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How does BA First Class really compare to Emirates or Etihad? (Part 1)

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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.

Boarding

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:

British Airways lounge Beijing

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!

The seat

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:

British Airways First Class review

… and for the middle pair (this is the 787-9 Dreamliner version):

British Airways First Class middle pair

It is, without doubt, nicely done.  You get the classy decoration around the windows:

British Airways First Class review

and little touches like the seat light are attractive:

British Airways First Class review

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 First Class review

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.

IFE

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 First Class review

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.

The bathroom

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!

Bedding

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.

British Airways First Class review

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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Comments (63)

  • Wayne says:

    I recently flew BA first Lhr- Dxb return using Avios and 2-4-1 (£500 each instead of £5.500 ) and found it to be really good, especially the Concorde Lounge at Lhr.
    Concorde lounge at DXb not so good mind you

  • Polly says:

    Def agree with the statement about being the best biz seat in the sky. What a shame BA didn’t take the opportunity to reduce the nos of beds in J with new plane orders, or when doing their
    Refurbs. For aer lingus J to be better than BA J is truly amazing. They have got their F cabin right in terms of ambiance tho, you are correct. Bedding, f and b, v good too. Hopefully they will start to realise that folks don’t want to be laid out like sardines in a tin in J. It’s just so crowded looking when everyone is asleep and the cabin is full. BA are obviously still getting enough paying pax to retain these lower J standards, so no incentive to change anything at this time.

    • Genghis says:

      An analysis of airline profitability vs J seat density would be interesting

      Also not all airlines are an extension of the state and run as NFPs

      • Barry cutters says:

        Totally agree . We need to remember this is run as a profitable business and we can’t blame them for that. For me this is my perfect flight . If I’m flying ba first I know I’m probably going direct and not having to double my journey time by stopping in the Middle East. I also feel the cabin staff are more attentive but I can’t really compare like for like as Iv only flown emirates qatar and ethihad in business not first . All in all I like ba first and find the bed comfortable

    • Catalan says:

      But Polly, less J seats would mean less redemptions seats available for us HfP readers!

      • Yuff says:

        I find it easier, during school hols, to get F rather than J seats on redemptions.
        My wife prefers BA to Qatar and Etihad mainly because it is British and it’s in F as opposed to J.
        Like Rob she finds the apartment too spacious which is handy as Etihad dont release 4 seats in F on redemption.
        I’ve just booked 4 seats, back from Doha, and went 2 window seats either side on row 3 and 4 and might swap to the 4 middle seats at the front 😉

      • Paul says:

        You clearly are not flying on BA. I now move heaven and earth to avoid them.

      • Paul says:

        Not true. I invariably find that CX have F availability when BA don’t and their product is by some distance better and there are fewer seats.

  • IanMacK says:

    Very accurate review and fully agree with the comments.
    Sleep suit sizing is strange – I have to take a medium otherwise the large size waist band must be about 40″ and the leg length much the same – if they’re not falling off, you have to trail 8 inches of excess material around with you !! And then the medium top is almost compression tight.
    Agree also on IFE – although one aircraft I was in had very large fixed screens – sorry but I don’t pay much attention to 777/380/xyz stuff. iPad loaded with movies is my MO.
    Another good point about BA F is the large windows and the jazzy blinds / colour change.
    Also cabin crew, in my experience are virtually flawless. Almost too nice !!

    • Rich says:

      The fixed screen you mention is on the 787-9 and the result is the cubby hole effect for your feet that Rob refers to on other airlines – but it’s large enough not to be an issue. I’m 6 ft 7 and the large sleeper suit fits me perfectly – which, as others have correctly said, means it’s oversized! But if I was selecting the ideal sizing to cater for all eventualities I’d do the same. Etihad’s are exactly the same. Better too large than too small.
      On cleanliness – my experience is that the cleaning of planes pre flight at LHR is terrible. With dust at high level, crumbs and sachets left around seats etc etc.

      • Genghis says:

        “The fixed screen you mention is on the 787-9”
        And therefore no buddy dining

        • Duncan says:

          I thought this was a big downside, then my husband said he was relieved I wouldn’t make him sit with me for dinner. He’s super skinny but found the companion seat incredibly uncomfortable – no back support as you are in a corner. It was a neat little thing to be able to dine together, but maybe not a practical option.

    • Miguel says:

      As Rich has said, that’s the 787-9, actually one of my best BA First experiences. Yes, the A380 has masses more space (1-2-1 in a much wider cabin), but the contraption that houses the seat control cog and where the tray table is stowed means less width when turning the seat into a bed. The 787-9 has a different design where the tray table doesn’t flip vertically, rather simply slides into a stowage slot that cantilevers slightly, leaving some space underneath it, so you can (more) easily sleep on one side than on the A380, I feel. Not to mention the dismal window seats on the 747, where you’re basically forced to sleep on your back and not move at all: the narrower seat combined with the “box” that houses the tray table means there’s no space whatsoever to move around.

  • filipino_chino says:

    I hope you were not in the “BGS Premier Lounge”…..

    I booked some discounted Air China tickets (LHR to MNL via PEK) for 2 adults and 1 infant where the infant was charged at -25pounds… yes minus 25pounds and flew out over Easter…

    While i was only in Y i used said lounge, it was a break and allowed us to sleep during the long connections, but you are right – the lounge was shocking…

    • Jamie P says:

      We were invited to use the BGS lounge at check-in when flying back from PEK in F last year.
      We spent only 5 minutes in there before the rather long walk to the Cathay Lounge which although was Business & First combined, was significantly better.

  • Chris says:

    Rob – interesting perspective, thanks. Although possibly worth mentioning that the first of your library pics above is the A380 cabin? The seats in the 380 obviously have a materially larger footprint than the 777 variant.

  • Ian says:

    When I flew Sydney to Singapore with BA IN First class I wasn’t given a toiletries bag. I was rather disappointed and presumed they didn’t give them out on day flights..

  • Alan says:

    We flew F in May LHR-DOH using a 2-4-1 with an infant. On the way out we had the entire cabin to ourselves. Even on the way back there were only three other passengers.

    On the way out we flew at night and my 6 month old daughter was amazingly looked after. They set up a bed for her and strapped in a crib, my wife and I could eat together and our attendant was superb. He kept walking up and down checking on her and telling us she’s fine, don’t worry as soon as she wakes I’ll let you know.

    The seat, menu, IFE etc were all perfectly fine but I’d have happily taken Qatar business especial the a380 on a day flight with the bar. However when BA get it right with service they really get it right.

  • James says:

    I did the same London – Beijing – London a couple of months ago.
    Ive only flown Qatar Business and Cathay First.. I think you could stick BA First somewhere in the middle.
    My return flight I thought was more First class service on board. My hostess felt more like the first class ‘personal’ experience I remember from Cathay.
    The flight out there was still good but it was more efficiency without the ‘your the mlat important person on this plane’ touch.
    I also had the steak.. and after all I’d heard, it was actually really good, and cooked properly!

    I have to agree on the lounge at Beijing airport though.. Jesus. It’s like a time warp into the 1970’s