Champagne – very good. No complaints here with the excellent LPGS headlining the extensive, well-rated selection.
- IFE and connectivity – completely out of date, unless you fly on BA’s newer aircraft.
In spite of the obvious issues with this flight, we did enjoy it and you probably would too, but with British Airways First Class it’s all about going in with tempered expectations in our opinion.
Of course you could argue that you shouldn’t have to do that with First Class, and we certainly wouldn’t disagree with that opinion either.
If it were a Business Class product, this would probably get a 4 star rating from us, perhaps even 4.5. We have to rate it as a First Class seat however, among competitors in 2018/19, and in that case the shortcomings mean BA First simply falls well behind in the rankings.
Review: Cathay 777 First Class
Review: Emirates New 777-300ER First Class Suites
Review: Qantas A380 First Class
Review: Qatar A350-1000 Qsuites Business Class
Review: Singapore Airlines New A380 Suites Class
(Cover Photo: MainlyMiles)