Good Advice Tried and Tested

Tried and tested: British Airways B747-400 Mid J, First


First impressions: I had checked in for this flight the day before. I was travelling with my wife, and so selected seats 5E and 5F being one of only two pairs where we could sit together in the First cabin (the other being 4E and 4F). We arrived at Heathrow Terminal 5 at 1030 and dropped off a bag at the dedicated First area at the north end of the terminal. When we arrived we were told that the Inflight Entertainment in seat 5F had been reported as faulty, and we now had seats 5A and 5F, not together but across the aisle from one another, though since 5F would now be blocked off, we could always sit with one another if the distance became unbearable. We were also told that the flight would go from a B gate.

We went through fast track security, which had no queue, and then through the door immediately on the right and into the Concorde Lounge for a snack and a glass of Champagne, Cattier Clos du Moulin, served in lovely large champagne flute. I checked whether there were any treatment times available at the Elemis spa, but as usual there was a 90-minute wait and we would have missed our flight.

Boarding: We walked out of the Concorde Room door, took the escalators down to the transit across to Gates B and C, and arrived at Gate 46 just as boarding commenced. There was a dedicated queue for BA Gold and Silver Card holders and those flying in business and first but this wasn’t policed and so everyone surged forward in both queues. Once on board we were offered drinks, my jacket was taken. I was asked for my boarding pass to identify my jacket, which I thought odd since there were only 13 of us in the cabin (5F being unoccupied because of the IFE fault). Just before take off another flight attendant gave me my boarding pass back, telling me that it had my baggage tag attached to it (my wife's actually). This was conveyed in a tone that I ought to have known better. It was a tone I heard often in the next nine hours.

Despite my bag being under 115 cm, it barely fit in the overhead compartment, but the flight attendant quite happily watched me fight to get it in, which I did. While waiting for take off I heard a man ask about charging his various electronic devices, something that is impossible unless you have the very old adaptor necessary. He asked if he could charge it somewhere else in the aircraft – Club World, for instance, now has standard sockets, or even the galley, but was told no.

As we moved away from the stand the cabin crew realised that the flight safety video was about to show but no one had their inflight entertainment screens out and so they rushed round to open them for us. I missed the first 30 seconds as a result, but have memorised it in the past. On take off, one of the front wardrobe doors flapped open and magazines fell into the cabin in slow motion for a minute or so, giving a shambolic air to proceedings.  

The seat: As can be seen from the seatplans here, this flight on the Boeing B747-40 has 14 seats in the First cabin located in the nose of the aircraft. Immediately behind the cabin is the galley with two washrooms on the port side of the aircraft, and then the WTP cabin. This was the old First class product, and it showed. The carpet was old and did not look very clean. The seat is a good size, and because of the lack of overhead lockers in the centre of the cabin, there is a feeling of space, although at the back in row 5 this can mean eye contact with everyone in this row. You are also served long after everyone else in the cabin, and this can affect the choice if they run out of dishes, as I found to my cost.

The champagne on board was described as Taittinger Brut Millesime 2004 but I had my doubts after a glass and so went back and checked and saw it was standard Taittinger. I asked the flight attendant and she confirmed this was the case. I then tried the new “Great English Discovery Wine”, namely a Hush Heath Balfour Brut Rose Sparkling Wine, Kent, England which I thought was perfectly drinkable, but resistible.

Food: By all means skip over this part if menus bore you.

Starters: chicken, chorizo and pepper terrine wrapped in Parma ham with tomato and olive dressing, Mille-feuille of artichokes, peas and broad beans with Parmesan cream sauce (V), Fennel veloute (V), fresh summer salad with your choise of balsamic dressing with golden rapeseed oil, creamy mint and black pepper dressing or olive oil.

Main courses were “British Airways Classics” –Seared rib-eye of Herefordshire breed with green peppercorn sauce, point-neuf potatoes and a salad of sun-blushed tomato with French beans, duo of Loch Duart salmon and gilthead bream with poached vegetables with saffron jus and a seafood medley, Roast Gresingham duckling with marinated cherries, macedoine of vegetables and potato and celeriac rosti, Caesar salad with grilled Tiger prawns and brioche croutons.

I was the last to be asked for my choices, and inevitably my first choice, the Caesar salad with prawns was finished. I know there are limits to what airlines can achieve in the sky, but if I had paid several thousand pounds for this ticket (instead of it being on miles), I’m not sure I would have been quite so understanding.  Instead I chose from the “Bistro Selection”- asparagus ravioli with spinach and nutmeg sauce, crème cheese and seared cherry tomato. This was very bland.

Also available (at least it was listed on the menu) was another “BA Classic” – Roast Mediterranean vegetables on toasted Manoucher bread with Feta and coriander pesto. Desserts were white chocolate panna cotta with apricot and mint compote or cherry crumble with custard. Cheese plate: Cropwell Bishop Stilton, Camembert, Gevrik and Gubeen.

The IFE choice was fairly miserable, and there were no films I wanted to watch (though to be fair my wife watched three, mostly starring Jennifer Aniston), so I slept for a few hours. When I woke I went through to the galley where there was one flight attendant and I asked for a spicy tomato juice and we chatted about how old the First class product was. About an hour before landing we were offered sandwiches for afternoon tea, as well as scones and Orange Blossom financier with blueberry mousse, Black Forest cake and Mascarpone choux with raspberry. Lots of tea choices, including English breakfast, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, Pure Green, Pure Camomile, Peppermint, Lemon and Ginger or Blackcurrant, Ginseng and vanilla.

Arrival: In contrast to previous flights, there wasn’t much tidying of the cabin before landing, and the seat next to me, where I had left the newspapers and magazines I had finished reading was loaded not only with these but some blankets that one of the flight attendants had left there.

No one came round to check seatbelts, and as we landed I noticed that passengers still had shoes / hand bags tucked under the ottoman seat in front, something that most BA flights are very strict about. As the doors opened, I asked for my jacket, and this was then brought to me which only slightly delayed my departure from the aircraft. We were quickly through security, but then there was a long wait for the bags at the baggage carousel, and they finally arrived some 45 minutes after arriving at the gate

Verdict: Pretty terrible. The First seat and cabin is very tired and doesn’t even get cleaned very well, judging by the state of it when we arrived on board. The food choice was poor, certainly nothing  above Club World, and ran out before my selection in any case. The champagne served wasn’t the same as on the list, the staff spent more time audibly chatting in the galley when they should have been out serving.

Throughout the flight it was the worst of the frostily polite non-service that BA is trying to move away from, a long-suffering professional air to it, and behind that, a superiority to passengers who are treated as children, either naughty, or slightly slow. It’s one thing for staff to have the attitude that they are firstly here for our safety, and only afterwards to make sure we have a pleasant flight, but if they then neglect safety and then don’t do the service anyway, it really shows up what poor value First can be.

I’ve flown First and ClubWorld many times where the crew are excellent, but when they are poor in First, it’s particularly noticeable because there are three of them and only a maximum of 14 of you, and because your expectations are higher. It is supposed to be a treat flying in First but I don’t think anyone on this flight felt that way by the time the flight ended. That’s the sort of failure which, when your product is as old as this, is unforgiveable. I honestly don’t think this crew could have cared less, though.


Tom Otley