Today was the first flight of British Airways new A350 aircraft from London to Madrid. So what is it like to be on an inaugural flight and what is the new aircraft like in flight?
As this was no ordinary flight, I will not be doing a standard flight review. I will take an in-depth look at the new aircraft and the Club Suites. Also, as this was my first inaugural flight, I will be looking at the experience in itself.
The departure had had a cloud hanging over it all weekend due to the planned strike by Heathrow’s staff. Fortunately, at the eleventh hour, the strike was averted, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
I arrived at Heathrow and was greeted at a special desk just for the inaugural flight. You can tell that BA had handpicked their top staff as everyone throughput the day was delightful and bursting with pride about their new aircraft.
Once through security, I headed to the B Gates at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 to have a look at the A350 sitting at the gate. BA was pulling out all the stops at the gate with a special cake and some cupcakes spelling out A350.
Next, I headed to the formal press reception in the Galleries Club T5B lounge. Again it is evident that Alex was very proud of the new aircraft. He discussed the replacement program, which will see 11,000 Club Suites eventually in service across the fleets. The A350 will replace some of the retiring B747s. This is the A350-1000 which is larger than the A350-900 and has a longer airframe. BA are expecting a further 18 of them to be delivered.
I asked Alex if BA had anything planned for the weekend of the 100th anniversary, which is over the August Bank Holiday. Alex confirmed that there would be some celebrations, probably in the terminal and onboard, but there were no specific events planned. He was also asked about the new First class seats, but he was very coy in this area and would not confirm any specifics other than a new seat is coming. He also confirmed that BA is committed to continuing with First. We do know that they are reducing the size of the cabins, though. The B777 that will be refurbished will be going down from 14 to 8 seats.
Finally, Alex confirmed that the service onboard the A350 will be the same as the other fleets, unlike Qatar, that has special touches for the QSuites.
We were allowed to board early to enable us to take pictures and explore the aircraft. I won’t talk about economy or World Traveller Plus in this article but will cover it at a later date.
I had been allocated 6F, which sadly was a middle seat. The good thing about the new layout is there is no such thing as a bad seat. I will look more at the seat in a bit.
As this was the inaugural flight, the service was a bit of mash-up of Club Europe and Club World. It was mainly Club World rather than Club Europe, so this should give a fair indication of the actual service. At the seat was a certificate for being on the inaugural flight.
I was offered a choice of sparkling wines and some nuts as a welcome drink. This was different from both Club Europe and Club World. The new Club World Champagne glasses were in use. They looked better in the flesh than I imagined, but I am sad to see the stemless ones go, being on the clumsy side!
We were also given the new centenary wash bag which is available on flights throughout August. Watch this space to win one in the next giveaway!
We did not have the full White Company bedding, but we did have the pillow, which was useful to assess the comfort of the seat when I lay down.
The cabin and seat – what is it like in flight?
The seats are laid out in a 1-2-1 configuration. Here is the layout:
The main cabin feels enormous, but due to the privacy, did not feel like the B777 flying dormitory as its known.
The first thing I noticed was that the overhead bins above the middle seats are very high and tricky to reach if you are not tall. The ones at the window are the opposite and a bit too low if you are tall.
All seats have direct aisle access and feel private. In terms of choosing seats, the best seats are the bulkhead seats for the extra space around the footwell in both Club cabins. I may be tempted to go for the mini-cabin on a day flight, but you are right by the galley for a night flight.
So let’s talk first about the comfort of the seat for sitting and sleeping. The seat felt very well cushioned and was very comfortable for sitting in a working position. I am 5ft 6, and I could not reach the footstool without reclining quite a bit. However, there is a leg rest which works independently from the recline. This allows you to have your legs fully raised even without any recline.
The seat is controlled via a smart looking touch screen which is very simple. There are 3 pre-set positions as well as being able to control elements individually.
I tried the bed fully flat for a while and found the sleeping position comfortable with enough padding.
I am a side sleeper, and it felt like there was enough room to lie on my side, and the footwell was not an issue for me. Paul tried it out on the A350 visit last Friday. He is 6ft, so it gives you an idea of how it is if you are taller.
The footwells at the front of each cabin are a little bigger.
This is a vast improvement on the current seat. Two side compartments open with the touch of a button.
These can be used for taking off and landing. The larger one has the remote control and sockets in it.
There is a third area that can only be used in flight that is an open compartment and perfect for a water bottle.
Finally, you have a vanity area although you probably couldn’t really get much in here!
Privacy was also excellent – no more trying to avoid staring into the eye of the person opposite you like now with the yin & yang design. Even without the door shut, I couldn’t really see anyone else from my seat with the privacy screen in the middle closed.
With the door closed, it did not feel claustrophobic as the doors are not that high. Here is the view of one of the middle suites from inside with the door closed.
There are also four toilets for the Club cabins.
What happened on board?
We were served lunch from a special menu, which was a bit like a one tray version of a Club World service.
Here is the menu:
One feature I loved was the fact that the table can not only lock into different positions close or away from you but also you could easily get out of the seat even with your tray still on the table.
As you would have on a long haul flight, there was a Club World kitchen with snacks and drinks laid out.
Most importantly though, I managed to catch up with Vlogging legend Sam Chui and get an inflight selfie on an inaugural flight! Coming soon on social media.
Entertainment, wifi and charging
The TV screen was also a massive step up from the current Club World screens. It was 40% larger than the current one and HD. Like now, the screen can be controlled on the screen itself by touch or by using the handheld remote. I found the screen a little lagging at times, but no so much as to be a nuisance.
The entertainment had all the usual categories though such as films, TV and games. I didn’t have much time to explore the selections but there were plenty of new options as well as some special BA programmes. There was a moving map, but sadly BA did not go for the camera option on their A350s which allows you to see views outside the aircraft.
For charging there are a multi-country socket and two USB ports. These are housed in one of the storage compartments, so there is enough of a gap for the leads to run under the lid.
The aircraft had wifi with the usual long haul pricing displayed, but everyone got it for free on this flight. I got it working, and it seemed to work well if a little slower than usual. This is probably due to the sheer numbers of people using it since it was free! Plus a cabin full of bloggers on social media!
Although you can’t judge a product fully on a short press trip, this definitely gave me a good idea of what the new Club Suite is like to fly in. I always found the current seats comfortable but hated the lack of storage and aisle access. The next product answers these concerns as well as adding in more privacy and a better in-flight entertainment system to boot.
It is not quite as good in terms of space as the Q Suites, but I did find the seat much more comfortable lying down due to the padding. Overall it is a fantastic business class product that is up there with the best of the current business class seats.