CHECK-IN I was on the 1005 departure on BA259 for Los Angeles from Heathrow Terminal 5. British Airways has three daily departures to Los Angeles at 1005 (0955 on Sunday), 1205, and 1600 – and this frequency was in part the reason for choosing it over several heavyweight competitors sharing the route from Heathrow including Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand, Air France and American Airlines. Since I was flying there for an evening function I wanted the first flight out, and then, because of meetings the following day, the last flight back the following evening (the choice is 1540, 1745 and 2115), and the only airline able to offer this was BA.
THE SEAT We were boarding at Gate 37, and there was a separate fast-track queue for business, first, and silver and gold Executive Club members. The flight was served by a Boeing 747-400 in a High-J configuration (see seatplans.com/british-airways), meaning that when boarding you turn left and walk through the World Traveller Plus cabin to the front of the aircraft where there are 14 first class seats.
Although all these seats are excellent, some are better than others. I was in 5K, a window seat, but one which backs onto the galley, which inevitably means it is noisier. The overhead locker is also used to store the pillows for the cabin, so effectively there is nowhere to store your bags, and although the staff were helpful, it meant I had to use the locker at the front of the aircraft where the coats are hung. This meant walking down there every time I wanted to get something out of my bags, and also meant I disturbed the two passengers in window seats 1A and 1K, so avoid these ones as well. So what’s left? The best seats for individual travellers are window seats 2A, 2K, 3A, 3K , 4A and 4K. For those travelling with a colleague or partner, the two double seats are in rows four and five (4E and 4F, 5E and 5F), though note that these have no overhead lockers either, so you may well be stowing your bags in the front locker as well.
THE FLIGHT It’s been 18 months since I last travelled in First on BA and the only change is the new AVOD entertainment system, installed as the B747 fleet upgraded to the new Club World seat, and it’s a very welcome addition. Otherwise the cabin is luxurious but dated, and needs the upgrade which is coming in 2009, although when exactly is still uncertain. Each seat is cleverly angled so there is no reason to look at anyone else (privilege is all about privacy), and this might be worth paying extra for as Club World seats are arranged in a yin-yang forward-backward arrangement offering less seclusion). The colour scheme is dominated by pale wood-effect walls in each suite, beige seat furnishings and blue plastic surrounds.
After sitting down, we were offered an Anya Hindmarch toiletry bag, with products from Penhaligons including body lotion (does anyone use body lotion?) facial moisturiser, lip balm, eye balm, Elgydium anti-plaque toothpaste and mouthwash. A shaving kit was available on demand. Penhaligons toiletries were also available in the washrooms. Although it was a day flight, there was the option of a sleep suit, and I was very pleased to have been judged just “medium size”. Drinks were then offered, including Taittinger Prélude Grands Crus champagne, which was too much for me to resist after the seven days and counting of not a drop of alcohol, even before I read that its “initial mineral notes develop into green floral scents with a hint of elderflower”.
As it says in the High Life onboard magazine, “you can power your laptop on board in First, Club World and World Traveller Plus across our 747, 777 and 767 long-haul fleet, but you cannot recharge your battery”. In the new Club World, only a standard plug is needed to access the in-seat power, but in First a special adapter is needed, which costs £69 from the onboard duty-free catalogue. I asked if there were any I could borrow and the staff were excellent in immediately giving me one so I could work on the journey. That said, the connection was dodgy, so my laptop was touch and go, but it did manage to function for the whole flight.
There were three cabin staff allocated for the 14 passengers, and the extra training they receive was obvious from their interpersonal skills and attentiveness to the passengers’ demands, although luckily for them, on this busy flight it was obvious that I was the most demanding.
To take one example, when giving bad news such as the absence of the “Liquid Gold” Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva from Monte Vibiano, irrepressibly described on the menu as “a very special olive oil from hand-picked olives, pressed at low temperatures, and bottled within six hours”, the flight attendant apologised while kneeling down by the side of my seat. This meant I didn’t have to crane my neck looking up at her, and she conveyed just right amount of concern as well as a physical manifestation of the apology she was offering.
I’m not suggesting that everyone at BA, or any other airline, should have to get on their knees when something goes wrong, but there’s no doubt it creates an impression, and makes it very difficult to wonder aloud just exactly what you get for several thousand pounds these days. If you think this is a little thing, then consider just what effort it takes for crew to crouch down like this on a ten-hour sector. It’s impressive, and BA staff deserve recognition for it.
THE FOOD The lunch menu included Liam Tomlin’s poached lobster tail and claw with soy and mirin dressing, and fresh salad leaves with a choice of ranch dressing or herb vinaigrette to start, along with a main of chargrilled steak with port-neuf potatoes, parsley butter, fresh garden peas, tomatoes and mushrooms. Dessert choices included Vineet Bhatia’s chocolate silk torte, and cheeses such as Coastal Cheddar, white Stilton with cranberries and Somerset Rustic, along with a basket of fresh fruit.
Later snacks included a tuna and black olive melt, and penne pasta with a choice of either puttanesca sauce or creamy garlic and herb sauce served with grated Parmesan cheese, and garlic and herb croutons, all of which proved hard to resist. After a short sleep there was the chance to do more work and then the offer of a selection of sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, and tea and coffee.
ARRIVAL We arrived on time into LAX and, after a short wait for a tow vehicle to take us to the stand, we were on an airbridge. The position of the World Traveller Plus cabin means a few of those passengers got off before those in First, but the crew once again did an admirable job in allowing us precedence.
VERDICT Excellent. The design is a little worn now, but the service is superb and the addition of the AVOD in-flight entertainment will keep it going until the upgrade of First, which has been subject to delays but should be coming sometime in 2009.
PRICE Return fares for a first class flight from London to Los Angeles including a Saturday-night stay started from £9,415 online.