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Since writing this review I made a BA trip to Warsaw. I thought it would be interesting to as well as including generic observations of the BA Club Europe produce I include a like for like comparison with the LOT business class flight I took to Warsaw in May (see my review of 21 August). I hope this will be useful both in terms of looking at the benefits of two different suppliers of a direct business product on the same route and also in terms of giving what I think proved to be a fairly typical snapshot of a BA flight. It is true that if you use a single airline a lot you are likely to remember the bad over the good so focusing on a fairly average flight is desirable in providing some balance.
Ratings I have given to BA and LOT previously remain the same but I have added some pictures of my most recent flight which I think largely reflect what you will find if flying with Club Europe.
I will possibly have to update this review further if I use one of the other BA products in the coming months as I can only do one BA review. For now though changes to this review are confined to a few additional words about the lounge facilities (as I have added a photo) and a dedicated section entitled 'A typical flight' which you will find at the end of the text below. Further to this (and unrelated to my Warsaw flight) I have added a section entitled 'Ground staff and aftercare' which relates to what happens where things go wrong. This was prompted by my recent SN Brussels flight (see separate review) which I booked through BA as a code share but draws on a number of other experiences both positive and negative.
British Airways (BA) seems to evoke strong emotions from its customers; a real love hate relationship I would say. I have to confess, from my experience of long haul leisure travel in economy going back to the 80's I held a fairly negative perception. Objectively this is probably not entirely fair, however, a 5-hour delay in Kuwait on one return flight and a 30-hour delay to another are not easy to forget. I tried them after a hiatus of 5 years and this time was stranded at Manchester for almost 4 hours on a return from Pakistan in 1994. I did not use them long haul again until 2001 when I used business class.
I provide this disclaimer, as I was admittedly quite prejudiced about the performance of this airline when I started in my current job. Here I have had to travel to various destinations in Europe. In many cases BA has provided the best option in terms of times and surprisingly cost. Destinations since 2006 include Brussels (see also my BMI review), Berlin, Belgrade, Copenhagen, Geneva, Istanbul, Paris and (though not in Europe but still served by the club Europe product) Tripoli. I therefore feel well placed to offer an overview of the Club Europe product (I have also flown business class with BMI, Austrian and LOT recently so have some comparison. I will include any other airline I use in the future.
I do prefer to fly from Gatwick but BA has shifted much of operation to Heathrow; of destinations listed only Geneva has relatively regular flights from Heathrow. I find it infuriating that one cannot use any reliable scheduled service to reach Brussels or Paris; I hope the relocation of Eurostar away from Waterloo will mean that BA will reconsider its position. They have a twice daily code share with SN Brussels but this is in effect a low cost airline for economy and offers an inferior service to the British Airways flights out of Heathrow in Business (also there is the issue of timings which are not great for business travellers and price which I will come on to). Anyway, I therefore have to travel from heathrow in most cases and that is never a hugely enjoyable experience, role on the opening of Terminal 5 I say.
In both airports the check in arrangements are generic - by this I mean wherever you are going there is a common check in desk for the product you are flying with as opposed to the destination. It is therefore rare to find a Club Europe check in without a queue though the queue is rarely too long; at least not compared to economy, which is often carnage. Terminal 1 has a dedicated check in for Business passengers; this is a very good idea and makes the initial part of the BA experience a little less stressful.
There are the self-service check-in machines but many people will not or cannot use them. In recent times the Internet check in option has been increasingly pushed and is a Godsend when it works. It usually does work though if travelling on business in a group be sure your agent makes individual bookings or you will have problems accessing this feature.
Overseas check in varies. Where there are many BA flights the counter is always open and provides a similar generic service to that in the London airports. In other places, especially where space is limited, it will only open 2 hours before departure and if you have to travel a long way you will have to wait on the land side until it does. It is worth checking what arrangements are in your destination. Check in on line can circumvent this if it works and if security let you through before the check in is open - neither can be a given though.
For flights out of Heathrow and Gatwick BA passengers in Club Europe are permitted to use the fast track security lanes for which a premium payment goes to BAA (reflected in the level of taxes for your flight). This is great on a busy day and one up on many of the BA competitors. I can check in on line and be at the airport just an hour before take off but will still make it to the gate in good time. If I had to run the gauntlet of the normal queue I would never be able to enjoy such a luxury these days. Overseas the fast track facility is usually not available.
I personally like the BA Terraces (and other UK) lounges; there are invariably of a decent standard for short haul service lounges (though in all cases they are shared with longer haul Club World passengers). Here one can find a very decent selection of drinks and, if you are a regular user, you will know that some lounges offer a fairly impressive selection of food too. This is important as on board meals can and do vary a lot. Heathrow's Terminal 4 'Gate One' lounge is the best of all in this respect serving crispy bacon roles in the morning
Pictures of British Airways - BAW
View from row 1 in a typical Club Europe cabin
and a range of other items during the day.I have uploaded a picture of the lounge in Terminal 1. This is taken from the bar section (as well stocked as any BA lounge I have visited in the UK). You will usually find at least 4 choices each of reasonable quality red and white wine but no sparkling wine. Snacks vary according to the time of day but are not as good as the Gate 1 lounge in Terminal 4 (as cooked snacks can be found there). The terminal 1 lounge is a good size and far more attractively decorated than most European competitors but has no windows. A small upstairs mezzanine section provides a degree of tranquillity unless a gang of suits have decided to commandeer it for a business meeting. Loud voices and perpetual mobiles can then mean the traveller seeking solitude will need to find an alternative quiet corner; there are usually plenty except on the busiest of days. Internet access is rarely a problem with cables for lap tops and permanent terminals both in abundance.
Overseas lounges vary hugely. This generally depends if they are BA run as in Brussels, Berlin, Copenhagen, Geneva and Istanbul (though the latter can be a little crowded when one of the larger aircraft is used) or not. Belgrade and Tripoli have quite basic lounges with very limited services whilst Paris has a shared lounge that is open plan and very crowded. I particularly like the Brussels and Berlin lounges though the former does not offer a lot in the way of food.
This is not strength of BA though it might be a reflection on me. I never wait to be called out of the lounge as this is often done at the last moment. At the gate there is often a bit of a free for all, especially on busy flights. The crew do not do a lot to manage the situation. If there is a late hold up information is frequently withheld and if there is a need to take a bus to the plane this information is rarely communicated in advance. I think BA could improve here, I also think more use of boarding people by row or status (e.g. Gold and Silver executive club members) could sometimes be made though a strict row based system would probably be least chaotic.
Aircraft most commonly used are Airbus 319, 320 and 321s out of Heathrow. Gatwick has a fleet of older Boeing 737 aircraft. Some longer haul routes like Istanbul will on occasion have a larger plane, I think I used a 767 to return from there once. On the narrow-bodied craft the seating is 2 plus 3 though the middle seat on the 3 side is usually kept empty. There can be exceptions to this if the flight is particularly busy. It is well worth noting that you want to seat in an A or B seat to enjoy the two person configuration. The wide-bodied Club Europe craft has a fairly cramped business cabin with a 2-3-2 configuration as I recall (not what you will enjoy on a longer route and you cannot really expect any different).
Size of Club Europe cabins varies from the first three rows to more than half the plane
I have had a mixed experience. In the last year 3 flights have been completely cancelled, some others delayed for 2 hours or move and then many (the majority though it does not feel like it) have been on time (or no less than 30 minutes late). Where there has been a delay if you are inconvenienced you should complain. I have taken the time to do so and have been suitably compensated (I do not think it appropriate to provide the details here but you can take it I was (eventually) satisfied.
Flights inbound to Heathrow are often delayed in the final approach, sometimes for more than 30 minutes. This can be quite annoying when it is a matter of missing the last bus but it is not really the airlines fault, more a matter of the lack of capacity at Heathrow Airport.
This really is a lottery; there is no other way of describing it. I have had some quite superb flights and quite dreadful ones. For me this crew are what make or break a flight. Some smile as genuinely as they can as you board, greet you by name, take your jacket and frequently come to ask if you would like another drink or whatever other service they offer. Others are quite off hand and rude which, when you think what people pay to fly at the front end, is not acceptable. In the last 18 months I have used BA more than any other airline and I have to say the majority of the crew have been somewhere between adequate and excellent but it is always the bad few you remember and it takes just one rotten apple to spoil the barrel.
Hot towels are standard, almost always before take off. This is exclusive to the business cabin and especially appreciated when travelling from a hot destination.
Food and drink
This too is hit and miss. I have had some very good meals and some very disappointing ones too. Indeed, in some cases I have been offered no more than a less than fresh sandwich on a flight of more than 90 minutes at a conventional mealtime. I usually request a seafood meal that in general is delivered and in general serves its purpose according to the flight duration. It annoys me that where as special meals usually come first one must wait a considerable time to receive an accompanying drink. I do need one when I eat and even distributing a glass of water would help (some crew do this but it is very hit and miss).
Cooked offerings are for the most part quite good. Choice is usually limited on Club Europe to two offerings and one can frequently have run out in the larger cabins on flights such as Istanbul or Tripoli to London. Where there is a full meal service the starter and desert of often quite decent by airline standards. However, there is an increasing shift to uncooked options. Sandwiches, quiche and salads are increasingly common and if you order a seafood meal on a flight with this style of meal you can be fairly sure it will be one of two kinds of prawn salads with just three relatively prawns making up the seafood component. That is fine if you plan to eat elsewhere but if not (such as you have a long journey on arrival or get delayed) then you might go hungry.
Drinks are reasonable and can include fresh orange juice at breakfast and freshly brewed coffee. Later in the day there is a fair selection of alcohol including Champaign, at least two white (one usually being an excellent New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc) and two red wines and a range of beers that will often include one bitter (usually Fullars London Pride). Spirit selections include most of the popular spirits and a small random selection of liquors that vary from trip to trip on the shorter services. For Belgrade, Istanbul and Tripoli there is a wider selection.
A drink on boarding is long a thing of the past unless there is a long delay before push back when you might get a juice. I used to sometimes enjoy a glass of Champagne before push back when I used this product 5 years ago.
This is generally limited to non-existent. They offer a headset for some longer flights and on the airbus or wide-bodied jets there are drop down screens. Comparable flights of 1-4 hours in Asia often offer a better standard of service; even Vietnam Airlines has a back screen TV for many of its flights from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh (a similar duration to the London - Copenhagen route). Many Asian passengers are surprised at the shortcomings in this respect but the High Life magazine and additional business magazine in the Club Europe cabin are fair and one usually has papers (though increasingly they are not handed out on the way back - but instead kept back for requests of recognised frequent passengers).
I do not usually find much service from BA ground staff on arrival. This seems to be especially the case when there has been a significant delay. I try my hardest to carry baggage onto the plane, when I do not waiting times for it are not much better than any other airlines at Heathrow or anywhere else. Whether you get priority treatment for your baggage depends entirely on the inclination of the baggage staff at the airport you are travelling to. It can make a difference to have the priority tag (often you need to remind them to attach it at check in) but often this is not the case.
Yes, I have had problems with BA as you will have detected from my review. I would not penalise them for these as I have used them more than any other airline (perhaps 30 times in less than 2 years) and had some very good flying experiences. However, when things do go wrong sometimes there is a need to pursue matters. I have taken up a couple of complaints and am about to pursue another (see my SN Brussels review of 13 October which was for a BA code share that I booked with BA).
In terms of speaking to ground staff where things are not right I have had very mixed experiences. In general though, I often find staff are not overly interested and want to pass the buck. This is perhaps because they are under pressure as the airline cuts staff on an almost annual basis to satisfy shareholders. I do not think the current chairman, Mr Walsh, will do anything to reverse this trend. Overseas a lot of the work that BA recruits once performed has apparently been transferred to subsidiary companies of contracted out. The lack of identity will not help deliver the pride and passion which organisations own loyal staff can deliver. I had recent experience of this in Brussels where there was a problem and the ground staff did little or nothing to keep those of us stranded late one evening informed on when or if we would get back to London.
In London service is generally better but not always. Some of the rudest people I have met have been on BA desks at London airports (again my SN Brussels review notes one case) but others cannot do enough for the customer and I have even written to BA in the hope that they properly recognise the good service of such staff. I have to also say that some passengers, particularly those who fly in business class, are rude, arrogant and selfish when the problem is obviously not that of the airline. Faced with a succession of such unpleasant individuals I cannot blame anyone for getting a little hot under the collar.
For flights originating in the EU there is supposedly formal recourse to structured compensation levels. BA do not do much to make passengers aware of this fact and certainly do not hand out the kind of forms rail companies do when a delay is of a length that a claim might be submitted. Moreover, if you do complain BA will try to settle the matter by offering you points if you happen to be in the executive club though this may be advantageous for some individuals.
For more complex problems of which I also have some experience correspondence is slow and whether through intention of time pressure, key points can be missed. Without going into the details I cannot say I have been satisfied in every case with the end result and whilst I have always had the possibility to pursue matters I have tended to give up after some recognition has been acknowledged on the part of the airline.
If you pay the full fare (over £500 for a return from London to Brussels against £430 for Eurostar) it is not brilliant. However, this does not sound too bad against the near £1,800 you must pay for a fully flexible Club Europe return to Tripoli (a flight of only 3 hours). Other destinations vary between these two figures with Paris comparable to Brussels, Belgrade over £1,000 and Istanbul and Copenhagen in the region of £700.
However, if you know when you are going to travel and commit to those times there are often enormous savings to be made by booking a business-restricted fare. This way Brussels and Paris are within your reach for around £260 and many other fares are similarly reasonable. I often take advantage of these fares and where I am able to they make for a decent value trip.
Overall, when you fly BA Club Europe it really depends on the crew and a host of other factors (especially if you are transiting Heathrow). Flights can range from 1 to 5 star in their own right and my overall view is relatively middle of the road. The One World Alliance brand and the options for seamless travel to many places worldwide is a bonus. This includes a wide (and expanding) network of destinations in Europe.
My overall opinion has therefore improved since the 80s and I would recommend the BA Club Europe product with few reservations, particularly if you can secure a discounted fare. However, flights will not always be prefect if you travel a lot.
A typical flight
As indicated above, I have decided to add to this reviews specific details of my recent return flight to Warsaw. I will not go into the level of detail (much was fairly standard) but focus on what worked, what could have been better, direct comparisons with my LOT flight (see review of 21 August) and a comment on value.
Check in for this flight was possible on line as is usually the case. It was an early start because I was after the most economic business restricted fare available. The plane departed Heathrow at 7-50 AM so I was there for 6.00. If you manage to check in on line you could leave yourself just an hour but in an airport that size I suggest it would be pushing your luck as things can go wrong.
At terminal 1 there is a dedicated business check in and also a fast track route through the main part of the terminal. I usually go through the business route as I am used to the way from there to the lounge. It was a standard lounge visit with fruit and cereal available for breakfast as well as a wide range of drinks. I picked up my newspaper of choice here but there were few magazines to choose from which was unusual (perhaps evidence of a further cut back). See also my comments in the lounge section above.
I was called from the lounge to the gate for boarding and we were all on board for an on time push back. I had pre-booked a seat in the second row but when booking on line found I could have a seat in row 1 so had switched to this. There is a little more sense of space in front of you here and obviously nobody will put their seat back and encroach in your space. However, you cannot stretch you legs quite as far as you can if you have another seat in front of you so it is a matter of swings and roundabouts and issue of personal preference (obviously I prefer it hence my switch). The other difference here is that you have a fold out tray rather than a fold down one from the seat in front. This also can restrict space a little.
The aircraft was an Airbus 320 and as is mostly the case with BA medium haul Club Europe flights had functioning screens that were used only for pre flight safety demonstrations and to display the interactive route map. If you are in row 1 there is a fixed screen so you can be sure to see it well if (like me) you are short sighted. My other observation was the state of the window. I assume the window or aisle question is with a purpose and some people like to look out of the window. Well, the much on this window was enough to put me off my breakfast!
Due to the time of day I was provided with a breakfast. BA offers no choice here unless pre-booked. You will get a full English (see picture), a small tub of freshly squeezed orange juice that is better than the stuff they have in the cartons and drink(s) of choice. This is acceptable but far from outstanding; the fresh coffee is not bad and being a Sunday I had a bottle of Champagne to mix with my orange juice. I noticed that since my last breakfast flight they seem to have ceased the practice of putting down a table cloth. I could not care less about this but some no doubt will see it as a further erosion of standards. LOT do have a table cloth and also a menu with choices.
The BA crew on the other had were quite good on the outbound flight and provided a slightly warmer quality of service to their Polish counterparts. They came round a few times to ask if people wanted more drinks where as on LOT after the meal service they more or less vanished behind the curtain at the front of the plane.
Landing on time in Warsaw we had to use a bus to get to the terminal building. As I noted in my LOT review the airport is under construction and to my mind pretty ghastly at the present time. The passport control and arrivals hall do however seem to have been more or less finished with orange the dominant colour. It was almost like a living advert for Easy Jet which also has a service to Warsaw (as well as Krakow and Gdansk).
The return flight did not start as well. When on business it is hard to know when you will come to the airport but on this case we were 3 hours early. The check in did not open for a full hour and of course I was not able to print off my boarding pass in advance because I did not have suitable access within 24 hours of my flight. With LOT I was at least able to check in earlier.
The lounge at Warsaw is the same as used by LOT. There is in fact a choice of two but both are similarly small with limited selections of drinks and a sparse selection of snacks. As in May both lounges were very busy. If you want to go on line you can but with just two terminals you will have to wait with a race that do not fully understand the system of queuing. You will also be limited to 15 minutes once you get connected so a high word per minute typing speed is an advantage.
The flight was happily not showing any sign of delay. Warsaw is prone to fog and I had feared there would be a knock on affect as many colleagues have experienced. We did push back a little late but well within the safety net most airlines build into their timetables these days to give the impression they meet their punctuality targets and minimise compensation payments.
The aircraft was the same model (A320) but different plane with a slightly larger business section. Economy was full but there was a little space in business. I had kept my row 2 window seat this time - on the A side there is just one seat next to you. On the D-E-F side there are three seats but E is only occupied at the busiest of times.
Service was friendlier than the outbound and a decent meal was served. I had ordered a special meal which the steward told me was lobster but was clearly prawn. Nevertheless it was tasty as was the cheese and desert. I drank red wine and was disappointed that the in flight selection seems to have been cut to two reds only (both French). Quality of my merlot was nevertheless reasonable. I was subsequently served with liquors upon request and plenty of freshly made coffee.
We landed on time in London and as I did not have any checked luggage I was out the airport quite quick. I cannot comment on waiting times for bags which can be bad for any airline at Heathrow.
Overall this was a good flight which (given that I was using the business fixed ticket) represented fair value. The fully flexible business fare in excess of £700 would have been inconceivable for a 2 hour return flight. Focusing on the LOT comparison I think British Airways shaded it. LOT do provide touches that BA do not (table cloth, menu with choices and a wider spirit selection too come to think of it) but service with a smile goes a long way and on this particular trip I got this in both directions which is important regardless of class. The crew were also quite attentive and I do think this is important for some business passengers.
A great detailed review, good information well worthy of an E!
davy246 10.11.2007 00:21
another great review wonderfully detailed
greenierexyboy 07.11.2007 00:43
Reading some of your earlier experiences of "the World's favourite airline"..... blimey, how bad must their competition have been? ;-)
Anyway, can't think of anything you've missed at all, so have an E on me, sir.