DCA-JFK-ORY/ZRH-LHR-IAD NOV 2014: 

not quite economy

    To all those, like me, who found themselves transferred from Star Alliance to oneworld when US Airways became American Airlines, I hope it’s useful for some time to come. In a nutshell, oneworld gives us access to British Airways. And British Airways gives us access to not only a very decent, updated World Traveller Plus premium-economy product, but also to its subsidiary, OpenSkies, and Prem Plus. In November 2015, a group of six of us sampled Prem Plus from New York/JFK to Paris/Orly, and WT+ on a shiny new A380 from London/Heathrow to Washington/Dulles.

    We started out at D.C.’s National airport for the quick trip to JFK on American. I chose JFK over Newark, OpenSkies’ other U.S. base, because the OpenSkies fleet of 757s are getting rather old. In case there was any trouble with the equipment, I reckoned we’d have more back-up options for getting to Paris on BA or AA out of JFK. But while we were warned that our quick flight out of D.C. might be delayed two hours – which would’ve thrown a massive wrench into plans, had that delay actually occurred – everything with OpenSkies went smoothly.

 

WE WERE WARNED THAT OUR QUICK FLIGHT OUT OF D.C.

MIGHT BE DELAYED TWO HOURS

    The only real annoyance was JFK’s fault. American and BA use separate terminals, adding another security screening to the process. The move to American is quickly reacquainting me with JFK. I’m trying to keep an open mind…. A drunken shouter, breaking glass and making threats, on the Air Train platform as we scrambled from Terminal 8 to Terminal 7 didn’t help. Still, we made it to the OpenSkies gate in plenty of time.

    O, wait. There was another annoyance. This time, BA’s fault, before we even left the house. For a seat assignment, BA asks for more cash, about $50 per person in this instance. If you can hold out till check-in, open online 24 hours before departure, you can make the assignment at no charge. With the return flight getting fuller, I pulled the trigger and ensured we were all sitting together. For this OpenSkies flight, I was willing to let the group take its chances, as just a couple days before the flight only a tiny portion of the Prem Plus seats had been marked out as reserved. I figured that as long as I was at the laptop and ready to go the second check-in opened, we’d be fine, particularly in that we had a built-in head start over those not checking in for a prior flight. When I opened the seat map at check-in, I faced six seats, no two together, and I seethed. Seriously? Maybe some sympathetic traveler would switch a seat to at least allow our two older ladies, 79 and 82 at the time, to sit together. Maybe. I was so angry. Needlessly so, it happened, as when we checked our luggage at the American counter at DCA, our group of six was handed boarding passes in three pairs of seats together. How that system works, I have no idea.

 

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Our traveling pals across the aisle, looking quite a bit calmer than I did as we kept our fingers crossed for a nearly on-time departure. Otherwise, we'd miss not only our connecting flight, but my niece! 

The shitty, pre-departure, check-in seat assignments that were giving me kittens for no reason, in that the cabin was apparently wide open. The ghost in BA's machine has a nasty sense of humor. 

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    Actually getting on board and into those seats went smoothly. The flight wasn’t sold out, but even at capacity the OpenSkies 757 configuration holds 114 people (20 in business, 28 in Prem Plus, and 66 in economy). That compares to 176 on American’s international 757s. So, not very crowded no matter how you cut it. In the Prem Plus seat, it would be hard to feel crowded. It’s an old seat, but the roomiest in its class at 20 inches wide and 47 inches between rows. Fernando’s feet barely touched to floor. Service was gracious and quick as they tried to get us fed and asleep. The timing of this particular flight, departing around 10 p.m. and arriving around 10 a.m., was also a big plus over flights that arrive in Europe shortly after sunrise. 

 

IT'S AN OLD SEAT, BUT THE ROOMIEST IN ITS CLASS

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The relatively painless boarding process.

The newly seated selfie. 

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You may love toggles, but not as much as this plane does. 

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Look at that generous pillow! 

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Seriously, his feet could not touch the cabin floor. Big seat! 

    The catering was certainly a step above what we’re used to on a transatlantic flight in economy. Real china and cutlery always makes a difference to me. The iPad arm may have been a little clunky, but worked very well, so I got in a screening of Lucy before my sweet dreams. That loaded iPad seemed to have everything BA’s regular in-seat screen offered. The ample pillows and blankets also made sleeping easy. The turbulence, on the other hand, did not. At least I got in a couple hours before the roller coaster.

 

    By morning, the experience was a bit thinner. Breakfast came in a bag. A high-end-retailer sort of bag, granted, but there was nothing hot, save for the coffee.

 

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Seems it was a sort of Indian chicken for Fernando. I really should've saved that menu....

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Pasta for me, because my name is Will and I’m a carboholic. The Royal Doulton was a nice touch, whether for after-dinner coffee or doing double-duty as a sort of bread plate. Also, notice the French red to remind me where I was headed, along with the Tillamook to remind me where I've been. 

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Come morning, we met the day with the yogurt, juice, and cold croissant breakfast bag. Do you know the breakfast bag? Distant relation of the Muffin Man, I'm guessing. 

The enchanting view across the aisle, for perspective. 

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    The catering was certainly a step above what we’re used to on a transatlantic flight in economy. Real china and cutlery always makes a difference to me. The iPad arm may have been a little clunky, but worked very well, so I got in a screening of Lucy before my sweet dreams. That loaded iPad seemed to have everything BA’s regular in-seat screen offered. The ample pillows and blankets also made sleeping easy. The turbulence, on the other hand, did not. At least I got in a couple hours before the roller coaster.

 

    By morning, the experience was a bit thinner. Breakfast came in a bag. A high-end-retailer sort of bag, granted, but there was nothing hot, save for the coffee.

 

THE PLACE WAS EMPTY. IT WAS ALSO SAD

ONCE WE REALIZED THAT HALF THE GROUP HAD NO LUGGAGE

    Arriving at Orly, there were so many planes on the tarmac that I guessed the terminal would be crowded. I was so wrong. Passport control greeted our flight alone, after which we passed on to the one baggage carousel in action, for our flight alone. The place was empty. It was also sad once we realized that half the group had no luggage. This half our our six checked in together at the American desk at DCA, where an agent – it’s not clear if he was TSA or AA – took their bags for them, rather than the usual protocol of passengers taking their bags to the screening area after they’re tagged. Maybe their bags were selected for extra-special screening? Maybe the guy just forgot about them? Regardless, no bags. At least the BA baggage guy I spoke with by phone a few times exercised perfect customer service. That was so welcome after the baggage guy at Orly entered our report so, so badly. I’m glad I went online to check it – and correct it – as soon as we arrived at our super Time & Place Paris rental. The bags were delivered the next evening.

 

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Because societal norms and airports are often at odds, a crowded ZRH bar at 6 a.m. Specifically, the Montreux Jazz Café. 

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From bus to stairs, pre-dawn boarding our short BA flight to LHR.

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Fernando enjoying (?) his in-flight Euro Traveller eggy offering.

    For the return, we departed from Zurich around 7 a.m. At Heathrow, six of us would board a flight to Dulles, while my niece would leave us for her flight home to LAX. With a layover of about four hours, I figured we had plenty of time to say good-bye over brunch at Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food, so I made a reservation. It had been decades since I’d been to LHR, and I was excited about surveying the relatively new Terminal 5. Aside from some beautiful construction, T5 gave JFK a run for its money. First, we were stuck going through security all over again. Why the once-over in Zurich wasn’t enough, I’ve no idea. But we were left with no time to linger with the niece, whose flight left about an hour ahead of ours. We were roughly half an hour late to Plane Food, which they treated as an issue despite plenty of empty tables. The eggs were fine, but it was all far too overpriced and underwhelming to recommend strongly. And T5’s layout was equally annoying. First, our pal, Brent, tried to turn in receipts for a VAT refund. That proved maddening and he was forced to give up unless he wanted to risk missing the flight by having to return to the other side of security. A huge crowd at the elevator to take us one floor down to the little train we had to take to our gate was easily avoided by walking over to an adjacent escalator. That was difficult enough to figure out, with Big Brother signage shouting at everyone to get on the elevator and no indication at all about where the escalator was heading.

 

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More eggs! This time at Plane Food. Meh. 

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At the gate, featuring convenient recycling receptacles for Brent to surrender all his VAT-refund paperwork. 

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Finally, getting a good long look at my first A380. Magnificent! 

    Once at our gate, there was not much around. Maybe a Starbucks and a convenience shop. The view, however, nose-to-nose with an A380 was delightful.

 

    Boarding should’ve been messier, as this giant holds 469 people. After an announcement that premium passengers could board, the rest of us were given a single invitation to come on down. No zones, no boarding groups, nada. To my great surprise, it still went smoothly. We were seated in our little WT+ cabin in no time. The comfort of the seats was immediately evident, as my mother fell asleep about 10 minutes after takeoff. At 38 inches between seats, 18.5 inches wide, WT+ is a little bit tighter than Prem Plus, but it still felt like plenty of room. The chair doesn’t look like it has much padding, but it was plenty soft.

 

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Welcome to the World Traveller + cabin! Every class of service, notably, is just as moody when it comes to lighting.

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So comfortable that Mom, in pink, was sleeping soundly before we even left the gate. Across that aisle, note the legroom!

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Fernando's feet may (or may not) have touched the floor on the way home, but he seemed content. 

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Shortly after takeoff, time for the drinks service. Order a double! The FA's are usually more than happy to sedate you. Plus, this WT+ chair comes with all sorts of added tray-real-estate. Don't be afraid to use it! (Unless there's turbulence. Then, be very afraid.)

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My lunch of chicken breast, compared to Fernando's steak. No Royal Doulton this time, but not too shabby, nonetheless. Both with 'coronation salad,' which, to an American, seems more or less curried cole slaw.  

Aw, look at the adorable pre-landing nosh, in its faux picnic basket! And clotted cream? Made for the perfect tea time (tho I had coffee). 

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    When I asked my fellow travelers which they preferred overall, it was the A380 WT+ without hesitation. Why, exactly, none of them could really say. “But you had less room,” I countered. Still, whether it was that more contemporary feel of the new A380 cabin, the fact that it was a daytime flight providing more time to enjoy the entertainment and catering, the turbulence-free crossing or some other variable, I will never know. Bottom line for me, however, is that I’m thrilled to have some genuine premium-economy options. I’m too old to fly for hours with my knees pressed into the seat ahead of me. I’d gladly choose either Prem Plus or WT+ again.