Bangkok to New York via London on British Airways – flying First Class; is there more to it than vintage Champagne and a Tanqueray No.10 and tonic?
I remember something my mother used to say about travelling: “If you leave home, it has to be better.” I never really took much notice, but over time those words have become ingrained in me. I am no backpacker, I do not travel light and I have never stayed in a hostel. I would love to say that I travel First class every time I fly, but of course I don’t. I’m not too proud to travel Economy on short haul flights (still, I’m no easy Jetsetter), but I try my best to avoid it when I fly long haul. Whether I am clever with my frequent flyer miles, pay for Premium Economy and then upgrade to Club, or just fork out the whole fare, I do it. I always try to be as smart as possible – I am the queen of points.
British Airways First
LONDON HEATHROW’S CONCORDE ROOM
After fast-tracking through security at Heathrow’s T5 (nothing different there), the First Class experience begins. You make a sharp right, which takes you straight into the Concorde Room. This, by the way, connects to the First and Club Lounges and Elemis Spa, all located to the south of the terminal A, but saves you travelling down the escalators, through duty free and back up the escalators again.
The Concorde Room is, without a doubt, more luxurious than the First or Club lounges. I think that BA’s lounges at T5 are as good as it gets – I know many will say something about a lounge in Singapore or somewhere more exotic, but I think BA really gets the lounge concept right, in both upper classes. In the Concorde Room, there’s genuinely fine dining, Champagne on tap and silver service, although the magazine selection isn’t anything to write home about (on this occasion it was full of magazines that aren’t on sale anywhere I’ve been and quite frankly, I’m not sure who would buy them if they were). I asked one of the attendants for something a little more girlie and she found me copies of Vanity Fair and GQ France. When asked, BA lounge staff can always produce the magazine I’m looking for, as if they may be hiding them.
One particularly cool aspect of flying First is the temporary two-week membership to Quintessentially’s concierge service, which you can use at home and in the destination you’re heading to.
After a glass of Champagne in the lounge, I headed to the Elemis Spa – as I prefer flying First from the beginning (rather than receiving an upgrade at the airport), I have pre-booked my treatment.
At the gate, there is a fast-track lane, which allows you to avoid the queues and provides you with a personal greeting from a smiling face (a rarity, I find, on most flights, and always a nice touch). I love a “Welcome back, Miss Bailey.” I was escorted to the front cabin by the purser, who then introduced me to the Cabin Director. I was taken to my seat, offered a glass of Champagne and then turned my attention to the pretty Anya Hindmarch washbag filled with REN goodies, slippers and a blanket (with an “in-flight use only” label, which I found curious – do people really steal them?). I was also offered some pajamas, which I accepted. Sadly there were only men’s sizes. It was quite funny to wear a men’s size “M” when I am only 5’4” – for me and for anyone who happened to see me.
After I put everything away – you have a personal wardrobe with a hanger, but interestingly no drawer, which I often find useful for magazines and personal items – I sat down. The “new” First – introduced in 2010 – looks sleek. This is a very nice seat indeed. I hated the previous gold and brown design, which I found pretentious. BA’s navy works very well with silver, and the cabin absolutely looks the part. Shades on the windows make for a nice interior touch and are quite useful as you can open two at a time.
One has, of course, more space than in Club – the seat is wider and longer and the footrest can be used as a second seat in case you fancy a chat with a fellow passenger. The TV screen is large and, as far as I could tell, the headphones are also slightly better than those in Club. The menus were great and so was the drinks selection – it was good to have Tanqueray Ten rather than Gordon’s, which still remains a staple in other cabins.
Lunch was lovely – I had a fillet of beef, followed by tarte tatin. In Club the Champagne is Taittinger NV, but in First it’s Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, with a Puligny-Montrachet for a white and a Château Smith Haut Lafitte for red. Impressive stuff!
I slept like never before on a flight and woke up a couple of hours before landing, just as afternoon tea was being served. Sadly, no amount of luxury can prevent the US immigration queues – I only had to wait an hour, which I suppose was lucky, compared to some other wait times I’ve had to endure.
NEW YORK’S JFK CONCORDE ROOM
A week later, looking healthier but slightly depressed (I hate leaving New York, knowing I am going back to weird-humidity and hotter temperatures), I headed back to the airport. Entering Terminal 7 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, having arrived a few hours early for my 9:50 p.m. flight to London Heathrow (before actually come back to Bangkok), I headed left for British Airways’ dedicated First and Club World check-in, which was a calming oasis from the hubbub. With no one waiting in the First Class line, I had my boarding pass in seconds. The dedicated security line took about five minutes to get through.
Before the flight, I went to the Concorde Room lounge, which reopened for British Airways First passengers. Luxuriously appointed with contemporary furnishings and artwork, the Concorde Room offers free Wi-Fi, plush seating, and the Concorde Bar, which serves an international range of spirits and wines, as chosen by BA’s wine buyer. However, one of the Concorde Room’s most enjoyable amenities is pre-flight dining, featuring table service in private dining booths.
I settled into one of the deep, sleek booths. The waitress brought me the considerable wine list on an iPad, and I selected a delightful peppery red. Although I knew that I would be well-fed on the plane, I couldn’t resist sampling some of the items on the menu, such as the lobster and chorizo appetizer, which was quite delicious.
First passengers can also opt to use the Galleries First Lounge and have access to complimentary spa treatments in the Elemis Travel Spa in the Galleries Club Lounge, as well as to the Quintessentially concierge service. (Many of the amenities found in the BA lounges at JFK mirror those in BA’s Heathrow lounges.)
As boarding time approached, we headed for Gate 3, only a few minutes’ walk away from the Concorde Room, and embarked via the fast-moving priority line. Once I was onboard, a cheerful flight attendant directed me to my seat. Prior to takeoff, flight attendants offered Champagne, water, and orange juice, and distributed wine lists (featuring French, West Coast, and Spanish varietals) and dinner menus.
Shortly after takeoff, drinks and warm nuts were served. When one of the very pleasant flight attendants noticed that I was eating only the almonds, he offered to get me an entire bowl of almonds. I happily accepted it and thanked him for his consideration.
For dinner, I chose a starter of poached lobster with fennel and celery root salad, and mustard dressing, and a main course of seared halibut with New England chowder sauce, blanched escarole, leek fondue, and red bliss potatoes. Both were as good as any I’ve had in a fine dining restaurant.
Other entree choices included petite rack of veal, four-cheese pasta, and roasted chicken breast salad. Dessert selections were New York cheesecake, ice cream sundae, and hot chocolate with warm chocolate chip cookies. Passengers were also offered a selection of fruit and cheese.
The entertainment system, complete with noise-canceling headphones, 15-inch TV screen, USB charging point, and RCA jack to allow passengers to view MP3 player content kept me occupied during dinner with films such as “The Grand Budapest” and both American and British TV shows.
A flight attendant offered to make the bed for me when I was ready to sleep, putting the seat in its fully-flat position and outfitting it with a cotton mattress, a duvet, and a pillow. I slept soundly, feeling quite secure and comfortably ensconced in the suite, and woke just before landing, to the sounds of breakfast being served.
Breakfast starters included chilled fruit juice, yogurt, cereal, fresh fruit, a warm bacon roll, pastries and rolls. Main course choices were traditional English breakfast including scrambled eggs, pork sausage, bacon and mushrooms; organic egg frittata with creamed spinach, tomato confit, and roasted potatoes; and buttermilk pancakes with berry compote.
Although I didn’t care for the bacon roll, the yogurt, cereal, and fresh fruit made for a substantial breakfast. (If passengers wished to maximize sleep time, they could also order a quick Continental breakfast.)
British Airways’ premium amenities, such as dedicated First check in and security, and the posh Concorde Room, set the tone for the premium service one experiences throughout the flight. The First suites offer comfort, privacy, state-of-the-art entertainment systems and extensive dining options. These luxuries, and the cabin crew’s highly attuned attention to detail, such as the flight attendant noticing my preference for almonds, are the touches that set the BA First experience apart