‘Welcome back, Mr Flanagan’, says the British Airways flight attendant, at just the right volume for my liking.
I have my feet up in seat 2A, writes Ben Flanagan, en route from Dubai to London Heathrow, and the announcement by the middle-aged steward – this is BA, after all – is just what I want to hear.
Clutching an iPad, the authoritative chap gives off the distinct impression that I’m a regular up here in First Class. But I know full well (and so, probably, does he) that the only way we could have clapped eyes on each other before was a fleeting glance as I scurried into economy on a previous flight.
Tonight, for once, I turned left, and thanks to my new friend’s pre-take-off welcome, the handful of other passengers at the front of the plane now think I’m a bona fide member of this exclusive club. And that’s what flying First is all about.
Money is no object for anyone travelling in this cabin. The return First Class fare on BA’s Dubai-London route is around Dh30,000, more than twice the cost of business class. That would buy you more than 10 return economy tickets on the same route.
Given that my fellow passengers are unlikely to be counting the dirhams, it is perhaps the wrong time to point out that the glass of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle I’m swilling comes in bottles priced at $150 a pop. Or that the delightful Bouchard Pere et Fils – one of three white wines on the menu – weighs in at more than $50. And one would never dare suggest that the luxury amenity bags, with toiletries from The Refinery, could easily be recycled as a classy, yet cheapskate birthday present in the future.
Such observations probably do not cross the minds of my fellow passengers. For BA’s First Class service is aimed at those so refined that little things like, errr, money are mere trifles.
My expansive First Class seat is billed as a ‘suite’, with a fully flat 78-inch bed, a touch shorter than the 80.5 inches you get in Etihad’s First Class cabin. The attentive cabin crew swiftly made up the bed with a mattress and cotton duvet, and leave me some wonderfully soft cotton pyjamas (I want to take them home, but after an internal monologue as to whether that’s the done thing, I reluctantly leave them behind).
One striking feature of the BA cabin is the blue-lit electronic window blinds, which give it a futuristic, yet chic feel. There’s a smart dial that controls the seat position, a side-table, a crystal-clear 15-inch screen, and useful charging points for laptops and smartphones.
I may be on a night flight, but there is a full dinner and breakfast available, or lighter bites on offer whenever you fancy. After a snack of some warm nuts, the beautifully presented starter of buffalo mozzarella with caramelised figs arrives, followed by my choice of main, the grilled salmon with Hollandaise and chive sauce. Breakfast options include a hearty (but rather posh) scrambled eggs with grilled steak, sausage and mushroom, or the lighter choice of French toast. Aside from the mainly French wines on offer, there are a few welcome British touches on the menu: the cheese board includes a pungent stilton, while the drinks list includes London Pride beer, and it doesn’t get much more English than that.
It’s a great service, with that key ingredient of a night flight – sleep – in abundance. But despite the pleasant ride there is increasing competition in the air for BA – not least in the form of the premium cabins offered by rivals Emirates and Etihad.
The two Gulf airlines both offer a more ‘private’ First Class experience than BA, with individual suites with closing doors being more akin to a small studio apartment than a traditional airline seat. But while you can’t shut yourself away in BA’s First Class cabin, there is still a sense of privacy on my flight, with no other passengers in view across the aisle. But I’m lucky: BA’s First-Class configuration has mostly rows of four seats, but the front two rows of the Boeing 747, where I’m placed, have just two seats each.
There are some inevitable gripes about flying with BA from Dubai, which is not a major airport base for the UK carrier. There were queues at Terminal 1 of Dubai International Airport, which made me long for the sleek dedicated check-in areas and fast-track security lanes of Emirates’ Terminal 3.
And BA’s premium lounge in Dubai is certainly not as plush as its rivals’ offerings: it’s more like the buffet areas you can get into free with some credit cards, than it is the bewilderingly opulent lounges offered by Emirates and Etihad. But at BA’s dedicated Terminal 5 at Heathrow, or Terminal 7 at New York JFK, it is a different story: Those First Class lounges boast health spas, along with private dining in the elegant ‘Concorde’ rooms, and even private cabanas in London.
BA’s service from Dubai is never going to compete on the same terms with Emirates and Etihad, two airlines that have really taken premium-cabin concepts to the next level.
But there is something quintessentially British about BA’s First Class service that made me feel right at home. Even though, as my discreet flight attendant friend probably guessed, I don’t really belong there.