CHECK-IN I checked-in online within 24 hours of flight BA0039 departing from London Heathrow at 1645, which meant I could select my seat free of charge but was also faced with less choice. I had been assigned an economy class middle seat (never a good option) so I changed it to aisle seat 53C at the back of the plane, although I later got upgraded to premium economy.
For those willing to hand over £20 each way, they can secure a window seat more than 24 hours in advance, while exit row seats are £50 for between 14 and four days before departure. After entering my frequent flyer number (the journey earned me 60 tier points and 10,106 miles at the time), I printed my boarding pass.
I arrived at the airport at 1425, taking the lift from the underground station up to departures, and headed to check-in desks B/C/D. There were plenty open and only about five or six people waiting so it didn’t take longer than five minutes to be seen. I was promptly informed that I had been upgraded to World Traveller Plus (BA’s long-haul premium economy product) and assigned aisle seat 31J. My bag was checked in (two 23kg suitcases are allowed) and I was issued with a new boarding pass.
I transferred the few bottles of liquid I had in my hand-luggage to a plastic bag and waited five minutes for my passport to be approved, before joining one of the snaking lines at security. After eight minutes, I was airside, at 1445. The staff were very polite.
BOARDING Departure screens listed my flight as leaving from Satellite C, but from no particular gate, so I waited until 1615 when it finally showed as boarding. At this point I took the shuttle and got there ten minutes later, by which point the flight was on its final call and I was one of the last to board.
It was extremely hot on the plane and no drinks were offered so I wished I had brought a bottle of water with me. Once in my seat, I unpacked, put my flight socks on (no DVT for me thanks) and prepared for the journey ahead.
THE SEAT World Traveller Plus (WTP) is configured 2-4-2 (A-B, D-E-F-G, J-K) on this B747 and takes up four rows (28-31) in a section between business and economy class. The seat fabric was pretty old and worn, and was fitted with a footrest and seat-back pockets for magazines.
A bi-fold tray came out of the armrest, and there was a small (6.5-inch) screen on the back of the seat in front. Noise-reducing headphones, a blanket and a basic amenity kit containing socks, an eyemask, toothbrush and paste, were provided.
Legroom was restricted because of an in-flight entertainment (IFE) box under the seat in front, and the audio-video on-demand (AVOD) IFE system didn’t work properly as there was no moving map and the time until landing read “16 hours 18 minutes” even though it was less than ten hours from take-off. One washroom for premium economy was out of order so there were long queues for much of the time.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? Seats in row 28 offer the most legroom, as well as 29A and 29K, as there are no seats in front of these. Avoid middle seats 29-31E-F as you will have to climb over someone to get to the washrooms and they feel quite claustrophobic.
THE FLIGHT Take-off was delayed because of a baggage and technical problem but this was resolved within 30 minutes and the plane pushed back at 1715, half an hour late. We were at cruising altitude not long after, and at 1745 were informed that the drinks and then meal service would begin – there was a choice of chicken with lime and coconut or roast beef.
I had pre-ordered a vegetarian meal so double checked with a member of crew that they were aware that I had been upgraded and was, consequently, in a different seat. Passengers who have ordered special meals aren’t usually upgraded but, at the time, premium economy food was the same as in economy on BA, so it wasn’t a problem. Since October 30, British Airways introduced new World Traveller Plus catering (including special meals) in line with that served in business class.
My meal was served ahead of everyone else, and consisted of a humble couscous with roasted vegetables, which was averagely tasty but at least had a few herbs in it to add flavour. Alongside it came a bread roll, a salad with creamy vinaigrette, and tinned peaches with raspberry sauce. All in all, a satisfactory dinner, made better with a couple of gin and tonics.
The IFE system had a reasonable selection of recent releases and sound was good through my own noise-cancelling in-ear headphones. After watching a couple of movies, I settled down to sleep but couldn’t really get comfortable. I was finally roused a couple of hours before landing, cold and achy.
Breakfast was presented a little while later, and my vegetarian option was of hash browns, tomatoes, spinach and baked beans. It tasted a lot better than it looked and seemed quite fresh. The regulars for all other passengers were an English breakfast with sausage and scrambled egg or frittata. Tea and coffee was offered, and trays also came with juice, a pack of Sun Maid raisins and a very sweet pot of Dole tinned pineapple and peach in syrup.
ARRIVAL The seatbelt signs came on 20 minutes before landing, at which point I filled in my arrival card. The plane landed at 0230 UK time (1030 local time) and disembarkation was very quick and efficient. The airport terminal at Beijing looked very new, and was virtually empty.
Once inside I was greeted by a porter who escorted me through immigration (you can press a button with a happy or sad face to rate the service you are given) and then down to baggage reclaim, where there was a 15-minute wait for my case to come through.
I was then taken into landside arrivals and through the CIP (commercially important person) channel to an awaiting car that took me to my hotel – the Langham Place Airport. (For a review, click here.)
VERDICT Despite take-off being 30 minutes late, the pilot managed made up the time en route. Service and food was decent, and the IFE provided enough entertainment for this night flight. Being upgraded to premium economy was a bonus, although the worn out seat didn’t offer much additional comfort when it came to sleeping.
SEAT PITCH 38in/96.5cm
SEAT WIDTH 18.5in/47cm
SEAT RECLINE 7in/18cm
PRICE Internet rates for a return flight from London to Beijing in premium economy started from £1,246 in February.