Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Phoenix to London – British Airways

Finally, 17 days that felt like 17 months after leaving the UK, we spent the few minutes waiting for the shuttle bus from the Rental Car Centre to Terminal Four at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport reflecting on a quite exceptionally full and enjoyable trip.

The ten minute journey to Terminal 4 was the now-to-be-expected slick operation with a very helpful driver-cum-porter. The drop off point was almost right outside the BA desks and there was only one passenger in front of us at the Check In desk.

On Line Check In at exactly 24 hours before take-off had not managed to draw us the aces of row 62A/K on the upper deck on what had been showing as a heavily-sold flight for some months beforehand. I did manage to land the ball on 63A/64A/64C however, which afforded us the benefit of having two direct aisle access seats in the 64s (A being around the back of C) and my 63A requiring only MCC’s feet to vault, rather than a stranger's.

Despite there being almost no queue ahead of us, the agent manning the next Y desk invited us over and we dropped the bags and lost our I-94W Visa Waiver Form remnants very quickly indeed.

Up the escalators and through security in a matter of moments too and, bypassing the various shopping diversions, it’s a reasonable walk (assisted in part by travelators) to the BA Executive Club Lounge which is more or less adjacent to the area used by the 288/9 at Gate B25.

The lounge is open 4 hours before departing flights and there is a separate First Lounge to the right of the desk. This is, naturally, smaller than the main lounge but offers no particular additional facilities. Although both lounges are marketed as having free wi-fi on, the service is in fact merely that which covers the entire airport and is available free-of-charge to all passengers.

Entering the main lounge to the left of the desk and having been greeted by a very pleasant dragon, there is bag and coat storage. The lounge itself is split into two, with the left quarter being nominally the coffee lounge (on account of this being the location of the coffee bar) and the right hand side the playing host to the wet bar. It’s not to Terraces specification, but is perfectly acceptable with snacks and nibbles, a wide selection of free alcoholic and soft drinks, reasonably plentiful (if slightly tired) seating and good apron views East and North towards Camelback Mountain. The only real failing of the lounge is that the toilets are outside of the main door, requiring re-entry.

The staff, apart from the desk dragon, wear the uniform of the third party outsourced provider, but are all unfailing charming and helpful. They make regular rounds to tidy and clear, and to check and replenish the bar.

The arrival of the inbound aircraft is notable for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that despite the size of the airport, this is the sole regularly-scheduled passenger 747 movement of the day. Then, as the sun begins to fall towards a dusk which bathes Camelback and the surrounding lumps and bumps of rocky outcrop in the glow most iconically associated with Ayers Rock, the site of the Chatham Dockyard tailfin gracefully taxiing in to stand is one that will warm the heart and lump the throat of any British Airways fan.

Finally, the arrival of the aircraft also heralds the presence of the caterers on the ramp and, as part of the contract to re-provision the aircraft, several trays of very British sandwiches are simultaneously sent up to the lounge.

As it is the only BA flight of the day, boarding is announced and passengers gather their belongings in a relaxed fashion. Most of them appear to be regulars on the route and therefore they must be aware that it’s pointless rushing as we’ll all just get stuck at the pinch point of the main door and the stairs down to the gate lounge.

So, as we approach the gate and general boarding has obviously already been called, we jump the queue to the priority boarding sign and have our Boarding Passes (which, as often happens in the USA it seems, are replacements for the Print Your Own Boarding Passes we handed in at the Fast Bag Drop) zapped and we’re on our way. Boarding through 2L we are welcomed by name and immediately ascend the stairway to heaven, where we’re greeted again by one of the two Upper Deck crew.

This is my first time on an 'New Generation' Club World-outfitted aircraft on the Upper Deck and my first impression is that it’s incredibly spacious and, therefore perversely, a bit of a shame. The thing is that the sleeker, more ‘tailored’ design of the NGCW seat actually highlights just how wide the aisle now is, and how much space there is between the seats and the side bins. If the Upper Deck proportions were reflected in multiples on the main deck, then the seat could be at least 2” wider. But I digress.

It is by now dark and, as we take our seats, we’re offered the new amenity pack and pre-departure drink. The difference, of course, is stark between the level of attention and finesse of First, but I do my best to acknowledge that I’d be upset if there were no difference and at the same time glower at FCC every time he looks like he’s about to verbalise the difference.

I manage to nab a refill before the safety briefing starts and we push back into the night bang on time.

The crew appear to be at the more business-like end of the BA spectrum, but are still warm and professional. Menus and wine lists are distributed shortly after the seat belt lights are extinguished and I alight on the Grilled Shrimp and Crab, Fillet Steak with Long Stem Broccoli and Potatoes and followed by the cheese plate. Port is offered and gratefully accepted. Needless to say, I maintain a thread of fizz throughout. The meal service is rapid and efficient – again dispensing with the flourish of First Class but giving us the best chance to be settled in a quiet cabin for the overnight TATL. This is not a Sleeper Service, of course, so it makes sense to get through the service with less chit-chat. The presentation does look factory-fresh against the First-plating – but it is tasty, filling and really rather good to be honest.

The seat itself is little more sturdy than was the case when first launched, but the footstool has been reinforced and shows no sign of collapsing. The passenger in my adjacent seat is not heavy enough to cause disturbance through the frame and there’s no evidence of the springiness reported in the early months of use. The tray table does remain a little flimsy however; it never shows signs of impending disintegration, but neither does it inspire confidence when loaded with laptop. The only significant problem with this particular seat is that the generally lightweight impression of the construction is highlighted by the very wobbly inboard armrest. It’s a shame as it does cheapen the ambience significantly.

And so, it’s at around about this time, 20,739 words ago, that this suite of Trip Reports begins as I release the laptop from its underseat tray and power it up through my US adapter.

And, at a point around 20,735 words ago, that there is a bright flash, an enormous bang, the aircraft lurches and the flight deck rushes to announce “CABIN CREW. TAKE YOUR SEATS NOW. CABIN CREW. TAKE YOUR SEATS NOW” and the seatbelt lights flash and bong.

There is another flash, bang, lurch combo as the plane takes a second direct lightning strike over Mount Rushmore – although this time there are fewer additional crashes and splashes as, in the intervening seconds, some items have been at least partially stowed. It’s a full hour before the seatbelt lights are turned off, which presents the first opportunity to see how MCC (the poor flyer) and FCC are. The design of the NGCW seat, particularly from a position in one of the window rear-facers, makes seeing anyone else in the cabin impossible if the privacy screen is deployed.

FCC is OK, but MCC looks a bit shaken. She does however note that, from her vantage point, she was able to watch other passengers’ reactions to the event. In all cases, she said, the first thing that they each grabbed was, in this order, alcohol and technology. I of course, had not followed the herd; I arrested the flight of the laptop a nano-second before I secured the champers, but then only because the former was heading straight for the latter and I’d have been glassed if I’d taken the popular route.

The remainder of the flight, then, passed without drama. A few tentative first steps on the path to Trip Report writing, a snooze, some music and map watching on the rock-solid Audio/Video On Demand, another snooze and then the smell of bacon rolls wafting through the cabin.

The only thing that troubled me throughout was that one passenger on the starboard (Southern) side of the cabin had his blind lifted fully as it became light. Although I was merely aware of it, MCC reported that she had found it impossible to sleep beyond the first few hours post flying Blackberries, as the sun had been shining directly on her. I am surprised, and a little disappointed, that the crew did not ‘have a word.’

Still full from dinner, I limited breakfast to coffee, orange juice and two of the aforementioned rolls. The service was still warm and professional, although I suppose that in the daylight I might have hoped for a little more engagement. I have to accept of course, that it’s difficult to do that towards the end of a lengthy shift. Matters are improved somewhat with the offer of a third bacon roll – and I can forgive most things when a bacon roll is the compensation.

With remarkably few twirls over Herts and Bucks, we banked over Canary Wharf and took in a good view of many of the Thameside sites, as well as a peek over the canopies of the All England Club as the Championships were just beginning. Landing was butter smooth and we took a short taxi to roll back into T5B.

Disembarking through the furthest forward door of the aircraft, the unfair comparisons of Club World to First were banished by the stroll through World Traveller Plus. FCC was brought back down to earth with even more of a bump, as he thought that the upright instruments of torture were in fact World Traveller (Economy). He was in fact quite horrified to discover that they were ‘premium’ economy. No danger of him ever seeking out one of those seats then.

Verdict for British Airways New Generation Club World: 8/10 for this overnight sector, but might have slipped to 7.5/10 if the same lack of real 'sparkle' had shown up on a daytime flight.

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