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Airline Mismanagement

We all know that a long coach class flight is hellish. But how much better is BA's Business Class Sleeper Seat service?

At an extra cost of $375 per hour ($7500 extra for a roundtrip) one expects a high quality product from BA in return.

 
 
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British Airways Business Class (Club World)

It is a pretty picture, but the champagne was non-vintage and the overall experience very disappointing.

 

 

BA boasts having the world's first fully flat bed in a business class cabin. I sampled it on flights between Seattle and London and return in October 2002, and had a very disappointing experience in both directions.

In the interests of fairness, I flew them again in October 2003 to see if my previous experiences were a 'one-off' or typical, and then again twice in May 2008 and again later in the year.

I have updated the review as appropriate.

The Total Business Class Experience

In theory, a business class ticket offers you a lot more than just a more comfy seat on the plane. You should also expect to be able to get your seats pre-assigned, a separate fast check-in line, priority luggage handling, and a pleasant lounge in which to relax and await the flight.

BA refused to pre-assign us seats, in either direction, even though I called three weeks prior to departure. They said that this was 'for our convenience'! They say that by not pre-assigning more than half the seats, they can ensure that everyone gets the seats they want when checking in at the airport. They said that, in particular, it would mean that there were no problems with couples traveling together and not otherwise being able to be seated together. I explained that we were a couple traveling together, and suggested it would be easier if they gave us two seats together in advance, rather than forcing us to wait until the uncertainty of what might be available at the airport, but BA refused to help. This is both stupid and unacceptable, and explains why BA has earned itself an industry reputation for having one of the least helpful business class advance seat assigning policies of all airlines.

May 08 Update :  This policy has been slightly modified - premium level frequent fliers (either BA Executive Club or Oneworld partner airlines) can get seats preassigned, and on rare occasion their Reservations staff have been known to sympathetically bend the rules to help.  Major travel agencies can also apparently get seats pre-assigned for their clients.

Check in at Seattle was quick and easy. But for the return flights, when checking in at Geneva, the business class line was moving more slowly than their frequent flier checkin line! An additional benefit, when flying out of Heathrow, is a priority lane to pass through Emigration and Security. But this priority lane also moved slower than the regular lanes - a completely unacceptable situation. A BA customer services rep should have been monitoring the relative line lengths and arranged for more staffing to be added to the priority lanes.  In May 08, the two lines were moving at similar speeds, as has often been the case when I've observed both lines in the past.  The regular line has multiple screening lanes, the priority lane usually only has one lane, so the net result is similar line lengths.

The business class lounges in Geneva and in London are both lovely. But in Seattle, the BA lounge is way too small. When we arrived, there were no remaining pairs of seats together - we had to sit some distance apart from each other. Furthermore, people were permanently camped at the two computer terminals, and all the phones had people seated beside them, so there was no way to get online, either with BA's computer equipment or my own.

Although it was disappointing that we couldn't sit in the lounge together, at least we could sit. Later arrivals into the lounge found themselves greeted by literally standing room only! It would have been more comfortable for them to enjoy a seat in the public gate area.

The Seattle lounge offers free Wi-Fi, but is not designed for people who want to work. There were only two workstations (ie tables with chairs) and they were both taken up with BA's own computers. The many people in the lounge with their laptops out all had to have them balanced on their laps, and the high sided chairs forced one to squash one's arms very uncomfortable when typing on the keyboard.

The T4 BA lounge also offers free Wi-Fi, but only in limited parts of the lounge.  The area with the desks and computer workstation areas is, bizarrely, not in the coverage area (you'll want to go to the bar area instead, as counter-intuitive as this seems!).

Some months ago BA announced its plan to discontinue priority handling of business class luggage. BA still places special tags on the bags, but this did not seem to result in any speedier delivery of the bags at the other end, and indeed on the return flight, BA lost both bags for varying numbers of days. Three weeks later and BA have still not responded to my request for compensation.

In May 08 my bags had no problems on the flights from the US, but were lost, along with those for 20+ other passengers on the 777 flight, on the return flight from Heathrow back to Seattle.  They were returned to me two days later.  BA's unreliability with bag handling is known world-wide, and seems to continue unabated, year-in and year-out.

Arriving on Board - First Impressions

It was a relief to leave the crowded BA lounge and to move to the airplane. But, after arriving at my seat, it was like I'd taken the starring role in 'The Invisible Man'. None of the various flight attendants in the cabin greeted me. No-one offered me a newspaper or drink. No-one offered to take my jacket and hang it up. No-one provided me with an amenity kit. I did notice flight attendants doing this enthusiastically to other people in the cabin, but for some reason they chose to ignore me.

Eventually, I gave up waiting and demanded some service, which was then provided without comment or apology. BA offer different amenity kits to men and women, but neither has anything special - this is another area of conspicuous reduction in quality over the years.

Some time after the flight had taken off and reached cruising altitude, with the flight attendants circulating freely around the cabin, I realized that my seat electronics were all broken, and so I used the flight attendant call button on the adjacent seat (mine didn't work!) to call a flight attendant to ask if they could fix the problem or move me to another seat (they couldn't and didn't). The call bell made its usually 'dong' sound and the light went on above our seats. I even noticed one of the flight attendants look up in response to the 'dong', but then look away again.

After almost fifteen minutes, a flight attendant appeared to ask me if I wanted a drink. No mention of the lit call light. I decided I'd stop waiting to see how long they'd ignore the call light at that stage, turned off the alarm, and discussed my problem with them. Again, an entirely unacceptable service standard.

It was an unpleasant feeling of deja vue when I flew again in 2003. I boarded the plane, struggling under the weight of probably too much carry-on, and walked into a very dark and gloomy cabin (for some strange reason, the main cabin lights were off). A flight attendant passively watched me as I took off my jacket. He quickly walked away at that point, and I thought he had gone to find a hanger so that he could hang my jacket for me. I waited, but after a couple of minutes it was plain that he had simply walked away at the point where he could have offered a service to me.

No amenities kit was offered at any stage. And, while a minor point, the seat pocket was missing a copy of their inflight magazine, meaning I had no information on what movies were playing on which channels. At least the in-flight entertainment system worked at my seat this time, albeit it somewhat imperfectly.

A better experience was enjoyed on both flights in May 08, with almost everything going as it should on board.  Perhaps the half empty business class cabin helped, allowing the flight crew to spend more time with their passengers.

The Sleeper-Bed Seats

Here you can see illustrations of the seats, both when configured as a bed and when set for normal 'sit-up' seating. A distinctive feature of these seats is that they alternate between facing forwards and backwards.

Note that these illustrations (adapted from the BA website) correctly show the seats to become a four piece bed. Perhaps the four separate pieces are part of the reason why I found the 'bed' to be hellishly uncomfortable.

The various seat controls are all power operated. Some airlines include a feature card that describes how to operate and adjust all the different things on the seat, but although BA's seats have a bewildering number of buttons and adjustments, there was no explanatory card.

 

Seating is 2+2 on the upper deck and 2+4+2 on the lower deck and on 777 planes).  My preference is for the upper deck.  There is more locker space, a higher ratio of toilets to passengers, and because it is upstairs, all by itself, there are fewer disturbances caused by flight attendants and passengers moving through the cabin semi-randomly.  But even downstairs still sees you with generous overhead space.

The seats are claimed to be six feet long when fully extended as a bed, and probably this is so. But not all of the six feet is usable unless you have your head wedged hard up against the edge of the headboard, and your feet pressing hard against the back end as well. I am almost exactly 6' tall, and found the bed was way too short for me to be able to lie straight, and way too narrow for me to be able to lie on an angle. Any bed needs to be longer than you are to reflect the fact that when you lie on the bed, your feet face down (and increase your effective length) rather than go out at right angles when standing, and your head rarely goes to the very top, but only to halfway up the pillow. So the BA 6' sleeper bed seat is probably only long enough for people 5' 8" or shorter.

Rather than getting a good night's sleep, I tossed and turned fitfully and experienced massive back pain in the process. As extraordinary as it may seem, I find a regular business class seat that partially reclines to be more comfortable and easier to sleep in than these so-called sleeper bed seats.

Seats alternate between facing forwards and backwards. If you have a middle seat, you therefore can find yourself almost staring at the passenger alongside in the eyes for the entire flight - not always a desirable outcome! Recognizing this, BA provided fan like privacy screens that can be unfolded between the seats. But when this is done, one loses almost all eye contact with the aisle and if you have claustrophobic tendencies, you would find it quite unpleasant. The already narrow space becomes even narrower.

I tried one of the rear-facing seats in 2003. For most of the flight, there was no distinguishable difference at all, but when taking off it was strange to be pushed forward rather than back, and when landing, the opposite experience occurred.

Food and Drink

I remember the good old days when one was offered a choice of water, juice, or champagne when arriving on board. Not so these days - all you get is water or juice.

Update, May 08 :  The champagne is back.  Yay!

After taking off, there was an enormous delay of about 45 minutes before they started serving drinks and snacks (this delay may have been a one-off and wasn't experienced in 08). There was no apparent reason for this delay, and the passengers in coach class were well into their drink and food service before we business class passengers had any chance to get anything.

The wine list included an excellent Meursault, ordinary non-vintage Champagne, and some mysterious Californian reds - no classical French Bordeaux at all.

The wine list was somewhat improved in 2003, with a 1997 vintage champagne and a nice Bordeaux as well as a lovely Pouilly Fume.

In 2008, the wine list was back to non-vintage Champagne, plus some adventurous selections of whites and reds.  A 2003 Wattle Creek Shiraz was amazingly complex, I didn't try any of the three whites or the second red.

The menu offered two choices of appetizers, three main courses on the flight to London and four on the flight back to Seattle, and two desserts. But, to my disappointment, by the time they got to serving me (and, no I was not in the last row!) they no longer had all their food choices available. This shows an extraordinary degree of penny-pinching meanness on BA's part (each extra entree costs them maybe $4).

In 2008, there were four main courses offered, and I had a wonderful meal.  Gravlax salmon, a lovely salad, melt-in-your-mouth beef short ribs with a great sauce, and a very nice cheese plate, finished off with a couple of chocolates, on the flight over.  On the return, a brilliant asparagus appetizer, then I treated myself to two main courses - a superb beef casserole and a marvelous cold poached salmon salad, plus cheeses.  Wonderful both ways - indeed, couldn't be improved upon at all.  Two brilliant meals in a row.

But, as wonderful as the food was, it was 'rough around the edges' with some of the frills you'd hope for missing.  For example, it was surprising to see that sauces were offered in tiny plastic sachets such as you'd get at a takeaway joint.

In common with every other flight I've had on BA, their tea was absolutely undrinkable. Way too strong, and overbrewed. What is the point of flying on a British airline if they can't serve a decent cup of tea! Even the tea on modern British trains is excellent, but never on BA flights.

A nice touch was that the meals were accompanied with two different types of salt (sea salt and rock salt) and two different types of pepper (white and black). But rather than being in nice little miniature shakers, they were presented in cheap paper sachets.  2008 update :  You now get just one type of salt and one type of pepper, in miserably small packets that are woefully inadequate.

It was disappointing to be given plastic cutlery, but in fairness to BA, this is due to UK civil aviation guidelines. The FAA do allow metal knives and forks (subject to their evaluation of each style of knife and fork), but the UK authorities do not, so flights to/from London need to use cheap plastic.

2008 update - we now have metal cutlery once more.

After the unnecessarily late dinner, there was an all too brief period before an unnecessarily early breakfast. The cabin lights came back on more than an hour and a half before arriving into London. We were quickly served a breakfast and then had almost an hour to wait until our arrival.

I asked why they always serve breakfast so early, destroying the chance of any semblance of 'a good night's sleep'. The surprisingly frank answer was that it is more convenient for the cabin staff if they serve breakfast early, allowing plenty of time to clean up and prepare for landing. Why is it that we - the $8315 fare paying passengers [2008 - the fare is now $10256] - have to be ruled by what is convenient for the cabin crew, rather than vice versa?

In 2008, breakfast service didn't start until about 55 minutes prior to landing, a much better timing.

The seat is poorly designed in several respects. For example, if one has a computer on the table tray, it is impossible to fold down the small drink holder. The computer fills the tray, and there is nowhere convenient to put a drink.

And if you want to reach something in the seat back pocket in front of you, you'll have to get up and move over to it, because it is far from being in easy reach.

Entertainment

The Business Class section offers eighteen different channels of video programming and a dozen or so channels of audio entertainment plus the wonderful realtime Map display that shows where the plane is, what height, speed, etc, and estimated time of arrival. The selection of movies was reasonably good, including recent releases. There was also a phone at the seat, but I didn't test to see if this worked throughout the flight, and possibly some computer games as well.

Unfortunately, the entire In-Flight Entertainment system was broken at my seat on the flight SEA-LHR. Because the cabin was full, they couldn't move me to a seat that did have a working system, and indeed, one of the flight attendants told me that several other people also were suffering broken IFE systems too! This meant that not only could I not control my video system, but I couldn't control the overhead light, either - although there was a second small light on the seat itself, this was a problem on the night flight.

On the return, my seat was working, but the entire system for all people in the cabin was suffering from occasional piercing bursts of static that made us urgently rip our headphones away from our ears.

The electronics seemed satisfactory in 2003, but not so the lighting. The overhead lights were misadjusted so that the person next to me's light shone primary in my space (as did my own). This caused the other person to be in semi-gloom while I was in blinding light.

Update 2008 :  Seat lighting is still not perfect.  The overhead light that shines down on an angle was blocked if the privacy fan was up, and if I angled the mini light on the top of the seat to shine where I most wanted it to shine on the book I was reading, it ended up pointing straight in the eyes of a passenger diagonally opposite, who, through a flight attendant asked me to redirect the light.  So reading was difficult.

One of the features that BA are very proud of is that they provide at-seat power for laptop computers. Well, yes, they do and they don't! Unless you have a special type of plug adapter and cord, you won't be able to connect your computer to the power supply. Don't worry - BA have these on board. But, do you think they give them to you, or even just lend them to you (not for free, but as part of the $9000 premium you've paid for your business class seat)? No, of course not. You have to pay approx $150 extra to buy one of these cables!

The First - But not the Best

BA's business class sleeper bed seat is undoubtedly the first such seat (although now some three years old). But it is equally undoubtedly not the best.

Virgin Atlantic Airways recently announced their introduction of a seemingly vastly superior type of seat. It is longer. It is wider. It is probably more comfortable. There are more entertainment choices on the personal video. And they provide free adapters for the computer power supply plugs.

I review the Virgin business class and sleeper seat here, and it seems to trounce the BA seat and business class service in all respects.

Update 2008 :  Five more years on, and BA's business class is now seeming very dated compared to the 'state of the art' elsewhere.  They are replacing their current business class seats and inflight entertainment systems with apparently better ones, but I've yet to encounter the newer configuration.

Adding Up the Numbers

An economy airfare between Seattle and London on BA costs between $400 (on special) and up to $1000 at other times. The flight time is about ten hours. A business class fare is $10,256 [as of May 2008] - more than $9000 extra (or about $450 per flying hour). (In case you wondered, first class is $18918).

In evaluating the value of a business class fare, it is important to remember that there is almost no difference in total journey time for business class rather than coach class. You still have to check-in a ridiculous number of hours before the flight. Your part of the plane takes off and lands at exactly the same time as coach class. You get to breathe the same air that the people in coach class do. Maybe you might save a few minutes waiting for your bags (but maybe not). The premium for business class is almost exclusively in return for more comfort, not for a faster flight. How much extra comfort should $9000 buy you?

Anywhere in the world - on the ground or at sea - a $9000 premium for what in essence can be considered as two nights in a nice hotel, two dinners and two breakfasts, plus some drinks and free movies - would buy you the most extravagant luxury imaginable.

But not in the air. You get service of randomly varying standard, anywhere from excellent to unacceptable, you're may find that your limited choice of food items has already run out and you have no choice but to take the food choice that all your fellow passengers have already wisely refused. You've got an appreciable chance of finding that your seat and its video system and even its light doesn't work, you have in-seat power for your computer but the adapter cable will cost you $150 extra, and the pre flight services (faster checking in and lounge) may be inferior to those enjoyed by coach class passengers, while the post flight services (faster customs/immigration and baggage) may be either not offered or again inferior to coach class travel.

The Unanswerable Question

Is it worth $9000 extra to fly Business Class? By any rational measure, the answer has to be 'absolutely not'! My experience has sometimes included longer checkin times than for coach, a standing-room only lounge, a broken seat entertainment system, no choices of food because they had run out, and lost baggage.

My recommendation, if you're spending your own money on travel, is, whenever BA have a special (most of the time, it seems!) to spend the small extra cost on their 'World Traveler Plus' premium economy service. This gives you a tangible improvement in comfort and service, but at a very affordable cost. Of course, if your company is paying, then enjoy the best class they will allow!

BA regularly fills its Business Class cabin, and presumably at least some of the travelers are not staff traveling for free, or upgraded passengers, or people with mileage awards, but real fare paying passengers! Which just goes to show that you can, indeed, fool some of the people, some of the time.

Update May 2008 :  Some of the preceding comments seem a bit harsh, and so I'm rereading and revising this, fresh in the glow of a good business class experience.  Perhaps it is fair to say that when you pay as much as $10,256 for a business class flight, you rightly have the very highest of service expectations, and it seems difficult for airlines to uniformly meet those expectations.

Apparently BA will sometimes sell upgrades to Business Class at the airport when checking in, for prices ranging from $500 to $1200 per person, one way.  At this price - $50 - $120 extra per hour of travel, the cost is closer to sensible and might be something you wish to consider.

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Originally published 15 Nov 2002, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 


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