BA responded swiftly to the pandemic by simplifying its fleet down to a few essential types. Whilst the iconic 747s were immediately consigned to the scrap heap, the even larger A380s found themselves in limbo (or rather, Spain). Clearly it would take a significant change in fortunes before these enormous aircraft would make financial sense to operate – but if permanently retired it would be impossible to provide all the seats needed post-recovery.
Some eighteen months later, it was deemed viable for them to return to the sky. As well as the engineering challenge of making sure the aircraft themselves were ready for service, this created a logistical problem. After so long grounded, hundreds of flight- and cabin-crew would need to get back up to speed with the unique features of the double-decker ‘whale jet’. The solution was to treat the rollout like the introduction of a brand new aircraft type: operating (re)familiarisation flights on short haul routes in advance of the formal restart of long haul services.
Having got wind of this, I kept a sharp eye on the schedules to grab a seat once these test flights became available. This would be my own re-familiarisation, having not been on BA metal since March 2020. As it happens, that last pre-COVID trip was to Frankfurt, one of the training destinations selected. But the other, Madrid, held more appeal: I had some architectural interests to pursue in Spain, plus it’s a longer flight!
Partly to avoid having hundreds of passengers to re-accommodate should none of the superjumbos be available on a given day, capacity on these services was strictly capped. Ordinarily 469 seats can be found across the four cabin types: for these flights the upper deck wouldn’t be offered at all, and only 44 business and 112 economy seats available. Despite strong competition from fellow avgeeks, I was able to claim a spot in club – and I even managed to book it as an avios redemption.
I’ve used a handful of airports during the COVID era – Amsterdam, Bristol, Mann – but Heathrow easily felt the busiest. That might be a good sign professionally, but I was glad to be able to retreat to one of the lounges. As A380s are rarely accessed from Terminal 5’s main building, I pre-emptively made my way over to the T5B galleries lounge.
The traditional buffet has been replaced with menu service, powered by QR codes at each seat. Being able to summon a hot meal (or a cake) whenever wanted is arguably an improvement, but I don’t know if this will remain part of the proposition post-pandemic.
After a comfortable couple of hours reading (and snacking), I made my way to over to the C satellite to check out today’s aircraft. As hoped, there had been no last minute technical issues, and thus an A380, G-XLEG, was waiting to transport us to Madrid. Expecting a full cabin, I made sure to board early enough for a few cabin shots sans passengers:
Even if I had been willing to pay, I hadn’t booked fast enough to claim a window seat, so I decided to roll the dice at check in. My assigned seat, 11D, was forward facing and located on the outer edge of one of the central blocks of 4. Thanks to the yin-yang configuration, I was facing 11E rather than shoulder-to-shoulder, and we were separated by a divider. To my left I had direct aisle access, although at the price of minimal privacy – and the occupant of 10E having to step over my feet. I’m looking forward to seeing how the vector / Club Suite offering iterates on this oft-criticised design; for a short haul flight, though, it’s a vast improvement on regular Club Europe.
On-board catering has also evolved since my last BA flights, with an emphasis on British classics; today’s being bangers and mash! The pasta dish sounded fine, just too similar to what I’d had in the lounge; I don’t think there was a single request for quinoa salad… Orders were delivered by hand rather than dealt out from a trolley, which I thought was a nice touch; and I was soon enjoying my second lunch + dessert of the day. Taste- and texture-wise, it all exceeded expectations for a meal in the sky.
By the point trays had been cleared away, we were somewhere over the Bay of Biscay with the light of a setting sun streaming in. This seemed an opportune time for more photos, and I was able to look around first class:
Without the 747s, and not featuring on the flagship A350s, BA First is becoming increasingly elusive. I do have enough avios for it, so that may become a goal for 2022… Although unavailable for customers on these flights, the cabin was not completely closed but instead home to pilots or engineers. Similarly, the upper deck was used by a second cohort of cabin crew for training. In this way, different teams could practice on each of the outbound and inbound flights, rather than half the staff getting twice as much experience by operating both legs. Still, it will require a month of flying to get enough crew ready.
All too soon we arrived in Madrid – ahead of schedule, despite a delay in departing. I guess a lightly-loaded A380 can marshal a bit more power than the usual planes on this route… With all my other flights this year being Easyjet A320 economy, I’m glad I was able to find something more exciting for my return to BA. This series of flights is an important milestone for the company, signalling optimism for a recovery. From my experience on this trip, I certainly feel that restrictions and testing costs have eased to the point where international travel is an option again: a long-awaited ray of sunshine!