Good Advice Tried and Tested

British Airways B787-9 First

14/10/2015

BACKGROUND

We've reviewed British Airways' Dreamliner previously (click here) as well as the extended (longer) version of the B787-9, most recently on flights with Vietnam Airlines and Virgin Atlantic (click here).

The benefits of the Dreamliner, both environmentally in terms of fuel consumption and noise, as well as the added benefits for passengers of pressurisation on board, mood lighting and the size of the windows, have been covered extensively on this website.

British Airways B787-9

British Airways B787-9

The Dreamliner B787-9 landing at Heathrow

Notable improvements include a smoother ride, with built-in sensors countering the effects of turbulence, reducing nausea for those customers who suffer from motion sickness; higher cabin air pressure with an increased amount of oxygen and moisture in the air, helping to reduce the effects of jetlag and dry eyes; and integrated LED mood lighting system reflecting daylight and night time brightness to help counter jetlag.

With a total of 42 B787s (both the B787-8 and B787-9) destined to join British Airways, the aircraft will become a mainstay of the airline's fleet.

This review will focus on the new BA First seat installed on the B787-9. The B787-8 did not have First on board and was instead three-class - World Traveller (economy), World Traveller Plus (premium economy) and Club World (business).

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

The airline already has eight 787-8 Dreamliners, the first of which arrived in summer 2013.

The first of the its 787-9s (registration G-ZBKA) arrived at the end of September and, as it is 20ft longer than its 787-8 predecessor, features a cabin of eight First seats.

You can view a seatplan here and to learn about the different configurations of the aircraft as BA has set it up, click here. (For the record, the 787-8 features 214 seats across three cabins - the Club World cabin seats 35 business class customers, there are 25 seats in the aircraft’s World Traveller Plus cabin, and 154 in World Traveller. British Airways’ 787-8 Dreamliners fly to Austin, Calgary, Chengdu, Chennai, Hyderabad, New York, Philadelphia and Toronto.

The 787-9s have 216 seats: eight in First, 42 in Club World, 39 in World Traveller Plus and 127 in World Traveller. The seatmap is here. The aircraft will start flying in a few weeks down to Delhi. This flight was to Austin, and so was the first time the crew had served in First on the aircraft, and was used as a “proving” flight in many ways. We even had an engineer from Thales on-board to sort out teething problems with the Inflight Entertainment (IFE) system – and there were some – but it still gave a real sense of what the seat is like to fly in on a flight over nine hours in duration.

So what's different about this new First?

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

Seat 1A, before I made my "nest"

Take off

Just before take off. We were turning onto the runway - I wasn't flying it.

THE SEAT

There’s much that’s familiar about this new First, including the colour scheme of the cabin, the swoosh (actually called the speedmarque) of chrome pearlite aluminium and the slightly retro look of some of the fixtures and fittings, including the lamps, though this time it is on the table, not on the wall.

Cynics will say this is just rolling out a variation of the existing First, but consistency of experience is important to passengers. The new First suite has the BA signature style, but if you’ve sat next to passengers who get frustrated with the controls or the IFE or the whole flight experience, you’ll recognise that not everyone spends their life on an aircraft, or thinks it’s reasonable to have to read an instruction card just to get comfortable in the seat or watch a film.

BA does not want passengers to see noticeable differences in product and configuration and “have to learn a new seat”.

To see what it looks like on the A380, check out this library photo:

British Airways A380 First

Library photo of First on the A380

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

A view across the cabin from row 2

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

The instruction card

As the press release says: "The new First cabin was developed by Forpeople, London, working together with the airlines' in-house teams and leading British suppliers, including Prototrim, which developed the high quality soft leather and fabric trim within the suite and London based Pritchard Themis who worked on the suite and cabin lighting."

The leather suppliers are the same that supply to the automotive industry including Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover, but there are different standards for supplying a product onto an aircraft. So while all of the materials are bespoke, getting leather on board is a challenge because of stringent flammability and toxicity requirements, and all materials have to go through confidence testing to those criteria.

Given those restraints, it’s a lovely finish. The detail goes right down to the stitch gauge specification on the leather (five stitches per inch on the armrests and side ledge), the different ways of trimming the leather onto the armrest so it is lovely to touch, the size of the stitching, the thickness of the thread and the colour and treatment of it so over time with people rubbing their hands over it, it doesn’t become discoloured. This robustness explains why the interior walls (of which more, later) are dark at the top and light (sterling white carbon covering) on the interior is because people put their hands on it. On the inside wall of the seat there are also tusk and putty-coloured deco panels.

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

The jog dial (above) is made of knurled aluminium.

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

BA says "the cabin has dark neutrals contrasted with mid-tone neutrals". The leather is actually termed "Raven Black", though it doesn't look black to me. The credenza and the table both feature a silver barley pattern applied over a black base coat.

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin table

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

BA says that “… the new First suites have been designed based on feedback from First customers”.  So there’s the realisation that passengers on flights want to create their own “nest”, and that means having enough room to both spread out and also having things to hand. We don’t like to be parted from our belongings even at take-off and landing, so storage is all important. (Think of the frustration in Club Europe, when you are sitting at the front of the aircraft, but the overhead bins are used for crew equipment, and so you have to go back to retrieve your belongings, delaying your departure from the aircraft.

The most obvious difference is the higher walls to the seat, so high in fact that you half expect some of the sliding doors that some Middle East carriers introduced in First. This “nod” towards the suite concept does provide protection from the aisle but does not have the doors. I don’t think this is much of a loss. I’ve never been particularly wowed by the idea of sliding the doors shut, and the footfall through this small cabin isn’t such that you feel exposed in perhaps the same way you do in Club World when on the aisle. It means you can catch the eye of staff when they walk past and though I like privacy, I also like interacting with the flight attendants. When sitting in the seat if in a window seat the main focus are the two large windows and large IFE screen, while the centre seats allow you to travel with a friend or loved one without it being enforced (and the screen goes up as you’d expect).

A welcome change for some passengers is the extended ottoman seat to one side of the footrest below the screen. It means that with the seat in take-off or landing position those of a shorter disposition can rest their feet somewhere and relax. This is important since it can take a long time to taxi to the runway at busy airports, especially when you are nodding off after a long day’s work, or too many glasses of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle, Champagne served on board.

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin ottoman

This is the seat pulled forward

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin ottoman

And this is the seat pushed back, revealing my shoes.

This means that the full ottoman has gone in the sense that a companion could dine opposite you, though BA says it’s still possible for someone to sit opposite for a drink. They might be able to do this is they were quite small and agile, but not for long. The simplified ottoman footstool has been improved not only so it can be moved forward so you can rest your feet on it, but also to stop it dropping to the floor and causing disturbance to other passengers.

Feedback showed that being disturbed by heavy handed fellow passengers slamming doors shut or the IFE screen back into place or dropping the table down from it vertical to horizontal position causes a big impact not only to the seat but to the experience of those around. As a result all of the storages now have “soft closing”. They aren’t completely silent, but they are much more difficult to slam.

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

A downward-facing view of the new ottoman storage seat

The gain in the new design is in three new storage spaces and one adapted one (the wardrobe, since this is now inward facing rather than outwards). The first is new storage comes from beneath the ottoman in front of the wardrobe.

This is the largest of them but is an triangular shape, with an opening slightly smaller than the space beneath. You could certainly put your shoes in there and a couple of books, or even a bag, though it would need to have soft sides (a more rigid case, or even a laptop case would not fit).

The second is the new side compartment with an internal vanity mirror.

This is useful since it saves having to queue for the (one) washroom at the front on the left hand side just to check your make up or sort out contact lenses.

Note that the lower part of this storage isn’t a drawer – I nearly pulled off the leather façade trying to open the drawer – it isn’t one. The space above has been designed with the ipad in mind so it fits nicely in there, depending on the size of the case you have your ipad in.

There is also an extra storage space beneath the power points, which would be good for putting your ipad or phone while it charges. I found the ipad said “Not charging” when I plugged it in, but then it charged slowly and was fully charged by the time we landed.

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

The final new storage space, though really it is an adaptation of an existing one, is the integral wardrobe. It’s certainly an advantage that you can gain access to it from the seat (though if the lid of the ottoman seat is up at all you can’t), and it has more privacy, since with the existing one when you opened it the passengers opposite could see in.

That said, it is a very narrow wardrobe which would just take a suit and trousers, and perhaps a shirt around the one wooden hanger but nothing more. It is also shorter than the one in the existing first so you won’t be fitting anything longer than a jacket in there.  Shoes perhaps could drop into the ottoman bin just in front of it, but after that you will be storing larger items in the bin overhead or  give them to the flight attendants who have a wardrobe they can hang things in for you.

Having flown the new First several times since it was introduced on both B777 and A380s, I did not feel cramped in this new First, though it takes up a smaller amount of “real estate” than the First on those other aircraft. It is more compact, though this is more pronounced when you are looking down on it rather than sitting in it. The design is clever, and I’m tempted to compare it to the Tardis in that it is bigger on the inside than the outside - it seems a lot more spacious when you are sitting or lying in the suite than just looking down on it. The 1-2-1 configuration is  like the business cabins of, say, American Airlines, Finnair or Cathay Pacific, but once inside if sacrifices have been made to fit First into this new aircraft (which is smaller than the First cabin on the A380, obviously), they aren’t obvious when you are flying.

I’d also say that having never felt tempted to try buddy dining, even when travelling with my wife, I don’t miss that aspect, and do like being able to put up my feet while the taxi to the runway takes place, or I am reading a book or newspaper.

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

The side of the seat offers plenty of surface area to store items (though obviously not for landing or take off), and you could put your laptop over there while dining, which is what I did. A good example of an improvement is that the dining table which now slides out from beneath the side table rather than popping out from the top of it and then descending. It means you have the same amount of space, but don’t have to swap your belongings from one place to the other to put the table away.

There is a small gap between the table and the wall down which items fall and cannot be retrieved – items like a pen, for instance, or in my case only a usb stick. I could see it, but not get it back (a flight attendant got it with a knife).

It’s rather like the Club World seat where if you sit with your phone in your pocket and it slips out into the innards of the Club World seat, well, it will be there until engineering take the seat apart (the flight attendants have been told not to go into the seat or even move it once a phone goes in there since it could easily get crushed, and even immobilise or short circuit the seat). I was even told about a man who lost his wedding ring into the seat and was very concerned since he said his wife would not be understanding or even believing of the circumstances of the loss on his return from his long haul trip.

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

Another difference with the existing First is with the seat controls. As with First on other BA aircraft, the up and down is controlled by a "jog dial" (as well as there being preset positions), but in addition here is that by preselecting the “Light” icon, this also allows the lights to be dimmed or turned off as well, and these can be controlled individually. I liked the desk lamp. It might not be the most useful of lights, but it certainly is atmospheric, and also a touch art deco, I thought.

Talking of light, the window dimmers worked well, though you do have to keep pushing the panel quite hard to get them to either dim or lighten, so much so that it can feel like you are affecting the whole surround of the lower part of the window.

The cabin is certainly intimate, and the new sides to the seat create more privacy than was the case in the previous versions of First. There are no overhead bins above the central pairs of seats, though that’s because it is above this area that the crew rest is located. It means that the bins above the window seats are where all passenger bags are stowed. Normally I would say that this is something to bear in mind – that passengers will be accessing these bins during the flight and so if you don’t want to be disturbed, or even have a bag dropped on your head, perhaps the centre seats are the ones to consider. It’s different on this Dreamliner in First. The aisle is tight, and so when passengers are putting up bags or dropping them down from these overhead bins, it’s actually the passengers in the centre seats who are at risk, because as you pull the bag towards you, there’s a chance you almost topple over the wall of the seat behind you (the centre seat) and might drop the bag on the person there.

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

Lots of room in the overhead bins when you can store your bags this way - though of course plenty of flyers don't

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin IFE

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

The IFE system is top of the range Thales with a good range of movies and entertainment, and there’s the option of having, for instance, the map on the handset while you watch a film or the television on the main screen. As with most of these new systems, it does take a while to learn its intricacies. I don’t think it will be a problem for most flyers, but it’s not quite as instinctive as some, and it’s easy to quit a film when you just meant to pause it, and the moving map took five or 10 minutes to master, though once I had I enjoyed all the different possible views and information profiles possible on the route, particularly as we flew down though Canada almost over Quebec and Montreal.

To state the obvious, the new 23-inch fixed screen means you can have “gate-to-gate IFE” and don’t have to stow the screen into the side wall of the seat and then lean forward, craning your next as you prepare for landing and then taxi to the gate just to catch the end of the film.

Waiting at the seat was the regular Anya Hindmarch amenity bag. Slippers were also there along with Bose noise cancelling headphone. Pyjamas were available on frequent. Talking of amenity bags, there will be limited edition Burberry travel wallet for the inaugural flights to the various destinations the B787-9 is flying to starting with Delhi, and I’ve heard you will then be able to get them monogrammed at the Burberry store. This wasn’t an inaugural however, so I have no further details.

WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE?

I’d avoid the front row since the food and drink comes from there, and I’d especially avoid seat 1A where I was sitting (despite it being a favourite of mine since that Concorde Flight to the Caribbean, but that’s another story) because the washroom is on that side, I would go for the second row, probably 2K. In that row you only have the first Club World Cabin (there are two) behind you. I've been told there is no baby bassinet in that cabin, deliberately, so it should be quiet.

The choice of window or aisle depends on whether you are travelling alone. Bear in mind there’s no extra storage for window seats (no side bins) but you won’t get bags dropped on your head in the window seats and you might in the centre seats. I’d go for 2A or 2K

THE FLIGHT

This was a flight down to Austin, Texas - BA0191,departing 1155 and taking over nine hours. It was  the first B787-9 flight for the crew, but they’d all been flying the B787 and all had experience of First on other aircraft, and it showed since they knew what they were doing. There were some things missing – duvets, for instance, so the pictures of the seat reclined don’t have those – the coffee pods for the Nespresso machine, but otherwise it was First all the way.

This review is already too long, so I’ll do this quickly since there wasn’t anything extraordinary about the flight. I did speak with the pilot briefly and he said the aircraft made it easier to avoid turbulence, and the flight was very smooth.

For the record, and feel free to skip, here is the menu and the drinks served on board.

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin Menu

Lunch

Starters:

  • Salmon, crab boudin and poached lobster with lemon, pickled Thai shallots and salsify puree
  • Poached Williams pear salad with Oxford blue, Muscat grapes, macadamia nuts and Port and red currant dressing
  • Autumn chicken broth with pearl barley
  • Fresh seasonal salad with a choice of honey mustard dressing or Caesar salad

Main courses

  • Seared fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef with salt beef croquette, spinach pomme puree, king oyster mushroom, salsify batons, tomato and gherkin jus
  • Seared sustainably sourced North Atlantic cod fillet, flaked salt cod and pistachio and cauliflower couscous with verjus dressing
  • Glazed pork belly and popcorn port crackling with cocotte potatoes, roasted baby apples and Calvados sauce
  • Salad of warm Szechuan chicken with crisp vegetables and a chilli and soy dressing

Bistro selection

  • Fusili pasta with Taleggio cheese, herb crème fraiche, girolle mushroom and crisp garlic croutons
  • Corn-fed chicken and prosciutto ham in Manoucher olive tikka bread with marinated vegetables, mozzarella nd basil pesto

Desserts

  • Apple and blackberry crème brulee twist
  • Chocolate and hazelnut bread and butter pudding
  • Madagascan vanilla ice cream

Cheese plate

Cornish Kern, Harrogate Blue, Quickes Red Leicester, Normandy Camembert

Drinks:

  • Kir Royale
  • Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle Champagne
  • Champagne Mario-Bosser Premier Cru Blanc De Blancs Extra Brut
  • Duval-Leroy Rose Prestige Premier Cru NV

Whites

  • Chablis Grand Cru Bougros 2010, William Fevre, Burgundy
  • Sancerre Les Chaseignes 2013, Domaine Fouassier, France
  • Cline Cellars, Marsanne / Rousanne 2013, Sonoma Coast

Red wines

  • Chateau Balestard la Tonelle 2008, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classe, Bordeaux
  • Siduri Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, California
  • Catena Alta Malbec 2011, Medonza, Argentina

Dessert

  • Muskat Ottonel Schilfen 2012, Weingut Willi Opitz, Burgenland, Austria
  • Warre’s 2000 Colheita Tawny Port

At the risk of being an anti-climax, the flight passed off without incident.

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

British Airways B787-9 First Cabin

Although it was a day flight I wanted to see what the bed was like for sleeping, so I reclind it and did go to sleep for a couple of hours. Usually you would have a mattress topper and duvet for this, but because First wasn't being sold on the flight, there actually weren't any duvets, so this picture doesn't reflect the full service.

That said I had no problem sleeping, and the bed is comfortable, with a good cushion mattress and lots of room for turning over, sleeping on your side and there's no problem with foot space, even if you deliberately move your feet down to the end of the bed (which I tested to see what it would be like if I was over six foot tall).

VERDICT

Well hopefully if you've read the piece rather than skipping to here, you'll know what the verdict is.

This is a thoughtful updating of the First product, addressing many of the issues passengers have identified, and making the most of what is a small space (the B787-9 has a narrower fuselage than a B777).

Regular flyers in First will welcome it, and those hoping for upgrades or using their miles will enjoy it as well.

British Airways B787-9 at Austin

Arrived in Austin


FACT FILE

Seat width: 38 inches (at the shoulders, when fully reclined)

Seat length: 6 foot 6 inches

Prices: Delhi – First class is from £2,745. World Traveller starts from £438 return, World Traveller Plus starts from £767 return, Club World starts from £1,657 return
ba.com

Tom Otley