Thursday, 28 May 2009

Newcastle to London Heathrow - British Airways

The valiant voyagers who make it through the Maginot Line of security and duty free at Newcastle Airport may seek refuge and rejuvenation in one of three lounges. British Airways operates its own Terraces Lounge for eligible passengers, flybe has recently opened a facility and all other airlines use the Cheviot Lounge, which is also open to Priority Pass cardholders and guests who have booked and paid-for access in advance through a variety of online booking agents, including Priority Pass themselves.

The lounge is spacious and affords good views of almost all the apron stands, with even the furthest gate being an unhindered 5 minute walk away.

Plentiful armchair seating is augmented by a number of workstations, and there's a wide selection of newspapers and magazines to while away the waiting time. Refreshments are limited to a bean-to-cup coffee machine, reasonable bar of soft and alcoholic drinks, crisps, biscuits and pretzels. This is not a place for pre-flight dining, it's really just a retreat from the hubris of the public areas outside.

There are toilets and information screens within the lounge, although the latter annoyingly scrolls through arrivals and sundry advertisements before the departures page eventually flicks up again.

There are no boarding announcements, so it pays to keep an eye on the screen, before the two minute walk to Gate 3 for British Airways departures is commenced.

Swissport handle BA's ground operations at Newcastle, but boarding by row number and priority priority for Silver and Gold cardholders is a complete and utter mystery to them. The gate lounge doesn't quite have enough seats to accomodate the full passenger complement of an Airbus A321, so there's usually a certain amount of standing before the scrum to board.

Nevertheless, once down the jetty, we're greeted at the aircraft door by name and our Purser offers to hang my jacket as soon as the flow of boarders has slowed.

Somehow, neither of these events came as much of a surprise, as I've now developed an innate ability to reasonably reliably rate a crew from about two thirds of the way along the airbridge, as soon as they've come into view. I'm not yet able to provide a written checklist of characteristics to look for but, whatever the subliminal signals are, they seem pretty rock-solid as indicators of how the entire flight will progress.

It therefore followed that the safety demonstration was carried out promptly and professionally and, once airborne, service began swiftly with the correct front-to-back process followed, food first and immediately continued with the bar cart.

The BA sandwich twin-pack continues to be a lamentable offering, but better than nothing and washed down with a Coca Cola it would keep the pangs at bay for the duration of the flight. Having packed all the associated detritus away into the (supplied) waste bag, I kept my milk and stirrer out, just in case there was a second pass of coffee.

As it happened, there wasn't but instead the Purser, who subsequently passed down the aisle and was clearly paying attention to her cabin, re-emerged immediately from the galley and offered tea or coffee, saying 'I saw you had your milk there.' Top marks for attention, there.

The cabin was clean and in good condition, with the seat back pockets neat and fully-stocked. The aircraft carried the new 3D version of 'Airshow' to keep track of progress towards the capital.

The flight itself was just 45 minutes on a Friday evening, with no hold for Heathrow and a clear run on to the glide path for runway 27R. This Westerly approach gave us a very short taxi to Terminal 5 where, joy of joys, the guidance system was switched on and we swung straight on to stand. Jetty attached and doors opened, the completely full flight disembarked more than 10 minutes ahead of scheduled arrival time, a situation which is becoming increasingly common at the now smooth-running T5.

Final Verdict for British Airways UK Domestic: 8/10. The Purser and her crew were on-the-ball, although ground handling is ripe for improvement in terms of the boarding process and BA should invest in affording premium cabin passengers the opportunity to make use of security 'Fast Track'. Security itself was dreadful, though outwith BA's control, but there's an obvious opportunity for the home airline to seize the initiative in that space and counter Emirates' publicity with some far more credible messages of its own.

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