British Airways First Class London-Seoul – ‘Boarding the Spaceship’
This was my first experience with British Airways in first class. I had previously tried both Club Europe as Club World (business class on short-haul and long-haul), premium economy and regular economy class. A really good deal between London and Seoul for the opening of the new route to South Korea meant that first class could be tested on a long-haul flight to Asia.
To get the full experience and to optimise my first-class stay at Heathrow, I chose to fly to London the night before and sleep a night at one of the airport’s hotels.
At the Airport
As early as four hours before departure, just after 9 in the morning, I arrived at terminal 5, which is British Airway’s new home at Heathrow. First Class passengers have access to a dedicated check-in lobby at the south end of the terminal, a protected area with a service counter and several check-in counters. If for some reason you need to stay there for a long time, there are also armchairs and sofas.
I was immediately waved towards a free check-in counter where a friendly but rather sullen woman took care of my check-in. I had already pre-booked a seat so the check-in process was quick. A yellow first class priority tag was put on my checked bag, in accordance to the rules. As a first class passenger, I could then use the fast track channel at the security checkpoints, around the corner, with minimal queuing.
I still had more than three hours to go before boarding, a time that I chose to spend having breakfast in the British Airways first class lounge, the Concorde Room, followed by a shopping spree. I also had a 15 minute free massage at the Elemis Spa and finally one more visit to the Concorde Room for a light lunch. Both the lounge and the spa were excellent experiences but not quite on par with the first class facilities that some competitors offer at their home airports. The Concorde Room was packed with people when I arrived and it was fairly difficult to find a seat. The restaurant certainly had good food from an à la carte menu and both champagne and fine wines, but otherwise felt more like a fast food restaurant. Additionally, several of my orders were forgotten. Much of what I appreciate about first class, the sophistication and personalised attention, were unfortunately absent.
The massage treatment in the Elemis Spa was very pleasant, if perhaps somewhat short. A regular massage was combined with a massage chair, which worked the back and legs, while the masseuse focused on the head and neck.
Boarding and First Impressions
Just before 1pm I headed towards the gate. Boarding began early, an hour before the scheduled departure. The explanation came quickly. Gate 10D turned out to be a bus gate with a mandatory bus ride out to the aircraft, and to transport nearly 300 passengers takes time. At the gate there was a separate queue for premium passengers but the same bus was used for everyone. It surprised me that they did not use a parking place near the terminal for a large Boeing 777 aircraft.
One staircase was used to access the aircraft at the furthest door, which meant a left turn was required to get to first class. First impressions of the first-class cabin were perhaps the best on the entire flight. The cabin had custom built windows placed above the regular windows, a larger window for every two ordinary small windows. These larger windows had built-in lighting and black blinds that can be pulled up and down. During the boarding process, the blinds were pulled down and all cabin lights were turned on. The new cabin and the new first class seats, with the small round lights on the side, made for an excellent first impression. It almost felt like going aboard a spaceship.
A male steward quickly arrived and welcomed me onboard. My jacket was hung and i noticed newspapers, a toiletry bag, slippers and matching pyjamas, all nicely presented at my place. Unfortunately there were no magazines on board. I was then offered something to drink, a choice of champagne, water or orange juice. A glass bubbly it had to be. The champagne served in British Airways first class is Laurrent Perrier Grand Siècle, which BusinessClass, in February 2013, voted as the flight-world’s best champagne. Even a refill was had on the ground before departure.
We had a punctual pushback barely ten minutes after the scheduled timetable. A safety video was shown on the screens, and 20 minutes later we left Heathrow and headed for South Korea with an estimated flight time of 10 hours and 45 minutes. It was quite a long estimated flight time because of strong headwinds, but this did not bother me at all. Interestingly, the blinds were not raised in first class before the take-off, but you could raise them yourself by pressing a button.
In first class, there were a total of 14 seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. Four rows at the windows, and three rows in the middle between the two aisles. Locations 03K and 04K, the last two seats at the window on the right side, were used by the crew which meant 12 passenger seats. All were occupied on this flight.
British Airways’ new first class seat is a decent upgrade on the previous model, with a sleek and attractive design. Functionality and comfort of the seat was very good but there was some room for improvement. The seat control was simple with a dial you turn in order to raise or lower the seat.
At the side of the seat was a wardrobe where you could hang your clothes during the night. My wardrobe was pretty cramped and i was unable to fit my trousers, shirt and sweater without the clothes being pinched. The wardrobe also had a mesh pocket where you could put personal belongings. My neighbour, on the other side of the aisle, had a much bigger closet with additional built in lighting.
The entertainment system on board, Highlife Entertainment, was okay but did not have spectacular range. It had, however, a good picture on the screen (which you pulled down from the wall) and excellent sound through the noise cancelling headphones that were handed out. The small lamp by the seat also created a very comfortable atmosphere when all the lights in the cabin were extinguished and window blinds pulled down. It was very pleasant to sit and watch a movie, wrapped in a blanket with a drink.
I watched a documentary about underground chambers in London, followed by the film Being Julia. Another fun feature was that, in parallel with the film, you could view a flight map in a separate small box on the screen.
Once up in the air, the Inflight Director appeared. He personally welcomed each passenger in first class by shaking their hand and to speaking to them by name. He had also received information from Member Services at British Airways Executive Club that this was my first flight in first class and asked how I was and if there was anything I needed and hoped I had a good flight. A very nice gesture. Even a few days before the flight I received an email from the Executive Club with information about what I could expect in first class. These are the types of initiatives that are very nice to experience.
A few moments later I was offered a hot towel and a first cocktail. Meanwhile the menus handed out. I ordered another glass of champagne, served with a bowl of nuts, that was perfect to sip while I decided what I wanted to eat and drink for dinner.
In the dark blue menu was the meal choices as well as a drink list that looked impressive. In the wine list was a champagne, three white wines, three red wines, dessert wine and port wine. Next to this was a really good choice of spirits with several good brands and of course all manner of alcoholic free beverages. For the tea fanatic were eight different teas to choose from.
The dinner menu consisted of starter, main course and dessert. There were four different choices for starter – spiced salmon with salad and trimmings, a mezze platter, carrot and orange soup, and finally green salad with two different choices of dressing. It seemed strange was that you were expected to choose one of these, as on most airlines, such starters as soup and salad are usually separate dishes on the menu which can be ordered as part of lunch or dinner. Perhaps it would have been possible to order several dishes, I never asked, but if so, I suspect that it would have been subject to availability.
For the main course, there were four choices – “British Airways Classics” which was a fillet steak with potatoes and vegetables, Korean Bibimbap with beef, chicken with Korean sauce and sole with couscous. Finally rounded of with a variety of cheeses, fresh fruit, and two choices of dessert.
After a few minutes the steward came back to take orders. Unfortunately, it turned out that my first choice of main course, the Korean chicken, was unavailable and I had to choose something else. Also, the choice of starter was becoming a problem. When I mentioned the mezze platter, the steward started squirming and said he had to double check the availability. This was solved however. In any case, I thought it was remarkable that I was unable to get my first choice of meal and that even the starter was almost be a problem.
It took quite a long time before serving began. While I enjoyed another glass of champagne, some views of Scandinavia passed outside the window, including central Copenhagen. Scandinavia had given us the best possible summer weather and even though we flew at 10,000 meters altitude, it was without difficulty that you could discern small details on the ground.
As we flew over Gotland, Sweden, the serving started. The table setting was very elegant. All my plates arrived on a tray and were placed by hand on the table, on top of a white tablecloth. The table was somewhat narrow, but was long enough so that everything could fit with no problem.
First up was the mezze platter, an absolutely delicious appetiser. I understand why it is popular among those who fly frequently. I was also offered bread from a basket and chose two slices of garlic bread. To go with the food, I ordered a glass of red wine and my choice fell on the Australian option, Kilikanoon Parable Shiraz 2011.
Next up was the main course. I never received my first choice (the Korean chicken) but it turned out not to matter. My second choice, the British steak (“British Airways Classics”) turned out to be very good and well above expectations. I also refilled my wine glass.
Finally, I was offered cheese or dessert to round off the meal. Again I was amazed at the word “or”. The cheese board/cheese plate is usually given as a separate option before dessert. I chose to skip the cheese and go for dessert. There were two choices – summer pudding with mascarpone and lemon cake with citrus fruit and custard. I chose the first option. Coffee and tea were offered but as I wanted to go to bed afterwards, it had to be a cup of tea and a glass of whisky. There were three varieties of whisky to choose from, including Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Tea was served very elegantly in a white tea set with milk and sugar in separate bowls.
Overall, the food and drink tasted very well. The food however was somewhat ordinary and the three dishes are smaller than what most airlines offer as a main meal in first class. The serving was also relatively slow in relation to the number of dishes that were served.
Breakfast was to be served two hours before landing. I asked if it was possible to delay this to 90 minutes prior to arrival in order to maximise my sleeping time, with which they agreed.
The lights in the cabin were turned on two hours before landing, as i slept for another half an hour. Just as agreed, the steward came by to say good morning and to take my breakfast order. With him he also brought a hot towel. The breakfast was just like the dinner, an à la carte approach with several different breakfast dishes to choose from. Yogurt, muesli, fresh fruit were available as well as three different warm dishes.
I started breakfast with a fruit platter, a little yogurt and a fruit smoothie. I was also offered croissants and warm Danish pastries from a basket.
There were three choices of warm meals – traditional English breakfast, Arnold Bennett omelette and pancakes with pecans and blueberry compote. Since I was travelling with a British airline, I felt the English breakfast seemed like a natural choice. I generally find that an English breakfast is just too much in the morning but the breakfast on board actually tasted rather good and was well above expectations. Along with the meal, was toast and additional bread and croissants. I ordered a cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice to drink and was later offered a refill. The whole breakfast service took about an hour.
The service on board was both pleasant and elegant. In my row, it was primarily a young man in his 30’s who served me. He turned out to be Polish, however, he spoke with such a perfect British accent that his origin had been impossible to guess if he had not had a non-British name on his name tag.
He was exemplary in the way he served and dealt with me as a passenger. With great attention and proactivity and with all the high standards you should expect in first class. My name was used whenever the opportunity arose, and he asked if the pronunciation was correct at our first exchange. Each visit to my seat was finalised with the sentence “Is there anything else I can do for you?”, and it felt completely genuine. Their treatment was not too formal and there was room for joking and chatting, but it definitely did not feel stiff or artificial.
The downside of the service was the large number of passengers in first class. There were 12 passengers on board, who were served by two people, which meant six passengers per flight attendant. In comparison to many other airlines, it is quite a lot, and it showed. There was a pretty big difference in personal attention compared to flights where there were 6-7 people in first class.
The cabin crew at British Airways did a superb job but with the number of passengers to serve, it simply took longer before they could return to a passenger to take away dishes, offer more to drink or serve the next course.
After I drank my tea after dinner, I asked the steward to prepare my seat for the night while I changed into my pyjamas. In the meantime the seat was fully reclined to a horizontal bed and the pillow, mattress and quilt that was stored in the luggage shelf were brought down. I was also asked if they should wake me for breakfast, which I requested they do.
The seat was comfortable to sleep in and my pyjamas very cosy. With both a thick blanket and a rather warm cabin, it was, all in all, a bit too warm. I also lacked good shielding when the seat was fully reclined. As I was lying down, I looked straight into the aisle. The seat should be designed so that the head is naturally shielded in its horizontal position. With many small lamps in the cabin, I used eye guards from the toiletry bag to avoid being disturbed by the lights.
Before landing I switched back into my regular clothes while my bedding and the remaining breakfast china was cleared. The breakfast service had finished for the rest of the flight and again i heard the wonderful question, “Is there anything else I can do for you? ‘. A truly nice phrase to hear. With my remaining time on the flight, I watched a documentary about a man who would run 20 marathons in South Africa in Mandela’s footsteps.
The approach towards Seoul included a standard detour, undoubtedly to avoid flying into North Korean airspace. Before landing, a detailed inspection of the first-class cabin took place. Several of us had not yet put on our shoes and were asked to do this as the floor needed to be cleared for security reasons.
15 minutes late we landed at Incheon airport, a delay that was due to strong headwinds. Unlike Heathrow, two doors were opened and we in first class could leave via the front door. The handling of the priority tagged luggage was not optimal. Even though my bag had a yellow first class tag, it took some 50 bags to pass before my bag arrived on the belt.
British Airways new first class product is a clear improvement on the previous product with a really nice and cozy cabin and a good seat. Despite this, there is still a lot to work on if they are to match the tough competition. A compressed dinner with just three dishes, the main course which was unavailable, a fairly slow service because of the number of passengers and a packed lounge are some signs that they might have tried a little too hard to keep costs down while maximising the number of passengers.
On the positive side, I will mention a really delightful cabin, which made a great first impression when I came on board. The Polish steward who served me was absolutely superb and exemplary in his service and treatment. It was also very nice that they noticed this was my first flight with British Airways first class. As well, the pyjamas, toiletry bag and drink menu are areas where British Airways succeeded.