Is British Airways’ First Wing just lipstick on a horselamp?

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Understanding that travellers who pay a premium value a premium airport experience, airlines are increasingly investing in fast-track and elite checkin, security and post-security areas. There’s something about starting a trip in a quiet, secluded area of the terminal that starts a trip off feeling premium, and airlines continue to create these zones even as first class disappears, intending to offer them as a frequent flyer perk for the future.

British Airways’ First Wing, now open, finally goes some way to matching what Virgin Atlantic offers its business class passengers, although without the private dropoff area of Virgin’s space. A separated area of the massive expanse of London Heathrow Terminal 5’s checkin area hides a small bank of standard checkin desks and the entrance to a new fast track security channel, which pops out next to BA’s lounges after security.

BA has engaged a team of, its designers say, some twenty to thirty designer- and client-side people to create what customer experience brand and design management executive Yasmin Shahin calls “a beautiful bespoke checkin experience”.

The issue for BA is that its efforts don’t go far enough to transform the standard terminal 5 experience into something that truly competes with other global carriers — or even Virgin’s Upper Class Wing in Terminal 3, which is a business class level product.

The horselamp — and this journalist — seem unimpressed. Image: British Airways

I could have hoped that British Airways, rather than just adding a shiny (“fluted, metallic”) wall that hides the new area, might have gone some way to closing the space off from the ambient noise and rather harsh lighting in T5. Lighting is a notable omission given that the UK is not known for its abundance of sunshine and daylight, and T5 can seem dim. Even the wall itself is an issue, because it stops passengers seeing through to judge the length of queue in the First Wing, in the event that they might prefer to speed through a closer desk in the main terminal if the First Wing is jam-packed (innovatively or not).

The soaring structure of T5 means the First Wing won’t be any quieter than the rest of the terminal. Image: British Airways

This lack of queue visibility has been a criticism of Terminal 5’s premium passenger processing in the nine years since the terminal opened, and it’s a shame BA hasn’t fixed it even for the First Wing. Indeed, as Australian Business Traveller reports, BA has reopened its old shortcut door into the Concorde Room, its lounge for first class passengers and its ultra-elite frequent flyers, from the previous fast track and mainstream security lanes, seemingly as a realisation that the First Wing doesn’t offer the speed or capacity that frequent flyers want.

Once past the wall, British Airways could have improved the functionality and aesthetic of the checkin zone, rather than simply hiding away a set of normal check-in desks in a row. I’m disappointed BA hasn’t taken a leaf out of the book of its partners like Japan Airlines, which has roll-on luggage scales even in economy, let alone other airlines with their private checkin areas that feel like upmarket hotel lobbies.

New walls, same old industrial lift-your-bags checkin desks. Image: British Airways

British Airways itself seems to recognise this, given that its YouTube video unveiling the First Wing pans so quickly past the industrial desks that there isn’t a clear shot of them.

Overall, it’s a shame BA didn’t add more of an overall feel to the place, perhaps with the use of some of its extensive heritage assets, or indeed with lighting or sound dampening.

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British Airways’ designer, Universal Design Studio director Hannah Carter Owers, says that the diamond-patterned wall is supposed to evoke the 1932 era Speedbird, which evolved through use by BOAC, to the Speedwing on British Airways’ Landor livery, through to the current ribbonesque Speedmarque. I can’t see it, though, in anything more than the vaguest of abstractions that don’t even capture the Speedbird’s proper angles.

I must say I don’t care for the Accenture branding on the fast-track security, nor for the need for first class passengers to reidentify themselves with the same self-scan gates used in the rest of the terminal. This feels like something that should be designed out of the process.

Of course, all of these are first class problems — or at the very least top-tier frequent flyer ones — but why not resolve them when designing a first class experience?

This wall doesn’t say ‘Speedbird’. Image: British Airways

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