As I was saying in yesterday’s review of the Westin St. Francis, I was only in San Francisco that weekend because my wife and I ditched our parents to go to London for Thanksgiving. (That, and to see the new Exploratorium.) I’ve already reviewed our stays at the Conrad St. James and the Andaz Liverpool Street. Today I’m filling in some blanks with our flight there and back.
Background on Premium Economy
Fall is actually one of the best times to visit Europe due to the decline in business travel across the Atlantic, and British Airways offers a very convenient non-stop from Seattle that leaves around 6 PM. However, we didn’t score any super cheap business class fares. Instead we settled for BA’s premium economy class, World Traveler Plus. These fares were also on sale, and we added to that with a 10% discount from my British Airways Visa and a $130 discount for AARP members.
(WT+ fares are a great way to earn status cheaply with American Airlines if you qualify on points. For not much more than coach, you earn the same 1.5 points per mile that you would earn in business or first class. If you have credit to Alaska Airlines, however, you get just 110% of the distance flown.)
Overall it should not be confused with business class. The seat was still compact and not very noticeably different from standard economy. The food is still mediocre and served in one course, though it appeared more substantial. But for a couple hundred more than coach, it was a reasonable choice as the poor man’s upgrade when you don’t have the flexible dates to book a non-stop award.
In-flight Service, Seats, and Meals
I’ll reviewed the British Airways Galleries Lounge at SeaTac in a separate post this morning , but our flight to London was about as pleasant as can be for what is still effectively economy class. The duty manager came by to greet me as a oneworld Emerald member and asked if there was anything he could do to make us comfortable. And the crew were friendly and helpful throughout our trip. The seats were noticeably better than your average economy class product, and I appreciated that there were slightly wider arm rests between them.
Along with the pillow and blanket were some large headphones (not Bose), and a small amenity kit with some earplugs, eye mask, toothbrush, and a pen among other items. It’s always nice to have a disposable toothbrush before landing, and the pen wrote well when it was time to fill out our landing cards. Megan also grabbed a copy of the Daily Mail to brush up on her knowledge of British culture before her first trip to London!
I rolled my eyes and chose video entertainment. There was a good selection, but Guardians of the Galaxy was just about the only thing I hadn’t already seen on iTunes or Netflix.
Meal service began with complimentary cocktails, beer and wine. A menu was provided (this one is from the return flight), and the food was actually quite good. It looked better than several of my most recent first class meals on American Airlines, including two that I was served in international business class.
But the meal on arrival was not very substantial. I was definitely looking forward to a real breakfast when we landed in London (and a real lunch when we returned to Seattle).
After my dinner and a movie, I had a short nap and went back to ask for some coffee (I knew I wouldn’t sleep again). As I said, the flight attendants were generally very good and they insisted on brewing a fresh pot. I got a similar reply every time I asked for coffee on the return trip.
Unfortunately the return journey wasn’t at quite the same level. There was no greeting from the duty manager, and the seats were older and noticeably less comfortable. Our in-flight entertainment system didn’t work, either. As far as I could tell it didn’t work for anyone in the economy or premium economy sections, but it may have worked in business and first class. The duty manager seemed very resistant to rebooting the entire system — declaring it an isolated problem over the PA — but finally gave in about 90 minutes after departure. It should have been a clue when we needed a live safety demonstration.
Regardless of whether you get the “new” seats or the “old” ones, they don’t offer much in the way of extra comforts. Our plane each way was a Boeing 777-300. World Traveler Plus is in a 2-4-2 configuration with 18.5 inches of seat width and 38 inches of pitch. Compare that to World Traveler in a 3-3-3 configuration with 17.5 and 31 inches, respectively. As I don’t often recline, and I find sleeping upright is easier if I can be lying flat, width matters far more to me than pitch — assuming my knees aren’t touching the seat in front of me. The greatest benefit of being in World Traveler Plus was the better food and the footrest.
Arrivals at Heathrow
I have not flown much on British Airways in recent years since I was formerly wedding to United and the Star Alliance. But I was still surprised that no one onboard could answer my question, whether Executive Platinum members with American Airlines (oneworld Emerald) would receive Fast Track immigration upon arrival. I later saw a sign at immigration that confirmed I did have that access, but I was still stopped by a sentry who insisted only business and first class passengers could go through (I persevered). I faced a similar resistance when I tried to use the Fast Track security lane upon our return.
One thing I would have really liked, however, was to use the arrivals lounge for a shower after the overnight flight. After making the long walk upstairs and along a narrow mezzanine, we found that it was only accessible to BA passengers and Executive Club Gold members — not oneworld elite members. Fortunately I got to use the Galleries First lounge upon departure, which I will also review separately.
So beyond shorter lines, there is not much offered to travelers when you land at Heathrow if you fly World Traveler Plus. There wasn’t a real need in our case. So few people were clearing immigration that the officer had a nice long chat with us, asked about our hotel so he could take notes for his taxi driver exam, and commented on Megan’s brand new passport (he made a good-natured show of stamping directly over the Liberty Bell). But Fast Track can still be a godsend. I was passing through Heathrow on a different trip and noticed the security queue for connections in T5 was so enormous it had filled the entire room and spilled down the hall. I’m very glad I was just passing by on my way to T3.
I wouldn’t say that we got a great deal on our flight as we still paid a few hundred dollars more than coach for the rather limited pleasures of premium economy. But we didn’t overpay, and I would definitely consider flying it again. More and more as I enjoy the comfort of business or first class on international flights thanks to my award miles, I find it difficult to tolerate coach on anything but domestic flights. Those few extra comforts from World Traveler Plus definitely make the trip more bearable.