In late 2016, my girlfriend Molly and I began planning a 2017 trip to Europe, with the goal of using points and miles to fly in a premium cabin. After considerable research, we ended up flying on a British Airways 747-400 to London, and on a Virgin Atlantic 787-9 home. This first post will review our British Airways first class experience, and the second will review the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class (business class) product.
One of the items on my AvGeek bucket list has been to fly international first class. I’ve had some wonderful experiences flying international business class (Air Canada 767, Lufthansa 747-8, and British Airways 777-300ER), but I’ve never had the chance for the best of the best. That all changed with this trip. I was already excited to be flying in first class, but I also unlocked another AvGeek desire: I was able to make the coveted “left turn” upon boarding the aircraft. When I have flown in a premium cabin previously, I have always boarded from the front left door. Sure, sure, there are benefits to both, but if you’re a passionate flyer, you can probably understand my excitement.
Molly and I had started planning for our European vacation nearly nine months prior to departure, leaving plenty of anticipation. When we started looking at different European options, there were many business class options, but I was hoping for the first class experience. We wanted to use our very valuable Alaska Airlines miles, as they are partners with British Airways. When initially booking, I found a flight on a BA 777 to London, via Houston. While direct flights are always ideal, we were elated to have found a flight with first class availability.
In the months and weeks leading up to our departure, I constantly monitored the Alaska Airlines website in search of a direct flight from Seattle to London. Much to my delight, about one week prior to departure, seats on the direct flight opened up! When I looked closer, I discovered this flight would be even more special – it was operated on a 747-400. The Queen of the Skies is quickly being retired by most U.S. airlines (both Delta and United are retired their fleet recently), but British Airways plans to continue to operate the type for years to come. I quickly changed flights and we were all set for the direct flight to London.
Once we arrived at Sea-Tac International Airport, we completed our passport check and made our way to the British Airways first class lounge. Their first class lounge is actually a small room located within their Galleries business class lounge. While the first class room is a bit small, the food was tasty and it had a nice view of the airfield. One downside: while there was a server that periodically comes to take drink orders, she was not frequently available. So to get a cocktail, we had to visit the bar window in the main business class lounge.
As the time to board arrived, we made our way from the lounge downstairs to the boarding gate. We had evidently missed the first and business class boarding, so we had to wait and board with the main cabin. I was quite surprised that British Airways does not maintain a dedicated first and business class boarding line. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long, but I surely wasn’t feeling this was a first class experience so far. Lucky for us, the experience was about to change!
As we boarded, we were immediately greeted by the purser who introduced himself and walked us to our seats. As we began to settle in, it was clear that this would be no ordinary international flight. The flight attendants came by to offer us pajamas, an amenity kit, and a glass of champagne. The first class cabin is laid out with individual suites along the windows, and two sets of suites in the middle of the cabin. If you are traveling alone, I highly recommend the suites along the windows, as they provide tremendous privacy and a closet to store belongings. Since I was traveling with my girlfriend, we selected the middle suites so that we could chat and share the experience. The suite had considerable legroom and plenty of space to stretch out. I was a little disappointed that there was not much storage room in the middle suites, as the window suites had tons of storage. The sconces in the suite were a nice touch and their traditional look made me feel like I was already in London.
Once airborne, the purser came around again to introduce himself and greet us by name. It was a nice touch and he spent some time with us to ask about our trip and plans while in Europe. That helped to set the mood and expectations for the flight, as his staff was thoughtful and kind throughout the flight.
The beverage selection was incredible and offered many different options. I was delighted to try Johnny Walker Blue Label scotch, which did not disappoint. My girlfriend sampled some of the champagne and sparkling rose, which was delicious as well. From there, we began our first course of salad, which had a tasty balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
For entrees, I selected the filet of beef, and Molly went with the salmon. The beef was prepared well, but I still have yet to experience a truly magnificent steak at 35,000 feet. I found it to be a bit dry, but had good flavor overall. Following our main course, dessert was offered, which was definitely the highlight of the meal. We both opted for the cheesecake, which was incredibly flavorful, and a great way to end our first meal service.
British Airways has their first class cabin in the front of the 747’s main deck, which helped it to feel like an exclusive experience — there are no other passengers or crew walking through. The flight attendants were attentive and our beverage glasses were never empty for long. They even let us take a quick tour of the upper deck which was a delight for Molly as well (she has quickly adapted to my AvGeek ways!).
Another highlight of the flight was the amenity kit. British Airways first class amenity kits are provided by Liberty of London, which is a high-end handbag store. We found the bags to be stocked with all the necessities, and also something we will use in the future. The bags were well-made, and very beautiful in color. While in London, we made a point to visit Liberty, which had many high-end bags for Molly to explore as well.
Overall, our experience was nothing short of phenomenal. I have often heard of the British Airways first class disparagingly referred to as the “world’s best business class”, which I’m not sure does it justice. Comparing it to my BA Club World (business class) experience, there was a noticeable step up in comfort and satisfaction. I can say with ease that this truly was the best flight I have ever been on, and one which will stick in my memory for years to come.
We truly received considerable bang for our buck with this award flight. While British Airways imposes hefty taxes on award reservations, it was definitely worth it for this experience. While it may not be on par with some of the other international carriers’ first class cabins (Singapore, Ethiad, Emirates, etc), British Airways’ first class thoroughly delighted. Both the hard and soft products were great, and the flight crew’s attention to detail was fantastic.
The old guard of British Airways did not disappoint, but I was very interested to see how it would compare to my Virgin Atlantic 787-9 Dreamliner flight home. Stay tuned for part two of this story coming soon!