A few days ago I flew Austin – London Heathrow – Paris Charles de Gaulle with my wife and toddler. I booked award tickets because I wanted the flexibility of a full last-minute refund. And I booked British Airways because of award availability and the ability to take a transatlantic flight straight from our home town. (There’s non-daily Lufthansa to Frankfurt and KLM to Amsterdam as well, neither of which were available at respectable rates on our date.)
We departed Austin during South By Southwest (or ‘South By’ as locals call it) and at the start of UT Austin Spring Break. The airport was nuts, and reaching the premium check-in lines for British Airways which are the first two check-in counters at the end of the terminal meant going outside the airport and back in the final door because it was impossible to cut through densely packed TSA screening lines.
Check-in was taking some time because passengers connecting beyond Heathrow to Europe hadn’t filled out their European locator forms online in advance, and were being sent out of line to do so on their smartphones before returning to check in. Modern travel is complicated by ever-changing forms and procedures, but it is incumbent on the traveler to look those up and sort them in advance.
My check-in was uneventful, security was quick – lines were long in the regular queue but none at all for CLEAR and for PreCHeck – and we headed to the lounge. British Airways uses the American Airlines Admirals Club at Austin airport. BA passengers are treated better than club members. They used to get anything offered for sale on the menu free, but now food items are limited and the premium drinks are off limits.
Moreover, for a seamless joint business venture I’m a bit surprised by the signage for this:
Anticipated boarding was announced in the lounge an hour prior to departure, since British Airways departs gate 2 – a 20 gate walk from the club. We left around 50 minutes out, and while the flight still showed on time we actually took an hour-long catering delay. Everyone was queueing to board.
No one made any announcements at the gate. Eventually about 20 minutes after scheduled boarding an announcement was made about a “short delay due to operational reasons.”
Once on board the Airbus A350 we settled into our suites. The new Club Suite seat is attractive, and the BA logo at the front is actually gorgeous. But it’s an absolute sea of business class suites that stretches seemingly without end. That’s why I picked row one. You look forward and don’t see everybody else. That makes it feel like a more intimate and less claustrophobic experience.
I had a closer look at the suite. It’s basically the ‘Super Diamond’ seat that American Airlines has been using for five years, with more attention to detail and a door added on. The storage compartments were showing their wear already on my seat, having difficulty closing. But there were several compartments.
The door though isn’t very tall. It is fine when you’re in sleeping position to limit interaction but don’t expect a high-walled suite like some first class cabins offer.
At the seat was an amenity kit, menu, and package of blanket and mattress pad to accompany a pillow. The amenity kit’s socks, toothbrush and pen were appreciated. I’d have liked mouthwash and slippers, personally, so that I wouldn’t need to put my shoes back on when heading to the lavatory.
Dinner was a choice of beef, salmon, or vegetable risotto. Here’s the drink list.
I began with a cointreau to start the flight. It was already after 8 p.m. and felt comfortable. It was served with packaged nuts. I miss the old BA heated nuts, because their candied cashews were phenomenal. These were uninspired.
Dinner was a single tray service with cheese and dessert courses left covered. I actually appreciate a quick service on an overnight flight, but there was nothing quick about the service despite not offering it in courses. The large cabin meant that deploying trays by hand seemed to take ages, and it was well over two hours into the flight before cabin lights were turned off.
In a sense we had the worst of all worlds – no decent meal in the lounge before the flight so facilitate sleeping right away, a single tray service that didn’t mean a quick meal pace either. If it’s going to take this long I expect something a bit more elaborate, or find a way to take advantage of single tray to deliver meals quickly. (I do recognize the challenges the flight crew faces with the compact galley on the A350s – BA traded space to store food and prepare service for an additional row of seats.)
Catering out of Austin is quite poor. I don’t put that entirely on BA. There are only 3 long haul departures and not a robust premium catering infrastructure. Most of Austin’s catering is for American Airlines domestic first class. In fact catering on my connecting flight within Europe was better. I trust that they’re serving marginally better food in long haul business class on routes out of larger international stations.
After the meal I laid down for a bit of a rest. The White Company pillow and mattress were quite good, but the mattress pad was almost nothing and I found the seat itself a bed firm for sleeping. So I ultimately used the blanket as a mattress. A second sheet would have been nice.
No pajamas are offered in business class, but I find I rest better in comfortable clothes so I brought a ten year old pair of American Airlines first class pajamas on the flight. (For my return trip on another carrier I brought a pair of United Polaris PJs.)
I didn’t get up to check out the snacks in the galley. That’s a function both of not being hungry so late and before breakfast, and also that cabin crew clearly didn’t want the disturbance of passengers around. In fact they set up the forward lavatory door to show occupied throughout the flight even though nobody was in it, and sent passengers who approached to wait for it to the back of the cabin. One kind flight attendant let my wife bring our daughter into that lavatory, since we were in row 1.
Breakfast was standard British Airways, and I opted for the British breakfast although I’m not a fan of what passes for sausage although I do appreciate the hash brown. Here was the menu:
And the brekfast:
Beyond the seat, and having a non-stop flight to Europe from Austin, the other positive for the flight is BA’s fast internet service. It worked consistently well, at good speed. It was obviously not Panasonic!
We wound up making up about 35 minutes of our delay and landed into Heathrow 25 minutes late. After parking at our gate, the crew announced that we had to stay in our seats and they would deplane by rows. BA is still hewing to their Covid procedure of announcing which rows could get up to take items out of overhead bins to reduce congestion in the aisles.
There were two things rather odd about this. First, though all of business class was invited to get up first, business passengers were specifically admonished not to get up when the seat belt sign went off and instead to wait the 3 to 4 seconds until being asked to get up. Second, flights arriving at bus gates have passengers held back for deplaining in order to crowd into a bus – and loading the bus takes longer as a result, so they’re packed together onboard for even more time this way.
Though fast track was announced on board, fast track connections was closed. Connecting security is always a mess at Heathrw but even more so without priority queueing.
Club Europe (business class) on the connection is of course Ryanair legroom with a blocked middle seat.
Catering though was tastier and fresher than my two meals on the long haul flight in business although it’s time for BA to change up their selection.
Ultimately a much-improved seat and fast internet make British Airways business class an excellent way to cross the Atlantic. Cabin crew service and meals though needed a lot of work. Delay communication should have been much better as well.