By David Armstrong, Contributing Editor
Minutes before boarding British Airways flight BA286, all was copacetic in the airline’s well-appointed, mid-sized business-class lounge in the international terminal at San Francisco International Airport (IATA code SFO).
Passengers-to-be rustled British newspapers, thumbed their smartphones and laptops, nibbled shortbread and sipped complimentary wine, beer and spirits such as Johnny Walker Black, readying themselves for the 10-hour non-stop journey to London Heathrow Airport.
Your correspondent was among them. I have flown in BA’s business-class cabin, Club World, perhaps a dozen times over the past 20 years, but it had been several years since my last flight.
I was eager to see what Club World is like now, as I have always considered it to be one of the best long-haul, international biz-class services in the sky.
Following my San Francisco-London round-trip in late March, I am happy to report it still is.
Departures and arrivals are always a product of careful choreography between airline and airport. Happily, SFO and British Airways were on the same page; we took off on time and we set down in the British capital on time.
The journey between cities was necessarily long, but BA provides a high level of comfort and a wide range of distractions, and that helped the time, er, fly by.
I flew, in both directions, on the large lower deck of that workhorse of the sky, a Boeing 747-400. (BA plans to gradually replace aging 747s with superjumbo Airbus A380s on some long-haul, high-volume routes, starting this summer.)
I settled into my preferred window seat, facing “backwards”. The first time I ever did this, some years ago, it took some getting used to, but it is no big deal now – and experts say facing away from the front of the plane is the safest position.
BA configures the Club World cabin seats in its Boeing 747-400s into a 2-4-2, eight-abreast arrangement in each seat row. (Some carriers nowadays offer a more spacious arrangement in their widebodies, with four-abreast and five-abreast business class seats in alternate seat rows.) The 2-4-2 Club World seat-row configuration was the same on my return journey on board flight BA287, London to San Francisco.
Since introducing fore-and-aft-facing business class seats about a decade ago, BA has tweaked the product for the better.
The two smallish fan-like dividers between each adjacent seat that could be raised for privacy or lowered for face-time and conversation have been replaced by a translucent hard-plastic shield that can be raised and lowered by passengers and flight attendants; this is both more elegant and more efficient.
Club World’s seats are 20 inches (50.8 centimeters) wide, 72in (183cm) long, with 73in (185.4cm) of pitch between each seat row. The seats are true flat-beds; in fact, BA pioneered flat-bed seats in business class more than a decade ago.
The personal space inside the molded plastic shells that envelope the seats is not extensive, but it is well-organized. A reading light just over the shoulder can be manually adjusted. Headphones and electronic devices can be plugged in by the armrest. A footrest extends the seat.
Alas, there is no place to store a bag; that goes into the overhead bin for take-off and landing.
I sipped a pre-flight glass of Champagne – Taittinger Brut Reserve NV – and happily accepted refills once we were airborne.
BA puts a lot of thought into food and beverage service, pouring good drinks and serving superior airline food. BA refers to its offerings as Height Cuisine: food designed to taste good at 30,000 feet.
I tucked into a starter of poached Maine lobster served on edamame and seaweed salad with a sweet Thai chili glaze. My main course, one of four on offer, was grilled filet of beef with creamed spinach, roasted Yukon potatoes and butter.
The Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend in a Chateau des Bardes 2008 Grand Cru Saint-Emilion, from Bordeaux, worked nicely with the beef.
Sated, I settled in for the night-time flight. I dug into my amenity kit. Not lavish, but the smart, zipper-topped fabric bag hit the high points: ear plugs, eyeshade, socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, lip balm, creams and lotions from Elemis.
Most of my fellow travelers watched movies on their 10.4 inch (26.4 cm) fold-out video screens or snoozed contentedly. I read for a while, then slipped on the headphones to sample the jazz, rock, hip-hop, folk, world music and classical music.
Extra credit to BA’s programmers for including 1967’s The Velvet Underground And Nico album, featuring rock classics such as “I’m Waiting For The Man” (“He’s never early/He’s always late”) and catchy contemporary hits such as Joss Stone’s “Drive All Night”.
We landed smoothly and I zipped through UK Customs and Immigration with my fast-track card, a Club World perk.
After checking out London’s Olympic Games legacy attractions and new icons such as the glassy high rise The Shard, I landed in BA’s Mother Ship – Heathrow Terminal 5, opened in 2008 – in advance of my return journey.
This was also in BA Club World and also on a Boeing 747-400, a 345-seater divided into four classes.
But before boarding the plane, I whiled away two pleasant hours in the business-class departures lounge – or Gallery, as BA dubs its prime T5 lounges.
BA lays out 18 Dell PCs free of charge in the Club World lounge, an enormous space several levels up from the terminal concourse, reached after security by lift or escalator. One can lunch there on hot soup, fresh salad, sweet snacks and adult beverages, including complimentary, self-serve Grey Goose vodka and Woodford Reserve bourbon.
On board BA287 to San Francisco, my toughest decision was whether to order red wine or white with chicken tikka masala and basmati rice. I chose an excellent Chablis 2011 Domaine Sainte Claire, from Burgundy.
The daylight flight departed and arrived on time and was uneventful – just the way I like it. I flipped through BA’s High Life magazine, read, napped, listened to music and watched the world glide by on my video-screen map.
From my window seat, Greenland glowed dazzlingly white in the sunshine.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist specializing in features, news and reviews about travel destinations, airports, airlines, hotels and resorts. He is the former tourism, aviation and international trade reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered tourism, movies, media and theater for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. He is the author of five books and numerous travel articles for TheStreet.com, Travel + Leisure, Global Traveler, Napa Sonoma Magazine, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Toronto Star, Chicago Sun-Times, Aviation.com and many others. He blogs at http://davidarmstrongontravel.blogspot.com.