Welcome to the fourth and final instalment of the first Travel Spot of 2020, which covered the trip I took out to the Bay Area, Phoenix and Portland (Maine) in January. Part I detailed my flight to San Jose, with British Airways, while Part II involved flying from San Francisco to Phoenix with American Airlines (and almost losing my laptop!). Part III saw me change things up a little and fly with Delta from Phoenix to Portland (Maine) via Atlanta. And finally, this post covers my return home on the early morning flight from Boston.
I’ve done this route once before (last summer), flying from Boston in premium economy with Virgin Atlantic on its early morning flight. I’m flying in premium economy again (aka World Traveller Plus), but this time with British Airways, a flight which has the distinct disadvantage of leaving 45 minutes earlier than the corresponding Virgin Atlantic flight (which means 45 fewer minutes in bed…). Once again, Amanda drove me down from Portland to Boston the night before, and I stayed over in the same airport hotel before getting up at the ridiculously early hour of 05:15 to catch the 05:30 shuttle to the airport.
As I explained in the first instalment of this Travel Spot, I’ve spent the last three years doing five or six long-haul flights, increasingly in business class (Club World on British Airways) which is a real boon when flying overnight. However, during daytime flights, like those from the UK to America, I really don’t need to fly business class since I don’t sleep on the flight, so this year I’ve decided to fly out and back in premium economy (World Traveller Plus on British Airways).
To avoid flying back overnight, on each of this year’s trips, I’m making my way to Boston, which has the advantage that both Virgin Atlantic and British Airways have early morning flights, arriving back in the UK in the evening, thus avoiding the need to sleep on the plane. So, on this trip, I flew to San Jose in World Traveller Plus (only British Airways upgraded me to Club World, just as I did in 2019, I started my year with an unexpected upgrade!), then flew internally from San Francisco to Phoenix for another meeting, then fly from Phoenix to Portland (Maine), where I spent the weekend with Amanda, before she drove me down to Boston on Monday night. After far too little sleep (about five hours) I was up and heading off to the airport by the hotel shuttle.
The shuttle, by the way, is free, which makes this hotel (the Holiday Inn in Chelsea) particularly useful since it’s just a 10-minute drive to the airport, with the shuttle running every half hour. I booked myself onto the 05:30 shuttle which I found myself sharing with someone flying Delta and a handful of American Airlines crew (in comparison, last summer, I had the shuttle to myself). The driver dropped off the Delta passenger at Terminal A, then dropped the aircrew at Terminal B. Then he drove past the ramp for Terminal E (the international terminal) and headed back in the direction of the hotel. I was just about to say something when he realised that he’d forgotten all about me and so we went around the airport again!
Despite the slight detour, I was at the terminal by 05:55. As much as I dislike early starts, there is one distinct advantage to arriving at the airport this early: there is almost no-one else there. I went straight up to the check-in desks (which I had to myself) and then it was off to security. By 06:05 I was out the other side and looking for the lounge.
Unlike most other non-UK airports I’ve flown from, where British Airways passengers effectively share someone else’s lounge, at Boston’s Logan Airport, British Airways has its own dedicated lounge (a distinction which it shares with Chicago O’Hare, although O’Hare actually has two British Airways lounges, one for Club World passengers, while the second is a dedicated First Class lounge).
Consisting of several interconnected rooms, arranged around a central toilet and shower block, it’s a very fine lounge, one of the best I’ve used. There’s plenty of seating, a decent amount of power outlets (US only), free Wifi, a buffet area at the front (with a separate dining area for First Class passengers) and a bar at the back (unsurprisingly closed given the early hour). The best part, however, is the dedicated gate at the back of the lounge, to the right of the bar, where you board directly onto the plane, bypassing the other passengers at Gate E12, who are on the level below. It’s the only lounge where I’ve seen and it’s a really neat feature.
My flight was due to leave at 07:30 and while my boarding card said we’d start boarding at 06:30, I didn’t believe that for a second, so I helped myself to a two-course breakfast, starting with some excellent porridge and ending with an omelette and baked beans. Not trusting the coffee machine (sadly, Union Hand-roasted has not yet made it to the Boston lounge), I made my own. I’d just finished doing that when the call for boarding was made at 06:50. I packed up my things and was the last one to leave the lounge.
I was at my seat by 06:55 and by 07:05 boarding complete and the doors were closed. We’d managed to board so quickly because the flight was almost empty: I counted 10 people in Club World, 20 in World Traveller and 14 (including me) in World Traveller Plus. There might have been some people up in first class, but even so, I suspect that there were less than 50 passengers on the flight!
I’ve only flown World Traveller Plus (British Airways’ name for premium economy) once before, in 2014, when I was unexpectedly upgraded on very new Boeing 787 when flying back from New York. In contrast, this time I was on an old Boeing 777-200, an aircraft I’ve been flying on to and from Boston for over 20 years, back when they were newly introduced on the route! This particular plane (G-YMMK, according to Planefinder) is almost 20 years old and was definitely showing its age, although in fairness, I’ve been spoilt by flying on some very modern aircraft in recent times.
The cabin has a 2-4-2 layout and has just five rows of seats. I’d originally booked the aisle seat, 21J, at the front on the right, but since the flight was almost empty, there was no-one in the seat next to me. Once we’d finished boarding, I moved over so that I’d have the window, although since the seat was directly over the wing, my view was mostly obscured. However, by leaning forward and looking back over my shoulder, I did get decent views behind the plane.
The seat was comfortable enough: slightly wider than World Traveller (aka standard economy), but not as wide as the seats I’d enjoyed on my recent flights in the US. There was at-seat power but using an old-style connector that none of my plugs would fit (and with no USB outlets). However, this wasn’t an issue since we were only in the air for 5½ hours and, with power saver mode on, my laptop’s good for at least seven hours.
There was no-one in the seat behind me, so after breakfast, I reclined my seat to try it out. It didn’t go back too far, but was quite comfortable, particularly with the footrest up. On the bulkhead seats, this folds out from under the seat, with an additional fold-down section, making for a decent footrest.
The TV monitor pivoted up from between the seats (in the other rows it’s in the back of the seat in front). However, it was really small and showing signs of wear. I was rather glad that on this flight I had no plans to watch anything.
The table folds out from the armrest (this is the case for all the World Traveller Plus seats, not just the bulkhead ones) and reaches all the way across to the armrest on the other side (an unexpected bonus of the seat being that little bit narrower!). However, the hinges on both the tables I used (my original seat and the window seat) were really old, so the tables sagged in the middle, which is hardly ideal. I ended up putting the seat cushion on top of my thighs and resting the table on top, which made for a surprisingly stable surface.
The final feature was a cocktail table (aka drinks holder) built into the arm rest (there’s one either side and one in the middle). When we were on the ground, I wasn’t very impressed since it tilts forward a little, and I was worried I would lose my drink. However, once we’d taken off, I realised that it was very cleverly designed, since with the nose slightly up in normal flight, it’s actually flat.
Overall, I found the World Traveller Plus cabin to be perfectly adequate, while my seat in particular had plenty of legroom (my main consideration). However, I much preferred the premium economy seating in the A330-300 that Virgin Atlantic uses on the same route, with the added bonus that the corresponding flight leaves 45 minutes later. All things being equal, I’d rather flying with Virgin, although in my case, this means missing out on lounge access and status, so you’ll see me back on British Airways a few more times on this route!
We sat at the gate for 20 minutes, giving me time to drink my coffee, which I’d brought on board with me. At 07:25 we pushed back, spending the obligatory five minutes on the apron while we watched the safety video. After that, we started to taxi, which seemed to take us around three of the four sides of the airport to get to the runway. The pilot called seats for takeoff at 07:35, but we still had a way to go at that point, taxiing the full length of the runway to get to the far end.
Plenty of planes were taking off as we trundled alongside the runway, mostly from Jet Blue. We also had to cross another runway at 45° to us, where the inbound planes were landing. Finally, we got to the end of the runway, waited briefly for an American Airlines flight to take off, and then we were on our way at 07:45.
We took off heading southwest, in exactly the wrong direction, flying over Boston Harbour, south of the North End, and then over the South End, following the spine of Back Bay, all areas I know well, before turning north in a 180° turn over the lakes of Brookline (an area I don’t know at all). Five minutes into our flight, the seat-belt signs came off as we were heading northeast, in the direction of Gloucester and Rockport, then out over the Atlantic Ocean.
Breakfast was served at 08:25, which reminds me that I must change my British Airways profile. I’m down as vegetarian, which, in the days when I regularly flew economy, meant that I was guaranteed a meal I could eat. When flying in Club World or World Traveller Plus, I’ve always found I’ve had plenty of choice, so it’s not as important.
Unfortunately, my experience of British Airways special meals (which is what you get if you’re down as vegetarian on your profile) hasn’t been great. For whatever reason, this always results in a vegan rather than vegetarian meal and, sadly, the vegan meals on British Airways aren’t very good. I really don’t know what I was served this time, some sort of polenta dish, I think, with dry, toasted granola. I managed a mouthful before giving up.
The cabin crew were happy to swap it for the vegetarian omelette from the main menu, which was much, much nicer. In that sense it doesn’t matter, since you can always get another meal from the main menu, but it seems a shame to have a pre-prepared meal go to waste, particularly since I know I’m very unlikely to eat it.
I did try the coffee at breakfast, but sadly Union Hand-roasted hasn’t made it any further towards the back of the plane than Club World. This one was awful, and, after a couple of mouthfuls, I gave up and stuck to my orange juice.
I went for a walk after breakfast, going down through World Traveller (which was even emptier than the rest of the plane) all the way to the back. Since it was almost empty, I tried one of the seats for size. It was much narrower than my World Traveller Plus seat, only just wide enough (for me). There also wasn’t much legroom, although I could get my knees in without them sticking into the back of the seat in front (but only just). However, I found that the back of the seat in front was very, very close and there’s no way I’d have been able to use my laptop there with any level of comfort, even if the person in front didn’t recline their seat. I also think that even for a 5½ hour flight, I’d find it very claustrophobic, which is why I always go for a bulkhead or exit row seat if I fly economy.
Back in my seat in World Traveller Plus, I settled in and spread out, really enjoying having the seat next to me free, so I could put things on it instead of leaving them on the floor. I worked for a bit, napped for a bit and then worked a bit more. After my experience at breakfast, I had intended to make myself some coffee during the flight, but before I knew it, it was 12:15 and the cabin crew were bringing round a snack (lunch, according to my body clock; afternoon tea if you went by UK time). It’s amazing how quickly 5½ hours can go (this was roughly the same time I spent in the air flying between Phoenix and Portland, but those two flights felt much longer).
The vegetarian snack was as unimpressive as the breakfast (a pot of fruit), so the cabin crew gave me a vegetarian panini from the main menu (I didn’t even have to ask). By then we were approaching the Irish coast, and the sun was setting behind the plane. We started our descent at 12:50 and the pilot announced 40 minutes to landing.
Almost the entire flight had taken place during the day and, pleasingly, everyone had left the blinds open, so I’d spent the whole flight in daylight. However, as we started our descent, the last of the sunlight left us and the cabin lights came on for the last part of the flight. We hit a little bit of turbulence with 25 minutes to go, just as we crossed over the English border, but since everyone had put everything away by then (including my laptop) it made no real difference when the seat belt signs came on.
The pilot announced seats for landing at 13:15 (18:15 local time) and as I’ve often done on flights from the US, we flew past Heathrow and turned over the City of London to make our final approach heading east. At 18:25, we passed Canary Wharf, instantly recognisable even at night, and touched down on the north runway at 18:30. We taxied all the way through the C gate block and ended up parked quite close to the southern end of the A blocks, where they sent a bus to come and get us (I suppose if you are going to put a flight out on the tarmac rather than at the gate, you might as well make it the one with 50 people on it…)
We made it to our parking spot at 18:40, were on the bus at 18:50 and five minutes later, I was at passport control. By the time I was through, one of my bags was already on the carousel and before long, I was through customs. It was just 19:10, an impressively quick journey all told, particularly given that the flight’s scheduled arrival time was 19:00… Hopefully things will be just as smooth when I do it all again in March!
If you want to know more about my trip to the USA, there’s a whole Travel Spot dedicated to it.
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