Overhead view of the grey BA suite with white linens and large IFE screen.

British Airways first class: a sub-par business class experience

Cartoon of passengers, flight attendant and pilots onboard an aircraftGrowing up shuttling between New York and London in the 1980s and 1990s, British Airways first class was the inconceivably unattainable pinnacle of luxury travel, glossily featured in the pages of the much-thumbed onboard magazine, its rarefied environment in the nose of a 747 glimpsed only occasionally through the curtain on deplaning.

Since other airlines eclipsed its 1995 introduction of outward-facing herringbone seats over the last quarter-century, however, BA first’s standings among the ranks of aviation’s most luxurious product has fallen. Ten years ago, the joke was that its herringbone seats were the world’s best business class. In the last decade, however, doored mini-suites in business like Qatar Airways’ bespoke Collins Qsuite or ANA’s Safran Fusio-based The Room mean it can’t claim that hard product plaudit.

As a result, I wasn’t expecting the moon when I cashed in some Avios points for BA first class from Newark to London on board a Boeing 787-9. I expected a dated but attractive seat, and was hoping for the best service British Airways can offer, but realistic about that given BA’s ongoing inability to provide consistent service, especially in its premium cabins. All in all, I wanted something that was an elevation above British Airways’ 2019 Club Suite experience.

After a poor experience in the grubby, dated Newark business + first lounge, with non-functional showers and Elemis toiletries replaced by bargain-basement industrial liquid soap, the gate experience was also a disappointment: fifteen minutes of unannounced delay after the flight had been called for boarding, with no queue management. Boarding was first plus business plus frequent flyers (about 2/3 of the plane on the New York route it seemed) and then everyone else.

On arriving at the door, there was little charm, special first class welcome or premium feel as I was perfunctorily shown to my seat. The seat on this 7-year-old 787-9 Dreamliner is an open, doorless outward-facing herringbone, with eight seats in the cabin. 

Overhead view of the grey BA suite with white linens sitting atop the seat.

The look and feel is dark and futuristic, a sort of New-Mini-meets-Tron, with two windows in their own surround. Image: John Walton

Lack of door aside (in a seat installed in 2017), the seat was reasonably spacious if measuring on a business class scale, but so far below standard for first class that I genuinely have no comparator. At the same time, the lack of door, angle of the seats and the futuristic aesthetic meant the seat lacked cosiness and privacy, even compared to the airline’s own five-year-old Club Suite.

A bright oblong light in all black with white trim is shining bright.

The futuristic side-light was cool, but like all the lights around the seat it only had a stark, cold blue-light option, which wasn’t great for an overnight flight. Image: John Walton

Even with my low expectations, I was surprised at the state of the seat’s cleanliness and wear. One of my “Van Halen Brown M&Ms” attention-to-detail warning flags in premium classes is seat dressing visibly askew, and in this case that flag was a crumpled antimacassar headrest cover — the sort of thing that an attentive cabin servicing team or crew would straighten and smooth almost automatically.

A dirty crevice on the BA suite.

Any crevice on the seat was just filled with grubbiness. Image: John Walton

The warning flag signalled more: the seat was dirty, worn and its surrounds were banged up. If there was a crevice, it was full of grime. If there was a surface, it was dusty. If there was a high-touch area, it was dented, chipped or scratched. Even areas that could hardly be considered high-touch — the casing around the inflight entertainment screen, for example — were chipped.

A close up of a scuffed up part of the BA suite.

The seat was overall in very poor condition. Image: John Walton

The control panel for the seat, cool but not especially intuitive, is a twist-wheel. This panel was so worn that it was unclear what some of the functions were.

Worn seat control buttons are pictured up close here.

Buttons with symbols worn off need to be replaced. Image: John Walton

Apart from the ripped, worn ottoman footrest cover detached on one side, the metallic surround of the seat shrouding was visibly out of line. The mirror had not been cleaned in seemingly quite some time. 

The ottoman in the BA suite is not in good shape in this image, with some of the material clearly torn and hanging from it.

The ottoman cushion was torn on one side and detached entirely on the other. Image: John Walton

It took fifteen minutes for one of the two first class flight attendants to come by in this eight-passenger cabin, offering a pre-departure beverage. This was served in a clunky flute with the thickest stem I’ve ever seen, together with a small tepid towel. I asked for Champagne, but was served a warm glass of the cheap, acidic Hattingly English fizz. I asked and was informed that BA doesn’t serve Champagne on the ground because they would have to pay more duty on it.

Shortly after, a lumpen, misshapen blue amenity kit (co-branded with wedding dress fashion house Temperley, which was odd for a men’s kit — the florals of the women’s version are markedly more attractive) was presented. This was small, and of an unpleasant suede-effect material with a low-quality zip that made it unpleasant to try to extract the overstuffed amount of cosmetic product within. These products were mostly from Elemis, a brand that British Airways has previously used and currently uses in its business class, and which therefore inherently doesn’t feel first class luxurious.

A blue wash bag and a small white cloth sit on the side table.

The ugly washbag and tiny hot towel felt very low-rent business class. Image: John Walton

I was next presented with the menu, several pages of which were visibly stuck together with some unidentified substance. This didn’t seem to bother the crew.

A menu whose pages are stuck together, during the BA flight.

It wasn’t quite clear what was sticking the pages of the menu together. Image: John Walton

I’d assess the menu options as acceptable for a lower-tier business class product, the kind that picks a chicken, red meat, fish and veggie option.

An image of the BA menu in flight.

The food was pedestrian in menu design, even for business class. Image: John Walton

The three mini-canapés were pedestrian and not especially fresh, and it took 45 minutes for them to arrive with a beverage, and a further five for the wine I’d actually ordered to be served. (The brut and rosé Champagne were made by the same house, a fact that seemed to be very confusing to them when they discovered it.)

Three small dishes are set out in a row with a glass of Champers behind it.

Limp, dried out and unloved canapés weren’t a great start to the meal. Image: John Walton

To start I chose the scallop and arancini, which was a single tiny lukewarm scallop positively eclipsed by a large, gluey arancino approximately eight times its size. I’d expect three scallops in even the most basic of British gastro-pubs these days, and I’ve had two large scallops in BA’s business class previously.

A single scallop dish with asparagus is presented in a white bowl.

A single tiny scallop felt very miserly. Image: John Walton

The main course was presented at about 11pm, about 90 minutes after departure. I ordered the seared lamb loin, but whatever arrived was very much not a seared lamb loin. It appeared to be some sort of minced mutton meatball torpedo, cooked hard, and presented with a greasy, jellied sauce alongside browning snap peas, gummy carrots and green beans. 

A piece of meat in a sauce with beans and carrots as a side. The meat is cut to show its texture.

I don’t know what to say about this lamb meatball advertised as lamb loin. Image: John Walton

It took another thirty minutes for my dessert — a white chocolate bread pudding that was fine in an industrial pudding sort of way, but by no means anything luxurious or upmarket — to arrive, by which time I was falling asleep into it. 

A pudding is displayed with ice cream and strawberries.

Stodgy and filling, but no premium feel to the pudding. Image: John Walton

In its entirety, the meal was boring, badly designed and poorly executed, and in comparison sub-par for a modern business class, let alone first. 

One criticism that feels hyper-specific, but at the same time reflective of the wider product design issues: the tableware and flatware. This felt very dated and samey. The beige design on all the plates and dishes is the wavy motif echoed in the feature at the front of the cabin, but as a regular traveller I associate this motif with the Qatar Airways Qsuite rather than British Airways. 

This is a disappointment: table settings and dinner services are a British strength, and the UK produces some of the world’s best. Yet a simple glance through any premium chinaware producer’s website highlights that elegant tableware today isn’t about having a clunky, 1980s-style matchy-matchy set with overuse of a single boring motif. It’s about complimentary pieces that work together to create a cohesively designed whole. Any number of airlines do this far better in business class and even better yet in first.

Needing some rest, I skipped the cheese course at about 11:45pm and I went to change into my pyjamas (in the very standard 787 forward lavatory — nothing especially premium here) while the crew made up my bed. There wasn’t anything special about the bedding: nothing like the Airweave-style cushioned mattresses that Japan Airlines offers in business class, for example, just a duvet and a padded sheet affair. I decided to sleep on top of it all for as much softness in bed mode as possible, and pulled the thin, worn and pilled polyester-feeling lap blanket over me instead of the duvet. None of this felt first class.

Three hours later I woke to a substantial amount of loud talking, clanking and clattering from the galley, which was heading firmly into breakfast mode. Not really able to face another meal so quickly, I spent the rest of the flight with the seat in the Z-bed mode, curled up watching the latest David Attenborough nature documentaries, accompanied by a pleasingly large pot of tea.

Less pleasingly, it was Twinings, a middling supermarket brand that might be acceptable in business class but certainly doesn’t bring any sense of being a first class product from a country where tea is not exactly an unusual choice. Even if something opulent like Fortnum & Mason is beyond the budget, surely something cosy and delightful like Bettys of Harrogate isn’t too much to ask. 

A white teapot and cup with saucer are set out on the tray table.

Twinings isn’t a first class tea brand. Image: John Walton

I also had the energising mango smoothie (nice in a “supermarket own brand” sort of quality) and the orange juice (which tasted long-life and from concentrate). At about 3am body time, I didn’t really feel like anything else.

Throughout the flight, service seemed perfunctory, disjointed and on rote. Two crew seemed to be responsible for first class, flitting backwards and forwards with no attempt to engage with passengers or provide a memorable, standout first class service. They seemed unfamiliar with the wine list, and the idea that someone might need a second milk jug for a large pot of tea didn’t strike them. I’ve had several better experiences in Club World over the years, and many in other business classes.

A picture of the BA wine list.

The wine list was strong, but the crew seemed to know nothing about it whatsoever. Image: John Walton

Connectivity on board was provided by Intelsat, and was free for first class passengers. This was slow and not especially responsive, with speed tests maxing out at just over 1Mbps.

A screenshot of a connectivity speed test for the IFC on a BA flight.

Speed tests were a little erratic. Image: John Walton

The inflight entertainment choices, by contrast, were strong, and it was good to see that visually complex options like the Attenborough documentaries were in reasonably high definition.

A movie is playing on the BA IFE suite screen.

Picture quality was decent, but the level of chipping and wear around the IFE screen was surprisingly poor. Image: John Walton

The clunky, offbrand headphones, however, were sub-par.

A large pair of headphones are being held up for a photo.

Clunky unbranded headsets are sub-par. Image: John Walton

Of note, at some time between booking and a few days before travel, BA reassigned my seat from the front row window 1K to a front row middle seat on the other side of the aisle, 1E. Realising this while gardening my reservation, I changed to a second row window, 2A.

I would spot on boarding that this move was because a former UK Prime Minister had been allocated my seat, and someone who looked very much like a protection officer the one across the aisle. I don’t begrudge this, but if one of the benefits of booking first class is the ability to select a seat, and there’s a dedicated first class customer service channel, the very least I’d expect would be an email, text message or app notification to give a passenger the courtesy of informing them of this sort of change.

I wanted so much to love British Airways first class, and to revel in this aspirational experience from my youth. In that context, personally and professionally, recalling and reviewing my experiences for this Nose to Tail has been an informative and thought-provoking process. I hesitated to be forthright about my views on the experience lest there be accusations of BA-bashing or snobbery, while the very idea of writing critically about first class #PaxEx can always risk feeling like, quite literally, first class problems. But British Airways takes passengers’ money or miles for this experience, and quite frankly I think the airline should think seriously about what it provided in return: a dirty, beat up old seat with low-quality catering, middling soft product, and an experience that in its entirety lacked any first class flair.

Overhead view of the grey BA suite with white linens.

I was disappointed to see the lack of care and attention paid either to the hard product (especially the ill-fitting shrouding) or the soft product of the seat. Image: John Walton

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Featured image credited to John Walton