Why British Airways Business Class Is Mediocre (But Totally Worth It Spending Miles)

One of the controversial views I hold in miles and points is that – as much as I believe fuel surcharges on award tickets are offensive and destructive – I will pay them when there’s good premium cabin award availability at a reasonable mileage price.

I’ve flown British Airways from Austin to London many, many times. There’s not a lot of non-stop transatlantic service from Austin! Lufthansa and KLM offer non-daily flights (and KLM’s service is new), while BA operates every day and saver award availability has often been great – for first class when they’ve flown Boeing 777s and 747s on the route, and for new business class suites now that it’s consistently an Airbus A350.

And since I need to connect to pretty much anywhere (other than London) that I’m going in Europe, and domestic saver awards are often harder to get than international ones, I’d frequently need to buy a domestic connecting flight and travel on separate tickets if I wasn’t redeeming for BA. That means I’d have cost and risk if I avoided the fuel surcharges.

  • Bear in mind that you can pay lower surcharges booking through Cathay Pacific Asia Miles (an Amex, Citi, Capital One and Bilt transfer partner) than through BA itself or American Airlines

  • And booking two one-ways entails lower surcharges, since tickets originating in Europe pay less.

British Airways business class is… fine, I guess? Their new business class is a vast improvement over their old one – four abreast seating (fully flat, direct aisle access, doors that aren’t very tall) compared to eight abreast on the 777 with middle-of-middle cuddle seats and stepping over neighbors.

The new seat itself is fine, and quite stylish, but a bit hard and their much touted bedding isn’t thick enough to change that. The food, too, is improved compared to a year ago but still not very good. And service is mixed at best as always.

The thing though is that BA offers a business class that’s perfectly competitive across the Atlantic. Who is clearly better (except, arguably, for niche routes like Singapore Airlines from Houston to Manchester and New York JFK to Frankfurt)?

From start to finish, a recent Austin – London Heathrow flight connecting on to Paris Charles de Gaulle was consistently ok.

We checked in as usual, and BA’s counters are at the very end of the terminal near the main security checkpoint.

British Airways premium cabin passengers have access to the American Airlines Admirals Club, which I have access to as a member, but it’s about 20 gates away from the flight. I opted to go to the nearby Chase Sapphire Terrace even though it was a bit dreary and chilly outside and there’s almost no indoor seating. It was still a decent place to wait for the flight. They were out of most of the food items in their vending machine while I was there.

Boarding proceeded on time, and we entered the massive business class cabin on the Airbus A350 with 56 enclosed suites. The seats are attractively designed but note that the doors are pretty low height meaning what they mostly provide is privacy from other passengers who may be laying down, and a sense of privacy in that they keep you from seeing other passengers.

I had row 1 and the first thing I noticed was that the cabin wasn’t clean, even though we were among the first to board.

Menus were distributed for the flight:

I do think the British Airways logo at the front of the cabin is a nice touch, and the blue is quite attractive.

To use the lavatory at the front of the cabin requires walking past the galley and it is a tight space that’s been known as a factor which has limited catering. During meal service crew will often block it off so they can work. I’ve been on flights where it’s been blocked off for the entirety of the flight, so that they wouldn’t be bothered, but that wasn’t the case this time.

The lavatory up front was fairly standard:

For meal service, both the shrimp appetizer and salmon main were perfectly fine. Catering is certainly improved compared to when they were doing a single tray affair surprisingly late into Covid. Cheese and dessert were both offered (at the same time, some most selected one or the other).

I didn’t sleep much of the flight, and found the seat quite hard even with what they consider to be a (thin) mattress pad. But it was a huge improvement over the seats BA used to fly (and still does on some aircraft).

Prior to arrival they offered a breakfast sandwich, fruit and a croissant which were all fine – and I suppose even a little bit better than standard U.S. airline reheated scrambled eggs. I do wish they had boarded proper cream for coffee rather than only non-fat. Its cuts the bad flavor better.

We made good time and landed half an hour early. We took the train in from remote gates to clear transit immigration and security, and made it through those formalities in an impressive-for-Heathrow 15 minutes. Then we headed to the main lounge complex, not yet knowing which gate we’d depart out of for Paris (and it wasn’t one I’d left from in the past).

I’d only just lost my ConciergeKey status from American which would have granted me access to the Concorde Room with two guests. I was a business class passenger with oneworld emerald status. That status only entitles me to a single lounge guest, and I was traveling with both my wife and four year old daughter. I’ve entered the BA Galleries First lounge with my wife and daughter before (and she’s counted as a guest since age two) but on this visit they refused, correctly sending us to the business lounge next door.

It was then back to remote gates for Paris. In the past my Paris flights have all been from close-in gates, but this wasn’t posted until just prior to boarding.

British Airways short haul is always a surprise to customers used to traveling within the U.S. Business class (Club Europe) doesn’t have more legroom than economy. In fact it has less legroom than Ryanair. But it (usually) offers a blocked middle seat, alcohol, and a meal.

While meal service has been expanded on long haul, short haul catering had seen some cutbacks and crew were discussing how much easier it is to serve so little. In a separate cutback they’ve also eliminated individual champagne splits for customers who would like to drink bubbles.

For a flight to Paris this was all fine. But there’s nothing whatsoever impressive about the experience. The new seat is (and has been) a vast improvement over the old one, and business class is mostly about the seat and personal space compared to other cabins. But nothing else was memorable about the experience at all, which is a bit of a shame. I was still grateful to be able to purchase it at deep discount using my miles of course!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. If spending miles means you also have to pay ~$750 in fuel surcharges, then no, it’s actually not a good use of miles. Or how about nearly 3 grand for a family of 4? Yeah, no thanks.

  2. Im also doing this route and find the new BA business class pretty good. Comparing to KLM I still think BA takes especially as they use the A350.
    With Virgin I have love and hate feelings. I really like their ground service , especially in LHR but their business class which they use in the A330 I think is really “cramped” and although they have a nice bar, I still prefer the BA one over them.

  3. @Aaron: Agree completely. Better to get to Dallas or Houston. In the case of Dallas, AA or Iberia is a better miles play.

  4. You’re fortunate to be able to stay at T5 for your connection. The scrum at T3 security for our connection to MAD after a flight from AUS back in February was, to put it mildly, unpleasant. Having never before connected at LHR, I was surprised that, even though the transfer bus picked us up airside at T5, we still had to go through security at T3. I thought only the US had such idiocy. The Germans, Swiss and Canadians have spoiled me.
    Otherwise, not having taken BA in J for many moons (they were a UA partner then), I pretty much agree with your assessment of the J product. We went over in J, sitting in the smaller 2nd section, returned in PE, and on the return the crew basically disappeared. Baggage delivery at AUS was also dreadful, which I thought odd given that we were the only international arrival at the time. It was fun though seeing all of the SXSW performers’ gear coming down the belts.

  5. @ Gary — Better to buy the separate ticket and earn towards your AA elite status than waste your money on BA’s extortionate fees. Alternatively, with 10 milliom AA miles, wouldn’t it make more sense to pay AA’s outrageous milage redemption and save your cash?

    I hate to admit it, but United Polaris was extremely pleasant and awards have been easy to come by at a reasonable price. I look forward to our next Polaris flight!

  6. Absolutely not “totally worth it spending miles” when can find award seat availability on other oneworld partners Finnair or Qatar, which dont carry the super pesky fees! With that said finding award availabiity on BA is much easier than the other partners mentioned.

  7. @Gene – UA awards are no longer reasonably priced, as of a couple weeks ago.

  8. @Gary, Would you fly BA business class if you were still living on the East Coast and the plane was an old A380?

    I can see the benefits of forking over YQ for a truly long-haul flight but for 6-8 hours, I am ready to suck it up in economy and save the USD 400+ each way.

  9. I flew LHR-JFK on refurb 777 with new BA seats this month. The seats are fine but I find food offering to be rather mediocre, For me, AA PE would do just fine on this route especially after visiting better lounges in T3 rather than Galleries First in T5 which is a zoo nowadays.

  10. @ABC, because it’s an infomercial , Gary appears to have fads, sometimes, like persecuting Polaris.

  11. I was literally reading your post in a taxi from JFK to my home, having just returned from a two week trip to London and Berlin, all in BA Club World. The “across the pond” flights were clearly superior to the intra-European flights, if you can still count London as part of Europe. The food going over was mediocre, but much better on the return. I have two major complaints, and neither has to do with the flights themselves. In the JFK lounge at terminal 8, my flight was noted as “on time,” for quite awhile when it clearly wasn’t. When I asked the lounge check in people, they told me to take it up with American because they control the boards. My other complaint is more serious. I’m a BA executive club member with sufficient points to book “free” trips. I had such a good experience a year ago going to Florence and Rome that I wanted to book another package for this trip. I explained to the BA rep on the phone that my daughter would be joining me for a few days in my London hotel, and then, it seemed, all bets were off. He told me that he had to do the entire booking manually, and could not offer any use of Avios to lower the cost at the end. My only consolation is that the hotels are almost free when you book this way, but I was not a happy camper in the end.

    One plus: I did manage to avoid the nightmare of May 26th when BA cancalled the majority of its flights due to IT issues. I heard horror stories from fellow passengers who were on my flights on the 27th. BA doesn’t seem to have any staff in Berlin, and phones went unanswered.

  12. We made the mistake of flying BA AUS-LHR-MUC last year and will never do it again. Besides the exorbitantly high fees mentioned already, we ended up flying into T1, had to take a ridiculously long bus ride to T5, had to clear security again, and with their equivalent of FastPass not running we barely got through the hour-long lines to make our connection, and then only because it had been delayed. And the BA business class product is meh at best.

    This year it’s AUS-CLT-MUC on AA and we’ll have a real business class product all the way, not that sorry excuse everyone flies in Europe.

  13. @ Tony — When compared to AA and DL awards, they are. It is often better to use Avianca, Aeroplan, etc. to book these.

  14. I actually agree. I too have this situation where flying to LHR is the only way for me to get to Europe directly. Even if I fly out of LA which I can get to for $200 RT sometimes I lose many hours of time both ways, plus the $200. I hate the fees as well but I get your point. Saving 30k miles, plus the $200, plus at least 5 hours of my time is worth $700 to me. And I say this as I’m about to position in SF tomorrow and I’m already stressing about getting bags checked in time for the long haul flight, etc.

  15. The fees are exorbitant, the food is mediocre, but timewise, it is easier for me to go from BNA to LHR in 7 (roughly) hrs than spend going into several different airports and taking 12 hrs or more. I hate it but BA is the only plane that flies to Europe from here. Well, Jet Blue has started but again, 2 airports and lots more hours. I think the BA Bus lounge in Terminal 5 is great. Have no complaints and I wish that some of the wines were available in the states.

  16. I was in the first class lounge at Heathrow on May 27 and from your photos, doesn’t look too much different. So no big loss for you

  17. In terms of a one stop, especially with kids I almost always prefer the short leg on the first flight. Eg fly to ord from Austin. Similar time zone. Relax in the lounge then fly to Paris, Munich etc direct. At that point you’re tired but you’ve arrived. I would much rather fly syd to akl then direct to ord than do lax ord all jet lagged and tired.

  18. I stay clear of BA at all costs. They’ve never recovered from being privatised. I flew LHR to JNB in 1963 with BOAC. Wine poured from the bottle and steel cutlery in cattle class.
    Cheep and cheerful KLM for me now!

  19. I much prefer BA to UA out of IAD, and have had good meals from Do&Co. it’s also usually cheaper than UA, as well.

  20. From PHL they seem to ru mostly old 777s so I try to avoid them and fly AA metal instead but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Wish they’d retire or update those 777s already. PS it’s “lying down” not “laying down”. Don’t understand why so many English speakers have a problem with this

  21. “…but this wasn’t posted until just prior to boarding.”

    This is why I hate connecting @ LHR on BA

  22. I was disappointed on my recent flight from SFO to LHR aboard the A380 business class. No complaints regarding the service, just the configuration (forward and backward facing seats). Not only were the seats narrow (20″ across), making it uncomfortable to lie flat unless you were on your side, but very hard as previously mentioned by another commenter, but the passenger on the window side has to straddle your outstretched legs to access the aisle. Also, the fact they charge $86 for you to select your seat was also a gut punch. Live and learn.

  23. You nailed it. Just flew R/T YUL-LHR and on refurb J 777-200. Seat is barely thicker than a cheap hiking mattress. I was shocked. The comfort level on the old seat was much better. The layout on the new design is light years and the foot well space even Chewbacca would not touch the end. But that bed when flat is miserable thin. At least it’s possible to turn over left and right and pull the old tunips out from this middle ages mattress.

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