Newcastle to London – British Airways

by Continental Club on September 2, 2008

As a native of the North, the first part of the trip is always a positioning exercise before the main event of the long haul. On this occasion and to maximise the time in New York, the morning JFK flight had been selected, necessitating a previous-evening departure from Newcastle and an overnight somewhere in the vicinity of Heathrow.

Having stayed, just a week beforehand, at the Bath Road Marriott, I’d seen how simple it was to connect from T5 to the Sheratons, Radisson Edwardian and Marriott etc., on the free 423 Service Bus. However, on this occasion, the desire to extend the time in the Concorde Room, and the prospect of a day which would be lengthened by a five hour time-zone retreat, dictated even more stress-free accommodations. Thus the squeaky new Sofitel would be the property of choice tonight.

Bagging 2A and 2K for the First flight had been no problem at the booking stage, but the domestic seat selections had to wait until On Line Check In opened. On the button of ‘T-24′ – ie 24 hours before take-off, I logged in and made it all the way through the process until the actual process of checking-in. And failed. So I logged out and tried again. Nope, still nothing. I left the office, went home and tried again at T-23. Nada. T-22 and still no success. So I phoned British Airways’ Executive Club.

The situation didn’t seem to surprise the agent all that much and he suggested a work-around which involved un-checking auto completed boxes, checking in for the domestics only, re-logging in and then checking in for the internationals. Which worked perfectly. Odd.

Arriving at Newcastle with buckets of time, I used a Self Service Check In machine to print out manageable Boarding Passes and then hit the snaking Fast Bag Drop queue, which was barely moving. The lone Gold/Silver desk was unmanned – there are no premium cabined flights from Newcastle. Eventually, an agent appeared for the vacant desk and we doubled-back out of the queue and dropped the bags. I’m not entirely certain she’d ever checked in a First connecting passenger as she looked suitably flustered by the whole process.

Although there’s a Fast Track queue at Security, this is signed for BA Silver and Gold cardholders (and an assortment of others) but not for those connecting to premium cabins on an onward basis. I’ve spoken to security staff at the airport before (when not actually passing through myself) and it seems that they’re not briefed on any allowance for Business/First Class passengers from LHR so, frankly, it’s pointless trying and we join the main queue. It moves reasonably quickly and we are in the lounge in a few minutes, having negotiated the new shopping hazard (passengers are now forced to walk through the main duty-free shop, dodging the displays to reach the gates) we were quickly installed in the BA Terraces Lounge. A lack of celebrities, or indeed many passengers at all, afforded the opportunity to take a quick snap.

Having made it so far this swiftly, it was a little disappointing to see nothing on the board suggesting an on-time departure. And, with no further information seemingly available from the Swissport contract staff, it was time to pour a large G&T;, stock up on the freshly-delivered sandwiches and log on to the free wifi to glean an insight into our future from the outside world. The Arrivals & Departures function on ba.com came up trumps, even if the news was that we were facing at least a 30 minute delay to the inbound aircraft.

It was also at this moment that the much anticipated email arrived from the new You First team, offering up their myriad (but unspecified) pre-departure services. The email had lagged the booking by about 80 hours and preceded the scheduled take-off time by 43 minutes, but it was a trial service, so I wasn’t too disappointed. I fired an email back asking about the possibility of pre-booking an Elemis Spa treatment for the following morning and, upon logging-on in New York the next day, I picked up the reply….. Actually, it was beautifully written, apologetic and I’d deliberately emailed them to properly test the service and response time, rather than merely telephoning for an immediate answer. Anyone booking more than a few days in advance would, I am sure, be delighted by the new support. The response was that, notwithstanding the short notice, treatments are not yet pre-bookable, but the inference was that demand through You First may force their hand. Watch this space.

Back to Newcastle and, sure enough, the ba.com info was an accurate forecast of the time between ‘scheduled’ and ‘actual’ and the Airbus A320 swung on to stand for a quick freshen up and preparation for boarding. We were called from the lounge and headed to Gate 3, arriving slightly too early. After a short wait, we were scanned through and headed down the bridge to the waiting aircraft, to be greeted by name by the Cabin Services Director – an unusually senior crewmember to be operating this domestic sector. The aircraft was tidy but definitely showing a few scuffs and bumps – less so than the previous week’s equipment but certainly a bit shabby compared to the factory-fresh A321 we’d set out on our first steps to Vancouver on in June. In fact, at this point, I should like to commend to British Airways and their contractors the fantastic product known as Autoglym Intensive Tar Remover. It is a wizard at stain removal and would tart up those white bulkheads and sidewalls which take so many kicks and scrapes. Try Halfords. Not more than a fiver. I would bring my own but I wouldn’t get it through Security.

Seated, belted and jacket hung, we were greeted by another senior crew member not all that usually seen in the cabin – the driver. She appeared with the PA in her hand and proceeded to explain what was going on. The inbound delay had been due to inclemencies in the South, with Heathrow movements restricted slightly. But, she said in her most measured of flight-deck tones, conditions had deteriorated seriously within the last hour and severe thunderstorms were now affecting the area around the airfield. Indeed the meteorological situation was, she apologised, frankly ‘pants’ so, with the title of the trip agreed, we sat back to await the 75 minute behind-time pushback.

The flight itself was uneventful, despite take-off being in lashing rain, and quite a number of Berks/Bucks/Herts circuits as we waited to enter Heathrow’s flow control. On board service was friendly and professional and the usual choice of superchilled sarnies and bar service was wheeled out. In anticipation of any bumpiness (which was in the event almost completely absent) there was no hot drink service, which was also no great loss.

Landing on 27L with the glorious Welcome to London view of the tailless G-YMMM and the forlorn G-BOAB, we had a fairly short taxi on to A6 at the North end of T5. Guidance was on, jetty operator was present and we were disembarking within 4 minutes of shutdown.

Now, get this: Gate A6 has a very long jetty bridge, but we were off first so we stormed up it. Experienced enough in all things T5 to ignore the escalators, we jumped into the first available lift and whipped down to the baggage hall. And, six minutes after crossing the Airbus threshold, the bags started to appear! Ours were off third and fifth and we grabbed a trolley and headed directly for the as-yet-untried Sofitel.

Verdict for British Airways Domestic: 7.5/10. On Line Check In was imperfect, the Fast Bag Drop queue was too long, Fast Track Security needs sorting, flight information wasn’t available from lounge staff and the aircraft needed a bit of a wash. The crew (flight and cabin) were excellent however and the T5 arrival experience was quite superb.

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