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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)

  • Billy says:

    I liked the Emirates sleep suit, it fitted for a start! Their staff were excellent.

    Emirates entertainment was extensive but has an irritating 3 minute advert for Dubai before every programme, (when your watching something like Family Guy it gets really annoying; you can fast forward but that’s a pain too!) and they edited programmes for “decency”.

    The flower and amuse-bouche is back on BA, but the Emirates cabin has flowers everywhere!

    As for amenity kits and exposure, I don’t know anyone who has bought a product because of a sample in an amenity kit. I don’t think it’s the free advertising you suggest.

  • Adrian says:

    We are relatively new to BA and this great hobby (thanks Rob), we’ve only ever had one BA First and that was a disappointing experience. It was on an old, very tired 52J to LAS. T3 so no first wing or Concorde room, no bells or whistles at all. The IFE and TV screen as Rob said was hopeless, poor content and terrible quality screen, the cabin crew were good but the food was poor and sparse. I’m hoping it will be worst to first as in December we have a First on the 789 to KUL which looks way better, coupled with the first wing and the Concorde room this should make for a better all round experience.
    We are coming home on the 388 from HKG, at the moment on the U/D with nice CW seats, my question is if First availability occurs it is normally on the 777 flight which is 15 mins later. Is it worth spending the extra avios to upgrade to First on the 777 or is CW ok on the 388 (we have never been on this plane either), any advice would be appreciated.

    • John says:

      You’ve got another F flight booked already.
      It may be better to enjoy F on a day flight.
      If you haven’t been on the A380 then you might as well try it.
      Window seat on A380 upper deck has much more space, and as a couple you won’t have the awkwardness of facing a stranger in CW either.
      You could spend the avios on another CW flight rather than upgrading 2 people to F so it depends how many you have.

  • Will P says:

    Personally I like BA’s First for the Britishness and overall mood. I find the Qatar, Emirates J cabins great but service is too often lost in translation and Emirates’ cabins are looking very dated with all the ‘gold’.

  • Emma says:

    I’m new to this site and just wanted to thank Rob and all users as I find the information invaluable and often find answers to my questions here without having to spend hours trawling the net.

    I have a question that I’m hoping someone can advise on before I call exec club,

    I have reward flights booked for August LGW-MCO in economy for 2ad 1ch.

    My daughter and I are now able to travel out earlier than my husband so I was thinking about changing if possible to fly out 5 days before for the two of us. I know changes are possible but obviously there aren’t any reward seats available for earlier dates now.

    I know the likelihood of seats coming up is very slim so I was thinking about being able to use reward booking via a partner. Is this even possible? AA have reward seats available indirect to LHR – MCO via CLT which I’d be happy with.

    Am I right in thinking I’d work out the avios needed per flight on the BA site and then use the AA taxes etc?

    Would the taxes we’ve already paid be refundable? I know the avios would be returned, AA is less than the BA flights were I think.

    Would love to hear your views on what’s possible. Thanks all

    • Rob says:

      You are booking via BA.com so you pay the (far higher) taxes that BA wants. AA charges less if you use AA miles on AA.com but that is no help to you.

      Avios and taxes for existing booking refunded less £35 change fee.

      Be warned that what you want to do is tricky (the agent needs to split your existing ticket into two tickets, one for each group of passengers, before changes can be made) so watch them carefully.

  • Tom says:

    Some you are just as oblivious and blind as Willie Walsh and Alex cruz, they need customers like you “oh well it’s not their fault” yes it is, no other giant such as lufthansa, KLM, air france have any problems. The only thing that is not changing at ba is ceo’s salaries, even BA cabin crew is embarrassed at the state of the airline. On a recent first class flight my friend said there’s no choice of a meal if you’re the last bunch to be served as very few meals are loaded you’ll get what they’ll serve you have it or leave it. Snack bar is better on lufthansa business than ba first (if you’ll get any) Yes they will not be paying more for a first and business lounge, it is down to the airline not airport.The prices are of premium airline and more expensive than other Eu premium airlines and you’ll get ryanair service so to say that the cost cutting is due to low cost airlines competition but inflate the prices into hundreds is ironic and yet more lies are to come out of their mouths like bats at night.
    BA is finished and done. It’s no longer 4* airline and they should revoke them stars immediately.

    • callum says:

      KLM, Air France and Lufthansa are perfect!?

      BA is not finished and done and, despite there being many people who share your (in my view hysterical and irrational) hatred of the CEO’s, the airline is highly profitable. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Alex Cruz wasn’t hired on a whim, but does in fact know a litle bit more about how to run an airline than the commentators on here do!

      • Graeme says:

        +1 – was that tirade written on medication, I was exhausted reading it!

  • Jjv says:

    3000 channels on Qatar? Really? Flew J with them recently and found their IFE very limited and certainly no better than BA

  • Sam says:

    I fly on CX and KA regularly out of Beijing and they always offer foreign papers (SCMP, FT etc) so definitely BA only having the China Daily is their own fault!

    Lounges in Beijing and China generally are dreadful. The CX/KA lounge is better than the BGS lounge but not by much. Actually my preferred lounge is the Air China First Class lounge which is a PP lounge. Probably the world’s worst F lounge for a carrier in their own hub but mercifully it’s never too busy and most seat she have a power outlet. Food and drink are horrible though.

  • Benj says:

    More space on QR business class?! I’ve never reading anything much more misleading!

    It’s simply not the case, the BA F seat takes up around 30% more space on the plane.

    I also find that the medium BA PJs fit my 33 inch, 13 stone frame more than fine, there are certainly my no issues with them falling down, indeed O sadly do not need to use he string to tighten!

    • Rob says:

      It’s not ‘more space’, it is purely bed / seat size and ignores personal space.

      • Benj says:

        Fair enough if just talking about the ‘seat’. I suspect if you took full surface area as opposed to just length and width, it would again be considerably bigger.

        In reality, unless you’re a very large member of society, its more than big enough and the actual feeling of space is far more important.

        Something where BA F easily trumps most of the business seats referenced (bar maybe on the 747 where it’s still clearly ahead however)