Tyler McDowell samples the First Class cabin on a British Airways Boeing 777-300/ER during a short hop to Madrid.
Since Alex Cruz came to the helm of British Airways in 2016, he hasn't had a lot of good publicity. The change on short-haul flights from being a full-service carrier to a low-cost model resulted in a backlash from frequent flyers and mainstream news media. Alongside that were teething problems with the quantity of food presenting staff with difficulties on some flights regarding enough for all passengers. Then a company-wide computer system issue caused a massive headache for operations and led to days of bad press. Cabin crew disputes also meant One World alliance partner Qatar Airways leasing 10 Airbus A320s to cover the shortfall over the time the dispute lasted.
Despite the fact that the company has had to overcome some difficulties in recent years, it's time to cut British Airways and Mr Cruz some slack. The carrier is, after all, not only the UK’s national airline but it is, when one comes right down to it, a fine air transport institution, with dedicated, hard-working crews (both in the air and on the ground), who are extremely well-trained and highly capable.
I’ve flown with British Airways numerous times and always found the experience enjoyable, my most recent being from London Heathrow to Madrid on March 16, 2019. This was my second visit to the Spanish capital’s Barajas airport and like my first, involved flying on BA460. I like this flight as it is usually operated by a Boeing 777, alternating between a -200ER and a -300ER. This time it was to be operated by a 777-336(ER) G-STBF. I was booked in Euro Traveller (BA's branded Economy Class) and seated in Row 31 Seat K. Accompanied by a friend, I found the flight to be boarding from the A10 gates at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, which are used for remote stand departures, meaning a bus ride to the aircraft operating the service. At the gate, I was ready to board as part of Group 3 (a Group for BA Executive Bronze and OneWorld Ruby tier members) when my boarding pass beeped twice and let off a red light, instead of one beep and a green light. I was worried that something bad was going to happen, like being bumped from the flight, or forced to be re-seated away from my coveted window seat. The young lady working the gate then checked some details on her computer and presented me with a new boarding pass - a nice card one rather than the usual paper type). She then congratulated me and said that I was being upgraded to Club Europe, the business class service provided by BA on their European routes. Not only that but because I was on a Boeing 777-300(ER) wide body airliner used on the long haul routes, I was to be seated in the First Class cabin. Unsurprisingly I was left somewhat speechless and the same kindness was applied to my friend. We were both amazed by this gesture from the BA team, and it took a while for it to actually sink in.
Having used the bus from gate to aircraft, the cabin crew greeted us and pointed us in the direction of our seats - it is not often one gets to turn left when boarding. Entering the First Class Cabin, it looked amazing. Nicely clean and the seating capsules looked very welcoming, even for a short two hour flight to Spain. With loading taking some thirty minutes(which is normal for a plane carrying around 350 passengers) it turned out that there were to be two captains on the flight deck, one of whom was to fly in the first officer’s seat. He it was who came and spoke to us and provided a briefing regarding their intentions for take off; with some troublesome weather conditions that lay a short distance from the airport, a full-power departure was planned. Whilst some people might have been unnerved by that, I thought it was going to be an epic ride out!
Push back was a few minutes behind schedule and the Comic Relief Safety Video was shown. Adorned with various UK entertainment legends (including Olivia Coleman, Chabuddy G (from BBC3's People Just do Nothing), famed veteran actor Sir Michael Caine, David Walliams and Naomi Campbell, even though I see it on almost every flight, I still find it amusing and entertaining. On a side note, due to licensing laws in the UK, British Airways can't offer In-Flight Entertainment on this service (unlike Iberia, LATAM and Finnair flights which still provide such a luxury) as they don't have licensing secured to broadcast. So the safety video is the only thing you'll be watching on the IFE Screens. The aircraft had a lengthy taxi from Terminal 5 to Runway 27 Right, and having lined up after an Airbus A321, once it was a safely a regulated distance away, the thrust of the GE-90 engines was up to 100% and we were off and we made a very sharp departure out of Heathrow.
Once we were level at our cruising altitude of 33,000ft the cabin crew serving the business class cabin handed out refreshing hot towels before commencing the first snack and drink run. On this flight we were all provided with a packet of almonds and for a drink I chose Champagne. A small blue menu card adorned with a silver 1997 British Airways ‘Speedbird’ logo was handed out with the three meal options that we could choose between. The three main courses included: British pork sausages with mashed potatoes in onion gravy with green beans and peas, handmade gnocchi with courgettes and a covering of tomato sauce or salad of shaved roast Beef on Tatar cream with rocket herb, tomato and parmesan cheese The main course was complimented by a salad pot of shaved cabbage slaw with green apple, celery and parsley. A collection of British cheeses (which featured Bishop Stilton and Red Leicester) with crackers and a sweetly luxurious DO & Co's passion fruit panna cotta was also available. Personally I enjoyed the meal service and I chose the Pork Sausages, whilst my travelling companion chose the gnocchi.
The weather above the Bay of Biscay was amazingly good, a few little bouncy moments, but all in all a smooth ride as I enjoyed a cup of tea after my meal. We arrived into Madrid a few minutes behind schedule and taxied around to Terminal 4S, the Satellite Terminal handling non-Schengen European and Long-Haul flights mainly for Iberia and British Airways alongside OneWorld partners, LATAM, Qatar, Royal Jordanian and American. It is also used by Emirates (the only Madrid gates that can take an Airbus A380) and Avianca.
The Boeing 777 needs a two hour turn around in Madrid, so once parked, we went to see the pilots for a quick chat about the flight. I always get a nostalgic feel about visiting a Boeing 777 flight deck as my first flight was on a BA 777 in June 2000 (the aircraft was G-VIIM, the flight from LHR to YYZ), although that visit was at 30,000ft and en-route as it was prior to 9/11, a very special moment.
Personally, despite the occasional hiccup, I have no problems at all over flying with British Airways. Granted my needs may not be the same as many other passengers but they are still a fine airline.
Text and photography © Tyler McDowell