London to New York – British Airways

by Continental Club on September 2, 2008

I’m a firm believer in the value of a pleasant surprise, and so it is to most things that I do try to add in a little extra. It does of course require some artful preparation, as well as expectations management and I’ve learnt that introducing a small disappointment or trial into the process has a nifty habit of increasing the effect of the subsequent delight.

So, having dealt with the online and self-service check-in processes, and the Terraces access at Newcastle without letting MCC see what was going on, we headed back along the link to T5 with her looking forward to her Club World flight to JFK.

Popping out into the Terminal at the Northern end, she was however forced to endure a trek South, passing huddle after huddle of Self Service Check In machines, at least some queueless Bag Drops and a quiet-looking Security Channel. She’s well enough trained not to be vocal in complaint, but she did wonder out loud why we couldn’t just head straight ‘over there’.

As we neared our target at the far end of the concourse however, the realisation dawned and was heralded by the simple ‘We’re not?’ with the polished First letters hoving into view. So, the preparations had worked like a dream again as the broad smile lingered far beyond the reception desk to the First Class Check In area. We were welcomed and accompanied by a lovely Scottish lady, who chatted with us for a minute or two while we waited for an agent to become free to drop our bags with. Of course, using the F area was actually a completely needless diversion, as we had our BPs already, but I suppose I was adding in a bit of theatre to the experience that, sadly, sometimes the airline fails to.

Having liberated ourselves of the luggage, we were asked if we knew where we were going to get to Security etc, albeit in that more Edinburgh way of ‘You’ll have had your tea’ rather than the Glaswegian ‘Will you be having some tea?’ I should clarify that this was not from our Scottish receptionist, but I thought that it would have been nice to at least have had the genuine offer of accompaniment.

As it was, there was no queue at the passport check and we were in the line for Fast Track almost immediately. At 7.00am, we were through in 4 minutes, with a nice BAA guy manning the operation and explaining clearly and empathetically to less experienced passengers how the systems ‘works’. In fairness, the non-Fast Track was also running just as swiftly, so non premium passengers should not have been too inconvenienced either.

Two staff were manning the secret door and one of them escorted us into the Concorde Room. He checked his PC and confirmed the gate number, advising us that the flight was showing on time and giving us some guidance on timings to get across to T5B, the satellite terminal. As a sticking plaster solution to the problem of knowing when to leave and then actually getting there, it was a worthy effort, but we weren’t addressed by name and the issue really does need some serious attention to bring the service level up to at least somewhere near the industry-leading standards of carriers like Lufthansa.

The plan had been to book in for a Spa treatment, having still not yet experienced the T5 offer. However, with rumbling stomach and a pressing need for a coffee and something fizzy, making for the Dining Room seemed a more sensible option.

We were met at the host station by three staff, all of whom smiled and said hello and one of them invited us to choose a table. Comfortably seated, she offered us menus and took a drinks order. MCC asked for tea and apple juice; I opted for coffee and champagne. A minute or two later, not long after the distinctive pop was heard (first bottle of the day then!) she returned with the glass of champagne, but an apology and no apple juice. Would madam care for something else? She chose cranberry as an alternative and it arrived promptly, but I still can’t quite decide whether it’s a worse show that the Concorde Room had no AJ, or that the staff didn’t think to nip next door to the First Class or Business lounges and get some from there.

A food order was taken – pastries to start and the full English for me; granola with a side order of berries and scrambled egg with toast for MCC. The waitress was careful to point out that MCCs berries would not be fresh, but frozen, having perhaps received complaints before. The food arrived promptly and, whilst the fruit having previously been frozen was not a particular problem, the fact that it was presented swimming in defrosted juice was not ideal.

The pastry platter was very good however, not too dainty, fresh and nicely warmed. Washed down with a glass of the (reportedly) rapidly diminishing stock of Bollinger La Grand Annee, it was a fine way to start.

Previous visits to the Dining Room had been marred somewhat by invisible staff, but there was no such problem on this occasion. We were regularly checked upon and really the only picky observation would be that it could have done with being rather less obvious. Subtle loops of the room would be preferable to the more stabbing arriving at a table, pointedly checking and then retreating once again. It’s a small thing, but it would make a difference.

Starters cleared, the main courses arrived and MCC declared her eggs perfectly acceptable. My full English was rather less successful. Well cooked and not unpleasantly presented, it was however a shock to see tinned mushrooms and then to find the sausage to be slightly more ‘gourmet’ than I am keen on. The latter, I accept, is a matter of personal preference given that I tend to prefer a traditional pork banger, but really, I think that tinned mushrooms are pretty unforgiveable for all but Scott and Shackleton.

The food dispensed with, another flute was ordered and delivered and we prepared to head out and across to B. Whilst MCC took a comfort break, I availed myself of the opportunity to have a good look at the projected artwork above the lobby fireplace. I have to say that I really enjoyed it and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I do think that it would make a nifty screensaver. I was delighted to later find that a version of it is available to view on the internet, albeit from the artist’s website as opposed to BA’s, which seems a bit of a shame. Good stuff though – do have a look.

Ignoring for once the well-versed rule that says one should always use lifts, not escalators, at T5, we left the lounge complex not by the secret door but instead via the main escalators so that a quick first look at the electronic cloud artwork could be grabbed. Like the fireplace projection, it’s quite novel and engaging, although a couple of the flipping discs which animate it were already out of action.

Reverting to the lift-is-best mantra, the descent to the transit station was super-swift and, despite just missing a ‘thing’, another one was along very quickly and we boarded for the journey across to T5B. A minute later and we were there, taking another lift up to the gates. Though speedy, taking the lift does however mean missing out on that most enjoyable view of the apron that the ascendency to departures level via escalator affords.

Boarding had already commenced and we skimmed past the queues to find the hoped-for priority lane. An unconcerned World Traveller passenger arrested progress at one point as her bag blocked the way, but a firm ‘excuse me’ saw the wheelie retracted and our passage was once more unhindered. BPs scanned, the jetty beckoned, but of course the singularity of the bridge meant that there was a small line of passengers at Door 2L – the second door back on the aircraft’s port side. The detention was not lengthy however and, at the door, we were greeted by name by the Cabin Services’ Director, the Purser was summoned and we were shown to our 2A and 2K – the preferred Row 1 not having opened up.

Drinks were offered and the Bollinger ordered as the bits and pieces desired in-flight were removed from the carry-ons and the bags stowed. The champagne and nuts arrived swiftly and were set down, followed by wash bags and sleeper suits. All very efficient and an already clearly charming crew. As we settled down and arranged the cushions and pillows into the most comfortable positions, the Captain came on to let us know that we would be facing a 30 minute delay to push-back, which I’m sure was a disappointment to many. Here however, it would simply offer further opportunity to enjoy watching the ramp activity outside while knocking back another glass or two of Bolli.

When pushback came, we headed out along the Northern taxiway to line up on Runway 27R, and passing along the way a Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 Superjumbo. Indeed, a sister bird to the Airbus monster had also been observed on arrival from Newcastle, with the most noticeable thing being that it doesn’t seem all that big at first. Certainly its length is unremarkable, but then its tail and bulk do become apparent especially when seen next to the Cathay Pacific Boeing 747 which was moored alongside.

At the earliest possible opportunity after take-off, the bottle was brought from the galley to top up and, what seemed like mere moments later, a selection of canapés also arrived. I admit that I do enjoy these, although I know that some consider them a little run-of-the-mill. There are lots of things that I’d like to see change in First, alongside some additions, but I’d be sorry to see these modest treats disappear as the cloud cover is broken and the sun glints off the freshly-poured bubbles. I always have a little smile at that point.

The ‘on-demand’ audio-visual system (AVOD) is booted up and, apparently remains rock-solid throughout the flight. The CSD appears and, after a short word with the occupant of 1K (1A has either been blocked or is a no-show) then has a chat with MCC and I. She already has questionnaires in-hand and says that we’ve been selected as particularly high-value passengers. Hmm. Delighted to oblige of course and, as mentioned earlier, it’s obvious that we’re going to have a good flight. She is delightful herself, as are all our crew, although afterwards I reflect on the fact that we weren’t generally addressed by name. It underlines the fact that actually, though I do appreciate it when it happens, genuine warmth and care in service is far more important than repeating a surname.

This being a morning flight, arriving before noon, the meal service is actually a bit odd – lunch followed by afternoon tea. That said, I do feel nearly ready to eat (despite the full English) and when the order is taken I’m asked when I would like to dine. I suggest that about an hour hence would be ideal and the crew honour this practically to the minute. The cabin is lightly loaded and, when the allotted hour arrived, the crew ask if MCC and I would like to move to 5EF – one of the ‘paired’ seats in the First Class cabin – so that we can take lunch together. Though we politely declined, it was a nice thought and lovely to have it offered.

As an avowed cinema-dodger, I’m not usually interested in the films on board, but I let my guard down on this occasion and had a good chuckle to Kung Fu Panda while not watching the map or listening to the Audio selection. Although I couldn’t immediately detect much variation in the AVOD CD library from two months beforehand, I did have more of an explore through it and found it to be slightly more comprehensive than I’d initially and previously given it credit for. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting old and don’t recognise many of the modern bands…..

On the recommendation of FCC from the Vancouver trip, I opted to start with the Leek and Potato Soup, which was lovely. I do like soup and I think it nice to have selections in First that are not available in other cabins. So, notwithstanding the bowl sloppage that comes from serving pre-bowled from the galley, it was delicious. Much better to bring the empty bowl and pour from an individual jug/boat seatside however and add a little theatre into proceedings.

I also like my fish, so the Loch Fyne Catch of The Day – Sea Bass – was selected and it arrived really rather nicely presented by the crew. It was very tasty too but, as the picture may show, the flesh was rather more grey than white and really not all that appealing on first sight. The proof of the pudding is in the eating however, and there was no problem there.

Speaking of pudding, there does come a point when tough decisions have to be made. And so it was that the consumption was temporarily suspended in light of the desire to partake in the afternoon tea which would follow, later in the morning…..

…..which proved to be very much the usual affair, nothing at all spectacular but pleasant enough. Scones nicely warmed but really rather small and the sandwiches being nice but not what might be described as First Class. The cakes and patisserie were also slightly more Mr Kipling than Michelin-starred. Nothing offensive, of course, but there’s definite room for improvement and, without much head-scratching, some reasonably obvious ways to achieve it.

And with that, having not managed to make up any of the lost time from departure, we begin our descent into JFK and the end of another British Airways First flight which shows that, once again, it is the superb crews who raise the product above its relatively average bones. Just imagine what they could do with the class-leading tools that BA desperately needs to deliver with New First.

Verdict for British Airways First: 8.0/10. A half point drop on the June score, attributable to tinned mushrooms in the lounge and grey fish on board. It’s a wonderful way to fly, and I do remain a fan of the 14 seat non-suite layout, but it should be the carrier that adds the sparkles to the product, not the passenger!

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