- British Airways is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. The century-old airline’s forerunner, Air Transport and Travel Limited, commenced daily international flights in August 1919.
- Last year, I flew in British Airways’ “World Traveller” economy-class cabin from London to New York to see what the experience was like.
- With dozens of flights a day operated by several major airlines, the New York-London route is a high-traffic, competitive route.
- British Airways, together with its joint venture partner American Airlines, is one of the highest-profile operators between the two major financial markets and vacation destinations.
British Airways is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. While the modern iteration of the airline was formed in 1974 with the merger of British Overseas Airways Corporation and British European Airways, the airline’s forerunner Air Transport and Travel Limited, commenced daily international flights in August 1919.
Last year, I flew in British Airways’ “World Traveller” economy-class cabin from London to New York to see what the experience was like.
When flying between the US and the UK, there is a gluttony of options available. Airlines representing the three major alliances (Oneworld, Star Alliance, and Sky Team) operate multiple flights a day between major cities, with some cities seeing dozens of flights a day.
The New York City-London route, one of the busiest in the world, sees around 30 commercial flights in each direction on an average weekday flown by US airlines including Delta, United, and American, and foreign carriers including the expected, like British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, and the less expected, such as Norwegian Air Shuttle and Air India.
Among the many choices, though, the most prolific operators of the high-traffic route are arguably American Airlines and British Airways, with around 15 flights per day in each direction. Operating an antitrust-indemnified joint venture across the Atlantic (along with Spanish carrier Iberia), the two airlines operate virtually as one between the two cities.
When you search for flights between London and New York on either airline’s website, you’ll see flights operated by both carriers, virtually indistinguishable from each other on the results page.
That’s how, after booking steeply discounted tickets through a British Airways flash sale, I found myself with a round trip between New York and London featuring both airlines.
My outbound flight was operated by American Airlines, and was an all-around pleasant trip, while my return was with British Airways departing from London’s Gatwick airport.
I last few British Airways a few years ago on a 747-400 from London Heathrow, so I didn’t have any real expectations – although I knew that the airline had just rolled out some awesome new catering on its long-haul flights.
Read on to see what I thought of my flight on British Airways, departing from London Gatwick at 4:55 p.m. for New York’s JFK airport, operated by a 777-200.
We took the Thameslink train to Gatwick Airport and went to check our bags — and found a long, snaking queue at the long-haul check-in desk. There were only two agents working the non-first class area — it took us almost 45 minutes to get through the line. It’s lucky that we arrived early!
Once through security, we headed to the No.1 Lounge — you can get access with the free Priority Pass membership that comes with some credit cards. The lounge is popular, which leads the staff to cap capacity sometimes. To make sure you can get in, you can reserve a spot online up to the day before your trip (although this costs £5 per person).
The lounge is comfortable with plenty of seating, fast Wi-Fi, snacks, and free drinks and some small plates — I ordered this Yorkshire pudding filled with roasted vegetables and chicken, which was tasty. Our gate was announced a little more than an hour before departure, so we finished up and meandered over, taking time to check out a few shops in the terminal.
In Gatwick’s south terminal, gate areas are totally enclosed. You go through a door, and show your boarding pass and passport to the gate agent, then go through a second door to a waiting area with seats.
There’s a ton of seating in the gate area. Boarding at Gatwick is remarkably organised thanks to the enclosed gate area, and the spaciousness. British Airways boards in five zones, and it was surprisingly quick.
My flight was on a British Airways 777-200. As we boarded we walked past the business class and premium economy cabins…
…And into the very, very outdated economy (or as British Airways calls it, the “World Traveller”) cabin.
British Airways’ 777-200 economy cabins are in a 3-3-3 layout, which makes the cabins slightly less cramped than the 3-4-3 configuration airlines have been putting in their 777 fleets.
That’s about the best that can be said for the cabin, though. The seats were so old that the fabric had pills, and there was virtually no padding in the back. My seat pad (the one you can remove as a flotation device during a water landing) was loose and couldn’t really fit back down fully, while the armrest was a bit shaky as well. The main colour tone of the cabin was a sickly yellowish, which came from the plastic on the walls, bulkheads, and overhead compartments. Each seat had a pillow and a plastic-wrapped blanket waiting for the passenger, which I ended up needing to make up for the unsupportive seat back. The cabin was about 3/4 full, so there were plenty of empty middle seats, at least.
One thing I did like about the seat: the headrest had “wings” on each side that flipped down so that you could lean your head to either side. They were very sturdy, so you didn’t have to worry about them folding out or falling down as you relaxed.
The seats did feel roomy enough, with 17.5–18″ of width and about 31″ of pitch, according to Seatguru. That’s not a huge amount of legroom, but certainly felt like enough for this late-afternoon flight.
Once boarding was finished, the captain announced a brief delay due to the catering being loaded, but ultimately it was only around five minutes. Soon enough, the cabin crew closed the doors and played the safety video — which was actually pretty funny and featured a handful of British celebrities — before a short taxi and takeoff.
Obviously this isn’t the biggest deal, but I noticed the cabin wasn’t particularly clean. There were crumbs when I lowered my tray table, and the seats just seemed a bit grubby, though that may have just been their age.
Fortunately, the rest of the flight was better than the cabin. The crew was incredibly friendly — a great improvement over past experiences I’ve had on British Airways. Drink service started about 45 minutes after takeoff, and the flight attendants spent the whole time laughing and joking with passengers.
They gave out two of every drink – the person behind me joked that the flight attendant had given her a lot, and he replied “it’s a long boring flight, dear, live a little!” He joked with another passenger, offering her some orange juice so she’d get some vitamins with her vodka. The last time I flew British Airways, a flight attendant dropped a drink as she was handing it to me, asked if I was ok, then huffed off and didn’t give me any paper towels to clean up. This was so much different.
Dinner service began 45 minutes after that. It took a while to move through the cabin, and there seemed to be a bit of confusion. The flight attendants came to me with the special Asian vegetarian meal that had been requested — although I had never ordered that.
Seating assignments were given out at check-in, and I never changed my seats, so not sure what the confusion was. I presume they found the person who had ordered the specialty dish. It was another half-hour before the main dinner service made it to where I was sitting, about half-way down the economy cabin.
Dinner service came with wine, with a choice of white and red. I went for red, and was given two choices. After I made it, the flight attendant gave me the second anyway and said “why don’t you try both, see which you like best?” At this point, after two scotches, I was definitely ready for some food.
Dinner was a choice of chicken casserole in ale sauce with kale mashed potatoes, or farfalle pasta in tomato and mascarpone sauce. I went with the chicken. Although it was a tad salty, it was way beyond what you expect from economy-class aeroplane food. It also came with a small water bottle, a cup for coffee or tea (which followed), a roll…
…A really delicious and flavorful dish of grilled vegetables…
…And a wheat berry salad (although I noticed some people got a fruit salad instead). The only thing I was missing was something sweet. I asked the flight crew, but all they had were some crackers. At the time of this flight, British Airways had recently launched a new, expanded catering service on its long-haul routes, featuring more snacks, treats, and a more robust meal, it seems that this flight had the old service.
After dinner, everyone seemed content and sleepy — or maybe just drunk. I decided to fire up the in-flight entertainment (IFE) and find a movie.
The in-flight entertainment system was…fine. It was better than not having one (and airlines are moving towards removing them in favour of a “bring-your-own-device” model). There were a handful of new releases, as well as a couple of TV shows. I watched Tom Cruise’s “American Made,” which was a fun watch. I explored the rest of the options, too, though the IFE system was pretty unresponsive. In fact…
…I got pretty used to this screen. The system could be controlled by touch-screen or a separate remote. Unfortunately…
…The remote was embedded in my armrest. This is actually one of my aeroplane pet peeves — it’s impossible not to hit the controls with your elbow during the flight. Always fun when the volume suddenly shoots up, or you accidentally turn off your reading light over and over.
There was also a map that showed the flight’s progress — this alternated with a screen showing things like speed, ETA, and altitude.
Throughout the flight, there were people gathered near the rear galley chatting with the flight attendants, hanging out, and having drinks. It was a pretty social setting, though I imagine it could have been annoying to be seated in the last couple of rows. About an hour and a half before arrival, the cabin lights came back on, and the flight crew came through with a “tea” service — a small tuna sandwich, a mini Toblerone bar, and tea, coffee, or whatever alcoholic drinks were left. After hitting some turbulence on our approach, we arrived right on schedule.
So overall, what’s my impression of British Airways? Well…
In economy, even on a busy route where different airlines are looking for a competitive advantage, you don’t fly expecting a luxurious, spa-like experience. You know that the seats are going to be cramped, the food is going to be batch-prepared and reheated in bulk, and you’re going to have a lot of other people filled around you.
That said, not every economy flight is the same, and obviously, there are differences in the cabin, the service, and the soft product (things like catering) that can make a huge difference in how your experience the flight. When you’re in a small metal tube for eight hours, and either have to hit the ground running, or at least make it home or to your hotel, those differences can add up.
Overall, for a flight at the end of a vacation, and that wasn’t a red-eye, I found the experience on British Airways to be fine. We were on-time, we were fed, and we were able to relax, enjoy a drink, and watch some movies.
Two things about the flight stood out: one good, one bad.
The service was simply fantastic. The flight attendants were jovial, polite, funny, at made everyone feel relaxed, at-ease, and at home in a way that I can’t recall ever experiencing in a coach cabin before. They were also helpful, offering passengers anything they needed at the rear galley, and letting people know that they should feel free to ring the call bell.
The food, while it wasn’t the hyped newly improved catering, was still tasty, and did the trick – although I wouldn’t have minded something sweet for dessert – and the drinks were, ahem, freely flowing.
Now for the downside: Those cabins are just ancient. The seats were gross with pilling, dirty fabric, my seat cushion was loose the whole time (as if I was about to grab it and use it as a flotation device), and the back of my seat, around the lumbar area, felt like it may have had padding once, but that it had long since left for greener pastures.
I flew British Airways’ 747-400 round-trip between JFK and London Heathrow in 2015, and those planes had the same cabin. I distinctly remember the fabric, as I had to find paper towels on my own and clean it after a drink spilled.
With all of that in mind, would I fly British Airways again? Absolutely. Especially on a daytime flight when I can walk around – the missing lumbar padding might not do any favours on a red-eye. However, given the choice, I’d likely go for one of the other full-service carriers. A wobbly seat cushion and a hard backrest left me stiff and uncomfortable, despite walking around, so I’d be happy avoiding that when it’s convenient.
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