Background: Bmi flies daily to and from Beirut, departing at 1540 and arriving at 2230 for the 2010 winter schedule. This flight was on the carrier’s first refurbished A321, of which more below.

Bmi offers a complimentary chauffeur drive for business class passengers when travelling between UK departure points of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London Heathrow, Manchester, Belfast and Dublin, to destinations including Addis Ababa, Almaty, Amman, Baku, Beirut, Bishkek, Cairo, Damascus, Freetown, Khartoum, Moscow, Riyadh, Tbilisi, Tehran and Yerevan.

There are differing mileage limits on this depending on the airport you are travelling to. In the case of Heathrow it is 50 miles, with a charge per mile above that amount. I took a car from my hotel (pre-booked) and arrived early at the airport at 1330.

First impressions: Bmi flights depart from London Heathrow Terminal 1 which was quiet this Sunday lunchtime. There is a separate area in check-in area A for premium passengers, and I dropped off my bag and then went through a dedicated immigration line which then joined into the main security line, which was moving quickly.

Once airside I made my way to the Great British Lounge, which is a winding walk down some stairs but is worth the effort, being well thought out and modern with several separate areas in the large lounge area, including some comfortable chairs facing the runway apron and a bar (“The Local”) as well as a buffet eating area with a black AGA and lots of food and drink choices.

This Sunday unfortunately the draft Stella Artois was out of stock, so I had a can of London Pride, logged onto the free wifi (The Cloud, you create an account and then it is free) and had a salad while I waited for the flight (note that flights aren’t called in the lounge – so keep looking at the screens). Note that we have reviewed this flight (on an A320 instead of an A321) last year. For that review click here.

Boarding: we boarded from the lounge at 1500 but there was a delay due to some ground handling problem and in the end we took off an hour late at 1650. In the meantime we were given a choice of water, orange juice and champagne, and refills when the delay dragged on. Our jackets were hung, and we were given menus and amenity bags with socks, eyeshades and ear plugs, along with a Miller Harris “gift” containing lip cream and moisturiser.

The seat: Bmi has seven A321 aircraft, all in this configuration which holds 149 passengers, 118 in economy (3-3) and 31 in business (2-2). To see a seatplan of the aircraft, click here.

All of these aircraft, along with two of Bmi’s seven A320s which are used on mid-haul routes (which in the mid-haul configuration are 124 passengers in two classes – 102 in economy and 22 in business) will be refurbished.

The “new” seat is in fact the existing product but with new cushions and leather upholstery. There are new carpets, and the interior walls of the aircraft look new as well, which with the smell of new leather and smart blankets and cushions creates a positive impression. In business class the 31 seats are in a configuration of AC-DF in rows 1-5, with the emergency exits positioned in front of row 6, where seat 6D is for crew (so AC- XF). The configuration then continues in rows 6-8 AC –DF.

There is nothing physically new in terms of the features of the seat, so there is no in-seat power, and the IFE system is the same as previously was onboard. For details of this programming, click here.

I didn’t want to watch any of the films, and so opted for the moving map, but there was clearly a fault on the system (certainly for our two seats in 4A and 4C), since the map was distorted and very difficult to look at for more than a few seconds. I later found out that this was true for the whole side of the aircraft, and reported it to the staff. I also noticed that the IFE control which is embedded in the arm of the chair was not working properly, including the call button.

Food and wine: the starters were smoked mackerel, red potato and caper berry salad or roasted autumn squash and goat’s curd salad. I had the latter, which was very bitter and I left most of it. The main course choices were braised lamb shank with chickpeas and herb mashed potato, halibut with shrimp butter, sautéed salsify and potatoes or grilled red onion and stilton tart with walnut salad. I had the lamb which was quite good.

The desserts were chocolate pot or Damson and almond pastry with fresh cream. I had neither, but my neighbour had the tart and didn’t like it. There was also a choice of cheeses – Isle of Avalon, Perl Las Blue and Spiced gooseberry chutney – as well as coffee and a selection of teas. For the onward short journey to Khartoum, the menu was a little more vague: Your choice of drink, and “evening meal service”.

There was a separate wine menu “selected by Lorenzo Fasola Bologna and his team at Castello MonteVibiano Vecchio, based in Mercatello close to Perugia”. The choices were:

  • Champagne: Charles Lafitte Grande Cuvee Brut
  • White wines: Anjou Blanc Les Maillones – Gerard Depardieu or  Chardonay Unwooded Langmeil Australia
  • Red wines: Chateau Maybe Vieil Fronsac, Aulente San Patriggnano Rosso, Shiraz Borkenback Tyrells Australia.

The flight: We arrived around an hour late due to the delayed take-off. We were travelling as a group with the Bmi chief executive, and so arrival was not usual and we were whisked through immigration.

Verdict: the refurbished seats in both economy and business are to be welcomed, though Bmi regulars on these mid-haul routes will be impatient for 2012 when brand new seating with new IFE will be installed. The service on the flight was excellent: friendly and helpful.

To read the debate on the new seats, click here