Tuesday, 2 September 2008

New York to London to Newcastle – British Airways

It had seemed like I was wishing the trip away almost before we'd started but, shortly after our arrival in New York, I’d logged back on to ba.com to nab 1A and 1K for the return flight.

Although it remains a source of constant discussion (which I’m sure would only be terminated with the simultaneous removal of the damnable wardrobe) I am now quite sure that while 2AK are perfectly lovely, 1AK is my pair of choice and I was delighted to secure them.

On Line Check In had worked without trauma and we picked up our boarding passes at the SSCIs at JFK. As there was no queue at the Club World desks, we bag dropped there and we were given directions to the Concorde Club Room. The ladies on the Boarding Pass check further up the corridor were friendly and chatty and once again made sure that we knew where we were going.

The dragon on the CCR desk was altogether more rampart-like but, as soon as she saw the Boarding Passes, her masonry crumbled into a warm smile and we were welcomed in, accompanied by a quick brief on locating the ‘hidden’ loos on the left hand wall.

This was my first visit to British Airways most premium lounge at Kennedy, and I knew to check my expectations in comparison to the new facilities back at Heathrow. The lounge was almost empty, but spacious and light and with a good selection of different seating types. We took up residency towards the far left, with a reasonably good view of the end of the apron and a couple of BA birds, including the OpenSkies Boeing 757 which was boarding for Paris.

Having sat for a good few minutes, it was clear that there was no-one interested in offering any service; the lone employee being a barman who, despite being in clear line-of-sight, had only left his post to bark at another passenger that she was too early to dine.

Eventually, I gave up the fight and went and ordered two coffees. Surprisingly, given his hitherto reluctance to leave his post, he offered to bring them over. After a few minutes, he arrived and I rather wished I’d stayed to do it myself. At least if I had then rather more of the coffee might have made it to me while still in its cup, and I probably would not have bothered using the derelict tray he presented it on. No sugar, no teaspoons. He put the whole thing down next to me, not even between me and MCC, so I was left to complete the last yard.

We decided to eat on board, for fear of what we might be subjected to by staff who were challenged by serving coffee, so I headed back to the bar only to acquire a couple of glasses of Piper (and subsequent refills) but never, ever, with any sign of at-seat service. Those who did dine were, however, treated to our reluctant barman collecting their plates by picking up the first with its cutlery, banging it down on top of the adjacent diner’s crockery and irons and then picking the combined stack up again. And so on until all had been removed. It was actually quite comical, but I’ll tell you that for £8,000, it would not have been anything less than shockingly bad.

The free WiFi was working in the lounge, but required a password which had to be gleaned from Reception. It seemed a little pointless to be honest, and could probably have been published on little cards on the coffee tables for convenience if it is really necessary.

We were joined in the lounge by an extended family who we, of course, knew instinctively would be subjecting themselves to us on our flight. Whilst the children ran riot, Special Services flitted around and our moods darkened. Mine improved considerably when boarding was called and we headed to the gate. As the agent swiped my Boarding Pass, she glanced at her screen and wished me Happy Birthday which, frankly, I thought was fantastic.

We arrived at the aircraft door, were greeted by name and the Purser summoned to seat us. Behind us, a few more passengers were brought into the cabin, before much kerfuffle heralded the arrival of the Family Nemesis. Grrr. There was immediately a problem, as SS had bundled them on board without providing all of their Boarding Passes to the crew. Neither the Purser nor the Cabin Services Director were very impressed, but they did their very best to extract the missing document from the rude, aloof and generally unpleasant clan. Eventually, it was located and the crew looked visibly relieved.

Amidst all this, the Purser appeared with a couple of glasses of Bollinger and some frigid nuts, and soon afterwards our washbags and sleeper suits appeared. Never one to miss an opportunity to be pampered, I rooted around in my carry on for the birthday cards I’d brought with me (from other people, you understand, not self-penned) and put them, unopened, on the sideshelf before stowing the bag.

It didn’t take long for them to be spotted, by the CSD as it happens, and she instructed me that since push-back would be at about midnight UK time, I’d be allowed to open them then. Then she went off to get me another glass of pre-Birthday Bollinger and, as it transpired, to brief the rest of the crew. No surprises then that the levels of crew service throughout the flight were absolutely superb, including some really enjoyable banter with the CSD and gloriously indiscreet but incredibly well-judged snippets from the Purser. I’m sorry, but that simply doesn’t happen on Singapore Airlines and will always be one of the things that makes a well-motivated BA crew fantastic for me.

MCC looked as happy as larry in 1A as she caught up on the weekend’s news, and I kicked back with another top-up before the cabin was secured for the taxi out to the runway. The usual Sunday evening snarl-up ensued but, after a slightly champagne-numbed delay, we climbed away with the Manhattan skyline silhouetted against the sunset and the moon already rising high.

I opened my cards around the swiftly delivered canapés and made my selections from the evening’s menu; soup to start and lamb to follow.

The soup was delicious and the lamb fairly tasty, but the galley-to-seat bowl sloppage isn’t the best, and I really don’t know what the crew are meant to do with the lamb to make it look even vaguely appealing. The menu should really have read ‘Amorphous Mush d’Agneau,’ were it to have been accurate.

The cheeseboard was fine, not spectacular but fine, and the Purser looked visibly delighted that I’d ordered port to accompany it. ‘Some passengers are so prissy about the booze’ he said, ‘but I see that’s no problem here.’ How very dare he?! In fact, none of this ‘Book the Cook’ hype on other airlines; I vote for ‘Choose Your Crew’ and I think he’d definitely be one of my ‘Top Purser Picks’. The CSD told me later that they have a particular nickname for him, but I shall keep that to myself.....

Slightly the wrong way round, but I also accepted the offer of some delicious ice cream (which I later learnt must have been swiped from Club World Business Class and therefore suddenly tasted less good, on reflection) and accompanied it with the ambrosia that is Willi Opitz pudding wine. It was even quite chilled.

The beds were made up and I settled in for a good few hours of innocent slumber, interrupted only slightly as my head first touched the pillow when MCC got confused, pressed the wrong button and released her TV Screen with rocket-powered ferocity. Had it not been for the sturdiness of the bracketry, then the pilot would surely have been in for an unexpected kick up the bum from a ballistic entertainment system launched from beneath his seat. He’ll never know how close he came to it.

Quiet activity in the cabin heralded the new day and our descent into Heathrow, so I motored upright and prepared to rerobe for the outside world. Once again, I agreed with myself that at least for my frame, the BA First Class seat remains delightfully comfortable – and I do still prefer the openness to how I think I would feel hemmed-in by a suite. Only experience will tell, I guess. As I arranged myself, the crew appeared to unmake the bed and offer breakfast. Still quite full from dinner, I limited myself to tea and orange juice and concentrated on enjoying the last few minutes of the flight before we dipped into the thick cloud cover and began the Berks/Bucks/Herts circuits and then final approach over London. The cloud proved very low as we broke cover to the West of the airfield for an Easterly landing. Touchdown was smooth, although we were of course treated to a lengthy taxi back to T5 and on to a B stand.

There followed the only faux-pas of the trip, when I somehow managed to initially follow and then ignore the Flight Connections signage and we found ourselves in the immigration queue for Arrivals. We were straight through however and, bypassing baggage reclaim, we took the lift back up to Departures and went through South Security. As it happened, I’m fairly sure that we actually made it to the secret door rather faster than if we had gone through the Flight Connections Centre, but who knows? In any event, compliance was instantaneous and the tray system was unchallenged by heavy traffic, so it was a reasonably smooth flow through.

Welcomed into the Concorde Club Room, there was no guidance on boarding times or gate as had been offered on the outbound, but neither was there any issue with entry on an inbound Boarding Pass authority. We took up comfortable residence on a suite of sofas and accepted only sparkling water from the extremely nice and on-the-ball staff, who regularly checked back on us.

Ignoring the physical environment, it was a stark contrast to the lack of professionalism in its Stateside sibling. However, as the rain fell on London, it did appear that some students had passed through the terrace on their way home from a night on the pop. It’s a relief, I suppose, that the lampshade hadn’t been replaced by a traffic cone.....

When the screen flicked to show ‘Boarding’ for our Newcastle connection, we headed over to A6 to find, disappointingly, that no such thing had commenced. So, we stood until eventually the dispatcher gave the gate agents clearance and we boarded by row number – no priority for status etc as usual. The Airbus A320 was busy but we were all seated quickly and the doors closed for departure. The weather was worsening however and we were informed of an Air Traffic Control delay at around the same time as it became obvious that the wind had changed direction and ops were switching around. Eventually, we took the long taxi down to Runway 27L, where mixed mode was in operation and, from our vantage point it looked as though one or two go-arounds might have been on the cards. It transpired that there had been at least one earlier. We queued for 20 minutes with a wide-screen view of the BA38 that didn’t-quite-make-it from Beijing and, eventually, we lined up for take-off and the inevitable tediousness of the final domestic sector of an inbound itinerary.

By this stage, with the anticipation and expectation long past and the pared-down hour-long service on this distinctly worn Airbus, the focus is on simply getting home and bracing ourselves for the interminable waits involved in baggage retrieval at Newcastle. We’re not to be disappointed and, in the lashing rain, we taxi on to stand at Newcastle and then wait at the carousel for what seems very nearly as long as the airborne time from Middlesex.

It may have been a short break to a place visited many times before but, once again, it had been a fantastic trip. Without a doubt, New York is simply one of the most spectacular and iconic destinations on Earth, and what a privilege to be able to do it in such style.

Verdict for British Airways First: 8.0/10. The same as the outbound score, but only rescued to that level by a superb crew and the basically good hard product. The service at JFK’s Concorde Room was entirely unacceptable however and the main course catering on board left rather a lot to be desired in terms of design.

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