Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What does "First Class" mean?

Most of us can't really conceive of what it means to fly First Class on an international flight, considering the stunning cost of a ticket. How much? Try $12,000 to $16,000 for a round-trip ticket to Europe, depending on the time of the year and other circumstances; by comparison, an Economy ticket fetches between $850 to $1,300, mas o menos. So, F (the fare abbreviation for booking purposes) is up there in the stratosphere, a good step beyond J (Business), which commands around $6,000 to $8,000.

I can't afford F, so I flew Z and still was in First. Z is like F without paying for it, at least in hard currency. I cashed in 125,000 frequent flier miles and in exchange received a First Class ticket from Lubbock to Germany and back. Beats the hell out of paying $12,000, no? The routing was a bit messy as I had to connect to a BA bird in Atlanta instead of going straight from DFW to LHR (London Heathrow), but paupers can't be choosy. From DFW to ATL I flew domestic First on American, which is a completely different product than international First. (On the way back I'll have a straight flight from LHR to DFW on American, in First.)
Waiting in the BA Lounge in Atlanta with a Korean Airlines  jumbo waiting, too
I was excited to fly British Airways across the pond, simply because I had never done so. Judy and I had been lucky enough to be upgraded to First when we came back from Hungary a few years back, and I had been at the very front of the plane once or twice before (in the fabled days of the now long-defunct caviar cart), so I had an idea of what First is like on American, but BA is generally seen as one of the standard setters in the industry. (Of course, Emirates and Singapore Airlines are in their own league, haute category as we'd say in cycling.)

Well, let me put it this way: Don't continue to save your pennies so you can afford to buy a $12,000 ticket. Don't get me wrong: The experience was damn cool and I don't regret one bit shelling out the 125,000 miles (and some taxes), but had I paid for the ticket with actual dollar bills, well, I'd have been disappointed. Here's some detail.

The boarding process was sub-par. I had arrived at the gate on time before boarding started after using the BA lounge at Hartsfield International and expected a leisurely stroll on board with the other F passengers. Not so—the floodgates were opened and all First, Business, and elite frequent fliers (and there are lots of them nowadays) were invited to board at the same time. Mind you, some of those being bumped into had paid $12,000 to be First.
First Class berths on BA's 777
Once on board I was personally escorted to my berth in 2A, one of 16 "seats" in First. Seat is really not a good word since the area is more like a big convertible LazyBoy that becomes a flat bed and has cubicle-like privacy. Check for a seatmap of a plane, and you will understand why these First Class seats cost so much—the space allotted to me is used by the entire Kettle family in the back, plus some fat relatives.

Not only is this cubicle spacious, but the design of the area is stunning. It's definitely a notch above what American has to offer. This 777 was anointed in the most luxurious way I've ever personally seen in an airplane.The actual windows are separated from the cabin with a clear screen, and in between is a motorized louver that is illuminated like a nightclub. A flat screen TV can swivel in and out of the way, the extremely comfortable seat can be adjusted in a gazillion ways, the tray table has a carbon fiber top, and my shirt was hung up in a small, sexy closet right next to me. Yes, I said sexy in regard to that closet. We're not even talking Carla yet.
My space

Before we took off, Carla, my personal attendant (well, she also took care of the three other passengers on my side of the plane, but I'd like to think of her in those terms) offered me a glass of champagne (not sparkling wine or the crappy take-off champagne that one gets domestically) and set me up with slippers and complimentary pajamas. Dude! She didn't offer to help me change, though—would have been nice since she was a lovely young British lass, slender, tall, and ethereal, not one of those battleaxes that populate American's transatlantic routes thanks to seniority. Ah, I digress....

The menu was exquisite, at least on paper. The choice of wines (three whites, three reds) didn't lack in quality, either. When I told the lovely Carla about my choices for dinner, she'd whisper a barely audible "oh, that's divine" and "a lovely choice." I was in First Class!
Heathrow's T5 is huge
But not all was  perfect. I had chosen among the dozens of films on offer Anthony Hopkins' The Rite, but my computerized entertainment system didn't seem to like me and kept switching itself off. After restarting the movie five or six times and Carla gently rebooting the system, I decided to move to another seat. (Only 9 of the 16 seats were taken.). Alas, the damn seat's electronics were on the fritz and it wouldn't recline! So I said, screw the movie, I'll move back to my spot. The purser appeared to be as appalled as I was, and profusely apologizing he provided me with a form to fill in. The fact that they have a pre-printed form for just such an occasion made me think.... Anyhow, I was given a choice of either £100 or 20,000 miles for the "inconvenience." I think that if I have the wherewithal to spend $12,000 on a ticket neither will make up for my "inconvenience." I chose the miles since they represent almost a free flight within Europe.

Dinner was enjoyable, but the white wine was way too warm (Carla exhales: "Oh, Mr. Heise, we've had it in the freezer for hours." Moi: "Well, I suppose your freezer is also on strike, just like the entertainment system." Carla emits a lovely, barely audible chuckle.), the ciabatta fell apart, and the beautiful-looking steak was not only way overdone and dry but had a texture as if it and not the wine had been placed in the freezer. Am I snobbish and unduly critical? Not really. Things like this must not happen in First.
Yes, that's a lampshade on the horse's head—Concorde Room's terrace
But I did sleep well in my PJs and on my flat bed, lovingly turned down by Carla, and breakfast was nice even though the coffee was truly lousy. But then, they are Brits, after all. Should have gone for the tea.
Heathrow's Concorde Room lounge
And now I am sitting in the Concorde Room, BA's most prestigious lounge, which is reserved for First Class BA passengers only—not even the black Executive Platinum card will get you in here. I'm about ready to have an à la carte lunch on the house. The champagne has been great, and I'll sample my way through the reds. Thank goodness, I still have another two hours before my flight to Berlin.
Appetizer plate in the Concorde Room; Zinfandel in the background
Flying First is fun. Just don't pay $12,000 for it, or you might be a tiny bit disappointed.


PS: Here's a pic from the final flight on British Airways from Heathrow to Berlin Tegel. This pic is also taken in First—quite a difference, eh? Actually, seat width, pitch, and legroom are the same as in Economy, and the service doesn't appear to be any different, either (a small snack and free booze); however, there is a curtain than separates the two classes.... FlyerTalk participants often comment on how pathetic the inter-European First product on at least some airlines is when compared to what US carriers have to offer in domestic First. And no, Kai, this ain't no bitchin'—just observin'. :)


  1. Oh, I swear to God, if I hear you bitch ONCE about the 'woes of first' when you're here for Vineman, I will SLAP you!


  2. Ha! Will be working on your Weihenstephan stein in a day or two, Kai. Keep the wrath under wraps. Greetings from pre-summer Berlin!

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  7. that second picture is not of First. There is no First within Europe. That is Club Europe, otherwise known as Business Class.
    The Concorde Room is reserved for passengers flying in First and holders of the Concorde Room card which is attained at 5000 tier points.