When aged British Airways 747s offer a better PaxEx than its A380s


Four flights connecting three continents with nearly 20,000 miles flown in economy class on British Airways have left me with oddly mixed feelings about the experience. When booking, I figured the flights operated by the latest and greatest aircraft would provide the most overall positive experience. Surprisingly, I was wrong and am still trying to figure out what went wrong.

A recent family trip to South Africa on BA had us flying out of New York JFK to Johannesburg and returning from Cape Town, all via London Heathrow. A poorly timed nor’easter storm derailed my plan to depart New York on the early Saturday morning flight to London, immediately connecting to the Johannesburg flight. Although flight loads were exceptionally high, a BA phone rep was able to move my family up to a flight the night before the storm, giving us some peace of mind. A missed connection at Heathrow would have come with a 24-hour delay to our trip.

While we were originally booked on one of the carrier’s refurbished Boeing 747s that frequent JFK, our new flight was operated by a 747 that hasn’t been given such a treatment. These 747s have no in-seat power in economy class, and no inflight Wi-Fi, and they sport inflight entertainment screens that are narrower in width than my phone, with resolution that is laughable compared to any modern screen.

The IFE is crying out for an upgrade. Image: Jason Rabinowitz

What this 747 lacked in modern amenities, however, it surprisingly gained in seat comfort. The seat pitch was quite roomy, with no obstructions at foot level. A hidden surprise came in the form of a headrest with “wings” that deployed on either side to rest your head against, a feature most airlines don’t spend nearly enough time developing. I don’t typically get much rest on redeye flights, but I managed to sneak in a few hours of sleep on this flight.

Decent seat pitch and a headrest with wings meant I could snag some sleep on this redeye. Image: Jason Rabinowitz

After a quick run around London, it was time to head back to Heathrow for our flight to Johannesburg. I was particularly excited for this flight, as it had been upgauged from a 747 to an Airbus A380 post-booking. While I’m a huge fan of the core comfort levels offered by the A380, our experience on the British Airways variant was disappointing and uncomfortable.

Surprisingly, I felt as if I had less living space on the A380. Image: Jason Rabinowitz

Upon arrival to our row, I noticed that something was wrong with my seat. The upholstery on the seat cushion was not secured, and the cushion material itself was exposed.

The flight attendants did their best to accommodate me, but I was informed that there was no engineer available at the London hub to swap out the seat cushion, and since the flight was at 100% load factor, there was no other seat available. They made a business class comforter and blanket available, but that only did so much. We quickly observed that British Airways has chosen not to port over its unique headrest from the 747 to the newer A380, which was extremely disappointing.

Unfortunately, the headrest lacked wings. Image: Jason Rabinowitz

Although this aircraft featured a much more modern inflight entertainment system than the old 747, the presence of multiple extremely large under-seat equipment boxes severely limited personal space, a baffling regression in the experience from the much older 747. As an icing on the cake, the headphone jack at this seat was also broken. BA comped me £20 for the broken seat and jack.

Talk about an intrusion; the electronics box ate into our legroom. Image: Jason Rabinowitz

The jack on the neighboring seat was also malfunctioning, which leads me to believe this is a common issue with this particular IFE system. The recently installed Gogo 2Ku inflight connectivity service also did not properly activate until the flight was nearly over. Needless to say, this was a less than ideal way to spend a 14-hour flight.

The inflight Wi-Fi was inoperable for the majority of the flight. Image: Jason Rabinowitz

Our flight from Cape Town back to London Heathrow was once again operated by the antiquated 747, but after the lackluster A380 experience this didn’t feel like such a negative. It turns out that this aircraft is ideal for overnight flights with plenty of seat pitch, a headrest well suited for sleeping, and no under-seat equipment boxes to hog up foot space. The antiquated IFE system, while functional, disincentived me from actually using it.

But can we talk about this awesome headrest again?

While I knew that Cape Town flights are some of the few BA flights to use T3 at Heathrow, I was not expecting the absolute meltdown that awaited thousands of passengers trying to transfer to T5.

After a bit of a wait for gate availability, we walked down the long corridor for flight connections to find an unorganized mob of people mulling around without guidance.

What should be a swift connection took more than an hour and a half, solely because Heathrow was not operating an adequate number of – or large enough – buses between terminals.

Our two-hour connection suddenly seemed short, eliminating any opportunity to visit the lounge for a shower before our next flight. This terminal change led to a lot of unnecessary angst.

Our final flight was operated by a refurbished 747, featuring upgraded Panasonic Avionics IFE with no under-seat boxes and functioning Gogo 2Ku.

While it seemed that seat pitch had been slightly reduced in the refurbishment, this aircraft provided the best overall experience of the four.

You might be wondering why I didn’t mention the meals served for each flight, but there’s a good reason for it. The meals offered on all four flights were nearly identical entailing some sort of chicken tikka masala or curry or a vegetarian pasta dish.

Despite the various regions and cultural differences these destinations offered, British Airways didn’t seem to alter its meal offerings whatsoever. While the food was decent enough, the repetitive nature of the offerings felt as if it lacked any sort of thought or inspiration.

The food was unimaginative and repetitive. Image: Jason Rabinowitz

Overall, all four flights operated on-time and without any significant problems. All of our bags made it to their destinations, and we made all of our connections.

The old 747s will be retired eventually, but I might actually be on the lookout for them over the newer yet somehow less comfortable aircraft on future redeye flights with British Airways.

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  1. Alain

    How about noise levels? the A380 is so much quieter than these old 747s…
    Otherwise agreed that the more recent an aircraft is, the less room you have. I regret the old A340-600s that Etihad was flying between Paris and Abu Dhabi. Their A380s are way better on many aspects, including having a headrest with a single “wing” on aisle-side seats (better than none), but less legroom.

  2. Scott

    A $20 voucher for so many defects on the seat is an insult. Clearly airlines don’t understand the impact to the PaxEx when integral parts of the experience are broken or missing. Shame that the IFC was also so inconsistent, but no surprise on that route as I’m pretty sure that Gogo still lacks Ku agreements on flights over Africa.

  3. Glen

    I flew on a A380 with Qantas and I have to agree with everything Jason says. The A380 isn’t very comfortable in economy. The seat pitch was awful and it didn’t help the guy in front of had seat fully reclined the whole flight. The IFE was pretty bad with little worth watching.

  4. I just arrived last night from Spain. We went from Jfk on British Airways on a Boeing 747 an the feeling was great due to seat comfort n leg room n head rest ears. Food n tea were good but a 21/2 hour flight from London heathrow to Gibralta on an airbus 320 was horrible. Seats were ok but no entertainment, no compliment drink n crackers n not even water was served. For everything u had to pay. For water only cost y nearly 2 bounds. Egg sandwich 5 pound. On our way Spain on BA we had to pay $65 each for 3 checked baggage but on our return BA charged us 240 pounds from Gibralta even we showed them what we paid earlier but they refused n said this is what the computer is showing n I cannot help it. It’s a double standard the airlines do to make money as if we are unaware of it. That’s why I will give zero rating for fooling with customers. Secondly I preferred Ba but then why they but u on some partner airlines like AA on a 777 Boeing which I hate due tight leg space n poor seat comport. Food was horrible on AA except for drinks.

  5. Nicholas

    It’s amusing you mentioned this about the older 747s with BA not being upgraded but having a better experience. The same right now can be said with Air Canada and their A330 fleet amongst the rest of the long haul fleet. They are still in the old blue configuration with the older IFE, however they have a generous seat width and seat pitch and I found them to be a more comfortable flight versus the latest product seat wise with Air Canada.

    • Jason Rabinowitz

      Old school comfort is why I’ll go out of my way to fly a Delta 767 over pretty much any 777 these days

      • RaflW

        Delta’s 777s remain in the coveted 3-3-3 format, even after adding premium economy in the current cabin refresh.
        I’m looking forward to it – and to the huge Comfort+ section (apparently hard cabin monuments meant DL either would have a micro-offering of C+, or a bonanza. They went with bonanza. Good for us!)

  6. Lake Forest

    Just to be sure everyone understands: The airline selects the seats and seat pitch. The manufacturers only integrate them. It’s what’s called Buyer Furnished Equipment (BFE), and means that the airline buys them directly from the seat supplier. The aircraft manufacturer, whether Boring, Airbus, or whoever, only integrates them. An Airbus A380 offers more interior room in every direction. It’s all just a matter of how the airline chooses to use it. Also, when it comes to IFE suppliers, they sell the same systems to all airlines (also BFE) regardless of aircraft manufacturer.