The Queen has her throne. Trump has his Oval Office chair. I have seat 2A in first class on a British Airways A380.
Yes, it feels that epic. And so it should. This is, after all, BA’s top offering. The biggest and poshest suite in its fleet.
Before sitting down in it on a flight from London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 to Johannesburg, I had thought the golden age of flying was over. But as I sip my welcome glass of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle Champagne I wonder if it’s actually still with us.
It certainly seems so if you’re able to splash out thousands on a first-class ticket with BA on the A380.
Ted flies from London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 first class with British Airways to Johannesburg. Pictured is an official picture of a suite identical to the one he puts to the test
Ted enjoys a glass of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle Champagne in first class before take-off
It’s a flying experience like no other.
And taking to the skies in this magnificent monster jet with the British flag carrier in economy on the return leg isn’t bad, either.
But before getting on to that allow me to divulge the first class experience, which is more or less glorious from start to finish – though there are some minor shocks along the way.
THE CHECK-IN AND LOUNGE
The experience begins at a dedicated check-in area in T5 that BA calls ‘The First Wing’.
Here a series of check-in desks lie hidden from the riff-raff behind a gold-coloured scalloped steel and glass enclosure.
There’s a huge amount of floor space, a small lounge area with flowers, armchairs and leather banquettes and lightly flavoured glasses of water and cold towels on offer.
Is this a check-in area or a spa?
I’m travelling with my partner and 19-month-old daughter and we’re guided to one of the desks by a perky BA host where our luggage is checked in by another member of staff whose bonhomie levels are equally high.
Then it’s onwards through an exclusive security lane, where the bonhomie levels drop.
No special treatment from the security staff, just staccato instructions.
I don’t mind. I find gruff security staff reassuring.
Next, it’s time to waft on through to BA’s swanky Concorde Room, past the hoi polloi in the business lounge to a lounge that’s exclusive to first class ticket holders.
One of the bonuses first class passengers get is access to the extremely swanky T5 Concorde Room (pictured). It’s like the inside of a five-star hotel
To be frank, it’s more like a five-star hotel lobby, bar and restaurant than an airport lounge.
There are chandeliers, waiting staff buzzing around, eager to dispense Champagne (we adults waste no time accepting a flute each) and private dining booths.
We ensconce ourselves in one of these and avail ourselves of the free treats on offer from the a la carte menu.
I opt for seared sea bass on a bed of Provençale vegetables and a glass of white Burgundy (Pernand-Vergelesses Combottes, Domaine Jean Fery, 2015).
So far, so first-class-ish.
THE FIRST CLASS CABIN
BA’s first class seats are the biggest in the fleet, with 30 per cent more personal space and 60 per cent more personal stowage than the first suites on 747s and Dreamliners
Next, the big moment. Setting foot on an A380 for the first time. Right at the very front.
The first thrill is that rows one to four – i.e the mere 14 passengers in the first class cabin on the bottom deck at the front – get their very own jet bridge.
I walk down it all on my own as two BA crew members beam at me from the doorway of the aircraft.
I’m giddy with excitement.
Upon entering I actually turn right, not left, as is the tradition for swanky cabins, because the jet bridge connects at the nose.
The seats are arranged in a reverse Herringbone layout, with five window/aisle seats on each side and four in the middle.
Plenty of room for manoeuvre: This picture Ted takes on his mobile phone shows just how big the First suites are
In First, the toilets are decorated with a fresh flower
The ambience is one of hushed English elegance. I feel underdressed in my casual-wear.
I’m offered the aforementioned Laurent-Perrier fizz within seconds.
It’s a fine tipple. And so it should be – you’ll be lucky to find a bottle retailing for less than £100.
BA also offers a Gusbourne Limited Release Twenty Fifteen glass of bubbles – made in Kent, the ‘garden of England’ – which retails for £40 a bottle.
So far, so reassuringly expensive.
But there are some shocks in store on the retail-price front.
At the front of the menu booklet is a message that says ‘our sommeliers have created a signature experience to be savoured’.
But turning over to the white and red section of my First Class menu, I find a Marco Zunino Malbec Reserve 2017 from Mendoza. The 2016 vintage is worth £10.
That’s a shockingly low value for a cabin experience costing thousands and surely not terribly ‘signature’, despite the fact that this wine has received critical acclaim.
Indeed, a wine merchant friend of mine, who’s been in the business for 20-odd years, tells me later: ‘That’s nothing very special for first class.’
(BA works with a master of wine on its list so I’d be keen to know what the thinking is here.)
After the seat belt signs come off I opt for a glass of Ritual Pinot Noir 2015 from the Casablanca Valley in Chile, which is delicious. And, in pleasing fine-dining-style, I’m shown the bottle and poured a sample so I can check whether it’s corked.
But again, the value is low – you can pick up a bottle for just £13.75.
The rest of the list is pricier (though my wine merchant friend comments that the list in general ‘isn’t that interesting’).
I also try a fine white, a Meursault ‘Les Clous’ 2015, Domaine Bouchard Pere & Fils, from Burgundy. It costs between £35 and £70 a bottle according to wine searcher.
I cease my quaffing at the Meursault stage as an anti-hangover measure, missing out on the Chateau Faugeres 2010, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru red (£39) and from the white list, the Sancerre ‘Les Cotes’ 2017, Domaine Roblin, Loire (£18), and the ‘Charming’ Gruner Veltliner 2015, Laurenz V, Kamptal, from Austria (£20-£25).
After the wine list on the menu comes the a la carte ‘dinner’ section – which is a triumph.
Ted opts for roasted Guinea fowl with broccoli and cauliflower couscous, fig and pomegranate molasses for his main course
The amuse bouche of Cumbrian air-dried ham, Cumberland salami, Berkswell cheese, olives and sun-dried tomato
Before putting in my order I’m told that I can eat whenever I like.
As it’s a night flight I decide to eat as soon as possible, plumping for smoked sea trout mousse with Brixham crab and apple puree; roasted Guinea fowl with broccoli and cauliflower couscous, fig and pomegranate molasses. And for dessert – chocolate chilli fondant with chocolate sauce and pistachio and almond mousse ball.
Before it’s all brought out an antipasti amuse bouche of Cumbrian air-dried ham, Cumberland salami, Berkswell cheese, olives and sun-dried tomato arrives.
Every dish is very well executed – fresh, tasty and beautifully presented. And served on proper bone china Wedgwood crockery.
Feeling thoroughly sated, I decide it’s time to prod some buttons, turn some dials, peruse the amenity kit and marvel at the sheer vastness of my suite.
(And take some selfies, of course.)
It’s a big piece of real estate – bigger than the First suites on the 747 and Dreamliner. The seats are the same size – 22.5in width, 6.5-7.5ft length – but on the A380 you get 30 per cent more personal space and 60 per cent more personal stowage.
Privacy in the suite is excellent. There isn’t a door, but when Ted looks to his right he can only see his neighbour’s legs
I calculate that it’s easily big enough for six adults to hang out in.
It’s also very private – when I look to my right I can only see my neighbour’s TV screen and legs.
To my immediate left is a nifty cubby hole – BA calls it an ‘entertainment compartment’ – with a lid that’s very handy for storing mid-flight bits and pieces such as water bottles, books and headphones.
It’s also where the controls for the excellent 23-inch TV screen – which folds out from the wall – can be found.
The compartment is also home to a PC power socket, USB port and RCA port.
In front of this is a side table that houses the ‘writing desk’/dining table – and to the left not one but two windows, with blinds that can be operated remotely.
A view of Ted’s seat taken from the footrest at one end, which forms part of the bed in lie-flat mode
At the far end is a smaller seat that I sit on it to peer out of the windows as they’re too far away from the main seat to see out of.
As I said. Big.
On the outside wall is a little personal wardrobe that I store my jacket and shoes in.
The main seat itself is simply terrific – supremely comfortable and luxuriously massive.
Niftily, it’s controlled by a single jog wheel that illuminates green when it’s in a safe position for take-off and landing and blue when it’s not.
Hold it down and the seat will recline all the way into a 7ft 6in bed.
The control panel it sits on also contains controls for reading lights, an ambient light in a dinky fluted lampshade, headrest and lumbar support adjustment and the window blinds.
The amenity kit, meanwhile, is by Liberty London and contains moisturiser, shave gel, lip balm and deodorant by Refinery; a razor; a toothbrush; a comb; ear plugs; Colgate toothpaste; flight socks and an eye mask.
The amenity kit is by Liberty London and contains moisturiser, shave gel, lip balm and deodorant by Refinery; a razor; a toothbrush; a comb; ear plugs; Colgate toothpaste; flight socks and an eye mask. Pyjamas, slippers and noise-cancelling headphones by Meridian are also handed out to First fliers
The main seat is controlled by a single jog wheel that illuminates green when it’s in a safe position for take-off and landing and blue when it’s not
Later it will be emptied and given to my daughter to store her little wooden eggs she plays with.
I’m also given a pair of cotton pyjamas and slippers.
And so to the final part of the tour – the headphones.
On long flights their quality is extremely important if you don’t have your own and here there’s a misstep from BA.
The noise-cancelling pair by Meridian I’m given has a bent jack. When I point this out there is much apologising and a new pair swiftly delivered.
But the new pair doesn’t work properly – the sound only comes out of one ear.
Now, the confident American version of me would have simply summoned yet another pair but I go into ‘don’t want to cause a fuss’ British mode and just pretend everything is fine.
I always take my own Sennheiser earphones on flights and whip them out to enjoy a movie.
As my lids begin to droop a stewardess materialises and offers to turn the seat into a bed.
This is one of the joys of executive travel and the BA First linen situation is top drawer.
Ted’s full English in First is delicious. It comprises scrambled eggs, Suffolk sweet-cured back bacon, portobello mushroom, Cumberland pork sausage and hash browns. Plus a croissant and a tasty coffee
Ted’s A380 pictured as he disembarks in Johannesburg. He would later take a connecting flight to Cape Town
Ted in the A380 flight deck in Johannesburg. He asks the captain what the hardest thing about flying A380s is. The reply? ‘Parking it’
I snuggle up on a thick mattress (well, thick for air travel), and under a comfy duvet, and drift off, able to easily stretch right out, though I have to wiggle down a bit because the head rest is at an uncomfortable angle. But that’s because the stewardess has set it up like this and I can’t muster the energy to un-ensconce myself to mention it.
In the morning I opt for a full English breakfast of scrambled eggs, Suffolk sweet-cured back bacon, portobello mushroom, Cumberland pork sausage and hash browns.
Again, it’s a tasty, gourmet affair.
As we pull up to the gate in Johannesburg 11 hours after leaving London I feel about as fresh as I ever have done after a long flight.
The suite – designed by BA’s internal design management team in collaboration with design Consultancy Forpeople – has been splendid, the service exemplary and the food and drink impressive.
As a nice bonus, we’re allowed on to the flight deck to meet the pilots.
I ask the captain what the hardest thing about flying the A380 is. He says: ‘Parking it.’
IN THE ECONOMY CABIN
On the way back, it’s an entirely different story.
I’m in economy with the baby, having swapped my posh ticket with my partner.
What’s more, I’m stuck in a middle (bassinet) seat in a full row, so I’m going to need all the help I can get from the stewardesses, as jumping up and down to fetch things and make requests is going to be extra hard, especially once the bassinet is set up.
I’m fearful, but they come through in grand style – constantly checking we’re both okay and heaving down my bags for the extraction of toys and milk and the like without batting an eyelid.
It’s economy for Ted for the return journey from Johannesburg to Cape Town. This is an official BA picture of the A380 economy cabin. Ted however, sits in the middle row
It’s all smiles for Ted in economy before take-off
And when my poor daughter is sick as we make the final descent, the zesty crew spring into action, wiping us both down and offering words of reassurance.
But what of the actual economy class product?
Well, it’s the best I’ve ever experienced. Just.
For starters, and this really shocks me, the freebie in-ear headphones aren’t dreadful, as is normally the case in economy cabins.
In fact, I enjoy two movies without feeling the need to fetch my faithful Sennheisers, which have been left packed away in my rucksack in an overhead bin.
The entertainment screen, meanwhile, is very good. Clear, easy to use and perfectly big enough.
The food also gets a thumbs up. For dinner it’s tomato and cheese pasta, with a little salad and a roll. Which is just fine.
But it’s a double thumbs up for the Montenero Italian merlot I opt for. It’s genuinely very good indeed – well-structured and with a pleasant finish. In fact it’s so tasty I half wonder if it has accidentally gone astray from the business class cabin.
For direct comparison with my first class breakfast I go for a full English a couple of hours before touchdown.
The economy bassinet seat affords Ted fairly decent leg room (left). One of the biggest shocks is that the free economy headphones are not dreadful (right)
For dinner it’s tomato and cheese pasta, with a little salad and a roll. Which is just fine, writes Ted
The entertainment screen in economy is very good. Clear, easy to use and perfectly big enough (left). The Montenero Italian merlot Ted has is stonking (right). No, really…
The A380 economy full English looks processed and artificial – but tastes just fine. BA assures Ted later that the sausages served in economy are meat, not a substitute, and are sourced from Wexford in Ireland, and that the egg is not powdered but pasteurised liquid egg – ‘standard in airline catering worldwide’
Ted is jammed in to economy by his daughter’s bassinet (pictured). Luckily, the first-rate cabin crew are on hand to assist
It’s nowhere near the same quality – the sausage looks very processed and the scrambled egg similarly artificial in texture.
Later BA will assure me that the sausages served in economy are meat, not a substitute, and are sourced from Wexford in Ireland, and that the egg is not powdered but pasteurised liquid egg – ‘standard in airline catering worldwide’ – and ‘cooked in-house on a daily basis’.
I conclude that all in all, it’s a decent enough offering for cattle class.
Comfort levels are pretty good, too.
In fact, this is the best economy seat I’ve ever experienced, partly due to the fact that it has little wings on the headrest that go some way to stop the head lolling during slumber.
It’s also a comfortable size – 18 inches wide compared to the 17.3 inches you get in BA’s Dreamliner economy.
With First the only big problem that BA has is with the ‘wow factor’. Other airlines trump BA in this regard. Emirates offers first class customers shower suites on its A380s, for instance
BA has gone to huge lengths to offer something truly special to its First customers and I am most definitely impressed, despite the wine list and headphone issues.
But those are easy fixes.
With First the only big problem that BA has is with the ‘wow factor’. Other airlines trump BA in this regard. Emirates offers first class customers shower suites on its A380s, for instance.
As for economy, I think the airline has a real winner with its A380s. And the difference between the two classes is suitably vast to keep those paying top whack happy.
Not flown on the A380 before? Rectify the matter asap – because it’s an amazing machine.
The take-off, for instance, is something else – there’s very little vibration or noise and leaving the ground is surreal. You feel almost detached from the experience.
What’s more, you can sit on the upper deck in economy (where my seat is). Here everything is especially muffled.
Even boarding the thing is extra exciting because the jet bridges attach to both decks, adding to the epicness of it all.
A golden age of flying? Arguably yes – but what’s certain is that BA has a monster hit on its hands.
British Airways flies First Class from Heathrow to Johannesburg from £4,494 return including taxes/fees/carrier charges and from £638 economy. To book please visit ba.com/Johannesburg or call 0844 493 0763.
Note: This review was first published on March 24, 2019. All information was correct at the time. BA is in the process of upgrading its first class offering.
Rating key: one star – poor; two stars – ok; three stars – good; four stars – very good; five stars – exceptional.