I think we have all at one time or another had that traveler's dream of walking up to check-in for a flight and hearing those magic words - "Our flight is pretty full tonight so we're going to upgrade you." So imagine my surprise when I left the YOTEL London Heathrow and made my way over to Terminal 5 to check-in for my flight to Mumbai (BOM) only to be greeted by a friendly agent with a massive, welcoming smile who uttered those exactly words to me!
This is British Airways (BA) ground service we're talking about here, which in my experience is best described as barely tolerating your existence. The friendly agent remained a figment of my imagination but I was indeed given a complimentary upgrade from BA's economy cabin (World Traveller) to their premium economy cabin (World Traveller Plus). No one bothered to notify me about the change though. I only learned of the upgrade when I walked away from the counter and glanced down to see that my seat assignment had been changed.
As an aviation geek I pulled up a quick mental seat map and realized I was going to be much happier on the flight with the change and kept walking away with a big smile on my face. Which is more than I can say ever appeared on the face of the agent that helped me.
Security and immigration weren't too much of a hassle today so I meandered my way over to the C gates, which is where my flight to BOM was departing from today. British Airways keeps several lounges at LHR though the nicest options are not near the C gates at all. The lounges are for premium cabin passengers as well as elite status holders, the latter of which I was considered at the time of this trip and also the likely reason I was selected to be moved into the premium economy cabin. Sadly being a paid premium economy passenger does not come with any sort of lounge access.
I had spent plenty of time in BA's various lounges at LHR though, so for today's flight I was content to pass the time until the flight in the less spacious option right next to my gate. The bigger, nicer lounges weren't worth hanging around for in my humble opinion. So in the more modest lounge I sat, snacking on some small plates while watching the sun set over the endless sea of BA airplanes that surrounds T5.
Soon enough boarding for the flight to BOM was announced in the lounge and I gathered up my belongings and started to make my way toward the gate, which was only a few steps away from the lounge doors.
Perhaps I just have bad luck but I have a serious problem with the way LHR's T5 gates are set up for boarding. Generally I've boarded smaller aircraft heading onward to continental Europe at T5, and even with much fewer passengers the gates simply feel cramped and poorly set up for the process of actually getting a group of people onto a plane. The area where people would queue to present their passes for boarding almost always seem to extending into some sort of public walking area, and that was certainly the case today. We were flying a Boeing 747 down to India tonight, which is a pretty large number of passengers for a single aircraft. The gate British Airways was using for this flight wasn't set up to board a regional jet efficiently let alone a semi-doubledecker airplane.
As I exited the lounge I was immediately tossed into a bubbling brew of saris, British retirees in various shades of khaki, and screaming children. It was very disorienting and with so much chaos it was difficult to figure out what stage of boarding was going on. Was first class boarding? Was it a free for all? The screen at the agent's podium wasn't helpful, so I decided to do what I typically have in confusing travel situations - put on a big, blank American stare and just go with the flow. After about five minutes of pushing through the crowds I found myself at the podium for the flight and presented my boarding pass where it was scanned and I was essentially kicked in the ass past the gate keepers and told to get on the plane. If you haven't picked up on it yet, my opinion of BA's ground service is pretty dismal because, well, they're pretty dismal.
I joined the growing queue of people lined up in the jet bridge waiting to board the plane. It took about 5 minutes before I made it to the front and two smiling flight attendants (FAs) extended their hands to accept my boarding pass and direct me toward my seat. As many issues as I have with BA's ground service I have the opposite opinion on the plane - they're almost always super professional and friendly.
On this British Airways 747 the premium economy cabin was to the left from the boarding door. BA operates two configurations of 747, and this one featured the first class cabin at the nose of the plane followed by premium economy, business, and the economy cabin with the upstairs area featuring a second business cabin.
The cabin had a few passengers already though was still fairly empty. World Traveller on this plane was laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration with four rows in total. The starboard side had an additional row of two seats that wasn't possible on the port side due to the placement of two lavatories on that side of the plane.
My seat was 15B, the aisle in the last row of the two seat section on the port side.
As a comparison, the economy class cabin on this plane features seats in a 3-4-3 configuration, so there's a reduction per row of 2 seats, which is a nice upgrade in terms of lateral space. The seats also are a bit more sturdy and plush than the economy class option. For example, here are the seats in my two seat section:
Compared to this standard economy class seat I was in on flights to and from Johannesburg on another trip:
As you can see World Traveller Plus features seats that are more plush, have a thicker headrest (with a different design as well), and sturdier arm rests that fully separates the seats.
The seat is definitely more comfortable and spacious than the economy class option a little further back in the plane. There's much more padding, additional lateral space, and of course leg room, all of which really gives you room to settle. It's not giving any business class seats a run for its money but it definitely is a better experience than the back of the plane. While I often find myself needing to adjust and shift around due to feeling cramped or sore from the lack of space in economy class on British Airways on longer flights, I didn't feel that at all on this trip. Sure, I woke up and moved around during the flight, but it wasn't because a throbbing pain in my neck/leg/back caused me to do so.
As mentioned briefly above, the premium economy seats also feature a bit more leg room. I'm short, so I don't struggle too badly in standard economy class seats, but it's still nice to have additional space to stretch out a bit. Since I am shorter, I was happy to see that BA's World Traveller seats feature foot rests. With my short legs I usually cannot recline in a economy class seat and still touch the floor, so the addition of the foot rest really added to my ability to be comfortable.
On the seat were the typical amenities one finds when flying - a pillow, blanket, and a small amenity kit. The blanket was the same quality as what I had seen when flying in economy class, though the pillow was bigger and featured a cloth covering with a nice blue floral design. The economy class pillow offering is a small gauzy pillow with a paper aviation-themed sleeve slipped over it.
In economy class the amenity kit consisted of a small bag with a toothbrush/toothpaste and an eye mask. The premium economy version wasn't much improved but it did come in a bigger bag with a sliding zipper at the top and included socks, ear plugs, and a pen as well.
Soon enough the cabin was filled up to capacity. The window seat next to me was taken by a young South Asian woman who texted feverishly for the remainder of the boarding process and then promptly took out an eye shade from her purse and slide it over her eyes, lightly snoring for the remainder of the flight to BOM.
This worked just fine for me as I didn't need to worry about being woken up or disturbed during the flight if she had wanted to use the lavatory or stretch her legs. Behind me I could tell that the stream of passengers into the remainder of the plane was slowing down and the door would soon be closed, only slightly behind schedule it appeared.
FAs started to make their way through the cabin offering newspapers.
The captain came on the PA system to welcome us on board the flight and the FAs closed the aircraft doors about 10 minutes past the scheduled departure time. We taxiied over to our runway and waited for about another 30 minutes in a queue before we were able to take off into the cloudy skies over London on our way toward Mumbai.
Then came the inevitable lull in action between take off and the first meal service that I always find so awkward on a flight. I don't like starting a movie or tv show on the IFE system because when the meal service starts I am constantly pausing to answer questions about drinks and meal selection. Same thing with opening a book up. So I typically find myself exploring the seat back pocket and IFE system to see what's on tap for the ride, which is exactly what I found myself doing on this flight.
The British Airways in-flight magazine is called "High Life" and in my experience is a middle of the road airline magazine. As the name suggests it focuses more on higher end travel and experiences, featuring glossy photography emphasizing designer shopping and posh experiences. That isn't to say its pages hold nothing of interest for those with shallower pockets. There's likely something of interest for any reader but thematically I'd say it skews much more riches than rags.
The IFE system is mounted into the seat back with seat back pockets taking up quite a bit of the remaining room not occupied by the relatively small screen.
The remote control for the IFE is located along the interior arm rests of your seat, right next to the jack for the headphones and an antiquated 15 volt DC outlet.
British Airways is adopting a new IFE system but this old 747 still featured a rather lackluster offering for passengers. A handful of new release blockbuster films were available along with some dated favorites for padding. Same situation with television shows. It's definitely sufficient for a long flight but if you are flying multiple long distances with BA (USA to UK and then onward to Africa for example), you'd likely run out of interesting things to watch about half of the way to Johannesburg.
Screen quality was decidedly 90s.
British Airways provides headsets to premium economy passengers that were the same style as the ones I'd received previously in economy class but were a different color. I could not discern any different in quality between the two.
And while I mentioned leg room isn't a huge factor for me due to my short height, if it does matter to you it should be noted that in my row of seats the IFE box was located in my foot space. So if you want unobstructed stretching room - take the window seat.
Soon enough the FAs were in our aisle starting the meal service. They began by stopping by each row and welcoming us on board - a nice touch! A small printed menu was handed out to each passenger with a description of the dinner service. The second meal prior to landing, a breakfast on this flight, was alluded to but not described, which I found a bit odd.
As I pondered tonight's dinner options I was prompted to select a beverage as the trolley appeared by my seat. I asked for a diet coke and the FA handed me two mini cans. I used to think this was indicative of a thoughtful FA when I first started flying on BA, but now I realize it is more likely BA's service standard as I'm almost always given two cans on all my flights on the carrier. A bag of pretzels was handed over with the drink to sate your palate while waiting for the main course. They were sour creme & chive flavored, which was a nice flavor change from your standard plain pretzels.
Since we were on our way to India it's no surprise that one of the entrees featured on today's flight was an Indian vegetarian meal, though British Airways seems to almost always feature some sort of Indian curry as an entree choice during dinner regardless of the destination in my experience. This is a perk in my book, as I'm a huge fan of Indian food and I find that it's one of the best options in the air to pack a nice flavorful punch to combat the body's reduced ability to taste while in the air. I know some people say they dislike Indian food on an airplane because it's too fragrant but I have a rather keen sense of smell (just ask anyone who knows me in real life!) and I've never detected any lingering odor in the cabin after curry is served on a plane.
The lamb on the menu sounded interesting but I did end up ordering the vegetarian option, mostly because I'm more familiar with Indian food than European food and to be honest - I had absolutely no idea what half of the descriptions on the English entree even meant. West Devon? Boulangere?
I was pretty pleased that the dessert listed on the menu featured no chocolate, since it's a food that I cannot eat. So many airplane meals feature a chocolate dessert that I often have to skip that part of the meal, and to be honest airplane meals are pretty skimpy as it is, so skipping part of it just leaves you even more unsatisfied than everyone else. I hold no grudges though - chocolate is universally satisfying to most people in the world and it's a solid choice for a crowd pleaser. Not everyone has my weird biological disorder that causes my hands to swell and hives to cover my face & neck when I ingest chocolate. And thank God for that.
So imagine the betrayal I felt when the FAs returned sometime later with my meal tray, it was placed in front of me, and I discovered that the apple and blackberry crumble with custard had been replaced with ..... chocolate and caramel mousse.
Looks like a last minute catering substitution was aiming to derail my flight, but I took a deep breath and did the most British thing I could think of - keep calm and carry on.
The remainder of the meal was surprisingly good. I feel like I say that all too often when reviewing airline meals, even in economy class. Perhaps I'm just easy to please, or maybe it's that hating on airline food is something people love to do out of habit even if it's not that bad? Or perhaps I set reasonable expectations of what can be achieved when feeding hundreds of people 35,000 feet in the air in a confined space? Either way, I am puzzled about why I am more often than not satisfied with airplane food.
The pea, bean, and mint appetizer salad was a nice opening shot across the bow. Peas and beans are relatively inexpensive so they can be provided in generous portions to passengers. The mint was a nice pop of flavor on the plane, serving as a bit of a palate cleanser for the meal. Bread was handed out to passengers, a choice of various European styles as well as an Indian chapati, which I selected and forgot to snap a photo of prior to eating.
True to form, the Indian meal was packed full of flavor and really hit the spot. The rice as a bit dry, but other than Asian carriers I tend to find most airlines have a difficult time serving rice in the air and not overcooking it. The only thing that disappointed me about the entree was that I wasn't able to eat more of it.
I of course skipped the mousse dessert and also skipped the tea and coffee service they offered after the meal. An FA made a quick run down the aisle handing out Indian immigration forms to everyone. Despite resting most of the day at the YOTEL Heathrow prior to the flight, I was quite exhausted and decided sleeping was in my best interest at that point. I hopped up to use the lavatory directly behind my seat real quick and snapped a quick shot of my seat from above showing the leg rest portion of the seat extended. It's really much more of a recliner seat than the economy class version. I was kind of surprised at how different it felt.
The combination of the wider seat, leg rest extension, and the foot rest below the seat was just the right mix for me to zone out and wander into slumberland for the majority of the flight. It's obviously not as comfortable as a business or first class seat that converts into a fully flat bed, but in terms of an economy class seat it has improvements in all the areas that entirely removed the little annoying things that would wake me up multiple times over a flight.
No seatmate sitting too close to me to jostle me awake when they bumped the arm rest. No leg cramps from contorting yourself to avoid the seat reclined in front of you. No ache in the small of your back or between your shoulder blades due to limited recline. It was still an economy class seat, but one that was tweaked in all the right places to eliminate the annoyances. Not luxurious. Comfortable.
I woke up about 1 1/2 hours out of BOM when the FAs started making the rounds and offering breakfast choices to passengers. My seat mate continued to snore while I was given the choice of an English breakfast (LINK) or a ... you guessed it, Indian vegetarian breakfast. I opted for the English breakfast. With a week ahead of me in India, I figured I should opt to save my Indian meals till I was in country, eh?
This was likely a poor choice on my end as the English option was pretty awful. The eggs were a congealed mess of instant powdered goo, the sausage link was oddly crisp on one side but soggy on the other. The tomato was a limp mess and the mushrooms were a overcooked and mushy. There was a slightly stale cinnamon and raisin swirl on the side which wasn't too bad. The mango, pineapple, and passion fruit yogurt was the only redeeming part of the meal.
After I abandoned the majority of the breakfast I did take a cup of tea when offered by the friendly FA moving through the aisle. I sipped away for a bit while my tray was cleared and an endless stream of passengers made their way up and down the aisle for bathroom adventures as the time of our arrival into BOM crept closer and closer.
With about 30 minutes left in the flight I finally decided I should get up and do what little I could to freshen up for my arrival into India. I was going to be connecting onward to Goa, with a five hour layover in the domestic terminal in BOM. I figured a re-application of deodorant and a use of the provided toothbrush would be a good start.
I didn't get any pictures of the bathroom other than the gratuitous selfie above, but as you can see the space provided is standard for an airplane lavatory. Barely enough room to stand up or turn around. Cleanliness was average - it wasn't soaked in excrement but at the same time it wasn't being cleaned regularly either. If you look in the bottom right corner of the picture above you can see toothpaste residue caked onto the mirror from some earlier portion of the flight.
When I exited the bathroom we were well into our descent and I had to sit down immediately to prepare for arrival. Our descent into BOM was smooth and issue free and we were able to taxi to our arrival gate immediately. I was one of the first passengers off the plane as the exit was directly behind my row and the awkward cabin set up meant the first class passengers were trapped behind us when trying to deplane.
This concludes my flight into BOM but it wasn't the conclusion of my experience with British Airways World Traveller Plus. It just so happens that my flight back from BOM to LHR was also oversold in economy class, so I was again upgraded to the premium economy cabin. Unlike my flight down from LHR though, the premium economy cabin was very lightly loaded, which meant I had an empty seat next to me this time around.
The experience was largely the same, which I suppose is a good endorsement of British Airways' ability to provide a consistent service. I'm going to share a few photos from that flight that highlight the experience with limited commentary.
Departure from Mumbai.
Beverage and snack service upon departure, same as out of LHR.
Indian vegetarian lunch meal departing from BOM. Spinach and corn with jeera rice. Potato patties in a tomato curry gravy. Raita on the side. Cucumber and tomato salad. Bread roll (hard as a rock). Chocolate mousse. Entree excellent. Side dishes - meh.
Sunset over Azerbaijan.
Pre-arrival dinner. Chicken tikka in tomato gravy with a side of some sort of paneer cheese with a fried crispy shell. Another cucumber and tomato side salad. Chocolate bar desserts. Entree was excellent, though a bit weird with the cheese slab portion. Tasty but you felt like it shouldn't be. Side dishes and dessert - again, meh.
Nighttime arrival into London with clouds enveloping the city.
So after two trips in British Airways World Traveller cabin, what do I think of this offering?
Simply put - I was impressed. Not necessarily because it was an amazing product, but because it was such a thoughtful improvement over the economy seat I'm used to flying on British Airways. As I said, it's certainly not moving into the realm of "luxurious" but it does take the experience into the world of "comfortable", and that's a great thing when it comes to a premium economy product. The seat has just the right upgrades to make the experience painless. The addition of a leg rest, the additional leg room, the extra lateral space by having fewer seats per row. You're definitely still in an economy cabin but the little annoyances that make the experience taxing are removed.
To use a tired comparison, it's what I imagine flying economy class during the golden age of air travel must have been like.
Still, it's very easy for me to say positive things about the experience because I didn't pay for the privilege of these additional perks. Of course I'm going to be happy with these extra amenities when they're a gift from the airline and I didn't have to compensate them for the honor. So the questions really becomes one of value - given the choice, would I pay cash out of my pocket to travel in this seat?
Yes. But not at any price.
Depending on the length of the flight, I think the most I would pay extra on a round trip ticket for BA's premium economy seat would be about $300 USD. Based on some test bookings I looked at for a variety of flights in 2016, this would mean that I would be pricing the product too low to ever purchase a World Traveller Plus fare outright. It seems to be a bit more expensive than that in most cases. That being said, value is relative and I think there definitely is a market for this type of seat. Also British Airways seems to offer upgrades to premium economy often based on my experiences traveling with the carrier, and they do fall into the "under $150 one way" range I set for myself when upgrading before the flights vs. purchasing the seat outright at booking. If you're a gambler, this might be an option for you.
So if you're looking for an economy seat that does a good job of removing all the annoying aspects of flying in economy, British Airways offers a good option for you with World Traveller Plus. If you want a bit more style and luxury with your travel experience, stick to business class folks.