What it’s like flying in British Airways economy to Europe right now
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After months of an unprecedented ban on flying internationally for leisure reasons, from 17 May 2021, the world has slowly opened up for British travellers. There is still the task of navigating entry conditions, negative tests and vaccination records as well as the self-isolation and hotel quarantine requirements from the traffic light system.
Once you’ve tackled all of that, there’s the flight itself for that long-overdue summer holiday. I hadn’t flown British Airways since summer 2020, and I was keen to see if the experience had changed now that we are well over a year into the pandemic.
Was it still very much a COVID-impacted experience, or had flying returned to something closer to normal?
After checking the FCDO website, I chose to travel with British Airways to Kos, Greece. There’s no government advice advising against travelling to Kos, so I don’t invalidate a normal travel insurance policy, and I’m ready and willing to self-isolate on my return to the U.K. as per the amber list conditions. I am hopeful some of Greece at least moves to the green list at the next review.
If you’re flying British Airways short-haul in Euro Traveller economy soon, here’s what you can expect.
Booking and check-in
Booking my BA flight to Europe was a normal experience, though you are now required to confirm you understand the green, amber and red list requirements on your return to the United Kingdom before you can actually book a flight.
A few days before my flight, I received an email from British Airways, advising that I would need to provide certain information to BA online before I could check-in for my flight. Rather than printing information out and enduring lengthy physical checks at the airport before my flight, this was all done online in advance.
I really liked this system because, as you will see, it made the airport experience very easy and stress-free.
For Greece, the entry requirements included completing a health declaration form and providing either a negative PCR test or a vaccination record. I was able to easily upload these documents two days before my flight. I immediately received an email confirming my documents had been received by British Airways and were being verified.
Just six minutes later, I received another email saying BA was satisfied I had provided all information needed for entry at my destination, and I could check-in as normal online 24 hours in advance.
I really can’t fault this process. It was very easy to use and understand, efficient and effective.
I arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 around 80 minutes before my 7 a.m. departure. I hadn’t been to Heathrow in almost eight months and had heard some horror stories about long queues at check-in and security. I needn’t have worried — it was very quiet and there were hardly any queues to be seen.
With my docs verified in advance, I had checked in online as per normal, so there was no need to join a check-in queue. Although there are hardly any destinations Brits can travel to without quarantine at either end, the departure board was still packed with flights to both short- and long-haul destinations.
Terminal 5 was quiet, both at check-in and security, and I was through security in just a few minutes.
Travelling economy with no status, there was no BA lounge for me and I didn’t bother with the Priority Pass lounges, as I didn’t have a lot of time.
As was the case in summer 2020, masks must be worn inside the terminal building, on the flight. All passengers and staff I saw followed this correctly.
The airside terminal area was quiet. There were a few retail outlets open and plenty of seating at the A gates where my flight was departing from, with every second or third seat blocked for social-distancing purposes.
At my gate, there was plenty of seating to wait for boarding in a socially distanced manner. Boarding was strictly called by rows from back to front. If you value priority boarding as a status benefit, you’re probably not going to be able to use it for some time.
Passengers remained seated until their row was called as per the boarding gate announcements.
As my documents were uploaded and verified in advance, no documents such as COVID-19 test results were checked at the boarding gate. Other than the back-to-front boarding process and some extra cleanliness around the gate area, boarding was just like a pre-pandemic BA flight.
Onboarding, each passenger was handed a small clear plastic bag (like a liquids bag for your hand luggage) containing a single, small disinfecting wipe.
From memory, in summer 2020, BA provided at least two wipes in these packs. One wipe was not nearly enough to wipe down the seats and surrounding area, so bring your own if you wish to do this.
Unlike last summer, most passengers didn’t bother to wipe down their own seat and touchpoints. This may have been because this was the aircraft’s first flight of the day, so it should have been properly cleaned overnight by the cleaning crew.
The flight was only about 40% full with plenty of spare rows. I had been automatically allocated a seat in Row 6 one of the first few rows of Euro Traveller and was most surprised to see another passenger sitting next to me in Row 6 despite the rows of completely empty seats farther back in the plane.
She was even more surprised than I was and immediately questioned why BA would seat strangers next to each other on such an empty flight.
She raised this with the crew and they agreed, advising her she could move to any spare row once boarding was completed. She moved to the other side of the aisle in Row 6 and had the three seats to herself the entire flight.
With such a light load, the crew were in a great mood. There were the normal announcements regarding mask-wearing, the service in each cabin and safety.
Unfortunately, inflight magazines still haven’t returned to BA’s aircraft, and I suspect for as long as masks are required on flights, the magazines will not be required.
Food and Beverage
After takeoff, the crew quickly moved to distribute the “water and snack” that was the only service to be provided in Euro Traveller on this nearly four-hour flight. This was definitely the most disappointing part of the entire experience.
All that was offered was a 250-millilitre bottle of water and a small, sugar-filled fruit bar.
There was no other food available to purchase on the flight. British Airways has now moved to a pre-order-only model for all other food and drinks in short-haul economy. If you hadn’t preordered anything else, that was all you could eat or drink for a four-hour flight.
I had pre-ordered some items from the new Speedbird Café menu, which I’ll cover in detail in a separate story.
The crew delivered these and then asked how I knew about the pre-order system, as so few passengers had used it. I questioned how other passengers felt about the meagre food and beverage offering on a fairly long European flight and the crew admitted many passengers were unhappy about it, especially as they could not even purchase anything else onboard.
Many passengers on my flight had brought snacks and meal deals from airport retailers like Pret and Boots. Whether they knew they wouldn’t be receiving much else on the flight or they didn’t want to purchase anything on board even if they had the opportunity to, I don’t know.
The rest of the flight passed without incident. We departed and arrived on time, and with most passengers seemingly flying for a long-awaited holiday in the sun, everyone was in a good mood.
Related: The 10 top spots in Greece for Brits
When we landed the crew very clearly asked us to remain in our seats until our row was called for disembarkation, even reprimanding a few passengers who stood to open the overhead lockers before their row was called. We disembarked front to back, with five to 10 rows called at a time.
On arrival in Greece, there was a normal immigration check and stamp of passports, and then passengers proceeded to the baggage claim hall. Before they could collect their luggage, all passengers were directed to a COVID-screening desk where the QR code from the health questionnaire was scanned and the negative PCR test results or vaccination record was checked.
This was all very easy, pleasant and efficient, which was helped by so few passengers on the flight. I was out of the airport five minutes after leaving the aircraft. I expect the arrival experience back at Heathrow on my return to be far more time consuming, stressful and complicated.
Flying British Airways short-haul in economy was an easy and pleasant experience, and it was wonderful to be able to fly somewhere again after eight months at home. I really liked how BA collected documentation like test results in advance online, as it made the airport experience very easy and stress-free.
The airline’s decision to only serve a tiny snack with no option to purchase anything else on board unless you have preordered will likely catch out many passengers who do not know about this system — especially on a four-hour flight . I got the impression from the crew that my pre-order from the online menu was a rare novelty for them.
I’m now used to things like wearing a mask for several hours, keeping my distance from strangers and disinfecting surfaces. Once you are used to that, flying British Airways right now is a pretty normal experience — and one I hope to do a lot more as lockdown ends, travel restrictions relax and hopefully a lot more destinations are added to that coveted green list.
Featured image by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy
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