Wednesday 16 October 2019

BA aims for the Suite spot with new business seat

Business travel

Hi to Dubai: Onboard the new Suite Class on the Airbus A350-1000 en route from Heathrow to Dubai
Hi to Dubai: Onboard the new Suite Class on the Airbus A350-1000 en route from Heathrow to Dubai

Mark Evans

Two recent flights sum up the changes at British Airways in the midst of its £6.5bn (€7.2bn) overhaul of its fleet. The first, an economy-class trip from Heathrow to Las Vegas, was in an ageing Boeing 747-400. While the service was good, the aircraft (the oldest of which is 28 years old) showed its vintage - tiny, low-def seat-back screens, a noisy plane and a dated cabin.

Put into context, the first of these Boeings was plying its trade in the same year that Fiat was bringing out the boxy - and now obsolete - Cinquecento.

The second flight, from Heathrow to Dubai, was showcasing the future to a select group of mostly UK-based aviation writers, on the Airbus A350-1000. Middle Eastern airlines (think Qatar's enclosed QSuite, which allows for seats to be rearranged for onboard four-passenger meetings) have stolen a march on the Western airlines in recent years, and US and British carriers have been playing catch-up.

BA's answer is the Club Suite, a business-class seat in its own mini-cabin, with a controllable divider between you and the next seat, and a door to the aisle that you can close after take-off. First impressions are good - the business cabin is split in two, with 44 seats at the front and 12 behind the galleys, so you don't get that battery-hen feeling on larger aircraft such as the A380.

The big competitor here is Boeing's Dreamliner. Both aircraft are more fuel-efficient and offer pressurisation set at around 6,000ft (1,829m).

And this is important, as it lessens jet lag, and the cabin humidity is higher, so you won't arrive at your destination feeling exhausted and dehydrated.

It does work - with one full day in Dubai, I could get to work back in Dublin straight after my flights.

First impressions of the cabin are good - it's taller and slightly wider than the Dreamliner, so there's a feeling of airiness. The overhead bins are enormous and the only drawback is that shorter passengers may have the indignity of having to stand on seats to pack away cases. The bins are higher up than anything I've seen.

Seat storage is decent, with the main one complete with vanity mirror, and useful for wallets, passports and your complimentary vanity kit. The second compartment, to the side of your seat, is big enough just for a smartphone, while a larger one beside it will just about take a tablet. If you're travelling with a laptop, put it overhead till needed.

While there's a small rack for water bottles and magazines by your feet, it can't be used for storage during take-off and landing, making it largely redundant.

The seats are comfortable, but due to the design, you have to use a shoulder strap as well as your lap strap for take-off and landing. It's a bit fiddly at first, but comfortable and you won't feel it.

Tech-wise, you've got two USB ports and a three-pin plug. The in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen is a hefty 18.5 inches, and it's a touchscreen, and can also be controlled by a smaller screen, discretely tucked away.

The tray table has one major advantage - it's rolled out from under the main IFE screen, so really handy if you need to get out of your seat without spilling drinks or food.

The only downside I found was it doesn't extend as far as your tummy, so there's a bit of leaning over required at meal times.

Food-wise, portions are slightly smaller than on some carriers but the quality is high-end.

Think Scottish salmon, English beer or chicken, and Middle Eastern meze options, given our route.

The wines, though, are exceptional, as good as any on any carrier. A glass will help the sleeping, and I reckon that's what the Suite is all about.

Bedding is by the White Company, and I was tempted to take the pillow and mattress home, they're that good.

So the verdict? For this year and early next year, the A350 will be on a limited number of routes, including Dubai, Bangalore, Toronto and Tel Aviv, while the company's Boeing 777s are being retrofitted with the product.

Compared with BA's normal, decent standard business class - whose big letdown is a lack of aisle access for all passengers, plus an odd front and rear-facing seat layout - it's a massive leap forward.

When it does roll out further, it's an option worth checking out if you want a trip that guarantees a decent sleep.

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