Does a flight really count as an inaugural if there isn’t a party associated with the trip? No balloons or festivities in the terminal, no special gifts for the passengers and no special speeches from executives were to be seen in the boarding lounge on 24 September 2013 prior to British Airways’ flight from London to Los Angeles on their brand new A380 inaugural, the first long-haul operation by the type for the airline, but it was still very much an inaugural operation. Several new aspects of service and passenger-focused amenities were introduced with this flight and, while they weren’t making speeches, there were several executives on board to ensure that the passenger experience on the new plane was exactly as they intended it to be.
Welcome on board.
The A380 is a massive airplane. There is no way around that. And yet, in most cases, it didn’t feel so huge on board thanks to the layout British Airways has chosen. The plane is split in to nine separate cabins, more than most other operators have done. There are four sections for World Traveller (economy), three for Club World (business) while World Traveller Plus (premium economy) and First Class each have one cabin. There may be 450 other people on the plane with you but it never feels that crowded, even in the economy cabin. And that’s exactly the way Frank van der Post, Managing Director, Brands and Customer Experience, wants it to be. Chatting with van der Post during the flight to Los Angeles (he came back and sat with me in Economy for a few minutes) he brought up the smaller cabins specifically as a feature British Airways is proud of on the A380 and something that only a plane that large can support, “[The A380] gives us a unique opportunity in zoning…and customization.”
The largest single cabin on the BA configuration has 119 economy class seats in it; this is the lowest number of seats in the largest seating area of any operator of the type. Similarly, the largest business class section has 44 seats; smaller than most other airlines have on board. It may not seem like much but splitting the plane in to smaller areas can have a real positive impact on passenger comfort. The intimacy of the space – while not cramped – allows passengers to experience the flight as though it is on a smaller plane, but with all the benefits of the larger aircraft operations.
The large airplane doesn’t mean tons of space for everything, however. The galleys – two on each level – are a bit cramped for the levels of service British Airways is offering. That’s a good thing in some ways: the service levels are impressive and there are a lot of crewmembers on board to make sure that the passengers are well looked after. Still, it did raise some troubles for the crew as they were figuring out the details of the new aircraft. Most of these are likely to work out over time, though there are some which are unlikely to change.
Service for World Traveller Plus and World Traveller cabins upstairs (159 seats) is all handled from the galley at the rear of the upper deck. It is spacious and the crew was efficient in their work during the flight but as a World Traveller customer I will admit that I was a bit jealous watching the better service for the WTP customers passing back and forth through the cabin, particularly the tease of pre-flight bubbly making its way back and forth through the cabin (that’s one of the WTP benefits but not on offer for WT). Plus, serving 150+ passengers out of a single galley, including changing out the carts between the WTP and WT service can take longer than similar service on other aircraft.
Even with the slightly slower service time, however, the overall economy class product was quite reasonable. The meal (I tried both lunch options) had good flavor and there was sufficient space in the seat that I was not cramped during the 12 hour trip.
Van der Post was quick to trumpet the personal space available in the World Traveller cabin as a differentiating factor in the BA configuration of the plane. Whether through the addition of sidewall storage bins for window seat customers on the upper deck or using slimmer seats which free up knee room (but which are still quite well padded), space never felt like a problem during the flight. Compared to my only other A380 economy experience on Lufthansa I’d say that the BA seats were more spacious. And the IFE system (see below) was more than sufficient to keep me occupied throughout the flight; I was a bit disappointed we landed as there were a few more movies I wanted to watch.
The business class cabin is arguably the most unchanged relative to the rest of the British Airways fleet. It still offers fully flat beds and aisle access to all passengers along with multi-course dining. Because it is split between the upper and lower deck there is a 2-3-2 layout available upstairs in addition to the 2-4-2 downstairs. This adds options for passengers. Not all passengers enjoy the face-to-face seating or the flip-down foot stool in the Club World cabin but it is a standard offering of British Airways now and the A380 did not see any major changes in that regard. And, quite frankly, it didn’t look all that impressive to me.
Of course, this being an inaugural flight (and me being me) I didn’t spend the whole trip up in the economy cabin. At one point I made my way down to the first class cabin and sat with a couple colleagues who were enjoying a much different version of the flight. I got to spend an hour or so with them, sampling the champagne on offer and chatting for a story I wrote for the Airline Passenger Experience (APEX) group before heading back upstairs to watch a couple more movies. If you want to know more about the first class product check out that story.
All passengers are able to take advantage of the new Thales TopSeries IFE kit, one of the most modern systems available on the market today. The TopSeries platform can hold more than 125 movies – British Airways chose to stock it with the entire James Bond library plus 100 others – plus 650 TV shows. That adds up to more than 1,600 hours of content available for passengers. Passengers can build a playlist from the collection and then run a movie marathon over the course of a long flight. Yes, the 8.9” screen in economy is a bit smaller than some competitors but it is still reasonable for the viewing distance available.
There are music and games to choose from as well. Many of the games are available in multi-player mode allowing passengers to play against each other. The interactive options extend to an on-board chat system as well. Direct messages to another seat or group chat rooms are available. During our flight I was able to coordinate interview scheduling with other passengers and also share thoughts things to see and do in Los Angeles in the group chat.
These sorts of systems are not new but the Thales implementation for BA is one of the better I’ve seen in service. The screen was responsive and selections came up quickly as I cycled through the movies. The selection of games/apps in the system was also quite broad, helping to make the time on board pass more quickly.
From a connectivity perspective British Airways is arguably behind, with none of their long-haul fleet featuring Wi-Fi service. The A380 is no exception to this approach; it is also “dark” in this context. Van der Post is on record as hoping that the technology improves before considering a deployment of such service. Industry analysts remain split on the impact this has on customer booking patterns today, though the trend is certainly towards adding such service in one form or another; BA will ultimately have to move down this path to remain competitive in the market. They may benefit from waiting for the market to mature a bit before committing to a product and vendor, though – again – analysts are mixed on the impact of such a delay. It is worth noting that Lufthansa just announced they are going to fit their A380s with Ku-band satellite service starting early in 2014.
The A380 is the latest aircraft to join British Airways’ long haul operations. The carrier has two currently in the fleet and another ten on order. And, while the new type is not changing everything about the way the carrier operates long haul, it certainly is a catalyst in the process. That’s something most passengers should enjoy given the improvements in the seats, catering and entertainment options on board. I felt that First and World Traveler (economy) were the bright spots while World Traveler Plus (Premium Economy) and Club World (Business) were pretty mediocre offerings. And while British Airways may not be at the front of the pack in every category, even on these brand new aircraft, they do appear well positioned to carry passengers comfortably around the globe for some years to come.
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