Already worn: A review of British Airways’ A350 in economy from London to Dubai
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British Airways launched its first new A350 to great fanfare a few months ago. Much of the excitement centered around the front of the plane, where the all-new Club Suite business-class seat represented the first improvement to the airline’s long-haul business class in over a decade.
But what about down the back of the bus? Would the brand-new aircraft type enhance the experience for all passengers, not just those in the highest cabin?
I booked an economy ticket to find out.
British Airways currently operates its new A350s to only two destinations, both from London Heathrow (LHR): Dubai (DXB) and Toronto Pearson (YYZ). With two of these aircraft in service, BA can offer the new plane daily on these routes. With the weather turning decidedly chilly in London, November was a perfect month to visit Dubai, where temperatures were a sunny, pleasant 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fares to Dubai vary wildly throughout the year, as it is a seasonal tourist destination. Round-trip cash fares on BA on my travel dates were reasonable, at around $520 (about £397) in economy. But, I only needed a one-way ticket, as I was reviewing a completely different airline back to London.
Like most full-service airlines, BA doesn’t offer remotely cheap one-way fares, but in this case BA’s pricing was particularly crazy — $1,950 (about £1,489) in economy!
So once again, it was points to the rescue. There was one seat available for 13,000 Avios plus $236 (about £180) in fees, taxes and surcharges for a one way redemption seat. Compared to the one-way cash price, this was an excellent value.
I arrived at British Airways home at Heathrow Terminal 5, around two and a half hours before the civilized departure time of 12:35 p.m. For a daytime flight, this was just about a perfectly scheduled departure for me.
Because it wasn’t a peak time, Terminal 5 was an absolute breeze to use: spacious, light, airy and line-free.
I was able to check in for my flight at the kiosks in less than a minute by scanning my passport and confirming a few details.
This was looking like a full flight!
Given how quiet the check-in areas were, I was surprised to see both security zones listing moderate wait times. Perhaps that’s where the crowds were, because they certainly weren’t in the check-in areas.
Nevertheless, the predicted wait times turned out to be widely inaccurate, as there was absolutely no line for security at all. This morning was an example of Heathrow Airport at its efficient best, my total time from outside the terminal to airside being about five minutes, max.
Like the check-in area, the main airside departure gates in the A gates were quiet and relaxed with plenty of seating for everyone. My flight was departing from the C gates at Terminal 5, though, which meant taking the transit train from A to C.
I find the Terminal 5 transfer train to be exceptionally inefficient. The number of passengers waiting in the off-peak period in the photo below should tell you just how long this train takes.
Unlike the Tube in London, the train doesn’t operate every minute or two, and when the Terminal 5 train does arrive at the platform, passengers must wait for every single arriving passenger to disembark and then wait a good few minutes for a single staff member to wander through all carriages and then eventually open the doors to allow passengers to board. I spent far longer just getting from the A gates to the C gates than I did passing from outside the terminal through check-in and security.
Once I reached the C gates, they were not all in use at the same time, so there was plenty of seating in the corner near my gate.
My flight was operated by British Airways’ very first Airbus A350 aircraft, only a couple of months old. Its second (and even newer) A350 was preparing to depart from a nearby C gate, headed for Toronto.
The gate was well signed and laid out with clear lanes for the various boarding groups with plenty of space. I wish every airline set up boarding like this.
Boarding began around 30 minutes before departure strictly by groups, Group 1 first and then Group 2. In economy, I would usually be Group 4 or 5, but my lowly Executive Club Bronze status moved me up one boarding group, so I boarded in Group 3 with World Traveller Plus. Passengers failing to or refusing to match the boarding group on their boarding pass with the correct boarding lane were politely but firmly redirected to the correct lane by the gate staff.
Once through the carefully segregated queues, the entire flight boarded through the same aircraft door.
Though most of the aircraft was boarded well before departure time, we ended up taking off around 30 minutes late, as we had to wait for connecting passengers whose flights had been delayed. There was a huge number of Americans on the flight, presumably connecting from British Airways’ vast U.S. route network or their partner American Airlines — I saw plenty of old-school AA boarding passes.
It struck me as a slightly odd route for Americans, given there are far more direct options with Emirates between the US and the UAE and there’s no onward connectivity with British Airways.
At any rate, we made up the time in the air and landed on time in Dubai.
Cabin and Seat
I passed through the large premium economy World Traveller Plus cabin on the way to my seat in economy. It was in a 2-4-2 layout.
The economy World Traveller cabin started at Row 30 and was laid out in a 3-3-3 configuration. There was a minicabin to start with.
Following was a much larger cabin at the rear of the aircraft, where my window seat was, 43A.
I settled into my seat as the cabin started to fill up, but something was immediately off about the seats. Wasn’t this a brand-new aircraft? Why didn’t it feel that way? My seat, the seats next to me and the seats in front of me were all worn and filthy. Remember, this aircraft was only a few months old.
Some of it appeared to be fluff and fibers from other items that were caught on the seat, but there were also a lot of stains and grime, especially on the hard surfaces. Both should have been cleaned up by the cleaning crew.
Had I not known the aircraft was brand-new, I would have thought these seats were at least 10 years old. In reality, the aircraft was barely four months old.
It made me feel like I was traveling on a very old and poorly maintained aircraft, which was a real shame, as the new bird was beautiful on the outside. Surely they didn’t install old seats on a brand-new plane? Even on their old 747s, this cleaning would not be up to scratch.
What I did give these seats credit for were their amazing headrests. I can sleep anywhere at any time, but for short periods of time. On a 45-minute flight, I can fit in a 10-minute nap. But my sleeping position an economy seat on an aircraft usually involves me waking up with a sore neck or a sore wrist (I often try to support my head with my hand). Some economy seats have headrests where the wings can be adjusted to support the head. Maybe I just have a big, fat head, but most of these headrests aren’t strong enough to stay in a supportive position the entire flight, and eventually droop back to their original flat position. This is exactly what happened to be in Virgin Atlantic’s premium economy on their A340 earlier this year.
No such problem here. Both wings created a solid support for my head and stayed up every minute of the flight.
They allowed me to really lean into the side of the seat, and I found it comfortable and supportive to sleep on , and I woke up in the exact same position. No sore neck on this flight.
The headrests could also be adjusted up or down several inches, which as a 6-foot-tall passenger I really appreciated.
BA didn’t install individual air vents on their A350s which was frustrating.
Legroom on the A350 was a standard 31 inches, which I found fine, as was the 17.6-inch width. The flight was completely full, with both seats next to me taken, but there was enough room for all three of us.
There was a slight gap between the edge of the seat and the wall of the aircraft in the window seat, which was perfect for storing small personal items on the floor next to my feet, and window seats are definitely my preferred choice in economy for that tiny bit of extra space
Amenities and IFE
Awaiting me on my seat was a pillow, wrapped blanket and an envelope for spare change for charity.
The pillow was OK for economy, though I found the hygienic cover to be a touch scratchy.
The aircraft was kept at a pleasant temperature for the day flight to the desert, so there was little need for the thin blanket.
The seatback pocket also had a standard safety card (which was also looking very tired already), duty-free catalog, inflight magazines and sick bags.
Though the seats didn’t feel new or clean, the great inflight entertainment had a crisp touchscreen with hundreds of options.
The tray table was bifold ,which I really like, since, if you’re just having a drink or snack rather than a full meal, you can just fold over one half for more space when space is at a premium.
When the passenger in front reclined his seat, it greatly reduced my personal space, especially my ability to use my 13-inch laptop on the tray table. There is nothing glamorous about trying to work on a laptop in economy with the seat in front reclined.
I did appreciate that the IFE screen could be tilted upward so that it was still the perfect angle to watch the content.
Wifi was available on the flight. The packages were fairly expensive: 25 MB for 4.99 pounds ($6.50), 75 MB for 11.99 pounds ($15.50) and 150 MB for 17.99 pounds ($23). But the speed was decent, and the connection didn’t drop out. I was able to join a video editorial call with my TPG colleagues in New York, though I learned the hard way that this chews through the Wi-Fi data allowance very quickly!
I checked out the lavatories at the rear of the plane. They were tight space-saving models. They were clean, but I wouldn’t have wanted to try and change my outfit in this cramped space.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
As expected on a below-seven-hour daytime flight departing around midday, a full lunch was served after takeoff with a refreshment just before landing. This flight was around an hour shorter than the London-to-New York legs I fly regularly between the two TPG offices, where a decent afternoon tea is served as the second meal, so I was expecting the second meal to be a fair bit smaller, and it was.
The lunch turned out to be the longest meal I’ve ever had on a plane because of the service, which I’ll explain in the service section below. It began with a drinks service with sour cream pretzels which are exactly the same snack served in premium economy on BA on flights like these. Alcohol was available free of charge, but I stuck to soft drinks.
For the main course, from the three options available, I went for the chicken Kabuli and saffron lentils, as I keen to get into the Middle Eastern spirit as quickly as possible.
It was pretty tasty. The chicken was a little dry, but the sauce had a nice kick to it.
The light, tasty starter was a good match for the main course. The full-size bowl the tiny dessert pot was placed in only amplified how small it was.
Not long after the epically long lunch service finally finished, a midflight snack of a tiny Magnum Classic ice cream bar was served. I still can’t quite work out quite why BA does this instead of just increasing the second meal service. The flight isn’t really long enough to need a snack between the meal services, especially when the first meal took as long as this one did.
Around 90 minutes before landing, flight attendants passed me half a New York deli-style sandwich and a small chocolate bar. The time in Dubai was now after 10 p.m., so it was an unusual time for a sandwich, but this is the exact sort of lunch I’d grab during a London workday (though I’d have a full sandwich!), so I enjoyed it.
The young crew members were enthusiastic but completely overwhelmed by the full cabin.
There was not a single spare seat in either economy cabin on this flight, and though the staff were cheery as I boarded fairly early with Group 3, they soon became flustered as they attempted to find space for every piece of hand luggage.
Then came the lunch service.
Oh my days.
This was the longest meal service of any flight I have taken.
To give you some context, the seatbelt sign was turned on a few times during the service because of mild turbulence, which I recognize can interrupt the service flow. However, only at one period did the pilot actually instruct the crew to halt the service and take their seats (for about 10 minutes or so).
The rest of the time, the crew couldn’t seem to make up their mind about whether they should continue the meal service or not. I was in the large rear economy cabin, and most of the trolleys were kept at the rear of the aircraft, so they had to be wheeled past me up the aisle to start service. There was a drinks trolley, a food trolley and then a rubbish trolley. I gave up counting but would guess these trolleys wheeled past me at least 25 times during this marathon meal service. The crew wheeled a trolley up an aisle, served a few people then wheeled it all the way to the back. Then it would appear again about 10 minutes later, when exactly the same thing would happen. Repeat again and again.
Here’s an approximate breakdown of the first four or so hours of the flight:
- 1 p.m. (U.K. time): Takeoff
- 1:30 p.m.: Seatbelt sign off, trolleys start appearing
- 2 p.m.: Drinks served with snacks
- 3 p.m.: Lunch tray served with second round of drinks
- 3:30 p.m.: I completely finish my meal and wait patiently for the crew to collect the tray. The completely full cabin and never-ending procession of trolleys up and down the narrow aisles means it’s impossible to use the bathroom.
- 4 p.m.: Trays still not collected, and the crew have given up on serving tea or coffee. Passengers are increasingly frustrated at being imprisoned at their seats by dirty meal trays and start stuffing them elsewhere, like in the aisles and around their feet. When a crew member asks a neighbor not to block the aisle with his food tray, the passenger curtly responds, “Well, why don’t you collect them, then?”
- 4:30 p.m.: It’s now dark outside. Unable to wait any longer, I maneuver myself out of my seat to use the bathroom, placing my tray back on the tray table. The trolley parade continues, with crew yet again pushing trolleys up the aisle, so I’m hopeful my tray will finally be collected.
- 4:40 p.m.: I return to my seat to find my dirty tray was still on my tray table. It’s the same all around me. Passengers are now yelling out in the cabin: “Where are the crew?” “Why are our trays still here?” “Why is this taking so long?” Flight attendants ignore call buttons.
- 5:15 p.m.: Trays are finally collected, and lunch service is finally concluded. Midflight snack are served almost immediately afterward, with prearrival refreshments soon after that.
The lunch service took more than half the flight.
This flight was memorable for the wrong reasons. Despite an excellent ground experience and food that was perfectly fine for economy, I couldn’t get over both the worn, dirty cabin and the inexcusably, absurdly long meal service.
I believe BA installed factory-fresh economy seats on their A350, so they need to improve the cleaning of this aircraft between flights, as the cabin is already aging terribly. It’s a decent seat structurally, and I love the strong headrests and IFE.
The meal service should be tightened up. It was ridiculous that the lunch took more than half the flight, especially when the trolleys were constantly being wheeled back and forth.
Though the Club Suite up the front of this aircraft is a great improvement, I would not go out of my way to fly this aircraft in economy again.
All photos by the author.
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