First impressions: This inaugural flight (March 30, 2005) was a first taste of the new Malaysia Airlines (MAS) business and first class products both in the air and on the ground, including both lounges at Heathrow Terminal 3.
After a speedy check-in but a lengthy queue through Terminal 3's Fast Track security lane, the Malaysia Airlines Golden Lounge was welcome relief. Completed just three weeks before my visit, it is a bright but soothing space with water features, fresh orchids and plenty of comfortable chairs. The new lounge is split into two by a partition, and was larger in its previous version but had to be reduced due to the reconstruction of Terminal 3 to make way for double-decker A380 aircraft.
There are two choices of hot food at all times as well as fresh fruit, snacks and several refrigerators filled with soft and alcoholic drinks. Two flat screen computers provide internet access but there is no wifi for those who prefer to use their laptops (the member of staff I asked did not know what wifi was).
Boarding: Once on board, jackets were whisked off to the wardrobe, welcome drinks delivered and orders taken for a round of drinks after take off. Storage space on the B747-400s has been vastly improved thanks to the refit and my bulky trolley bag slid into the overhead locker very easily.
This being Heathrow, there was an hour delay before we took off, but our captain seemed confident we would make up the time during the flight.
The seat: Out goes the old purple and in comes smart navy blue, complete with matching blue pillows and crisp duvets – a welcome change from the scratchy blankets that breed static throughout the flight. The seat has a lie-flat-style design now favoured by many airlines, with an 8 degree angle of recline from horizontal and a length of 193cm. Controls are chunky and simple with diagrams for achieving sitting, lying down and eating positions.
The seat pitch has been increased from 127cm to 147cm, but the 2-2 business class configuration on the B747-400's upper deck remains the same. Design-wise the seats are faultless with plenty of space to store belongings, but the cabin would have looked a lot smarter if the designers had opted for material all around the seat rather than white plastic backs, which are bound to get grubby very quickly. All B747-400 aircraft on this route are expected to be fitted with the new seats by October this year.
The flight: Soon after take off, Molton Brown amenity kits and noise reduction headphones were handed out, both in sealed cotton bags for hygiene. The Malaysia Airline's website promises pyjamas, but when I asked, these were not available, which was disappointing.
Aside from the seat, it's the quality of food served on board that shows an airline's commitment to keeping passengers happy – especially in business and first class.
Things got off to a good start when my order was taken for dinner in advance. In addition to an amuse bouche, chicken or beef satay and a prawn or salad appetiser, there were four choices of main course and three dessert decisions to be made. Tables were laid with care and each course was brought to the seat separately, rather than handed out from a trolley. This ensured that each item was piping hot and there was no need to balance everything on a tray. Each section of the meal was faultless with nice touches such as tea and coffee served in proper mugs rather than three-sip cups, and bowls (yes, bowls) of various freshly baked rolls for each passenger, which will have Atkins aficionados sobbing into their fine linen napkins. As well as keeping everyone's wine glasses topped up, eagle-eyed cabin crew handed out bottles of water and replaced them when levels fell below halfway.
The entertainment system has also been improved and now offers 40 film channels with plenty of new releases and individual controls to start, pause and rewind. Passengers can also tune into TV dramas and comedies or spin the control console around and test themselves with 55 games sorted into kids' choices, board games, arcade games, puzzles and quizzes – including the addictive Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The music-on-demand option has a personal jukebox which you can build from 200 albums in five genres. Your choices are then saved for the duration of the flight so you can return to your selection any time. Mood lighting allows passengers to nod off under a soft blue hue after dinner and wake up gradually to gentle tones of yellow that slowly become brighter. Breakfast was another belt-busting experience with three choices and a basket of hot bakery items.
Arrival: After a twelve and a half hour flight, we landed, as the captain predicted, almost on time. The walk to baggage claim and immigration is a pleasant one at Kuala Lumpur International Airport thanks to small forest areas and swathes of natural light. Passengers from the UK and most of Europe do not need visas for short visits to Malaysia so we were quickly through and onto a smart airport express train. The service takes 28 minutes to the city centre and costs just RM35 (£5).
Verdict: An improved seat with top notch entertainment and restaurant-quality food will make Malaysia Airlines stand out from the crowd on the competitive long-haul routes to Asia and Australia.
Price: A return fare costs $5,634/£3,000 including airport taxes.