Welcome to the first Travel Spot of the new year, on my first trip of 2019. I’m heading to Phoenix, spending a couple of weeks enjoying the winter sun, then flying to Chicago (which will be an interesting contrast) before returning at the end of the month. As usual, I flew with British Airways, using American Airlines for the Phoenix-Chicago leg.
I’ll say up front that this was not meant to be about me flying First Class to Phoenix. Right up until I reached the check-in desk, I thought I was flying Club World and was quite surprised to be told that I’d be moving up to First Class, just the second time that I’ve been upgraded in my life (the other was 10 years ago, an upgrade to Club Europe when returning from Madrid).
It’s also just the second time that I’ve flown First Class, the other being on my return from Chicago last year. That was a night-time flight, and while I enjoyed it, I spent most of the flight asleep, whereas this is a daytime flight, giving me much more opportunity to get the full First Class experience, which started with the rather swanky lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 3…
I’m getting used to starting my year with a trip to Phoenix. In 2017, I went on my Grand Adventure (Phoenix, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami and Boston), while last year, I split my time between Florida and Arizona. However, whereas on both those trips, I left in mid-January, this year, I flew out yesterday, on 4th January! Although it’s my fifth visit to Phoenix, this is only the third time that I’ve flown there from the UK. This last two visits, both in 2017, I come from other parts of the USA. In January, I flew from Miami, then, in March, I took the train from Providence, Rhode Island, an adventure in itself.
As far as I know, British Airways is the only airline flying direct from the UK to Phoenix, which made the choice rather easy. Besides, I’ve now been caught in the airmiles/status trap: having achieved Silver status last year, I’m on my way to Gold status this year, which is a very powerful incentive to fly with British Airways (or its One World Alliance partners, such as American Airlines) whenever I can.
I did, briefly, consider flying out in economy and back in Club World (which is what I did this time last year) but while I really enjoy flying Club World on British Airways 747s, they’re not my favourite aircraft to fly economy in. The fleet is showing its age; there’s no at-seat power at the back, for example, and on a previous attempt, I struggled to pre-book an exit row or bulk-head seat which I really need for the legroom. So, after brief consideration and a quick check of this year’s travel budget, I decided to do the whole thing in Club World. Except I’m not, having been (surprisingly) upgraded to First Class.
The British Airways flight is also a very reasonable one, leaving Heathrow at 14:35, so there’s no early start, and due into Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport at 18:35, exactly 11 hours later (Phoenix, in the winter, is seven hours ahead of the UK). That means that by the time I’ve sorted myself out at the airport, picked up my hire car, got to my hotel, unpacked and settled in, it’s time for bed, which is how I like it.
I must confess, I am getting rather blasé about getting to airports these days, particularly when flying from Heathrow. On a good day, it’s under half an hour from my house to Terminal 5 (where I normally fly from), so I booked a taxi for midday and was then late with my packing, only leaving at 12:15. Even so, we breezed around the M25 and along the M4, reaching Terminal 3 by 12:50.
I don’t often fly from Terminal 3: the last time was en-route to Miami last year. Before that was when I went to Chicago with American Airlines. On both those occasions, I flew down from Manchester and transferred from Terminal 5 to Terminal 3, so it was quite a novelty going in through the front door, so to speak.
I don’t know if I’ve just had a run of good luck, or whether British Airways really has sorted out the whole check-in process, but once again, I breezed through. British Airways has a large check-in area at Terminal 3 (as opposed to having the whole of Terminal 5) and although I was over at the Club World/First Class side, there didn’t seem to be any significant queues in economy either. Other than my surprise upgrade, the only unexpected twist came when I had to drop my rucksack off at my old friend, oversized baggage. I’m used the likes of Manchester Airport, where someone checks your boarding pass and you wait while your luggage is X-rayed. Not at Terminal 3, where you just drop your bag on an old trolley, with no staff in sight! I felt like I was abandoning the poor thing!
After that, it was through security (another breeze, helped by being able to use the fast-track channel) and before I knew it, I was out the other side and looking forward to trying out the First Class lounge, where I arrived at 13:15, just 25 minutes after arriving at the airport.
I know that I’m not comparing like-with-like since I’ve only ever been in the Club World lounges at Terminal 5, but the First Class lounge in Terminal 3 is even better! It helps that it’s quieter than the Terminal 5 lounges, but it really was a very relaxed and relaxing place. Not that it started out like that, with a long, unpromising corridor leading to the lounge and making me wonder if I’d missed a turning. However, once I got there, I was in familiar territory, with the First Class lounge off to the left, Club World to the right, and a spa between the two.
I headed left, finding myself in a long, spacious lounge running along the front of the terminal, with plenty of windows. There is lounge seating and food to the right, including what looked like a sit-down restaurant, with a business area and more lounge seating to the left, which is where I ended up, perched at one of the laptop benches, making use of the copious power outlets. There are also plenty of actual computers for you to use if you don’t have your own.
Both sides have their own self-service bars and drink stations with bottled water, etc, while the coffee, fruit of the British Airways partnership with Union Hand-roasted, is just to the right the entrance, opposite the children’s play area, which I was pleased to see was well away from the business area (Terminal 5 designers, take note). It also seemed to have excellent sound-proofing, since while there were several children in there, obviously enjoying themselves, I didn’t hear anything.
Naturally I had an espresso, which ran a little quickly (16 seconds) but which was spot on, weight-wise (yes, I had remembered to put my scales in my hand luggage this time), coming out at 42g. It was pretty good too, smooth and well-balanced, definitely a good start to 2019! Since I knew I was going to be fed on the plane, I grabbed a couple of sandwiches to tide me over and caught up with some e-mails while I waited.
The flight was scheduled to depart at 14:35, leaving from Gate 40, which is at the far end of Terminal 3. Even though it wasn’t shown as boarding, I decided not to leave things until the last minute, instead packing up and wandering over at 13:55, arriving at 14:05. One of the things I like about Terminal 3 is that the gates seem bigger than their counterparts at Terminal 5 and even though there was no sign of boarding starting, there seemed to be enough seats for everyone.
The gate staff were doing a pre-boarding passport check, which I’ve not seen before. Your passport and boarding pass are checked, then the boarding pass is stamped so that you don’t need to show your passport when you board. This obviously speeds up boarding and is an excellent idea (although the bottle neck is still the queue on the air-bridge to get onto the plane). I’m not sure if this is starting to become common practice, or whether they were doing it because they were late boarding the plane, but either way, I approve.
I’d only been at the gate for a couple of minutes when Group 1 (which for once included me since I was flying First Class) was called for boarding, and so I wandered on.
I’d actually reserved myself a pretty good seat in Club Class, the rear-most row, on the right, by the window on the upper deck. I’ve only been upstairs once on a 747, when I flew back from Phoenix in March last year. It’s lovely up there: the upper deck is quite narrow, so there are only four seats per row, two either side of a central aisle. There aren’t many rows either, just five of them, making 20 seats in all, with their own dedicated galley and crew. I like that sense of cosiness, which, in fairness, you get in Club World on the smaller aircraft, such as the shorter 787s, where there are just a few seats in the front of the plane. However, upstairs on a 747 is in a world of its own.
So that’s what I was giving up. First Class, though, was even better. Located right in the nose-cone, there are just 14 seats, with a dedicated galley at the back, which is where we entered. I never saw the rest of the plane and, as big as a 747 is, I really felt like we were in our little world up there in front.
There are five pairs of seats, one on each side, by the windows, all standard First Class suites, all facing forwards. The front two, right in the nose cone, are fairly close together, although there’s still plenty of room to move about, while as the fuselage widens as you move back, there is even more space, so much so that by the back two rows, there’s enough room in the middle two additional rows, each with a pair of seats.
Compared to my previous experience flying First Class, in an A380, the seats here had slightly less room and storage space, largely due to the tapering of the fuselage. That said, there was more than enough room and storage, plus I had an overhead locker all to myself. All the seats were at angle, they felt more straight on that the ones on the A380 (I would estimate about 15° compared to 30° for the A380), although that may also be an optical illusion caused by the tapering of the fuselage towards the nose.
I was in Seat 2K, second row from the front, on the right, pretty much under the pilots, who are at the front of the upper deck. The seat layout is similar to First Class in the A380, but there are some subtle differences. The seat itself is in a solid casing, open to one side (the left in my case) to let you in and out. Your feet extend into the space between the side of the fuselage and the casing of the seat in front.
There are plenty of nice touches, including a wardrobe built into the back of the seat case in front of you. This has enough room for a coat, plus mesh pouches for keeping small items (eg USB leads and my mobile phone) and a cubbyhole at the bottom (ample space for my camera). Even better, I could lean forward and open it from my seat, letting me get things without leaving my seat (in comparison you had to get up to open the one on the A380).
To the right, in the gap between the seat and fuselage, a triangular podium houses the fold-out table (very similar to the A380). Even better, it acts as a little side table with or without the table folded out. The table, by the way, is massive and incredibly stable. Even half un-folded (ie half its full depth) it’s more than big enough for my laptop. It also slides a long way towards you, so that it’s conveniently placed for typing, but in its natural position, there’s enough room for you to get in and out of your seat.
A narrow gap between the table podium and seat-casing has been put to good use as a magazine rack. However, I found it worked just as well for my laptop and book. The seat controls, meanwhile, are housed in the casing itself (to my right for my seat), with a neat flap hiding the remote control. There’s also a proper light here, a bulb with its own lampshade, plus an overhead light in the ceiling which provides excellent illumination. The one thing that is lacking, compared to the A380, is a sunken storage area with the power-outlets, sacrificed, I suspect, because of the lack of width. Instead, just as in Club World, there’s a power outlet near the floor, which is awkward to get to, while for USB power, there’s a socket on the front of the TV.
Talking of which, the large TV is also housed on the back of the seat casing in front of you, folding out so that it’s directly ahead. The in-flight entertainment system was quite old (2013; it’s amazing how quickly these things date) but more than adequate for my needs, since all I wanted to do was keep track of our progress on the map.
Finally, a shelf runs from the table podium to the far end, where there’s a small foot stool. Unlike the fold-down foot stools in Club World, which break if you sit on them, in First Class you can sit at the other end of your seat, which is surprisingly useful! I’ve since learnt that this is provided so that if two people are travelling together, they can sit facing each other across the table for meals (which is why it’s so wide).
The only exception to these First Class suites are the four seats in the middle. These run front-to-back and hence don’t have the storage space off to the side. In that respect, they are more like Club World seats, but with more space and a much bigger/better screen. They do have their own wardrobes, but they are at either end of the set of four, so aren’t as easily accessible. The central divider between each pair can be lowered, which is neat if you are travelling together, although for me, that doesn’t really make up for the reduction in space and the lack of a window.
I’ve written before about the excellent of the First Class service and it was the same here, right from the moment I was greeted at the door and shown to my seat. There are other nice touches, such as the crew making your bed up for you (rather than having to do it yourself in Club World). Not that I availed myself of this one, since I wasn’t planning on sleeping, it being a daytime flight. You also get a better class of toiletries and, if you want them, a souvenir set of pyjamas. Another nice touch: the cabin crew director came by to say hello and introduce himself.
I was onboard at 14:10 and by 14:30 we were fully boarded with the doors shut. I don’t know about the rest of the plane, but First Class was almost full, with 13 of the 14 seats taken. We pushed back at 14:45, only ten minutes late, but then sat on the apron while the safety film was played. Then we taxied to the eastern end of the runway, where we waited again, this time while they changed the runways over (according to the pilot). We were sat there for 10 minutes, before things got moving again. There were another four aircraft ahead of us the queue, although at least I got to watch them taking off. Finally we reached the end of runaway at 15:15, 40 minutes after our scheduled departure time, 30 minutes after we left the gate. I do wonder how much of a flight’s scheduled time is taken up faffing around on the ground…
Then we were off, trundling along the runway, picking up speed as we went. In less than a minute, we were airborne, the airport falling away beneath us.
We took a very northerly route, much further north than I had been expecting, starting with a sharp turn straight after take-off. We went due north for a short while, then turned to the northwest, flying directly over Manchester and across the Lancashire coast at Blackpool, before clipping the southwest tip of Scotland and passing between the Inner Hebrides and the Irish coast before heading out into the Atlantic.
As soon as the seatbelt signs were off, I ordered an espresso, which arrived at 15:30, by which point I’d still not worked out how to get my table out of the little podium (the trick, as I was shown by the cabin crew, is to push down on it first, then it pops up; easy once you know how). By then we were already at 7,500m but my espresso was still pretty good. Not quite as good as the one I’d had in the lounge, but still very smooth, with just a touch of bitterness.
The meal service began about 20 minutes later with warm nuts and a drink (sparkling water in my case). Unlike economy, where pretty much everyone gets their meals at the same time, in First Class, everything is cooked individually to order, so the meal service is staggered. I was one of the last to be served, which didn’t bother me, since it gave me time to get a little work in.
Even though I had a vegetarian meal ordered, I was still offered a choice from the menu, where the vegetarian option sounded much more interesting, so I had that instead. As usual (for First Class), the table was laid with a white table cloth and my appetiser, which was rather meat-based, arrived at 16:35. I had the olive and sundried tomato, but left the rest.
My starter arrived in shortly afterwards, some rather lovely wild mushrooms on char-grilled sourdough, plus cep aioli (which, in my naivete, took to be hummus). It was, however, excellent. This was followed, in short order, with my main course, a root vegetable hash with baked chestnuts and a poached egg, which was also excellent, the quality of the food far exceeding my expectations. Although I’ve had some good meals flying in Club World, this was another level again.
Dessert, an orchard fruit crumble arrived after a short gap at 17:25 and that too was very good, although it really needed some custard on top to really round it out. I had another espresso with my dessert, which was pretty good, although not quite as good as the first two, which reflects, I suspect, the altitude coming into play. I rounded everything off with the cheese plate and a glass of port, a really superb Warre’s 2000 colheita, which I’d had the last time I’d flown First Class.
By now it was gone 17:30, we’d passed south of Iceland, and were heading for the southern tip of Greenland, where there were some interesting things happening on the horizon. Check out the gallery to see what was going on.
I mentioned earlier that we took a northerly route on this flight, one which took us as far as the southern tip of Greenland. At this time of year, with the sun setting so early, it makes for some interesting effects on the flight. We took off at 15:15, about an hour before sunset, and spent the rest of the flight chasing the sun as it went ever westward, slowly outpacing us. By 18:00, it was sinking below the horizon, treating those on the left-hand side of the plane to a long, extended sunset. I, naturally, was sitting on the right, although I managed to periodically get up and take some pictures through the window in the door by the galley. It really was magnificent, with the sun just below the clouds on the horizon.
We crossed the very southern tip of Greenland at 18:25, which is when the crew turned down the cabin lights. Although I was still working and would have happily had them left on, it was, in fairness, pretty dark outside (although there was still a glow beyond the horizon) and several people were trying to sleep.
By then we’d reached the most northerly point of our route, so from then on we were slowly heading south. Ironically, this meant that it started getting lighter outside, the glow of the sun below the horizon never having actually gone away at any point. By 19:45 we crossed the Canadian coast, and the sun started coming up over the horizon, having fully risen by 20:00, so rather than experiencing one continuous sunset, we actually had a sunset followed by a sunrise.
Having been almost dark around 18:00, by 21:00, it was quite bright outside. Also, by this point, the horizon-to-horizon cloud that had blanketed the Atlantic had cleared, providing some good views of the frozen waters of Hudson Bay. However, the cloud returned as we crossed over the north-eastern coast of Ontario at 21:10, only to break again at about 22:00 to reveal a landscape marked by thousands of frozen lakes.
By 23:00, we’d crossed over into America, flying over Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota in quick succession. I interspersed these observations with working on my laptop, while also taking regular strolls, which is so much easier in the First Class cabin, with all its space. This gave me my customary opportunity to chat with the cabin crew, once again discovering that they all love the Boeing 747. As a result, the cabin crew got to know that I was taking pictures of the sunset/sunrise, so much so that one of them, on noticing a particularly gorgeous light outside, came to let me know in case I missed it.
By now we were flying southwest, so the sun was more on my side of the plane, rapidly sinking towards the horizon as we headed for the Rockies. You can see whether the light held out after the gallery!
We reached the Rockies around midnight, when a “light lunch” was served, a strange time for lunch if you ask me… Even going by Phoenix time, is was five o’clock in the afternoon, but food is food and I wasn’t going to say no. I had a starter of asparagus, tomatoes, goats’ cheese and a boiled quail’s egg, followed by lemon and ricotta tortellini with glazed artichoke. It was excellent: if anything, even better than dinner.
Meanwhile, the Rockies rolled by below us as we passed south of Denver and over some amazing mountain landscapes. I had feared that the light might not last, but we fly over the Rockies at dusk, a gorgeous red glow slowly fading behind the mountains on the horizon, with amazing white, snow-capped peaks and ridges down below.
It was starting to get dark again outside, but the cabin lights were still down, which surprised me since the cabin crew were serving food. However, I wasn’t complaining since it really enhanced the view outside. By 01:00, or 18:00 in Phoenix, all that remained was a deep red glow behind the mountains to the west. Down below, it was completely dark, although by now we’d passed the main line of peaks and were over either northeast Arizona or west New Mexico. Having driven through part of the area (as far east as the Painted Desert) on my visit to Arizona this time last year, I can attest to how unpopulated the whole area is. Normally, looking down at night, I’d expect to see lots of artificial light, so its absence was refreshing.
Not long after that, however, the lights of Phoenix came into view and we settled into our final approach. We were right on time (18:25) when suddenly the engines roared into life and we started climbing again. It turns out that air traffic control had put us too close to the aircraft in front and we’d had to go around again, just the second time that’s happened to me. The only other time was in 1999, again on a Boeing 747, coming into JFK in New York.
We made a circuit of Phoenix before coming back in, this time without mishap, landing at 18:40. 15 minutes later, I was through immigration (one of the advantages of being at the front of the plane; there was no queue at all at the immigration terminals when I arrived and a rather long one when I left). As it goes, it was one of the smoothest experiences I’ve had with US immigration.
I was at the baggage carousel for a bit longer. One of the advantages of flying Club World/First Class is that you get to take two bags (three in First Class!). One of the disadvantages is that you then have to wait for longer at baggage reclaim. Even so, by 19:10, I had my bags and was on my way to fetch my hire car, which involved a surprisingly long walk (which I don’t recall from my previous international arrival at Phoenix, although that was 2½ years ago) to get out of the terminal building, followed by a ride on the (always crowded) shuttle bus to the car rental centre, where I arrived at 19:30.
I’d pre-booked the smallest car I could find on the car hire website, but by the time I got there and had queued for 15 minutes, the rental company only had three cars left, the smallest of which was a Nissan Rogue, so that’s what I got. I trundled down to the parking lot below the car rental centre to make my acquaintance with my ride and, by 20:00 (or three o’clock in the morning back home), I was on my way…
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