Tom Allett was given a chance to see BA’s emerging First cabin that is now firmly established on the airline’s long-haul routes.
AS ONE of the greatest pioneers of long-haul travel British Airways (BA), right from its early incarnations, earned the company a solid reputation for offering the very best that money could buy. In the early days, of course, due to the economics of flying at that time, all flying was essentially first class and only the rich and famous could afford to travel by air. This largely remained the case until the introduction of the wide-body ‘jumbo jet’ airliners in the late 1960s, which opened up air travel to the masses.
Although all travel was, in terms of cost and service levels, once of a first class, the rebranding of airlines’ products to include an official First Class cabin didn’t emerge until the 1970s. BA introduced its debut First Class cabin onboard its aircraft in 1978, but the product has changed beyond all recognition since then. While excellent service and attention to detail remain vital factors, the cabin’s appearance has little in common with those of 33 years ago.
Today, those who can afford a ticket that enables them to turn left and walk to the front of the aircraft when boarding their flight are members of an elite group whose loyalty is coveted by all the leading airlines. The competition to attract premium passengers is fierce and success in this field is the most lucrative part of the airline business, effectively subsidising the price of tickets in the other cabins.
BA’s previous First Class cabin (it was rebranded from First Class to just First in 2009) was introduced in 2000 and can still be encountered on some of the company’s Boeing 747-400 and Boeing 777-200 aircraft. However, after an official launch in February 2010 followed by a 90-day CAA approval process, work began to gradually retro-fit the new cabin across the fleet in line with its engineering department’s work schedule. BA’s Development Product Manager, Gheyas Khan, told Airports International that work to re-fit all 73 aircraft that are destined to carry the new product will be complete by the Spring of 2012.
Thanks to its extensive history BA has long been one of the elite providers of first class travel, but the airline recognises that it is not alone and that the competition is tougher than ever. With the global economic problems continuing, every sector of the aviation industry has been hit to some extent, though when asked about how difficult is to get a return on the company’s £100 million (US$162m) investment at ‘the front end’ Mr Khan replied: “Is there still a market for first class travel? Yes, certainly.
“When you are talking about first class passengers you are essentially talking about the super rich and they, of course, haven’t felt the impact of the recession as much as others have. So, generally speaking, they haven’t changed the way they travel.”
With regard to strengthening competition Mr Khan acknowledges that airlines are now upgrading their cabins on a more frequent basis, and notes that the number of competitors continues to grow with the likes of Emirates and Etihad entering the race to capture the top end of the market in the not-too-distant past. Like every other airline BA keeps one eye on the oppositions’ products in order to stay competitive. Despite the competition, Khan expects that the BA’s new First product should serve the company well for at least ten years.
Of course the First ‘experience’ starts on the ground. Those departing Heathrow have the opportunity to use the Concorde Room lounge while similar facilities are provided at New York’s JFK Terminal 7. The pre-flight services include dining for those that plan to sleep through the flight.
With all premium cabins there is a balance to be struck between the passengers’ privacy and their ability to interact with others such as travelling family, friends or business partners. BA has stayed away from creating the individual enclosed cabins offered by some of its competitors but has instead redesigned the herring-bone layout to provide more privacy than offered by the previous layout. At the same time this has enabled it to keep the same number of seats, now 60% wider at the shoulders, in the cabin – thereby retaining its overall commercial viability. “We feel that we have the balance between privacy and the ability to interact when required about right,” said Khan.
In terms of dimensions the new seat is 31in (78.7cm) wide – 12 inches wider than its predecessor – and transforms into a 6ft 6in (183cm) bed when fully flat. Bedding comprises a single-piece quilted mattress, a luxuriously thick Egyptian cotton duvet and pillow – and passengers still get their First-emblazoned pyjamas. Each seat has its own wardrobe within arm’s length and a leather-bound writing / work table that folds open to double up as a dining table.
The on-board décor is based on the dark Barathea blue that is said to be inspired by the uniform worn by British Naval officers, but in the case of the seat, with a cream trim. The blue colour also has a practical value. Mr Khan points out that after their flight, First class passengers are likely to be heading to hotels of the stature of, for example, the Waldorf Astoria and others that maintain their rooms to a very high standard. Therefore, the aircraft’s interior also needs to have that top grade hotel appearance, whereby, to the arriving traveller, everything looks brand new and unused. The speed at which an aircraft is turned around between flights means that cabin maintenance has to be kept to a sensible minimum, so dark colours are far more practical to maintain as they will hide an ink mark or wine stain far better than an all-white seat would.
Fine food and beverages have always been an important part of premium travel, so perhaps the two features that represent the biggest changes in any cabin are the IT and lighting features. BA’s First in-flight entertainment system offers a 15-inch (38cm) screen with the choice of over 100 movies and television programmes plus 50 music CDs and 20 interactive games.
Khan notes that many passengers want to use their own media tools during the flight so a USB and an RCA jack are provided to enable you to plug in your laptop or iPod and benefit from a wider screen experience through high-quality headphones. I’ve seen bigger screens in other airlines’ first class cabins, but they have all been positioned further away from the seat, thereby leaving the passenger with a broadly similar experience. Does (screen) size matter that much? You decide.
As for the cabin lighting, it is designed to recreate the presence of natural light and can be changed through the flight to represent the time of day or night. The electric venetian-style blinds between the outer and inner window panels are believed to be a world first and struck me as a very nice touch.
Though some of BA’s huge existing Boeing 747-400 and Boeing 777 fleet will carry the new cabin for some years to come, their replacements in the form of Airbus A380s, Boeing 777-300s and Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliners’ are in its order books and will be delivered complete with the new cabin.
Overall, there is a strong traditional ‘Britishness’ about the BA product as it aims to deliver a contemporary, perhaps even understated, British service style. Khan sums it up well by saying, “We don’t go for the gimmicks that you may see on other carriers; it’s all about style.”