Yesterday, I finally took my first flight since March, travelling from London to Zagreb in British Airways’ Club Europe business class. The first part of my article covers the experience on the ground at London Heathrow, while a review of the flight itself follows in part two.
Checking in at London Heathrow terminal 5
My flight to the Croatian capital was departing from London Heathrow terminal 5, the home of British Airways, joined now by fellow oneworld airlines Finnair, Qatar Airways, Iberia and American Airlines (following the temporary, corona-induced closure of Heathrow terminals 3 and 4).
I entered the central T5 check-in area at just after 7am and was glad I didn’t need to join the economy bag drop, as there was quite a queue of passengers.
I immediately noticed there was a lot of cleaning going on, while a number of chairs were placed out of use in order to maintain social distancing.
At the far end of the check-in hall is a separate area for business class passengers (also quite busy), as well as the “First Wing” for BA’s top status passengers.
As a British Airways gold member, I was unsure whether I could still access the First Wing (as I would normally be allowed to do), but I was pleased to find it was business as usual in that respect.
Accessed through a scalloped steel and glass enclosure, the First Wing aims to offer BA’s big spenders “the highest standards of service”.
There was a bit of a queue to get into the First Wing, which has dedicated security lanes and leads you directly into the BA first lounge, but it took no more than five minutes for a check-in agent to become free.
While queuing I noticed Heathrow’s electronic signage, reminding passengers that they must wear a face covering in the terminal and advising you to check their website for more information on the safety measures being implemented.
At no point was my temperature taken, nor did anyone enquire as to whether I was feeling well (presumably the industry expects people to do the right thing, and not travel if you are unwell).
Although I wasn’t checking in any luggage, I asked an agent to print out my boarding pass - though in retrospect I needn’t have done this, and could have avoided an unnecessary interaction, had I saved an electronic boarding pass to my mobile phone.
Check-in staff have been issued jumbo packs of hand wipes, and my agent used them frequently, which was reassuring.
From there I headed to the dedicated security lane, where I was shouted at for taking photos - so I won’t share the pictures here!
The whole process from arrival to clearing security took around 15 minutes and was pretty-stress free. After security, it was straight into the first lounge, where one of the famous (and slightly strange) BA horses awaits…
The new-look BA first lounge
First impressions of the BA Galleries First lounge (which is really the “BA gold card lounge”, as first class ticket holders can, in normal times at least, use the more exclusive Concorde Room) were good.
As you would expect, hand sanitiser was available as soon as you entered (and throughout the lounge).
The lounge wasn’t overly busy and felt more spacious than normal. A member of staff told me that BA has removed 105 seats from this lounge and expects social distancing measures to be in place for another year.
All the usual drinks and snacks have been removed from the surfaces - only water was available.
The former buffet area has been closed off and, according to a member of staff, is unlikely to ever make a return.
Instead, passengers are now offered table service, with menus accessible on a mobile phone by scanning a QR code located on your table. All in the name of research, I ordered a“full English” breakfast, fruit salad, cappuccino and pain au chocolat, washed down with a glass of champagne.
The food came quickly and was accompanied by a glass of red wine, as I had ordered the wrong drink. It was soon replaced with a glass of bubbly.
As usual, the quality of the food was nothing special, but was perfectly fine for a quick bite in the lounge.
According to staff, some passengers are unhappy with the removal of the buffet (presumably because they can’t just “grab and go”), but I thought the new arrangements worked well, especially as there was very little wait.
Cleanliness has never been BA’s strong suit, but there was plenty of wiping down of surfaces during my visit. Toilets appeared to be cleaned after every use - which is a welcome innovation!
All newspapers and magazines have been removed, though it is possible to access digital publications using your device.
Perspex screens have been installed at some seats, and there was no problem finding a space to sit.
As always, there are some nice views of the airport from the lounge.
Located within the first lounge is a new “Concorde Terrace” space for first class passengers to use, in lieu of the Concorde Room being closed. While it was quiet (there were only a couple of passengers inside), it didn’t seem any more luxurious than the main lounge (though presumably a higher standard of dining is available).
A mixologist who normally prepares cocktails in the Concorde Room was working the bar in the first lounge. Staff proactively ask if you are okay with the digital ordering system, if they notice you are without a drink, which is a nice touch.
Just before heading to the gate, I had a quick look upstairs to see what might have changed at the Galleries business class lounge. This lounge, which I’ve never been a fan of, felt and smelt cleaner and a one-way system was in operation.
On the way, I walked past the Concorde Room and Elemis Spa, both of which are currently closed (though showers are available).
Unfortunately my flight was leaving from the C Gates satellite building, so I left the lounge at about 8.20am to catch the airport train for my 9am departure.
Emerging from the lift at the C Gates building, I was struck by how few fellow passengers were around. I did manage to take some nice shots of BA's aircraft on the ground.
Walking to the gate, the shuttered-up shops reinforced the feeling that these are unusual times.
I soon discovered that all the people were waiting at gate C64, and my flight looked busy. Unusually, there is no priority boarding at present, with passengers boarding the flight from the rear first.
Customers in rows 30-25 were called first at just before 8.40am, followed by those in rows 30-15 a few minutes later. All passengers were called at 8.47am, leading to a mini-scrum.
Assuming you have airline status or are travelling business class, you may prefer to do as I did and just hang back until everybody else has been called forward. I was the last passenger to board before the gate was closed.
Queuing on the jet bridge, I got my first glimpse of the crew, who were all wearing masks as they greeted passengers on board.
Both Heathrow and British Airways are doing a great job (at least for their premium passengers!) and the whole airport experience felt stress-free.
BA’s first lounge, the one I used most often, felt more spacious and cleaner than normal and the new catering arrangements are working well. Passengers may not be happy about going back to over-crowding and buffets after this - though they may not have to.
All in all, this was a more pleasant experience than it would have been pre-corona, and I now have no hesitations about flying from London Heathrow terminal 5.
Have you used an airport in the last few months? How did this compare to your experience?