British Airways A321 (ex-Bmi) Club World29/07/2013
CHECK-IN I arrived at London Heathrow Terminal 1 at 0815, with exactly two hours until my flight to Baku, in Azerbaijan, at 1015. The BA check-in desks are in Zone B so I headed straight there. There was no queue for the business class desks (of which there were two open) so I was processed within one minute. (I had already checked in online the day before, with 24 hours of departure, so I was able to choose where I sat for free and print my boarding pass. I also selected a special vegetarian meal option.)
Once my case had been checked in, I entered the adjacent fast-track security channel – scanning my boarding pass to get through the automatic gates and into the waiting lane. The process was very slow, despite only about a dozen people ahead of me so I wasn't airside until 0840. I then made my way to the lounge, which I was told is near Gate 5, up a flight of escalators.
THE LOUNGE This spacious lounge used to belong to Bmi, before BA took it over last year, rebranding and revamping it. The venue was very quiet with barely any other passengers around so there was plenty of seating to choose from. Facilities in the smartly attired space with views of the runway through floor-to-ceiling windows include free wifi, a wide selection of magazines and newspapers (such as Business Traveller, Stylist, The Economist, New Statesman, Esquire, The Times and The Independent), a sleep area, and a business centre with eight PCs (though four of them were out of order) and a printer/photocopier.
A pleasing breakfast buffet was laid out, with options including bacon rolls, tomato and Portobello mushroom rolls and porridge on an Aga, plus counters with fruit, pastries, muffins and yoghurt. There was also tea, coffee from a machine and juice. An English pub-style area had a self-service bar with bottles of spirits and beer on tap. Flights are not called so I had to keep an eye on the screens for the status of my flight.
BOARDING The displays read “Go to gate” at 0905, but I didn't leave until 0925. It was roughly a ten-minute walk to Gate 39, back down the escalators and through the duty-free precinct. Boarding was in process when I got there, so was able to go straight on to the plane via an airbridge after having my documents checked.
Once in my business class seat in row two, I was offered a choice of Taittinger champagne, orange juice and water. My jacket was also taken and hung. All bags in the Club World cabin have to be placed in the overhead lockers for take-off and landing. The IFE system was turned on straight away for people to be able to watch films (CAA regulation was relaxed on this at the end of 2012) but only with the BA-provided noise-cancelling headphones (as opposed to your own) during take-off and landing. A pillow and blanket were also provided.
THE SEAT The seven additional A321s that BA now has used to be part of Bmi’s fleet, but when British Airways incorporated them last year, it retrofitted them with 23 new Thompson Aero fully flat beds in business (different to what you would normally expect to find in BA Club World). On this aircraft, Club World comprised eight rows, arranged in an alternating 1-2, then 2-1 (A, D-F/A-C, F) pattern. As opposed to BA’s normal Club World offering, which is in a yin-yang configuration of forward- and backward-facing seats, all seats face forwards on this A321.
I had originally been assigned aisle seat 3D, but changed it to solo seat 2F. The product is spacious, especially the solo seats, which have a huge amount of room either side in the form of table tops. The seat reclines 180 degrees into coffin-like opening in between or either side of the fixed shell seats in front. The 15.4-inch Thales 15000 IFE screens are built into the back of the seat shell in front and are touchscreen (there is also a remote in one of the side panels). Either side of the screen are fabric bottle holders and magazine slots (though on the pairs of seats there's only one bottle holder each and one shared magazine rack).
The fixed shell and upholstery of the seat is chocolate brown with polished wood and silver detailing. A control panel was on my right to adjust the legrest, lumbar support and angle of the seat. There were also buttons to make the massage function firmer or softer but this did not seem to do anything much except vibrate a bit. On the other side was a universal plug socket, USB port, headphone port and round charging port, easily accessible in the panel above the table. A sliding tray table came out too so you can eat or work on a laptop comfortably. No amenity kit was provided on this daytime sector.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? Unless you are travelling with a companion, always go for one of the solo seats (1A, 2F, 3A, 4F, 5A, 6F, 7A, 7F, 8F) as they are the most private, spacious and have direct aisle access and views out of the window. Twin aisle seats just have an armrest separating you from the gangway, whereas single pairs have two counter tops built-in either side (with the exception of 7F, which has a fold-down crew seat to the left). If you sit near the front you get served quicker.
Row seven is the exit row, while row eight is the back row, though note that sitting in 8F means you are behind a fold-down crew seat in place of 7D, which obstructs your view a bit. It’s probably best to avoid row eight if you are concerned about disturbance from babies in economy, and row one as there can be some noise from the galley. The washroom is at the front of the plane.
THE FLIGHT Once airborne, the seatbelt sign went out at 1045, and the drinks service began shortly after. There was no winelist or menu but I noticed there were two reds (a Château Blaignan, 2010, Cru Bourgeois, Medoc, Bordeaux, and Hahn Winery Pinot Noir, 2010, Monterey, California) and two whites (Le G de Château Guiraud, 2011, Bordeaux Blanc Sec, and Esser Chardonnay, 2011, Monterey, California), as well as champagne, and a good selection of spirits and beer.
I had a problem accessing some of the films I wanted to watch so a member of crew offered for me to move to the seat in front and also reset the system, instructing me to wait five minutes before trying again. But it didn’t help matters. I noticed other passengers were having similar problems too but I did manage to find a couple of films that played successfully.
Food was brought around at 1100, though my order for a vegetarian meal had not gone through. The same member of crew showed me his BA iPad with all the passenger details on to confirm this but he said he would make a note of my meal preference for future flights. Luckily, there was a veggie choice on board anyway so it wasn’t a problem.
Starters were of smoked salmon or stuffed vine leaves with hummus, sun-dried tomatoes and olives, which was delicious. There was also a choice of warm bread rolls and a side of iceberg lettuce with lemon vinaigrette. The main courses were of steak with creamy mushroom sauce, broccoli and carrots; chicken with spicy tomato ragout; and vegetable curry with okra, butternut squash, lentils and brown rice. I chose the last, which was served as a generous portion in a china bowl. I was also informed that the steak was excellent.
Dessert was a warm chocolate fondant or cheese and biscuits. I opted for the latter, which was very enjoyable – a hunk of Stilton and Double Gloucester (perhaps?) with quince jelly and a packet of charcoal, wheat and oat crackers.
I liked being able to have my meal tray on the counter by my left, while working on my laptop in front of me. It felt very comfortable – a proper little office area to spread out in, with my magazines and headphones on the counter to my right. The seat reclines to a relaxing “lounge” position and also to a fully flat bed. I wasn't tired but did lie down on it to see what it was like. It felt very comfortable and supportive, and I was impressed that such a good product was available on this mid-haul route, where the flight time is only about five hours.
Passengers disembarking at Baku
ARRIVAL The cabin prepared for landing at 1455 but passengers could continue watching the IFE using BA headphones. The plane landed in Baku at 1515 (1915 local time) and we disembarked after ten minutes down steps to an awaiting bus that drove us a short distance to the terminal.
At this point it became apparent how few people were in economy on the flight – I had already noticed there were only about seven people in business. There was a seven-minute wait at immigration, and then through to baggage reclaim on the other side. My priority-tagged case was through within ten minutes. Downtown Baku is a 30-minute drive away.
VERDICT I was very impressed with this new fully-flat business class product, especially with the amount of space you have in the solo seats and the large entertainment screens. The food was tasty, fresh and good quality, and the Taittinger champagne a nice treat. My only criticisms would be about the problems with the IFE and that the crew weren’t overly friendly.
CONFIGURATION 1-2/2-1 (A, D-F/A-C, F)
SEAT LENGTH 78in/198cm
SEAT WIDTH 20.5in/52cm
SEAT RECLINE 180 degrees