- Lounge Review: British Airways Lounge San Francisco Lounge
- Flight Review: British Airways First Class – Airbus A380 San Francisco (SFO) to London (LHR)
- Lounge Review: British Airways Concorde Room London Heathrow Terminal 5
- Hotel Review: Le Méridien Stuttgart, Germany
- Flight Review: British Airways First Class – Boeing 747 London (LHR) to San Francisco (SFO)
As usual, I planned to go back home in December for a couple of weeks. As I was browsing for flights back in October, I found a great offer on British Airways to fly the A380. I have never been on an A380 in my life and as an aviation geek, this plane is a must. Therefore I was super excited when I found the offer, especially because this offer would let me fly in First Class. 😎 After doing some more research, I found the same itinerary on the American Airlines site even cheaper. The best part of the deal is that I can experience First Class on BA’s A380 on my outbound flight and First Class as well on British Airways’ Boeing 747. My outbound itinerary from San Francisco to Munich included a 5-hour overlay in London Heathrow. I did this for a couple of reasons. First, the price was even cheaper with this long overlay and second I wanted to visit the British Airways Concorde Room at Heathrow Terminal 5.
I was staying in the brand new Grand Hyatt at SFO. This hotel is connected to the AirTrain system of the airport and it is an easy one to get to the airport. From the hotel, I took the Blue Line and the second stop was already the International Terminal A Gates. After taking the escalator down to the departures hall, I was looking for the British Airways check-in counter. There are monitors in the departure hall to tell you which aisle is for what airline. For some reason, British Airways was not shown. It was now 3:15 p.m. So I walked down the departure hall and checked aisle by aisle as I saw British Airways. I walked up to the counters and nobody was there. The signage on top of one of the counter stated “Ticket Sales – Counter opens at 1:30 PM)”. Remember, when I arrived it was already 3.15 p.m. Maybe this was from the earlier flight that day. If so, they should have updated the information accordingly. I planned to hang out in the lounge and be there as early as possible. That’s why I arrived so early at the airport. To get to the lounge, I need a ticket to get past security and actually into the lounge as well. My next idea was online check-in on the phone. I know I could have done the online check-in 24 hours before departure, but it probably would yield the same result.
Online Check-in via smartphone
I opened up the British Airways app and as I was already logged in with my account I saw my flight and the option to check-in. After clicking that, I got forwarded to the BA website, which opened inside the app itself. As I started my check-in process a message told me that additional information is required for my check-in. Now here comes the weird part, I had to specify my address in the USA and if I am traveling with a visa and also provide the visa number. Remember this is an outbound flight, leaving the United States. This information is not at all required, however, they should have asked if I have a visa or passport of my destination country. 😉
As I tried to continue, the website told me that something went wrong and I have to check-in at the airport. Failure ❗ Well, I was at the airport but no agent was working the counters. Next idea was to try one of the self-check-in kiosks.
Self-Check In Kiosk
First, the kiosk asked me for which airline I want to check-in and then for some information to locate my itinerary. There were a bunch of choices and I went with the credit card option, as I assumed that would be the quickest way. Here the big downside again. You actually have to swipe your card. Why does nobody let you enter the credit card number? I have mine memorized because I need it so much. Now I had to dig out my wallet out of my bag and swipe the card. Failure ❗ The system was not able to find my reservation, even tho that’s the card I used to pay for the flight. It’s probably because the ticket was issued by American Airlines and not British Airways. Luckily I had my BA confirmation number because I pre-selected my seats. American Airlines won’t allow you to select your seats, but you can log-in or call British Airways and they can help you select a seat. Of course, the confirmation number from American Airlines is different from the one in the system of British Airways. After that, the system prompted me to put my passport on the reader to get my personal information.
Fail again ❗ The system told me that my documents had to checked and that I should go to one of the counters to have them checked. The same counters again, where still no person is working any of the desks.
Call the British Airways Hotline
Now I was desperate and dialed the number for the British Airways hotline. It started ringing and I had to get through the automated system to get placed in hold for the next available agent. (Does anybody or anything work at British Airways?)
Self-Check In Kiosk Part II
As I was on hold with British Airways customer service, I tried to check-in again. I entered my confirmation number again and the system told me now that I am already checked-in. Ok! There was an option to reprint the boarding pass. After putting my passport back on the reader for some magical reasons the system was able to continue to the next step. I was given my two boarding passes for my itinerary and the baggage tag. Finally excited, I have a boarding pass and can get through security. 😀 Wait! But what to do with my bags? 🙁 I was thinking about taking the train back to the hotel and have them store the bags for a little bit and check the back in later.
Just as I was about to walk away the first and only agent showed up (approximately 4 p.m.) at the First Class counter and he was kind enough to let me drop my bag as it was already tagged. He also gave me directions to the British Airways Lounge.
British Airways Hotline – The (Dead) End
While I was able to finally get the kiosk to work, dropped my bag and walked towards security, I realized that I was still on hold with the BA Hotline. Well at that point not needed anymore, but if you are looking for some quick help, you won’t find it there, no matter what status you have.
The British Airways Check-In Disaster Wrap Up
After a bunch of issues trying to check-in, I was finally able to get my boarding pass and get through security. I was looking for an easy and seamless experience. That didn’t happen. I don’t know why it is so complicated to check in to a flight with all this technology we have. Well, it seems that technology is BA’s Achilles heel. They can’t get it right. More bad experiences with technology later during my layover in London Heathrow.
I wish everything would have gone as smooth as the security check. I walked up to the agent, showed my boarding pass with TSA PreCheck on it and went down the pre-check lane. Nobody was in this lane, I had my I.D. and boarding pass checked, my bags x-rayed and I was through. This was so quick, I almost didn’t realize that I just walked through a TSA security checkpoint. 😉
After security, I walked straight down the terminal to the British Airways Lounge, where I was waiting for my plane to get ready for boarding.
Boarding British Airways Flight 286
I lined up in the corresponding line for First Class and was the first one down the jetway. About half-way down, the corridor split for the different jetways going to the aircraft. For some reason, I didn’t see the sign for First Class/Rows 1-4. As I knew they are at the very front of the plane, I walked down the first possible jetway to the plane. There I got stopped by a flight attendant, which had to notify the rest of the crew that boarding started. Weird, because someone radioed into the counter that boarding can start and that the plane is ready. 😉
It only took a few seconds and then I was off to my seat which was actually just around the corner from the door I boarded through. It was the second door from the front, which will get you on the plane between First Class and Club World (Business Class) cabins.
I stored my carry-on bags in the overhead locker and got into my seat to make room for other passengers to pass by. While I was sitting in my seat I got greated my the cabin service director Ruth. This was a great experience and makes you feel appreciated.
British Airways First Class Cabin
The A380 is the biggest plane in the world but there are only 14 seats in First Class. First Class is configured in a 1-2-1 layout. Overhead bins are only available on either side of the plane but not for the middle two seats. First I thought, wow that’s a lot of overhead space for one person, but it actually needed to be shared with the seat across the aisle. Of course only if they bring anything on board.
Each of the eight window seats had two windows with electric blinds. You can open the blinds both at the same time with a switch near the seat controls or separately with the switches at every window itself. The blinds have two stages. The first one just dims the direct light but still lets some light in, while the second one blacks out everything.
I don’t know why, but the lavatories in First Class, at the very front of the cabin, are small. I expected them to be more spacious, especially to change into your pajama. For some weird reason, the forward two lavatories at the upper deck, which is the Club World Cabin (Business Class), are way more spacious than the one in First Class. I recommend you to use them as changing is a bit more comfortable. During the flight, the stairs were roped off, but you can just ask a flight attendant or go upstairs after the main meal service when everyone slowly gets ready to rest anyway.
British Airways Club World (Business Class) Cabin
Club World seats are located behind the First Class cabin on the main deck (Rows 10-15) and at the very front of the upper deck (rows 50-59)
British Airways calls this seat an open suite. I disagree a little bit on that term, as for being a suite it has too much opening into the aisle. It’s not a bad thing, you still have your privacy from your seat neighbor as the seats on the window and aisle are offset a little bit. For most privacy choose the last row (row 4) in First Class.
Each seat comes with a small closet that is accessible from the aisle. Inside is space to store smaller carry-on bags and a hanger for your coat.
The seat is comfortable and wide and has good upholstery. Opposite of the seat is an ottoman with its own seatbelt. If you have another person sitting with you to talk, the person can now stay with you when the seatbelt sign turns on during the flight. Of course, everybody has to be in their own seats for take-off and landing and securely strapped in. The ottoman can be adjusted by pulling the small handle in front of it. This allows moving the seat further out or back in. Below the ottoman is some extra space for storage.
On the left side, towards the window, is a tray that has a lid from where the tray table pops out. Once the tray table is out, it folds open to a very big table and is sturdy enough to use it even with a laptop.
On the rear end of the tray are some controls for the seat and seat area. The idea to use a control knob to adjust your seat is actually ingenious. It’s very easy to adjust your seat up or down. I used to adjust the back and footrest of the seat separately on other seats to get it in the perfect position. While adjusting the seat, I was always in a good position and never actually wanted to adjust a part of the seat separately. There is a lighted ring around the control knob. If the ring is green it’s the right position for take-off and landing, while it is lit blue-ish in all other positions. The button immediately below the control knob will always bring your seat in the take-off position. Just press and hold it and the seat will stop automatically once in the right position. With the two buttons below that, you can adjust your headrest and lumbar support.
Above the control knob are the controls for the lights. You can turn on the overhead reading lights separately and there is a wall-mounted light fixture behind the seat to the left. The brightness of this light fixture can be adjusted as well with the two buttons next to it. To the right of the control knob control area is a separate button that opens and closes both window shades simultaneously.
Just behind the seat controls is a storage bin with a lid. It is big enough so I could store my iPad Pro 10.5″ in there. Inside you find a power outlet, USB ports, the entertainment controller and an RCA-connector. This connector is probably used to watch your own content on the infotainment screen. Wouldn’t it be better to put some kind of HDMI port there instead?
The IFE monitor is mounted on the backside of the seat’s closet and folds out from the side similar to reverse herringbone seats on American Airlines and Cathay Pacific. At the back wall to the left of the seat is a magazine holder. Inside you can find BA’s inflight magazine High Life, Duty-Free shopping catalog and even instructions for the seat.
When I arrived at my seat there was already an amenity kit waiting on the tray next to my seat. A blanket and the noise-canceling headsets have been strapped down with the seatbelt of the ottoman. Just a few moments after settling and storing my bags, a flight attendant came by to ask me for my preferred size of the Pajama. Even tho I ordered a Large, I somehow ended up with a PJ in size M. I didn’t realize it right away but asked one of the flight crew to exchange it for an L a few minutes later. While the plane was still boarding the flight attendant working my area of the plane came by and asked for my selection of pre-departure drink. Champagne is always a good way to go. While enjoying my champagne, my flight attendant brought me a hot towel and a bowl of nuts. The nuts were actually quite tasty. A little snack makes the waiting time during boarding go by even faster. Unfortunately, there were no slippers provided, which would have been great.
We pushed back from the gate about 45 minutes late. One of the reasons for the delay was the loading of cargo containers onto the aircraft. After that, we were off to taxi to the departure runway. The flight attendants came through the aisle to select the empty glasses, towels and bowls before take off. The delay didn’t impact the arrival time much, as we made most of it up in the air.
During the boarding process, flight attendants handed out the menu to us and came through the aisles a few minutes later to take down the orders for the in-flight meal service. After we reached cruising altitude, the flight crew was working on getting the meals prepared. In the mean time tables at the seats were set up as well. This included to fold out the table, which I had already prepared for them, and placing a tablecloth on it.
I ordered an appetizer but skipped the soup and had my main entree (Seared Fillet of Beef) instead. The fillet was tender and flavorful, actually pretty decent.
For dessert, I wanted to actually only order ice cream with chocolate sauce and whip cream. Instead, I got my ice cream with all the options on the list of course including my choices. I didn’t want to have berries in my ice cream. I was a bit disappointed that my order got mixed up, but hey it was manageable and I didn’t make a big deal out of it.
After the dinner service, I watched a movie on the in-flight entertainment system. During the movie, I fell asleep as I had set my seat in a comfortable position to watch the movie. I woke up later and realized that I have slept already and just put my seat in the horizontal position and pulled out the blanket. As I was still half asleep, I skipped the turn-down service completely and just slept like this. To be honest, I slept quite well for being on an airplane.
I woke up about 2 hours before landing and realized that some of my fellow passengers already had breakfast. A few flight attendants walked by me and saw that I am awake, but nobody pro-actively approached me if I want to order breakfast as well. It took a while before one of the flight attendants stopped and asked if I already had a chance to put in my breakfast order.
My table got set up for dining again and I selected to start with a bowl of cereals followed by the “Traditional English Breakfast”. Breakfast was ok, I think the bowl of cereals was even better than the English Breakfast. The breakfast was accompanied by orange juice and coffee. To finish off breakfast I ordered the pastry plate with three different pastries. They looked so great, I ate them before I even took a picture.
Overall the experience was great. Everybody was super friendly while I walked around the cabin to take some photos while the plane was still boarding (in the back). However, service could have been a bit more pro-active. After the standard list of things (pre-departure drink, diner,..) you actually had to ask for everything else. Ever now and then I got asked if I wanted more to drink.
Landing and Arrival
It got a little bumpy while approaching LHR. The captain announced the current conditions and weather in Heathrow and also a few more to keep the crew updated on the time left before landing. The flight attendants came through the cabin and collected all the remaining service items, stored blankets safely and made sure everyone is safely secured for landing.
After touch down, it took us some time to taxi to our gate at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. The upper deck jetway was connected first before the lower one was connected to the second door, the one I boarded through. After that, we were off and most of the people tried to get as fast as possible to customs and immigration. I followed the purple signs for “Flight Connections” to the main terminal area of Terminal 5. There I had to clear security again for my connecting flight to Germany. It took by about 1.5 hours to get off the plane and through security, which included walking and taking the train to the main terminal area. It was not the line before, but actually, after the security checkpoint which took forever. I was the third person in line and of course, was randomly selected by the metal detector to go through the x-ray scanner. After that, I got a quick pad down on my right arm, where I got flagged and an inspection of my shoes. This all was done very quickly in a matter of only a few minutes. The longest time I spend waiting for my bags. As there is no TSA PreCheck or anything similar in the UK, electronics have to be taken out of the bag. As I have a lot of camera gear and electronics with me, both of my carry-ons had to be further separated and scanned individually. It took the agent forever to clear all the bags which were in the queue as well and ahead of me. When it was my turn, the agent traded spot with someone else, but nobody showed up to actually continue the secondary bag check. Another airport employee walked by and walked behind the table and first had a chat with his colleagues before he actually started working the line again. He didn’t have a good day either, as he started putting on his gloves backward. After I finally got all my belongings back together and stored in my bag, I headed off to the British Airways Concorde Room to spend the remaining hours of my layover in one of the most exclusive lounges (but not best) in London-Heathrow.
My connecting flight to Germany departed only a few minutes late, but I had more technical issues with British Airways. I knew that the plane would depart from Terminal 5 but not which gate. As it got closer to my scheduled boarding time, I watched the monitors and the BA more frequently to see which gate I have to go to. Remember that this might include taking the train back to either B or C gates. 7:10 p.m. was the scheduled boarding time of my flight according to the BA app. But there was no gate shown in the app or on the monitors in the lounge. My flight was already listed on the board. Boom! 7:10 p.m. and a gate showed up next to my flight ➡ B39. Ok good, but wait what was the green writing next to it? Seriously? It showed my gate and at the same time it showed next to my gate “Boards now”. I was baffled and worried that I wouldn’t reach my gate in time. Luckily I was already set to leave the lounge and headed out right away, down a few escalators to the train. Oh no, the doors didn’t open and an announcement told us to wait as they did a security check on the train. Of course, this had to happen when the time was running out for me. Finally, the doors opened and the train took off to B-Gates. First stop and I rushed up the escalators with my bags in hand so I can walk the escalators not just stand there.
I rushed down the terminal and followed the signs to my gate – B39. I saw the gate in the distance and only 2 agents were at the gate. In my head, I imagined the worst! Everybody already boarded and it’s too late for me to get on board. I rushed up to the agent and showed him my boarding pass. He responded – “How can I help you?”. I asked if it was the flight to Munich and if I am too late to board. He looked at me all confused and told me that boarding hasn’t even started yet. I told him that the monitor in the lounge already showed that the flight is boarding already. He just said, no we are not boarding yet and to wait back there for the boarding to start.
Flying in America probably spoiled me too much, when I even know a day ahead and for sure hours ahead which gate my plane will depart from. Of course, there could be last-minute changes, but at least there is somewhat of a direction. Here they just showed the boarding gate about 20 minutes before boarding started. I was exhausted by chasing to the gate and sat down at one of the benches near the gate. Five minutes later they started boarding, or at least scanning our boarding passes and let us walk down the jetway. At the last section of the jetway, we had to wait again as the plane was not ready yet to be boarded and the last section was roped off. Another few minutes of waiting here before I was finally able to claim my seat in Club Europe (Business Class). Most European Business Class seats (on most airlines) are just a regular seat while the middle seat is blocked for passengers to sit there. Back in the good old United States, you get a big comfy chair if you fly in the front of the plane.
What should I say! My First Class experience was great but for some reason, I expected more – more glamour. Isn’t this the airline James Bond takes all the time? Overall the flight was great and I had a good time. Service could have been a bit more pro-active aboard as well as in the lounges. The biggest issues where all the IT-problems and organizational issues. BA needs to invest here. Not just money but also training and communication skills.
Peter has a passion for Traveling, Photography, and Geocaching. These are the best ingredients for amazing adventures all over the globe. “Traveling is fun, no matter if you stay in a luxury hotel or travel like a backpacker.” Peter shares his experiences on his Blog www.gatetoadventures.com
Some of Peter’s photos are published on corporate websites, in-flight magazines, travel guides, and much more.