Chicago – the flights

Part of the appeal in flying to Chicago was that, at the time of booking, both legs were assigned Airbus A350s. As well as being BA’s only aircraft type I had not yet flown, this would also guarantee the new ‘vector’ product in Club World – usually described as Club Suite, due to the door added to each seat.

Alas schedules are never set in stone if you book far in advance, and that was particularly apparent this year as BA tried to right-size its network through the evolving pandemic. Minor time adjustments didn’t bother me, but a series of aircraft changes did. First the A350s were swapped for Boeing 787s – which I’d only flown shorthaul with BA – but later these were traded for 777s.

In the end, I travelled on one of each – and as luck would have it, my return flight was on a 787-10. BA only has two of these in the fleet, and unlike the other 787s (which still await a refurb) they arrived fresh from the factory with the new seat installed. So whilst not quite as exciting as planned, this did give me the chance to compare Club World to Club Suite in similar conditions!

BA Club World (left) vs Club Suite (right)

LHR – ORD, January 1st 2022

The club cabin was definitely due an update, but I maintain there are still good spots to be found in Club World. For a solo traveller, the magic combination is a window seat with aisle access. 16K, in the last row, ticks both boxes – with the added bonus that, being rear-facing, you are less aware of the rest of the cabin. Another perk on this particular aircraft was the excellent view of the wing. But depending how fast the new seats are rolled out, this might be my last time flying backwards!

777-300 wing from seat 16K

The downside of being at the back of the cabin is that some menu options had already run out before my dinner order was taken. So instead of the hoped-for chicken curry, I had to settle for a vegan cottage pie. Since the Venn diagram of tasty, airline, vegan could be three disjoint circles, and I’m not a lentil fan, I wasn’t expecting much from this, but was pleasantly surprised. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that the mash was dairy-free!

Club World vegan meal, January 2022.

I don’t know whether it’s a COVID-era policy or an earlier cost-cutting decision, but all courses are now served together on a single tray. You do still get proper cutlery and crockery, but it’s not quite the dining experience it used to be.

I suspect the film selection is also slimmer than it used to be – and the IFE system is quite sluggish – but as my last cinema trip was pre-pandemic I still had plenty of options. After that I grabbed a couple of hours of not-quite-sleep. No criticism of the bed mode of the seat: it just didn’t make sense for my body clock, and face masks don’t help.

A bout of turbulence over Lake Michigan subsides long enough for a second meal to be run out. BA has been trying to up the Britishness of its menus, and today’s offering was a cornish pasty. Not the fanciest of food, but to be honest much more my speed than the middle class fare usually on offer!

Club World second meal service, January 2022.

Soon after, we got the forty minutes to landing warning, and more turbulence. We descend through snow clouds, with only a brief glimpse of the airport on touchdown before the windows white out. Only later would I learn that a snow storm had dumped 4 inches onto O’Hare that afternoon, with 850 flights scrubbed from the schedule as a result. My winter adventure had definitely begun!

SFO – ORD, January 13th

Whilst I would have loved to have turned around at Emeryville and done the full Zephyr route back to Chicago, time and money were not on my side. Instead, I would erase over a week’s travel in a matter of hours, with a flight from San Francisco.

To add some novelty, I opted for Alaska Airlines – their first class seats price up as business class for the purpose of avios redemptions, so 22K points and a mere £4.10 in taxes secured me a spot up front.

I spent a thoroughly miserable seven hours in the grip of flu at SFO’s terminal 2 about a decade ago, back when it was used by American Airlines. Any experience would be an improvement on that, but I genuinely think this is one of the better terminals out there, especially for domestic flights. I mean, any airport with a museum is doing well, but an exhibition on mathematics feels personally designed for me. I also had access to the Alaska Lounge, which offers a fire pit, extensive tarmac views, and a pancake robot!

Alaska Airlines First Class

First class on a US domestic flight ranks above typical business class on European short haul, but well behind what you’d expect on an international flight – premium economy is a closer match. Still, for less than four hours this was a perfectly comfortable place to call home. I don’t know if it’s standard across the fleet – this A320 aircraft used to fly for Virgin America before Alaska Airlines acquired them – but leg room was more than enough and the seat itself well-padded.

There are no IFE screens, but various films / shows – or a series of lectures on artificial intelligence – can be streamed to your own devices. WiFi is available at $6.50 an hour, $15 a flight, or $50 a month, but I am content with the moving map, watching my adventure unwind state by state.

Seats had been set with eco-friendly boxes of water, and warm nuts (plus hand sanitiser) were handed out shortly after take off. A meal is also included, and I’d been able to preselect from the menu when picking my seat (also free) a few days ago. None of the options entirely convinced me on paper, but the main course chicken was good: not too dry and avoiding blandness through a satisfying blend of citrus and spice.

Alaska Airlines First Class meal, January 2022:
“Roasted Moroccan spiced chicken breast, cilantro scented couscous, honey roasted carrots and topped with almonds”

Otherwise, there is not much to report – I had a window seat, but views were mostly obscured by clouds. The COVID policy was similar to Amtrak’s: “after you sip or snack, please put your mask back”. Speaking of which, snacks were available from the galley throughout the flight, and pro-actively offered alongside a second drinks run. Despite a delay departing – the APU was broken – we still arrived early at Chicago. I’d happily fly Alaska Airlines again – especially if I can snag another first class redemption.

ORD – LHR, January 14th

BA Club Suite

I’ll gloss over the airport experience – below average lounge with above average food – because for this flight, it’s all about the new onboard offering. Turning left into the forward of two Club World cabins, I was immediately impressed. It helps that this aircraft is barely 18 months old, and thanks to COVID has probably seen less use than that – it appeared brand new.

As with the outbound, I’m in a back row window seat with aisle access. However, that no longer requires a hefty pre-payment or a rush at online check-in: all seats have aisle access, and gone are the days of manoeuvring past another passenger. At the windows, you don’t even have a seatmate, as the rows are arranged 1-2-1. This is a reverse herringbone configuration, meaning the outer seats are angled towards the window – seemingly obvious, but not always the case in other premium cabins…

To pack in enough seats to be financially viable, they are more enclosed than the old style with their adjustable footrests. Now, your feet slot into a narrowing cubby hole that uses space under the the seat in front. Add on the signature feature – a sliding door – and I was worried it might be a bit claustrophobic. Instead, it just feels luxuriously private. Even with the doors open (as they must be for take off), it’s hard to see other passengers.

Other improvements include a larger, higher resolution and much more responsive IFE screen, and a variety of small storage compartments within the seat plus a side table. This solves a personal Club World conundrum – where to store your glasses when sleeping!

BA Club Suite, 787-10

Leg room / storage / foot rest

Side console storage and secondary IFE controls

The main downside is that I have no idea how to operate it all 🙂 Figuring out how to deploy the tray table and select a more comfortable seating position took me longer than I’d like to admit, but at least I had everything set when dinner arrived:

Club World dinner, January 2022:
“Grilled North Atlantic sea bream, pea mousseline, Mediterranean lentils”

After the meal and a movie, I am even more stumped trying to turn the seat into a bed – or indeed move it at all. Fortunately this is not just incompetence on my part – it is genuinely stuck, and after two members of crew are unable to reset it, I am offered the equivalent starboard seat 11K instead. However, as it was unoccupied the door had never been unlocked from the take off position; and in the shuffle I forgot to check all those storage spaces and left a pair of headphones behind…

Club Suite in bed mode

Hopefully, these will just be teething issues and once staff – or passengers – have more experience, we can make the most of this high-tech product. Whilst I’d still happily travel in the old seat, I’ll secretly be hoping for Club Suite on my future flights – ideally, on one of those elusive A350s!