This is my review of British Airways First Class, between Beijing and London Heathrow.
There is a saying, which I think originated at US blog One Mile At A Time, that British Airways First Class is “the best business class product on the market”.
I recently ran reviews of Emirates A380 First Class and Etihad’s A380 First Class Apartment. Flying back from Beijing last month, I also got to spend 12 hours in British Airways First Class. This was a day flight and, coming just a few weeks after my Middle East flights, gave me a good opportunity to see how BA really compares.
It is not a complete defeat for British Airways. You will remember that I had some issues with both the Emirates product (dated) and Etihad product (too big). There are elements of BA’s approach which I like, although arguably they are related to ‘Britishness’ which is why unsurpringly the Middle Eastern airlines don’t copy them.
I won’t discuss the lounge at Beijing, which is easily the worst dedicated First Class lounge I have ever used! The fish pond was the only plus point:
You can’t blame British Airways for this, unless it turns out that there are better lounges which BA refuses to fund.
Boarding looked like it would be a mess, since it appeared that 30% of the passengers qualified for priority boarding. Queuing behind 50 other people was not much of a premium experience, but luckily a staff member was combing the line and pulling out First Class passengers.
Boarding generally works well on BA. First Class passengers will be given an escort from the door to their seat. The classical soundtrack in the cabin works well and gives what I think is the correct ambiance.
Despite recent grumblings, I found the cabin was spotlessly clean. Tara, who was working our side of the cabin (my wife and son were on the other side) was exceptionally polite and good with my 9-year old daughter.
I was given a sleeper suit and a toiletries bag. I’ve come to like the contents of the British Airways First Class bags. The mini shaving creams and roll-on deodorants are genuinely useful for future trips. I just missed out getting the new Liberty bag design by a few days.
Whilst nowhere near as good as the Armani goodies that I got from Qatar Airways First Class last year – I was using the EDT for months – BA was better than the Etihad ‘pick your own’ and Emirates ‘we don’t do bags on day flights’ approach.
Qatar Airways has also downgraded their First Class toiletries offering in recent months. I’m not sure why these bags are no longer priorised by airlines as I can’t believe that they can’t find willing luxury goods partners to underwrite the cost in return for the exposure.
The newspaper selection on board consisted of China Daily and, erm, that’s it. I will give BA the benefit of the doubt here and assume that the Chinese do not allow them to hand out imported newspapers.
Unlike Etihad, there was not a personal letter from the Cabin Services Director waiting for me on my seat, neatly rolled and sealed!
Ah, the seat. Where do you start?
The Boeing 777, as with the A380 and 747, has a 14-seat First Class cabin. This is the same as Emirates has on their A380 aircraft, whereas Etihad has only nine ‘apartments’. I can’t complain about the number of seats, though, because there is no way I could have secured four Avios seats if the cabin had been smaller. The new British Airways 787-9 fleet has only eight First Class seats.
With a 1-2-1 layout, it is true that British Airways First now looks like ‘the best business class product on the market’. 1-2-1 is, after all, the same layout as used by Qatar Airways, Finnair and – for goodness sake – Aer Lingus in their business class cabins.
This is a library picture of the (slightly larger) A380 version of the seat which is better than any photo I could take:
… and for the middle pair (this is the 787-9 Dreamliner version):
It is, without doubt, nicely done. You get the classy decoration around the windows:
and little touches like the seat light are attractive:
and, bizarrely, they also have probably the classiest seat control of any aircraft in the sky – you turn it left or right to turn the seat into a bed and back again:
British Airways does this sort of thing well – taking tiny details and creating something which gently oozes style. The Emirates and Etihad First Class seats do not ooze class in the same way. There is a feel of ‘Britishness’ to it, with something of the feel of a high end car.
One difference between the BA First Class seats and, say, Qatar Airways business class is that your feet do not end up in a cubby-hole under the seat in front.
In terms of hard numbers, however, it doesn’t look too promising. According to SeatGuru, you have:
BA First – 78″ pitch, 22″ width
Qatar Airways A380 Business – 80″ pitch, 22″ width
Etihad A380 Business – 73″ pitch, 20″ width
Emirates A380 Business – 70″-79″ pitch, 18″ width
Emirates A380 First – 78″ pitch, 23″ width
Aer Lingus Business – 78″ pitch, 22″ width (taken from Aer Lingus website)
If you want seat space, you’ll get more of it in Qatar Airways A380 business class – albeit your feet will be under the seat in front. Amazingly, the new A330 Business Class seats on BA’s sister airline, Aer Lingus, promise an identical seat size to British Airways First. (We are planning to review this seat in detail in September.)
It is worth noting that, whilst the window seats in BA First have more privacy, you get more personal space in the two centre seats.
Unlike Emirates and Etihad, there is no ‘at seat’ mini-bar. I have never been a big fan of these, primarily because they only tend to contain sugary fizzy drinks and are not chilled.
There are no doors on the British Airways seat. Etihad’s Apartment, of course, is a mini-apartment in the sky. Whilst the Emirates seat does have a sliding door, it is really a novelty – it is no higher than the seat and everyone walking past can see over it – and I have never closed it. BA doesn’t lose any points from me by not having doors on their seat.
The TV and IFE selection are particularly poor. It is unlikely that BA will ever be able to match the sheer scale of the selection offered by the Middle East carriers – 2,500 channels on Emirates and 3,000 on Qatar Airways – and even if they did you’d be watching it on a smaller TV.
(I tried to get some comparable screen size numbers but airlines appear to measure their screens in different ways. BA’s screen is described as 23 inches whilst the Etihad First Class Apartment one is described as 24 inches despite being around twice the size!)
As you can see from this picture, British Airways First Class isn’t really a ‘big screen’ experience although it does the job:
British Airways does not have in-flight wi-fi but it is on the way. In theory, when fully active later this year, it should be an improvement on what Emirates and Etihad offers because it is using a newer generation of equipment. Pricing will not be cheap whilst Emirates is a nominal $1.
There is nothing to say about the British Airways First Class bathroom.
The flower had not even been put back when we flew at the end of April, although it should be in place now.
No shower. At least that means there isn’t another HFP in-shower video to watch!
I was offered a sleep suit by the crew but turned it down, because history shows that these are not designed for normal people! Anyone weighing less than 20 stones is likely to find the waistband falling down whenever they stand up.
The Etihad First Class Apartment one was not much better. Emirates did not offer me pyjamas on a First Class day flight, although for overnight flights you can test out “our new pyjamas [which] use Hydra Active Microcapsule Technology to keep your skin soft while flying”.
My duvet was found in the overhead locker. I had to track this down myself.
I don’t sleep on day flights and this one was no exception. In general I find the British Airways First Class seat comfortable and, given that I am 6’2′, long enough. If you are in a window seat you are effectively sitting in a triangular space whilst the middle seats – see the TV picture above – are rectangular and have substantially more foot room.
In Part 2 of this British Airways First Class review (click here) I take a look at the food and drink on offer in British Airways First Class. Perhaps surprisingly, BA does not collapse in the face of Emirates and Etihad.
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