British Airways started to reopen its lounges on Saturday July 4, 2020, with its First and Arrivals lounge, as well as Galleries South, all at Terminal 5.
The plan is for the re-openings to gradually roll out over the coming weeks.
I had the chance to try out the First lounge at Heathrow this week (Tuesday July 7, 2020) a few days after it had reopened. I was flying on an Iberia flight to Madrid from Terminal 5, and so got there early to see what was on offer in the lounge.
I took some video which I will place into this review when it is edited.
Heathrow is trialling some temperature checks, but if it was there I didn’t see it.
I used the First Wing to get to the lounge, though I had to drop my bag at Zone E first for the Iberia flight.
On the way into the lounge I was given a Welcome Card. The purpose of this is two-fold (pun intended). One side indicates you are still using your seat, and the other says you have left and the seat can be cleaned.
There weren’t many flights departing from T5 that afternoon and the lounge, not surprisingly, had only perhaps 30 people in it. What it did have was a family with young children and two parents who had a broken volume control and spoke as though giving a TED talk, whether to their own children or any passing staff
“It says I need a password. For the WiFi. It says I need a password. What sort of juice do you want, honey? What sort of juice do you have?” (Brief silence while the father is told what juice the lounge has.) “He says they have….”
And so on. Funny how you hope for an empty lounge, and then you get one. Almost.
The family realised their flight to Boston (American Airlines) was boarding, and so shouted for five minutes at each other and then the staff (“What’s the quickest way out of this lounge to the gate, buddy?”) and then left.
Then a lady sat down, made a Skype call while wearing headphones by yelling into the air, through a face mask. Happily, she quickly realised she had left her laptop at security, told everyone in the lounge, three times and ran out. She came back, but not for long, because her flight was…. and we got all the detail.
Food and drink
Well, the bad news first, all the self-serve options and buffets have gone.
Instead you have QR codes on the tables which identify your location, and also allow you to access a menu.
At first I couldn’t get this to work (the password was all lower case) so I managed to get a picture of one side of the paper menu (from the pocket of the attendant).
Then it worked. These are some of the options.
The lounge has been de-cluttered with the seats spaced out more than before. There are fewer of the lower tables, and some sections are completely closed off. Chief of those is where the main buffet food area used to be. This now is a food preparation area, though at the moment it is fairly empty.
Also all the tea and coffee-making areas are closed off, at least for the moment.
And where there used to be an area where you could pour champagne, this is now the bar.
And where the buffet and dining area used to be, you have this….
So what’s it like in the lounges and also travelling through the airport? Well as you would expect, there are hand sanitiser dispenses all around the lounge just as there are in the terminal .
The lounge was recognisable in so many ways, yet different in many others.
In layout, it is more spacious, but there are several sections closed off, including the terrace, which for the moment is reserved for passengers flying in First (and Gold Guest List, I suppose), and also the dining area.
The lesser-visited business area beyond the main toilets was also closed off, probably because of problems with keeping the area clean, though I’m sure that will be solved.
And then there’s those using the lounge. Ignoring the noisy ones (and I tried), the interaction between passenegrs is now very wary, and it doesn’t make the experience very relaxing.
To take one example (and these observations are obviously based on a small sample size), some passengers have always been keen to spread out. They lay jackets and bags on surrounding seats to mark out their territory, and even with the lounge filling up you’d have to ask them to make space for somewhere for you to sit. This spreading out is much less necessary now, with furniture removed and larger gaps between seats (there are a few Perspex screens between banks of seats), yet still they did it, and with the pandemic, it’s easier to understand why. Everyone’s perception of risk is different, after all. Better safe than sorry seemed to be the attitude, but when you see people making a wide berth round others, leaving them up to two metres space, while, of course, wearing a mask, you have to wonder how this is going to work in future weeks and months. Which brings me onto…
Opening the lounges in this manner is a good first step, and you can see both staff and passengers (well, most of them) quietly finding their way. In coming weeks and months, unless there are no fresh outbreaks, the number of flights will gradually increase, these lounges will fill and new ones will open.
Only then will we see how scalable this new service offering is. It’s pleasant to order at your table and have food and drink brought to you, but the list of items available is much reduced, and inevitably there is a delay between ordering and receiving your order, because it’s quicker to help yourself. Passengers have moaned about the buffet offering in the lounges, both hot and cold, but I think most will miss it now it has gone.
More generally, though the shops in airports may reopen, and the airport fill, something has changed in the attitude of the travelling public.
After watching people swerve to avoid one another, there was then the gate experience. Waiting at the gate is often a difficult time, with various queues and expectations, but it has been made more complicated by the impossibility of boarding while trying to maintain distance between passengers.
And then there’s the flight. Having taken three in recent days, on different carriers, and having spoken with colleagues of their experiences of flying another five airlines, each airline is doing things a little differently. Some offer full catering, some offer none (Iberia), while others offer restricted food and drink.
The same is true with seating on board. For all the talk of HEPA filters and hospital quality air onboard, you are still sitting next to someone for several hours, especially since most airlines are abandoning the idea of keeping the middle seat empty. On my flight to Madrid, I had a window seat and there was no one in the aisle seat, yet a lady sat in the middle seat right next to me and didn’t see any reason to move to provide some space between us, especially since the aisle seat in the row in front was immediately reclined, meaning she would have had less room.
There are those who think it crazy to travel while the number of cases is still rising, of course, but there are others who for very good reasons want to visit friends, relatives, or simply have a break after a miserable six months. It will take a while to get used to these new ‘protocols’. And whether they are effective or not, only time will tell. Meanwhile British Airways is taking its first steps with these lounges, and I’m sure the experience will improve further as passengers return.