FIRST IMPRESSIONS Even though BA’s first class was upgraded in February 2007, there are already strong rumours that it will be replaced by a new product at some point next year. If the talk is true, then this could be the last incarnation of the current flat bed, which we tested on a return flight from Hong Kong to London Heathrow.
CHECK-IN Having checked in at ba.com that morning, I was in no rush to get to Chek Lap Kok International airport, and used the excellent baggage facility at the Airport Express terminal in Central. The first class checked baggage allowance is the same as that for business (Club World): three pieces of luggage, none weighing more than 23kg. (At the time of writing these restrictions were being waived, with bags up to 32kg being allowed, but the restrictions will soon be fully in force, making large suitcases a thing of the past). All passengers, of course, are currently restricted to one piece of hand luggage.
THE LOUNGE At Hong Kong airport the BA lounge is shared with Qantas, and British Airways is opposite Gate 15. Access to the first class lounge is through the business class lounge, which is very similar in appearance with similar drinks and amenities. The first class lounge is just as noisy as the business class lounge, partly because of Qantas passengers having access, and partly because anyone with a Gold card can use it. I waited until my flight was called at 2400 and walked down to Gate 16.
THE SEAT The general colour scheme (originally designed by Kelly Hoppen) is blue and taupe, and in the narrow space of the cabin, succeeds in creating a feeling of warm intimacy rather than claustrophobia – there are only 14 seats in the cabin. All of them were occupied by the time the seat-belt light came on, but without that eye-
to-eye Club World yin-yang effect it felt more private.
The seats meet the windows at an oblique angle, so that your feet are by the window resting on an ottoman or buddy seat (strong enough for a companion passenger to sit on and join you when dining if required). It means that these single seats are angled in a way that keeps your line of sight uninterrupted as the wood-effect (burr walnut, to be precise) sides of the seat curve around you. There are copies of a First Life magazine, full of adverts for sports yachts and luxury timepieces (watches, to you and me).
The service was of a very high standard – personalised, friendly, respectful, everything those used to being served would expect (I imagine). Along with an Anya Hindmarch brown velvet toiletry bag filled with Kiehls products, the sleep suits (made from high-quality cotton) and slippers (in navy blue with camel trim) were handed out in advance so that we could get changed before take-off. And, of course, champagne was served, a Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995.
THE FLIGHT We took off on time and, once in the air, the first class service swung into action. The meals consisted of four options for both starters and main courses. I chose sweetcorn soup with cheese croutons, followed by Paisarn Cheewinsiriwat’s green chicken curry, with cucumber relish and lime and lemongrass brown rice, this last highlighted as a health choice. Unfortunately, although this was a delicious it was too spicy for me, but the flight attendant was quick to offer several alternatives. There was also the option of snacks including bacon rolls, fresh pasta with a choice of sauces and chocolates.
The in-flight entertainment available in first depends on whether you are flying on a plane which has the new Club World installed. If it has, then there will be the new audio and visual on demand (AVOD) system. If not, you do have a better choice than the rest of the plane, but it’s nothing compared to the new product. That said, the AVOD continues to have significant operational problems and indeed on the last long-haul flight I took, it failed to work for the entire journey.
For sleeping, the seat (20 inches wide) reclined backwards to a horizontal 6ft 6in flat bed, with a choice of several pillows and a good duvet. It might have been nice to have had the option of getting the bed made up for me as I wasn’t sure if there were sheets available to cover the seat. But I later learned that a turndown service is available, with the cabin crew laying out bedding with Egyptian cotton sheets and an Aroma Therapeutics “Sleep Enhancer” spray placed on the pillow. Since this was on request I missed out, so perhaps there might be a more effective way of notifying passengers of its availability. Nevertheless, sleep was easy to come by and the front of the plane was quieter, perhaps because of the small cabin size.
ARRIVAL I woke about two hours before landing and had a light breakfast before we landed early at 0610. After landing, there was a 15-minute taxi to the gate and although I made up time using the IRIS gate at immigration, there was then a 25-minute wait for my bags (at least the “first” label on it worked, and mine was one of the first on the carousel). A first arrivals lounge is available, but it was a Saturday morning, and getting out of Heathrow was a priority.
VERDICT Excellent. It’s not the newest first class in the sky, and compared with, say, Etihad, Emirates, Jet or Qatar is very unshowy and feels, well, very traditional. Nevertheless, it was quietly effective and, as an on-board experience, is still very much first division, as well as first class.
PRICE A typical first class return fare from London Heathrow to Hong Kong costs £6,950.