At one point, British Airways was considered to be the carrier for higher flying. It was the first to debut lie flat seats in business class, its route map was one of the furthest reaching in the world, and its expansive, sprawling hub at London Heathrow airport was loaded with world-class amenities. The prestige and reputation BA earned as an industry leader in the beginning years of this millennium have regrettably since faded.
As other airlines have followed suit, introducing innovative and increasingly spacious and comfortable business class seats, British Airways simply isn’t keeping up. Not all is lost though; its loyalty program, Executive Club, and its currency, Avios, are compelling options for higher flyer travel… provided that you know how to make the most of your opportunities! Its corporate policies are very complicated.
- Name: British Airways
- Code: BA
- Website: www.britishairways.com
- Hub: London Heathrow (LHR), London Gatwick (LGW)
- Destinations: 183
- Alliance: oneworld
- Loyalty Program: Executive Club (with its currency, Avios)
- Loyalty Tiers: (1) Gold, (2) Silver, (3) Bronze
Three Notable Features
- Stylish flying experience: Flying inside a premium cabin on British Airways is like riding in an English luxury vehicle. There are bold features, such as dark mood lights, rich leather textures, and brushed metal accent pieces, all of which transform the inside of an airplane into what feels like an elite lounge. It’s a more muted style than what you might find on other airlines, and the atmosphere can best be described as “tastefully refined.”
BA First Class is especially glamorous; as you indulge in the soft leather and enjoy a traditional afternoon tea at 38,000 feet, you’ll feel like a millionaire. Just like in a Jaguar or a Range Rover, the cabin accommodations will look amazing all the time.
That said, higher flyers will still enjoy stylish designs in the other classes of service. The airline’s long haul business class product, named “Club World,” is reviled by a number of commentators, but at least it looks decently cool.
Even the seats in economy class are luxurious compared to its competition. The brown leather and white stitching, complemented by the BA logo embossed into the head rest, is quite the look. It’s far superior to the tired upholstery found on so many other legacy carriers…
The visually appealing spaces are great for giving you a sense of belonging in the world of higher flying; it makes the planes feel that much more luxurious.
- Distance based award chart: On British Airways, award tickets prices are determined exclusively by the distance of a trip segment. For instance, a flight under 500 miles might cost a certain amount, one under 2,500 miles a bit more, and one over, say, 5,000 miles would be the most expensive. This bucks the industry standard of zone-based travel, which is when an airline divides the world into various regions and then sets standard redemption rates for travel between/within those areas. The former is far more transparent than the latter — something based on an unchanging distance is inherently less arbitrary than what constitutes a “zone” — and there are great deals to be found at the ends of the spectrum (i.e. really short flights and really long flights). Higher flyers can use this to their advantages and snag bargains, especially on partner carriers that might otherwise charge more miles.
- Useful partnerships in oneworld and IAG: British Airways is a subsidiary of International Airlines Group (IAG), which is also the parent company of Aer Lingus, Iberia, and two LCCs based in Spain, Vueling and Level.
From the perspective of higher flyers, this corporate organizational structure doesn’t mean too much; it doesn’t pass on a lot of benefits to customers. There’s one notable exception though: a shared point currency known as Avios. Although the different airlines all have their own respective loyalty programs (BA’s is called Executive Club), they all issue Avios to their frequent travelers. Discrepancies exist between the carriers and their policies, as they have different earnings and redemptions rates, but Avios can thankfully be transferred across accounts. This means that travel on Vueling can accrue miles that can, for example, be redeemed for a flight on Aer Lingus. Tangibly speaking in terms of redemptions though, British Airways has the cheapest economy class rates, and Iberia has the cheapest business class rates. Depending on which level of service you want when you fly, you can transfer your Avios between the two airlines to get the best possible deal. It’s nice to be afforded that flexibility, even at the cost of possible confusion…
Three Notable Drawbacks
- Avios aren’t for beginners: Pricing for Avios awards can be simple, but there are so many rules, restrictions, and quirks that dramatically impede on one’s ability to fly higher. The most egregious sin comes in the form of award ticket fuel surcharges that are priced so ludicrously, you might actually be better off outright buying the ticket. Often times in a premium cabin, you’ll pay upwards of over $1,000! Seeing that long haul Club World seats sometimes cost as low as $1,200 round trip, you’re better off just paying the premium.
You’ll add to your expenses significantly if you’re flying during a peak travel time, as British Airways charges extra depending on the season. Heaven forbid if you fly multiple legs too; BA doesn’t price things based on the final distance flown (e.g. 5,000 total miles), but rather the distances of each leg (3,000 miles on leg 1 + 1,400 miles on leg 2 + 600 miles on leg 3). This could mean the difference of tens of thousands of points. Got all that? They sure don’t make it easy. So to illustrate, say you were flying from Los Angeles to Madrid, with a layover in New York and a stopover in London and back.
You’d be redeeming Avios, so this would be the award chart you use…
The total distance of that itinerary is 6,700 miles one way, so in theory, it should cost 22,750/35,000 Avios in economy, 45,500/70,000 in premium economy, 87,500/105,000 in business, and 119,000/140,000 in first. Those aren’t great rates, but they’re not terrible either. But, when you break the itinerary down, the prices go up even further. Los Angeles to New York is about 2,500 miles, New York to London is about 3,500 miles, and from there to Madrid is another 750 or so. If you were flying in First Class, that would total up to 160,000 Avios during peak season, or 20,000 more than what it would cost if the legs were “bundled” together. You’d also be billed for three segments worth of fuel surcharges. That’s a lot to be spending for a one way trip!
- Mediocre premium cabins: The adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” definitely applies to business and first class on British Airways. The cabins are some of the sharpest looking ones in the entire industry, but it’s hard to find praiseworthy things beyond that. Lucky at One Mile At A Time likes to refer to BA First Class as the world’s best business class, which is a pretty good assessment. As for BA Club World, well, no one has many nice things to say about it. In a vacuum, both products are just fine, but when they’re compared side-by-side with other offerings on different carriers, the disparity in quality becomes evident. The bed in BA First Class is nice enough, albeit rather tight…
…but it doesn’t look too bad. But then when you see how much more space its partners and competitors have, it’s a different story!
Clearly, BA has some room for improvement. But first class is still decently competitive. Club World/Business Class is far more lacking. Even on it’s own, the product looks like a really nice premium economy.
The seats face one another, which isn’t ideal if you hate flying backwards. But even other carriers have found such far superior ways to execute that layout style. Etihad’s Business Studios are arranged quite similarly to Club World, but the former is just leaps and bounds better.
So far I’ve only covered the hard product when discussing BA’s shortcomings, and unfortunately, the soft product doesn’t do it many favors either. The food is very, uh, British (interpret that as you wish) and because of labor disputes, the quality of the flight attendants can be hit-or-miss.
The people who spent lots of time to save miles/points/cash to fly at the front of BA plane might be sorely dissappointed by what they find.
- Heathrow is one of the worst airports in the world: Heathrow has a lot going for it on paper. Its terminals are clean and airy and spacious, plus it has some of the best, most diverse amenities in the world (at least compared to other airports).
I’m a big fan of the Wagamama in Terminal 5!
But don’t be deceived by the grand architecture and natural light, Heathrow is a nightmare, and it is frequently named among the worst airports in the world. Sure, it’s a much more attractive space than say, Soekarno Hatta Airport in Jakarta, Indonesia…
…but Heathrow is a much larger, much more important airport in the realm of international travel. It connects tens of millions of people per year, but it makes the very process of getting off of a plane and on to another one far too difficult. It doesn’t help that the airport is a sprawling mess.
Be prepared to take numerous shuttle buses, clear security multiple times, and walk miles upon miles to get between gates. Also, no matter what time of day you’re scheduled to fly, I guarantee you that all four terminals will be crowded.
After dealing with all of that, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have an opportunity to take in some of the awesome Heathrow amenities that it is famous for. Or you’ll miss your flight, and then have even more time to wander around…
Three Special Opportunities
- Flights under 650 miles: Arguably the most useful facet of Executive Club is its pricing for short flights, especially between smaller airports. Usually cash rates can be astronomically expensive, and American legacy carriers are priced awfully. For example, take a flight between two rural airports on the East Coast: State College, Pennsylvania to Lynchburg, Virginia. There’s no direct flight, and you have to connect twice in Philadelphia and Charlotte. The longest leg (Philly to Charlotte) takes under 90 minutes, but the airfare is shockingly expensive.
If you wanted to use American AAdvantage miles, well, you’d still be paying far too much for what you’re getting…
In situations like these, Avios become the optimal currency to use. Even though you’d have to pay for each leg, the final cost would be 12,000 points one way, 24,000 round trip in economy class. That’s a great value, especially when compared to the alternatives.
- East Coast to Ireland for 26k Avios: This specific deal works only when you’re flying from a select few North American cities (Boston, New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Toronto), but other places in the United States like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami are only marginally more expensive. You also have to take peak travel seasons into effect — award prices won’t be as lucrative — but only roughly four months of the year have that designation: the winter holidays, mid-April, and the summer. Other than that, prices are stunningly low.
You’d be redeeming for travel on Aer Lingus, which has a respectable economy class offering. The flights are short too; at a remarkable value like this one, you’ll be flying high anyway. This is undoubtedly one of the best ways to cross the Atlantic. You’ll be hard pressed to find something that’s cheaper.
- Lots of earning opportunities: Although redemptions can be somewhat expensive, British Airways makes it rather easy to earn the Avios required for an award ticket. In addition to having decent earnings rates (usually you get at least one Avio for every one mile you travel), you can also transfer your points in from Iberia, Aer Lingus, Vueling, and Level, in addition to being able to credit travel on Alaska Airlines and other oneworld carriers. Furthermore, BA is associated with the four issuers of flex value points currencies — American Express, Chase, Citi, and Starwood — so that’s another way to see your balance increase. A few times a year, British Airways and one of its banking partners will launch promotions that yield additional Avios too. In 2017, there was a particularly lucrative transfer deal…
So while the Executive Club and Avios have their numerous flaws, at least it’s relatively easy to acquire the points needed to fly higher.
As is the case with the other airlines, British Airways has its share of strengths and weaknesses. While it isn’t one of my favorites, that doesn’t mean that its competitors are definitely superior or inferior. You probably have different experiences, perspectives, and values than I do; what matters to me may not matter to you and vice versa. The point of this guide is merely to highlight the features that makes British Airways unique, and help you better understand how it fits in to higher flying collectively.