ETF: The flights

LHR – DXB, October 11th 2022

BA employees did not receive a cash bonus in 2019, but as a consolation prize we were issued with an “ABC” – an enhanced standby ticket with zero fare component and the possibility to be confirmed onto flights in advance. These are the holy grail of staff travel perks – at that point, only received after five years of service at the rate of one a year – but the pandemic rendered them useless shortly after issue.

Fortunately the expiry dates were rolled forward each year, and I finally got to use mine for this trip. Or, at least, half of it: I was confirmed for a flight to Dubai six weeks before departure, but none of my nominated return flights moved off the waitlist. But this is part of the point – knowing that I was unlikely to get home on BA, I was able to make alternative plans well in advance rather than having to improvise down route!

Obviously the hope is not just to get on the plane, but to be near the front… Come the day of departure, it was still unclear what cabin I’d be in: Manage My Booking showed World Traveller, my boarding pass said Club World, but my seat assignment split the difference in World Traveller Plus. This was resolved at the last possible moment, with a new seat assignment at the boarding gate.

A familiar friend: BA A380 Club World seat

Not being entitled to First, and with this A380 flight not having Club Suite, I’d pretty much hit the jackpot with my favourite Club World location – a rear facing window seat at the back of the cabin, thus retaining direct aisle access and offering a great sense of privacy. I later discovered the power had failed, so it couldn’t be set to a more generous recline or bed mode – but as this was a day flight, I didn’t really mind.

First item of business was lunch – menus were distributed and orders taken before we’d even completed boarding. Although other cabins were back to pre-pandemic service levels, Club would still be on the single tray setup for a few more weeks. Despite being one of the last to order, I still got my preferred main. When it arrived, about an hour in to the flight, I certainly couldn’t complain about the portion size!

BA Club World main meal LHR – DXB
“Roasted cauliflower; chicken, leek and mushroom pie; chocolate mousse; cheese board”

WiFi was available at a variety of price points: basic messaging at £3 for an hour / £5 for the whole flight; or more capable ‘browse and stream’ packages at £5 / £12 / £15 for one hour / four hours / the flight. But I settled for remaining unplugged, relying on the IFE and some pre-loaded podcasts on my phone. Unfortunately my run of disappointing films on planes continues – I could not see why there was so much hype about Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Three hours in to the flight it was already dark outside and the cabin had been dimmed to just the blue mood lighting. As we crossed the Black Sea I realised I was already further east than I’d ever been; on arrival in Dubai it would also be the southernmost point I’d set foot. I spotted my eventual destination, Yerevan, amongst many unfamiliar places on the moving map; our route was a curious one, apparently avoiding Iranian airspace.

BA Club World light meal LHR – DXB
“Grilled vegetable, mozzarella, pesto panini; carrot cake”

A second, light, meal was delivered – in the dark! – about an hour before arrival. I had picked the vegetarian option, which was nothing fancy, but plenty tasty. We landed a little ahead of schedule, but it took 25 minutes before we were released to the terminal – which is where my problems started

For a mere £150 all the way to Dubai, I’d have been happy even in economy – so the fact I got business class for the same price made this quite the bonus in the end! A shame I couldn’t bundle in the return, but airmiles solved that problem.

DXB-EVN-DXB, October 13th/18th 2022

As is the way of things, I paid significantly more – £405 – to fly less far in much less comfort to and from Yerevan. Although flydubai does have a business class cabin, but I couldn’t justify the price difference especially as this route was unlikely to have their flat bed product.

DXB Terminal 2 is a small but modern terminal almost exclusively dedicated to flydubai operations. Bag drop, check-in, border control and security were all dealt with in 12 minutes, although I had arrived at 5:30am! Once airside, seating seemed a bit limited, sandwiched between the shopping / food area and the dozen gates – which all lead you to buses rather than direct to the aircraft.

There were a few indications that I was somewhere different: a prayer room in the bathroom; an absolutely packed smoking room; someone sat next to me wandering off with a friend, trustingly leaving their bag, passport and other valuables unattended.

I had expected a short-haul flight on a 737 to be boringly familiar, but there were some differences there too – most notably that lifejackets were stored overhead! Over 200 flights in, it’s still important to pay attention to the safety briefing…

It seems that flydubai doesn’t sit passengers together unless they pay for it: on both flights, a family with a lap infant was split across the two middle seats in my row. On the way to Yerevan I traded my aisle seat to reunite them: with a 3h15 flight time, I regretted this, as space was pretty tight! I was repaid for my kindness by nearly having my breakfast stolen – not all economy tickets included a meal, and whilst mine did it was of course delivered to my assigned seat, where the new occupant tried to claim it. Fortunately crew checked names as well as locations.

flydubai economy breakfast DXB – EVN

I was therefore relieved when the other aisle passenger volunteered for the swap on the way back. Many on board ranged from inexperienced to inconsiderate flyers: in the first camp I put the woman who failed to lock the bathroom door, and everyone who applauded our landing; in the other, the guy a row ahead who reclined unannounced whilst I was trying to eat lunch (and only narrowly avoided a lap full of Bolognese).

flydubai economy lunch EVN – DXB

Not fantastic experiences, then, but I suppose they did the job: which was to get me to and from Armenia at sensible times of the day. But if I visit again, I think I would take my chances with navigating Yerevan at night rather than routing through Dubai!

DXB – CDG – LHR, October 19th 2022

That said, my last trip through DXB did cast the whole place in a more favourable light. For one, I was finally able to get there by metro (4 dirham) instead of uber (75 dirham). Better, having burnt 50,000 virgin miles (and £150 of taxes/fees) on business class, I would be spending the time before my flight in a lounge.

Air France didn’t have their own facility here, but shared one with their SkyTeam alliance partners. I don’t know how much traffic they collectively generate, but the lounge was vast compared to the number of passengers using it this morning. I set about trying to put a dent into the extensive buffet, heaping up a breakfast plate, then relocated to more comfortable seating. So far, so good – even if I couldn’t find space for the dessert range, and of course the alcohol is no use to me.

SkyTeam lounge DXB

SkyTeam lounge DXB

Despite many miles on KLM, this was my first time on the Air France side of things. They have a variety of business class seats, but with today’s flight being on an A350, I would be getting their best. With a 1-2-1 configuration, any window seat would be ideal for a solo traveller, but I had learnt that those in even rows offered even more privacy (on odd rows, the console is by the window, placing the passenger closer to the aisle).

Air France A350 business class seating

Privacy in Air France A350 business class seating

Once settled in, I noticed a few cosmetic issues – the edge of the seat was a little torn, the white surfaces a bit scuffed, the painted-on silver trim a bit chipped. In flight, I also found some practical ones: my window blind didn’t work, which caused a lot of glare on the fixed-position screen; and the footwell isn’t huge. But overall this is an excellent seat in a great cabin. I would place it easily above Club World, but not quite up there with Club Suite (to be fair, Air France have recently announced suites for some of their 777s).

Air France business class isn’t just about the hard product, however – which became clear as I browsed the thick menu (delivered with a pre-departure beverage and steaming hot towel) and realised I was sitting down to a feast.

Shortly after departure a second drinks run was accompanied by cranberries and nuts, but the real show began an hour in. A tablecloth was set out, and then several courses arrived all at once – confusingly, the main not amongst them! Setting aside the desserts for later, I chose some bread from an offered basket and tried foie gras for the first time in my life.

Air France business class lunch DXB – CDG: starter, cheese and dessert courses
“Crab tartare with chopped vegetables, duck foie gras and apricot chutney; cheese selection; raspberry pavlova, chocolate and banana dome, lemon tartlet”

Starters and salad were cleared about fifteen minutes later, to make room for our choice of four mains. Only two were actually left when they got to me (I assume they have status-based ordering priority?), but fortunately the chicken was one of them.

I would easily class this as restaurant-grade: wonderfully roasted chicken and a smooth mash that both seemed improbable for an airplane meal. A generous portion too – despite a minimal starter I was not close to finishing the main.

Plates were cleared promptly, followed by tea and coffee; I intended to snack away at the desserts over the course of a film, but once I tried one the others soon followed…

Air France business class lunch DXB – CDG: main course
“Chicken supreme in tomato and basil sauce, potato puree and chopped vegetables”

Crossing the Alps heralded both an hour to arrival, and a second meal service; again, delicious. Throughout the flight, I’d been delighted by the external cameras: one on the tail, and one under the belly, which could be viewed on the excellent IFE screen. These offered a new experience on landing: awesome to see as well as feel the nose wheel find the runway!

Air France business class light snack DXB – CDG
“Trio of canapes, smoked salmon, boursin cheese with pepper and mango salsa; chocolate treat; assorted fresh fruit”

Paris Charles de Gaulle airport will not win any prizes for a smooth transfer process. We couldn’t get a gate for nearly half an hour; it takes as long again to reach and complete security, as my bag got pulled up for random checks. Nor did the lounge impress, especially having experienced Dubai’s earlier – an underground windowless box, and very crowded. I was lucky to get one of the last seats.

I had a long connection time to kill, but eventually set out for the boarding gate. This last leg would be a mere 40 minutes of flying, but we were still presented with dinner – a cold main of cod with rice, plus cheese and dessert:

Air France business class dinner CDG – LHR

I have only twice flown an airline other than BA in long-haul business class. Now that I’ll be receiving an ABC each year, I should probably focus my airmiles collecting on other carriers for cases like this. Certainly, I’d be happy to travel with Air France again – if nothing else, it’s clear I won’t go hungry!