My 747-400 Awaiting Departure in Seattle – Photo: Colin Cook

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.

British Airways Boeing 747-400 - Photo: Andrew W. Sieber | FlickrCC

British Airways Boeing 747-400 – Photo: Andrew W. Sieber | FlickrCC

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.

BONUS: MIXED EMOTIONS FLYING ON THE FINAL UNITED 747 FLIGHT

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!

The exclusive British Airways first class cabin – Photo: Colin Cook

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.

My very comfortable first class seat – Photo: Colin Cook

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.

Dinner menu for first class – Photo: Colin Cook

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.

My filet of beef – Photo: Colin Cook

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!).

The fantastic first class wine list – Photo: Colin Cook

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.

BA First Class Amenity Kit – Photo: Colin Cook

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.

There was a window in the loo! – Photo: Colin Cook

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!

CORRESPONDENT - SEATTLE, WA. Colin is an avid AvGeek who works in finance and is based in the Seattle area. He has an immense passion for aviation and loves to travel as much as possible. Email: colin@airlinereporter.com

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17 Comments
James Foster

I was lucky enough to do the revamped BA First to NY a few years back on a 777. It is a big step up from BA Club although the Heathrow T5 Galleries lounge table service restaurant was really below par that day – tables had not been cleared and the service was almost nonexistent. I may have just caught them on an off day perhaps – I haven’t yet had the opportunity to go First again! Look forward to the comparison with Virgin.

Hey James – glad you got to experience the BA First experience too! It’s definitely a step up from Club World. I didn’t end up going to the T5 galleries lounge, but went for the Concorde Room instead, which was pretty neat and had good food. After flying First, it’s always hard to go back to flying anything less.

Thanks for the review! I’m flying soon to Vegas on BA 747 First class – so now I know what to expect. Unfortunately won’t be able to test the Concorde Room, since Vegas flights leave from T3.

Thanks for the review. I am flying with my 11 year old daughter in May. They have us in a seat by the window and the middle seat next to her. We want to me as close as possible. Should we move to the two middle suites like you did? She would prefer a window seat of course.

Speedbird

I would recommend keeping that arrangement. The middle would be closer, but as a former 11 year old I can attest that the distance would not make up for the lack if a window. Besides, if someone else sat next to you you could always ask to trade!

Hi Mary – That’s a really tough question! Both Molly and I would have loved to have a window seat, but we liked the idea of being next to each other. My only comment is that you might have a harder time talking to one another, if you keep your current arrangement. It’s a tough question, but you will have a great experience either way!

Speedbird

In my personal experience talking with my parents was not too hard. And remember that you can always use the buddy seat that the First seat includes to eat, talk, and spend time with her. In fact you two could share a seat for everything except sleeping.

Thanks guys.
What is the buddy seat?
FYI, I am flying for business and using points for my daughter. I usually fly business class from Dulles on United. Our travel agent said it would be more thank 2k less to fly first on BA. I was required to take it. It was also 2k lower when I called directly for my daughter.
So getting a bid concerned.
Anyway, Colin, when you were next to your girlfriend, was their partition between you? Can you take it down?
I will go with the recommendation to just see how it goes, and I can always ask someone if they would like to move if necessary. Maybe I will even ask someone in Business class!

Speedbird

Colin- I am glad your first First experience was enjoyable! Personally I feel that this review was a bit glossy to what BA First really is, but I know BA First can be a hit or miss. In my case it was a spectacular miss with the cabin being dirty, food being barely edible, and the cabin crew being absolutely dreadful. They would just throw food and drinks on the table, and you had to ask for pretty much everything including sugar for tea. And a spoon to mix that sugar… May I ask when this flight was? I didn’t get to fly on a 747 when I flew early this January 🙁

James Foster

That sounds like a normal hit and miss BA. One day you can fly on them and the cabin crew couldn’t be more attentive – friendly; nonstop wine, leisurely meal, etc. Other times, you feel that your presence is a massive inconvenience. It also depends on the time of day, of course – as with most airlines. The late evening cabin service is normally done within an hour or so of takeoff then lights out!

Hi Speedbird – you are not wrong that the BA experience can occasionally be a bit lacking. When I have flown coach or business class, the overall experience can leave a bit to be desired sometimes. But for this particular flight, the first class flight was fantastic. The flight was from August, 2017, and I hope you get the chance to fly on a 747 before they are eventually all retired (though you have some time at least for BA).

747always

Random question. When does a first class seat turn into a suite? Is it when there are doors on it? As a former hotel professional, it irritates me no end to see individual seats termed as Suites. ITS NOT A SUITE WHEN ITS ONLY ONE PHYSICAL SPACE.
Apologies. Didnt mean to go all loco there 🙂

747Always – that’s a great question! BA defines their first class product as a suite, so that’s the terminology I went with. If you want to get super technical, it doesn’t have a door, so you could argue it’s not a suite. But it certainly provided a nice experience.

It’s called a suite, as you have more than a seat… you get a separate buddy seat, and usually they are individual pods….so its better than club seats which are usually in pairs.

I think that is a good summary: BA First is only an upgraded Business Class, not a proper First Class.
I am always amazed when I land at Heathrow T5C in “whatever BA sells as a First Class ticket” and I have to take the same transit as everyone else.

If you want to get wow-ed, try one La Première to/from Paris airport and you will see what is a proper First Class experience from beginning to the end.
Obviously this advice does not apply if you prefer the chewy burger with greasy fries from BA Concorde Room at Heathrow over French fine dining, queuing in line at security over someone taking care of immigration formalities for you and bonding with other passengers on the jetty over having a private limousine transfer to the aircraft.

Emily

Thanks for the review! Can you address the lack of storage space in the middle seats? Is there room to stash a small backpack (2nd carry-on?). I’d like to sit next to my spouse, but do like places to put all the items I will use during the flight (headphones, iPad, book, etc.) as well as sweater or sweatshirt.

I flew BA first class from DC to Heathrow last June. I was with my young daughter.  The middle row was absolutely the way to go.  There is a pull away shade between seats.  Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to talk.  I found plenty of space. Definitely for a backpack.  Have fun!

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