REVIEW: British Airways Economy Class London - Johannesburg
Africa - the one place in the world that I desperately would love to explore in-depth but varying issues related to work, politics, safety, and money have prevented me from doing to date. My first scheduled trip to Africa involved a trip to Cairo to explore the ancient Pyramids and some wandering through the Khan el Khalili souq, but fate decided that my first trip to Africa was not to be as the events that we now know as the Arab Spring erupted in the city and airlines ceased flights into the area. I needed a new destination and I ended up in Sri Lanka instead.
Undeterred, I kept my eyes open for another opportunity to find a cheap airfare into Africa and lo and behold a $740 roundtrip ticket popped up one day from Chicago to Johannesburg using American Airlines and British Airways (BA). It was a bit more money than I would usually pay for a ticket, but a sub-$1000 fare to South Africa is still a pretty good deal and my wanderlust for Africa wasn't subsiding in the very least. So with both of those things in mind, I booked a ticket and jetted off to London Heathrow (LHR) on AA when the day came.
After a restful day recuperating from my trans-Atlantic flight at the YOTEL in Terminal 4, I took the free Heathrow Express train connector to BA's premier gateway to the world - Terminal 5. In frequent traveler circles, especially those that consolidate travel on Oneworld carriers, LHR gets a lot of flak for being an absolutely awful airport. I can see where they're coming from in some sense - it's difficult to navigate, signage is pretty lacking, getting between terminals is a bit of a pain even with complimentary buses and trains, and if you're uninterested in duty free shopping there is very little for you to do to pass time while waiting for your flight.
Perhaps it's a little bit of my inner contrarian rearing its head, or the fact that I have a strange affinity for almost anything British, but I actually like LHR, particularly British Airways Terminal 5. It's very open and airy and the big windows allow lots of natural sunlight to stream into the area. There's just something about the space that I find very soothing about the space and even if I arrive a little flustered I end up breathing easier. I'm not much of a shopper but for some reason I find the act of wandering up and down the terminal and taking in the excitement of travel in the air is enough to keep me occupied and happy between flights. The same isn't true for other airports in the world though, so I know there's something unique about LHR that makes me so peaceful. I just can't quite put my finger on what that is though.
My flight was scheduled to depart around 7:10PM, so I showed up after checking out of the YOTEL around 5:00PM. This gave me about two hours to check-in for my flight and to do anything else I wanted before boarding. Check-in was pretty easy as it seemed to be a pretty light day for the airport and consequently getting through security was pretty much a breeze as well. Too bad since I never mind a pat down from a friendly UK security officer!
At the time I had elite status in American Airlines' AAdvantage program, and that meant I was allowed to enter the British Airways First class lounge. As oneworld alliance partners, they offer a set of benefits to frequent travelers and it includes the right to fling yourself into a comfortable leather chair, nibble on hotel buffet quality food, and the sipping of endless free alcoholic (or non) beverages. It's a good way to burn through a few hours before a flight if the option is available to you.
Boarding was announced right on time and was a bit of a shit show. While the boarding areas are very nice as they're fairly new (Terminal 5 only opened in 2008), some of them apparently aren't designed to be boarding big aircraft like the Boeing 747 that was going to be taking all of us to Johannesburg. The passengers waiting to board the plane looked like an even mix of Europeans going on holiday, South Africans returning from holiday, and a healthy smattering of European and African business men thrown in. All of these groups mixed together to form a hive of buzzing bees trying to squeeze through the tiniest little hallway British Airways provided for passenger boarding.
I finally squeeze my way on to the plane and started to make my way back to my seat - 53J. BA's 747s are divided into four cabins - First, Business, World Traveller +, and World Traveller. I was seated in the World Traveller cabin on this trip, and despite the fancy nomenclature it's just regular ole steerage. Economy class on this plane is laid out in a 3-4-3 configuration. Due to the curvature of the fuselage on this aircraft, the last three rows of economy class are configured in a 2-4-2 configuration where there is additional lateral space for both seats. These are some of the best seats in the house in my humble opinion, and I had managed to snag one. 53J is in the last row of the airplane and close to the window, though there is a gap between the arm rest and the wall of a that is noticeable larger than the gap on window seats in the 3-4-3 section. Despite being in the last row, the seat still had a full recline which made it ideal for me as I could recline at my leisure without worrying about the person behind me.
As boarding continued I tried to make myself comfortable in the seat and see how it felt. Nothing impressive but I knew that this would be sufficient for our flight down the length of Africa and into Johannesburg. The seat in front of me was spaced a good amount away from my knees, but I am only 5'8" so I imagine a taller person may struggle the more inches you have above my height. BA's 747 is quite a bit along in age, so the seats are well-worn and consequently quite comfortable. They've reached that sweet spot in wear and tear where it's well used and formfitting. This stage seems to come right before complete and total collapse of the seat's structural integrity. It's always calmest before the storm, right?
One thing I really like about British Airways economy class is the way the head rests work. They have 'wings' on each side that can be lowered a little short of 90 degrees. While in theory this might sound limiting, it works well because it essentially creates a 'wall' against which you can lean your head, regardless of whether you're against the wall or not. One of the biggest problems I have relaxing on a plane is just the simple act of holding my head up, so this head rest was perfect for someone like me.
That's pretty much the height of laziness isn't it? "Gosh, you know what's hard? Holding my neck stiff enough so my head doesn't loll about."
The PA cracked to life and it was announced that the cabin was fully boarded and ground crew were every so politely requested to leave the aircraft. The load on the plane was almost 100%, and I was pretty much the luckiest guy in economy class as the only empty seat in the cabin was right next to me. As our plane pulled away from the gate and started to taxi toward a runway, I threw up the arm rest separating the two seats and started to make myself at home.
Placed at each seat for passenger comfort was a blanket wrapped in plastic and the cutest little aviation-themed pillow I've seen in my life. I was half tempted to put one of them into my backpack but I figured that was just a bit beyond even my klepto tendencies.
A headset in plastic was also placed on the seat. Included inside was an envelope for UNICEF's "Change for Good" program, which invites travelers to donate whatever left over foreign currency they have in their pockets. I think this is a great program as I almost always have a bit of foreign currency in my bag or pocket that isn't eligible for conversion back to US dollars, sometimes quite a significant amount considering many organizations that convert currency do not like to take coins.
The captain asked the FAs to take their seats and soon enough we were rocketing down the runway and into the skies over London. Light was starting to fade when we pulled off the gate but by the time we had taken off and were heading south over the coast of England, sunset was well underway. Sadly the windows were pretty dirty on this Queen of the Skies, so photography out of the window was a bit messy.
The seat belt sign was soon turned off and being in the very last row I was able to pop mine off and jump right into the bathroom before the mad rush started.
The Boeing 747 is a big plane that seats a lot of people and consequently they have six lavatories available for passengers in the economy cabin. There are four at the back of the plane, two smaller ones and two with a bit more space to move about. I wasn't paying attention and hopped right into one of the smaller ones, which wasn't ideal since I was intent on changing into a more comfortable shirt for sleeping on this long overnight haul down to Joburg.
It was a pretty standard lavatory with very little room to move about. As it was the very beginning of the flight everything was still pretty clean though I did take note that the moist sanitary towelette seemed to be fully extended and plastered to the side of the wall already like some sort of wet ponytail. British Airways does set out some tiny paper cups in case you're interested in drinking from the bathroom tap, which I suppose someone must be? Not this guy though.
I headed back to my seat and start to make myself comfortable in my two seater section, spreading out and thumbing through BA's in-flight magazine - High Life.
I read an article they'd posted about "Going Slow" in some of the world's fastest paced cities, a thinly veiled advertising campaign for some of the various destinations around the world British Airways and its partner airlines could take you to should you find the article appealing. I'm one of those passengers that actually does read the in-flight magazine, and I've never been particularly impressed with BA's offering. It's pretty middling in the writing department and there are plenty of other airlines that do it better.
The FAs working the back end of the plane were all likely somewhere in their early to late twenties, so pretty young for an established carrier like British Airways. I know some folks get titillated over the appearance of younger FAs as they can be pretty rare on certain carriers. I generally have no position on FAs as long as they are competent and friendly - except in the limited situations where those FAs are super attractive British men with accents. In that case all bets are off and my inner psyche starts riding a mechanical bull and it's blouse "accidentally" comes undone. Needless to say, I enjoyed this flight quite a bit as there was a lot of eye candy running around for me.
When the two FAs working my aisle (heyo!) reached my seat during the initial beverage service, I asked for a ginger ale and was rewarded with two cans, which I took to be on par with a marriage proposal from the handsome gent. My excitement at being newly engaged must have dried my lips out because I suddenly realized that the one addiction I have in life (well two if you count chicken and waffles) - lip balm - was stowed away in the overhead compartment.
I hopped up to pull out the American Airlines amenity kit from my flight into LHR that I'd stashed my lip balm in and took the opportunity to snap another photo of the British Airways economy class seats.
The FAs began making their way down the aisle again with the actual dinner service, and it looked like my future husband had been replaced by a woman. I'm going to assume our chemistry was just too much for him to handle and that's why he opted to allow her to replace him. I was jilted but I'm a strong boy and soldiered onward.
As you can see from the photo above, the in-flight entertainment (IFE) was a bit of a throwback to the 2000s. The screens were tiny and difficult to see. The audio quality was pretty poor as well. I tried using the provided head sets, but ended up just plugging in my own pair of ear buds as BA's head set offering was clunky and very low quality. The entertainment selection was neither impressive nor as bad as I've seen on some other European carriers (Lufthansa, I'm looking at you). There were a fair amount of recent movies and television shows to select from. I needed something to watch during dinner and while I was falling asleep, so I selected 'Django Unchained'.
Excellent, entertaining movie. Not the best film to select when you want to only partially pay attention to the movie while doing other things, as I ended up being pretty spellbound for the next three hours and that ate into my sleeping time a bit.
Dinner options tonight were butter chicken or beef stroganoff. I selected the chicken option as it seemed to be the most quintessentially British. If you don't think a chicken curry is very British, you haven't spent much time there! The first thing that struck me about the meal was that it didn't feature a vegetable dish. Typically an airline meal will have some sort of salad, but this featured just an entree and side pasta dish with a bread roll and a dessert. Not a green thing to be seen for miles.
When I pulled the foil off the top of the entree I was a little taken aback by how oily the curry appeared to be. I'm no health nut, but even I have my limits. Taking my fork and stirring it up a bit, I was able to eat the entire dish. The rice was edible, which is great considering how often it is overcooked on an airplane. The curry was flavorful and the chicken pieces mostly meat and very little gristle. I know curry isn't for everyone but it's one of the few dishes that can be executed well in the air as it packs a lot of punch.
Surprise, surprise! The pasta salad was a little oily as well. Still, it was pretty tasty and I didn't leave anything in the bowl. Oil might not sit well with the healthy crowd but it does help make things a bit more flavorful while in the air where taste buds can be dulled.
I'm still waiting for the economy class bread roll I'll encounter that is actually not a deadly weapon if chucked at someone, and the British Airways version has me still searching as it was right up there with diamond on the Mohs scale of hardness. I didn't eat the dessert as it was a chocolate mousse and as I've mentioned numerous times in other posts, I cannot eat chocolate. Pretty much every dessert on an airplane is chocolate in some way, shape, or form, so I'm pretty used to skipping this course when I travel on a plane at this point in my life.
After the meal the FAs made their way through the aisles offering passengers tea or coffee. Not wanting too much caffeine, I opted for one small cup of tea with milk and sugar.
By this time we were still had not crossed into Africa, soaring down the coast of Libya toward Tripoli. I turned 'Django Unchained' back on as I'd paused it earlier as it was too engrossing and I was distracted with food and FAs offering refills on drinks. I proceeded to finish up the film and slowly sipped on my tea. When the movie finished I wrapped myself in the provided blankets and shoved the pillows behind my back for support before zonking out for the majority of the remainder of the flight.
As a side note, you know you're getting older when you use the pillows for lumbar support instead of for your head.
The next thing I was aware of was the smell of breakfast wafting about the confined cabin of the 747, rousing me from my slumber. The FAs were only two rows away so I quickly dropped my tray table and tried get the lingering tendrils of sleep out of my mind.
There might have been other breakfast options on this flight, but by the time they reached me in the very last row the narrative had become, "Would you care to join us for breakfast this morning, sir?" No choices, just what they had left. I, of course, RSVPed the hell yeah to that invitation and received my English breakfast. It's not a full English but has many of the elements you'd expect - eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, beans. It was paired with a orange juice cup (fresh squeezed in the galley I'm sure), a fruit yogurt, and a sweet pastry.
FAs made the rounds multiple times with offers of tea and coffee, and I took several servings of the coffee to help wake up as I knew I had a bit more traveling to do when we landed in Johannesburg. I was connecting onward a separate ticket with BA's local affiliate Comair to Livingstone in Zambia later that morning, so I needed my wits about me when we landed.
Soon enough the FAs were collecting trays and cups and prepping the cabin for landing at the request of the captain. It was early in the morning in South Africa and as the sun rose I was treated to my very first views of Africa.
We needed to circle due to traffic at the airport according to the captain but soon enough the plane dipped and we made our way out of the sky for touchdown in Africa. When those wheels touched the ground it officially raised my 'total continents' visited count to six. I was perky and giddy to be arriving in Africa, as it had always been a huge travel goal of mine to get to somewhere, anywhere, on the continent. It's a massive, diverse area that is by no means "experienced" by a simple trip to one area. But all journeys start with a single step and I was ready for my first "step" in Africa.
After a bit of taxiing we pulled up to the terminal next to, fittingly, a South African Airways plane. Once the doors to exit the plane were open it was a mad rush to get into the aisle and pull down stowed luggage. Being in the very last row of the plane, I simply gathered my things at a leisurely pace and engaged in a bit of chit chat with one of the FAs that came up from the rear galley.
She asked me what brought me to South Africa and I explained that I would be heading up to Zambia and Botswana before returning to South Africa the next week to spend a few days in Cape Town. She was charming and engaging, just as she had been during the flight, and said that she hoped I enjoyed my time in Cape Town as it was one of her favorite cities.
I had checked luggage, so I needed to clear immigration into South Africa in order to get my bag and check-in for my new flight to Livingstone. Despite the circling we were required to do due to "traffic", the immigration queue seemed to only have passengers from our flight and I only had to wait about 10 minute before I was stamped into South Africa without any questions from the official.
Once through immigration, I grabbed my luggage and exited into South Africa. Walking into the country you're greeted by a wall of people awaiting the arrival of friends or family. A giant atrium dotted with people eagerly looking toward the doors to see the one person they were waiting for. I'm sure quite a few people were disappointed when my mug came marching through that door bleary eyed and slightly smelly.
This definitely wasn't my first flight with British Airways, and it won't be my last. It's hardly an award winning product but British Airways offers a solid economy class that has consistently delivered me to my destinations reasonably comfortable and fed. I admit that I was lucky to have an empty seat next to me in the 2-3-2 section of the plane, and my opinion of BA's in-flight offering might be a bit different if I was stuck in the middle seats a little further up. To be fair, I'd be less thrilled about any flight regardless of airline if I found myself in a middle seat though. Service from BA's FAs has always been average to excellent for me, as I've never once had a experience on the airline where I thought "Wow, that one's a really not someone I wanna lay by the pool with and sip fruity drinks."
If you see a good price on a flight with British Airways, I wouldn't hesitate to say you should consider booking the ticket.