British Airways First Class and a 9 seater in Costa Rica w/pics
Note, this is a long trip report with many pictures. I have broken into into several posts to make it easier to read in more that one visit. But hey, grab a coffee / Diet Coke / glass of red / bottle of whisky, and read it one go!
British Airways First LHR-MIA-LHR
American Airlines Coach MIA-SJO-MIA
Sansa Regional 9 seater propellor aircraft SJO-XQP-SJO
I'm writing this trip report out in longhand. I haven't gone all retro, it's that this trip included a short hop from San Jose to Quepos (Costa Rica) on a plane where the baggage allowance was one bag of no more than 12kg. Svelte and lithe as my beautiful Macbook Pro is, she was extraneous to my needs on this, a short trip to a friend's wedding.
At the conclusion of my last trip report, I trailed what I had hoped to be the next. The generous one-off BA half-price award sale in November 2008 had netted Mrs BiH and I tickets on BA in First to San Francisco in September 2009. For the first time in many years, work intervened and the trip was moved about within the parameters of the ticket (it had to be used by late November 2009) before mid October when I admitted defeat and cancelled the trip altogether. What a shame, 75k plus a 2-4-1 voucher for two F class seats to SFO was an absolute steal, but such is life, they went back into the ether.
I now had just over 170k miles in my account but no 2-4-1, the previous on having long since expired. My BA Amex hadn't been used much of late as I had concentrated on improving my bmi balance. The plan for 2010 was a family trip to Australia (since booked and cancelled, grr) and for Mrs BiH and I to make a quick trip to Costa Rica to the wedding of one of my oldest friends.
The 2-4-1 quickly achieved, I set about planning our route. For those of you unaware of BA's 2-4-1 voucher, it allows you to book two redemption seats for the price of one; there is just one potential sting in the tail, it's valid of itineraries on BA metal only. For the dates we planned to travel, this left us with the choice of BA to JFK, DFW or MIA to connect with a paid AA ticket or IAH to connect onto CO. I sought the guidance of those in the know on the BA forum. IAH and DFW were praised for their simplicity of transferring between planes, JFK derided for, well everything but the long AA sector to SJO in particular and MIA had as many fans as detractors. MIA won on price. The AA tickets to SJO from MIA were cheaper than any other or CO from IAH.
The wedding wasn't in San Jose, that would have been far too easy for a friend born in the Home Counties marrying a girl from the US. We would all have to schlep to Quepos on the Pacific Coast. Our choices from SJO to Quepos were 3/4 hours by road or a short hop on a tiny plane that landed on a strip amidst a sugar plantation. As a FT'er, it isn't difficult to imagine how easy that choice was. The short flight would however necessitate an overnight stop in Miami or San Jose on the way there. SANSA's last flight from SJO departs at 2pm. We chose to overnight in Miami, partly to meet up with some other friends who were also going to the wedding and had decided to spend a few days in Miami on the way there.
As the days grew closer, I looked forward to my return to the nose of a BA 747. I spent many of my Christmas holidays as a child in Kenya, flying down to Nairobi as an unaccompanied minor. I flew Y, but I recall on the last few occasions in the late 80's that on the return leg to London, the Cabin Crew moved me and the 1 or 2 other UM's to some of the spare seats in First Class for landing. As a small 12 year old, I can recall siting in what felt like a palatial amount of room, ensconced in a large, soft and well padded seat. Next to me were Captains of Industry, I can't recall what any of them actually look like but for those of you in the UK who watch Mitchell and Webb, in my mind I can see the old businessman played by David Mitchell in the 'Hennimore' sketches.
I was to return, taller, a fair bit wider and this time it was my seat for the entire flight.
Seats : 1A and 1K
Part 1 : The Heathrow Experience
After a relatively short journey to Terminal 5 our taxi pulled up at the far end of the building and we made our way towards Zone J, the First Class / BA Gold / OneWorld Sapphire check-in area. We were greeted by a member of staff who bore a broad smile and asked where we were traveling to. I replied and we were directed to a check-in agent who had just finished with another passenger. The friendly agent checked us in noting that we had secured 1A and 1K. There is much discussion on the BA board as to the merits of these seats. Some crave the privacy that they afford; you can't see the rest of the cabin and save for the person in the other seat, people can't really see you. Others are non-plussed by the alleged privacy, citing the cupboard affixed to the front wall between the two seats and how people's access to it spoils any perception of being in your own little bubble! In any case, they can't be pre-allocated unless you are a BA Premier, Gold or OneWorld Sapphire member. As neither of us are, I waited until 3 days before the flight when they became available. We had 2K and 3K reserved for the journey home so I thought it would be worth trying 1A and 1K to see what the fuss was about.
As I put our bags on the belt, I could see something sparkling on the ground. I picked it up and on closer inspection it looked like an engagement ring with a serious diamond on it. I handed it to the check-in agent in the hope that it might make its way back to its owner. With the relatively low footfall through the First check-in area, I hope its owner wasn't too hard to track down.
Checking-in to our left was a Middle-Eastern looking man with a huge number of bags. He had a BA Premier (invitation only level of the BA Executive Club) tag on his briefcase and a lady from BA Special Services attending to his numerous, polite requests.
On handing over our a boarding cards, the check-in agent made sure we knew where the Concorde Room door was and wished us a pleasant flight.
Passing quickly through the conformance check (your boarding pass is scanned to ensure that you have sufficient time to reach your aircraft) we joined the 'Fast Track' security queue reserved for First, Business and OW Elite passengers. Only one of the two 'Fast Track' lanes was staffed and we arrived just as one shift ended and another began. The numerous non-Fast Track queues to our left moved far quicker than we did. We passed through relatively unscathed. I had to be patted down (it always happens) leaving Mrs BiH to scoop up both her possessions and mine.
I pause here to note the terribly surly, condescending attitude of the security staff at Terminal 5. There really is no need.
We joined a queue of people trying to use the Concorde Room door. There are a number of lounges at Terminal 5, on the other side of the building is the Galleries Club North (Business Class lounge) from which you can quickly get from security into the lounge. On this, the South side of the building there is a Galleries Club South, a Galleries First Lounge and the Concorde Room. Here however, unless you have access to the Concorde Room, you have to take an escalator down a floor into the shopping area to then take a different escalator up again back to the lounges. As a result, a number of people who are trying to reach the First or Club lounges try their luck to get through this door, thus avoiding the multiple escalator shenanigans. The first two people were let in, the next two sent away as they only had access to the Club lounge and the final pair taken to one side by another member of staff. It seemed the final pair claim to have been told that all wheelchair passengers were entitled to use the First Class lounge; we left before the conversation got too heated but sentences were already being used that began "Now look here".
The Concorde Room
Stepping over the threshold we had our boarding passes examined by the lady at reception who offered a tour if we were unfamiliar with the lounge. Neither of us had been in before, but the BA website and a predilection for reading BA trip reports here on FT left me with a fairly good idea as to the layout. We headed straight from dining area and were shown to a booth. As we sat down, Mrs BiH had a big grin on her face and acknowledged the same on mine:
Mrs BiH: "I know why you're grinning
Me: "Do you?" (I assumed she did, I always grin before a full English breakfast)
Mrs BiH: "You saw her, you know what I am talking about"
Me: "Saw who?"
Mrs BiH: "You know"
I genuinely didn't. I discovered that we had walked past Liz Hurley as we entered the dining area. I was given permission to go back and take a surreptitious look and returned to tell Mrs BiH that whilst Liz was nice, I preferred her! The eye-rolling was cut short by our waiter who arrived and took our order
I ordered the full English and Mrs BiH took the smoked salmon with scrambled eggs. Both arrived quickly with coffee and juice.
Appetite sated I stored my bag in the cloakroom and wondered over to the Elemis Spa with Mrs BiH. Over breakfast she had changed her mind about the spa and decided that she would like a treatment. We were in luck as there was a massage appointment available just before we would have to head to our gate. In the interim, we decided to take a little wander around the shops (Mrs) and the other lounges at T5 (me).
The other lounges
I walked the length of T5 to the Galleries Club North. The entrance is located on the same level as and adjacent to the north security area. For passengers entitled to use the Club lounge, going through North security means easy access to the lounge rather than the convoluted route at the southern complex. The lounge itself is airy and spacious with a large selection of drinks and snacks. I had a Diet Coke as I ambled around.
I walked back to the south lounge complex via a few shops to browse at pens I don't need, stationary that is unnecessarily expensive and a tablet that does less than my laptop (made by the same manufacturer) that I inexplicably want. I did buy a bottle of Eau de Cologne but that was out of necessity rather than frivolity.
Returning to the south lounge complex I ventured into the Galleries First lounge. The lounge attendant was quick to remind me (as they were at the Galleries North) that I was entitled to use the Concorde Room, I thanked them both and explained that I was just having a look around. The Galleries First Lounge is large and quiet. I helped myself to a glass of Lanson Cuvee 1999 and took a seat by the windows. As I reached the end of my glass, Mrs BiH rang to say she was back in the Concorde Room and so I returned.
Back to the Concorde Room
Mrs BiH and I had arranged to meet on the Concorde Room terrace. Aside from us, there was just one other person sitting outside, whereas most of the sofas inside were occupied. Whilst the terrace might be a little noiser (it overlooks the main terminal area, it was quite cool and breezy compared to the main lounge which felt quite warm and stuffy.
We were quickly approached by a waiter and Mrs BiH ordered a cup of tea from the extensive selection. BA offer a range of silk tea pyramids and Mrs BiH was impressed with the quality of the tea. She received a call from work and quickly indicated that it might be a while so I went for a look around the lounge. My first stop was the 'Board Room' where BA had turned seats from Concorde into swivel chairs.
Originally, two other guests attending the wedding were supposed to be on our flight and had accepted our invitation to join us in the CCR. The day before however, I received a phone call to tell me that they had to delay their flights by 24 hours. I went onto BA97.com to see if there were any names I recognised from the BA FT board whom I could invite instead. There was one, but as he was meeting some friends in the Galleries First lounge he declined my invitation.
After an obligatory look at Flyertalk, I went back into the main lounge area.
It was almost time for Mrs BiH's treatment in the Spa. I gathered our belongings and headed for the champagne bar, agreeing to meet her outside the spa so that we could head for the B gates together. Sitting at the bar, I decided to try the two other champagnes on offer, first up the Lanson Rose.
The first sip was insipid. Giving it the benefit of the doubt, I let it warm slightly (it was icy cold) but alas I remained unimpressed. The bartender watched me make some notes and came straight over to suggest I try the Bruno Paillard Rose instead.
This was better. It tasted 'slightly pink' and peachy with a medium finish, so not overly dry. Noticing how quickly I drank it, I made a tactical decision to follow it up with a glass of orange juice rather than a second as I whiled away my final 10 minutes in the lounge. Mrs BiH's appointment in the spa was schedule to finish at just the right time for us to take the shuttle to Terminal 5B. I collected my bag and made my way out to the lobby.
I sat in one of the comfy chairs in the lobby between the lounge entrances and shortly thereafter Mrs BiH joined me. We walked down to the main terminal area and took the shuttle to Terminal 5B. On arrival, I noticed the huge Virgin Atlantic advert that greets passengers on the mezzanine between escalators! On arrival at our gate, we saw a full compliment of passengers ready to board a 747 to Miami. The Fast Track queue was several people deep but very little appeared to be going on save that a couple of pushchairs were being tagged. A few minutes passed before an announcement was made. There was a problem with the aircraft and so departure would be delayed. Above the collective groans, the announcement invited anyone eligible to use the Galleries lounge to return there and await further information.
Galleries Club Terminal 5B
We spent about 45 minutes in the lounge. The departure time kept slipping until finally there was an announcement inviting us to board. A glass of tomato juice was quickly abandoned on the grounds of being stale (a passing member of staff agreed and had the jug removed) and replaced with an espresso and a bag of kettle chips (or perhaps two, I don't like to keep count!) When the boarding announcement was made, the majority of the people in the lounge left. Given the relatively short period of time between a flight being shown as departing from T5B and boarding time, I wonder if the primary use of this Galleries Club lounge is for those on flights that have been delayed?
The Fast Track queue was empty but of course there aren't separate entrances to the aircraft and so you then join the general queue of people trying to get on board. After what seemed like the longest jetbridge I can recall (it was one of the gates on the corner of T5B for those in the know), we reached the door of the aircraft.
We were greeted by a member of the crew who asked if we would like to be shown to our seats. His kind offer declined, we made our way through the World Traveller Plus cabin to the nose of the aircraft. We were welcomed to the cabin and offers were made to store jackets and my Travelpro in the cabinet between 1A and 1K (there are no overhead lockers directly above these seats). I removed a few things from my bag and stored it. As I did so we were offered a drink and both opted for water (still for her, sparkling with a slice of lime for me). There was an amenity kit waiting by each seat and pajamas were distributed soon after.
The crew told us that there had been a couple of minor problems, one of which was that the PA system had begun to emit 'white noise' at very high volumes rather than music or announcements. Almost on queue, it did so again. Thirty seconds of music punctuated long periods of squelching and squawking. The CSD (Cabin Service Director) arrived and managed to explain to us all that a engineer was on his way to fix the PA system. They had managed to switch it off completely but that it was far from ideal to do so. We were going to be held up a little longer so came out with a bottle of Laurent Perrier 2000 and glasses for everyone not currently drinking. Neither of us required much persuasion to have a glass.
He spent a while talking to my wife and I. We discovered that aside from the PA problem, there had been a snag when Gate Gourmet had been loading the aircraft. It transpired that a member of GG staff had neglected to put up a metal safety bar to prevent trolleys from tipping over the side when being loaded. Sure enough, a gust of wind caught a precariously balanced trolley and over it went towards the wing. Aside from replacing the contents of the trolley, the wing had to be inspected to ensure that no damage had been done. Mrs BiH's face was a picture for a moment as she clearly contemplated whether our aircraft had a trolley sized hole in the wing. The CSD reassured her that the wing was fine. There was however, a third issue. Our relief First Officer had a sufficient number of hours to be on duty so long as the flight departed close to its original slot. As it now wouldn't (due to the PA problem reoccurring) we had to wait for another First Officer.
He eventually arrived to much applause and within minutes we pushed back and made our way towards the runway. We finally took off 1 hour and 40 minutes late. The Captain explained that whilst we would make up some of that time in flight, we would arrive late and that BA ground staff in Miami had already begun the process of rebooking those passengers who would now miss their connecting flights. We had an overnight stop in Miami which seemed all the more sensible in the circumstances.
Once the seat belt sign was extinguished the crew sprang into life and distributed menus and wine lists. Whilst I hadn't seen the latter, the former had been emailed to me by the YouFirst team. Mrs BiH no longer eats red meat and so of late has ordered a vegetarian meal. They have ranged from poor to appalling and so an early indication of the menu allowed her to stick with the standard options and choose on board.
London - Miami
* Mille-feuille of artichokes, peas and broad beans with parmesan cream sauce (V)
* Loch Fyne citrus-marinated smoked salmon with lime creme fraiche
* Fennel veloute (V)
* Fresh Summer salad with your choice of balsamic dressing with golden rapeseed oil or creamy mint and black pepper dressing
* Char-grilled sirloin of Herefordshire beef with bearnaise sauce, pont-neuf potatoes and a salad of sun-blushed tomato with French bean
* Assiette of salmon, monkfish gilt-head bream and poached vegetables with saffron jus tiger prawns
* Roast Gressingham duckling with marinated cherries, vegetable macedoine and potato and celeriac rosti
* Caesar salad with grilled tiger prawns and brioche croutons
* Penne carbonara with wilted rocket and piquillo peppers (V)
* Roast Mediterranean vegetables on toasted Manoucher bread with Feta and coriander pesto (V)
A Selection of Cheese and biscuits
* Summer fruit jelly with vanilla ice cream
* Cherry pie
First Class July 2010 Wine List Aperitif
Laurent-Perrier Brut Millesime 2000
* Chablis 1er Cru Beauroys 2004, Domaine Laroche, Burgundy
* Hawksburn Terrace Pinot Gris 2008, Central Otago
* Fog Head San Bernabe Chardonnay, California
* Chateau Giscours 2002, 3eme Grand Cru Classe, Margaux, Bordeaux
* Maremesa Pinot Noir 2007, San Luis Obispo, California
* Chinon Clos de l'Echo 2006, Couly-Dutheil, Loire
D'Arenberg The Noble Mud Pie, 2008, South Australia
Warre's 1992 Colheita Tawny Port
Spirits, Digestifs and Liqueurs
Gonzalez Byass Sherries
Smirnoff Black Label Vodka
Tanqueray No. Ten Gin
Johnnie Walker Blue Label Scotch Whisky
Woodford Reserve Kentucky Whiskey
Otard XO Cognac
We were served throughout the flight by two cabin crew, initially by a confident and knowledgeable lady from Northern Ireland (take-off to mid-flight) and another who at first seemed slightly nervous, but we later discovered was new to serving in First (mid-flight to landing). I had a refill of the Lanson and quickly devoured the ramekin of cashew nuts that accompanied it. The delay leaving Heathrow meant that rather than lunch around 2pm, it was now getting on for 4pm. Whilst I had sated my appetite with a full English breakfast earlier in the day, I had resisted the urge to each more and by now felt quite hungry. Lunch orders were swiftly taken and the galley appeared to be a hive of industry.
When the menus were handed out I indicated that I would like to eat lunch with Mrs BiH using the buddy seat. I made myself comfortable as the table was laid for us. At 5'6", the relatively small space was sufficient for a short lunch. I doubt that the taller and/or larger framed person would have been quite so content to sit for very long.
The amuse was a shot of cream, guacamole and gazpacho style soup, with my favourite Gails Organics multi-seed snap bread on the side. The gazpacho was quite poor, but the guacamole was piquant and lively.
Our starters arrived, I chose the salmon and Mrs BiH opted for salad. The salmon was well presented and had a mild lime tang to it. It was a basic, competent dish that clearly had widespread appeal. When my order was taken, I could see how many of each starter and main had been loaded. Whilst I can't recall the exact numbers, it would seem that there was twice as many salmon starters compared with the others. Alongside the salmon, I had originally intended to have a glass of the Chablis but on tasting it, changed my mind. The chablis was young and had little flavour in the air. I opted instead for the New Zealand Hawksburn Terrace Pinot Gris. This was a typical young new world wine with greater punch; a safer bet at 35,000 feet.
With the starters cleared away I was asked whether I wanted to stay with the white or move on to a red with my sirloin. I opted for the latter and asked if it would be possible to try all three. "Of course you may" and moments later, three glasses were placed before me, each wine presented and poured. I was given some time to try each and I selected the Chinon. The Margeux was too cold (I would discover how much better it was at room temperature on my return) and the Pinot Noir somewhat insipid.
For our main course, Mrs BiH had opted for the assiette of salmon, monkfish, gilt-head bream and poached vegetables with saffron jus tiger prawns. I recall that many BT FT'ers had in the past remarked at the quality of the 'catch of the day' option in F, ex-LHR and it did not disappoint. I tried a little of the monkfish and was very impressed. Sadly, the same could not be said for my sirloin. It had spent far too long in the steam oven being re-heated and now resembled a piece of shoe leather. As I battled away with my knife, like a lumberjack trying to fell a mighty oak, I caught a glance of Mr 2K who was doing much the same. I have in the past, asked the crew to 'cook' a piece of red meat for the minimum permissible time in order to keep it as close to medium as possible (recognising that anything sub-medium is nigh on impossible) but I had neglected to do so this time. I ate the chips and salad. The beef was smothered in the impressive bernaise and chewed throughly but I gave up after four or five mouthfuls. I was asked whether I wanted something else instead but it was quite late now and my hunger had passed so I declined.
Mrs BiH declined cheese or desert in favour of a bottle of water and a movie on the IFE. I took that as my queue to vacate the buddy seat. I returned to 1K and had a plate of cheese and a glass of port there whilst I watched 'Date Night' with Tina Fey and Steve Carrell. A little more Cropwell Bishop Stilton and a refill of my port arrived as if by magic. When that was cleared away, the crew recalled that I had declined a coffee straight after lunch and had asked for an espresso once I had finished my cheese and port. With a small gap that allowed my lunch to settle, it arrived with perfect timing.
The BA F seat
In the late 1990's BA were amongst the first wave of airlines to move away from 2x2 seating in First to single pods that extended into a 7 foot bed. As other airlines caught up and surpassed the BA offering, it has been refurbished and refreshed before going through an evolutionary step in early 2010, much to the dismay of many who wanted to see a revolutionary step. I knew that the new F product had only been installed on one 747 and that whilst it had been on the early Miami flight once, it hadn't been seen on this route again.
The seat was comfortable and afforded a degree of privacy. In our case, it was perhaps enhanced by being in 1A and 1K where you can't see anyone else and they can't see you. Whilst the two centre pairings might be good for couples who want to talk to each other, they seemed quite exposed. I could hear much of the conversation between the occupants of those seats. The range of seating positions and lumbar support suited me and my preference to 'lounge' rather than lie flat. The tray table was large and solid. Much like many other First Class cabins, the overhead light was too weak during the day and too bright in the dark. I prefer to rely on the personal reading light located on a stalk above my head. It's too weak on the current design and I hope the reading lamp on the new F seat is brighter. The IFE screen was adequate but I am glad to see its increase in size by a fair proportion in the redesign.
The cabin itself seemed in fair condition considering the age of the seat. I have sat in tatty seats that were first introduced in the year I flew and perfect examples of a very old style recliner. The state of the cabin is not a reflection necessarily of the adequacy of a product, but the respect it gets and the money invested in keeping it in good shape.
Afternoon tea was offered around the cabin as people woke from their sleep or reached a convenient break in viewing the IFE. I had spent the afternoon with my seat in a comfortable lounging position as I re-read 'The Man who ate the World' by Jay Rayner. The large quantity of wine earlier in the day and the assumed looks from Mrs BiH meant that I stuck to sparkling water for the rest of the journey.
After a little more reading and a chance to catch up on some of my favourite podcasts it was time to begin our decent into Miami International Airport. The cabin was spruced up for landing and the occupants did much the same with much application of make-up, hair tousling and liberal sprays of perfume and aftershave. We landed and taxied to our gate where after a short delay we exited out onto the jetway and felt the stifling early evening humidity of Miami in July. The crew were thanked and ensured that the First class cabin was empty before allowing the rest of the passengers to leave. As is our usual strategy, we walked briskly through the terminal to get to Immigration. I pause here to note the state of the terminal building. Miami is under a huge amount of renovation at the moment. Concourse F is need of a huge amount of TLC; it currently skirts the line between shabby and shambolic. The Immigration hall's low ceilings are reminiscent of the now (thankfully) demolished Terminal 2 at London Heathrow.
My previous experience of US Immigration over the last 20 odd years has been one of long lines with Officers who ranged from very friendly to perfunctory. This was the first time that either of us had encountered overt rudeness. Firstly, we were chided like school children for filling in a Visa Waiver Form. Onboard, the CSD had informed us that there had been problems with ESTA over the last few days and so they had been advised to ensure passengers fill in the waiver form, just in case. The Officer informed us that if you have an ESTA, no form is required. I thought about explaining what we had been advised on board, that this was our first visit with an ESTA and that the abolition of the form was recent, but it would have probably made matters worse. We were then quizzed about the exact dates, ports of entry and exit for our last 5 trips. The questions continued; what did we do for a living, could we prove that, why were we transiting through the US to get to Costa Rica (I was asking myself the same question at that stage), why Miami in particular, why were we staying overnight. I could see secondary screening raising it's head for the first time, but eventually he finished and handed back our Passports.
Our bags were amongst the first 10 or so, all of which had First or Club tags on them. Once through Customs, we emerged into the arrivals area. If my first impressions of Miami airport were poor, they managed to go downhill even further. In scenes reminiscent of a Greyhound bus station at peak time, we wandered around for a bit trying to find out where the Hotel courtesy buses depart from. Eventually we realised that it was from the departures level above and we made our way into the humid Miami night. A short while later, we checked-in to the very quiet Sofitel. I chose the Sofitel because I found a fantastic rate that included a $50 hotel credit which effectively covered our dinner (I had a steak to compensate myself for the shoe leather I hardly ate onboard).
As usual, my plan to watch one of the US shows I enjoy at home, whilst in the US, failed. The Daily Show was on a break; damn you John Stewart!
Our rate also included in-room breakfast. Mrs BiH had her usual healthy mix of fruit, muesli and toast. I had french toast with some crisp bacon and a good helping of maple syrup.
American Airlines (Coach)
Seats: 25B and C
After a short bus journey from the Sofitel, we arrived back at Miami International for our flight to San Jose. The self-service check-in machine offered us the chance to buy access to group 1 boarding at $10 each but I declined on the basis that we had decided to check our bags and had no need to fight for overhead locker space. The machine wouldn't print our boarding passes without intervention from an AA supervisor. She explained that as a non-US Passport holders, someone from AA had to visually verify our Passport. The queue to check our bags moved quickly despite its length. Our bags tagged to SJO, we then walked to the end of the building in order to drop them off with the TSA; the art of integrated baggage handling being something yet to reach Miami! (I'm sure that the refurbished AA terminal will be different).
The security line was quick and we met up with our friends who were also attending the same wedding. They had spent a few nights in Miami and flown LX Business. The wait for our flight to board was spent listening to our friends tell us about Miami over a coffee. Though the flight was full, boarding was pretty quick with little of the overhead locker fighting that I have experienced in the past. Our friends were in the same seats as us, one row ahead. The two window seats and both HJK seats in rows 24 and 25 were occupied by a large family. I was half expecting them to ask if we would move to the AB seats so that they could have the aisles, but thankfully, they did not.
Mrs BiH looked around the cabin and then at me; she vowed never to laugh at my rapacious quest to earn miles by using our credit cards at every given opportunity! The safety video whirred into action and were treated to it in both English and Spanish. I gave it my full attention as we pushed back from the gate on time and made our way to the runway.
The single cart slowly made its way from front to back. As it reached me I was engrossed in an article about Albert Pujols. I asked for a ginger ale and returned to the article. A minute or two later, the man sitting in window seat, knocked over his Coca-cola and it 'hit' Mrs BiH on the leg. No great drama. It was made worse however, by the man deciding that Mrs BiH's tray table was in the way and so he tried to close it despite the half filled glass and three-quarter filled can of juice that was sitting on it. Cue more canned beverages spilling over people, seats and the floor. The chap seemed genuinely mortified at both exhibitions of silliness.
We arrived on time and despite being at the back of the plane, made it through immigration very quickly only to wait ages for our bags. I passed the time by withdrawing some Collones (local currency). Though I had checked the exchange rate before I left the UK, I didn't trust myself as I starred at the screen. I was reminded of Top Gear challenge where May and Hammond are on a Speedboat that goes tech on the Swedish coast. They find a cash machine and suddenly realise that they have no idea whether they are about to withdraw enough for a coffee or a slap up meal. Thankfully, the cash machine was located next to a Bureau de Change so I was able to verify the numbers I had in my head.
On exiting the Customs hall, I knew that our next flight was from the domestic terminal located around the corner from the main building. We were accosted by a SANSA Regional rep who insisted that the terminal was "far away" and that we could get a taxi for $10 each. I thanked her and explained that we wanted to "stretch our legs after a long flight".
Cessna 208B Grand Caravan
Seats: Just behind the Pilots
The domestic terminal is a corrugated iron shed located next to the brand spanking new main terminal at SJO. We walked through the car park and into the shed where check-in was located. SANSA Regional don't have an interline agreement with anyone other than their parent airline, TACA. With this in mind, as a separate ticket, we padded out our connection time but had arrived just in time for the flight before ours. The change fee was small, smaller in fact than our excess baggage charge; the allowance was a mere 12kg per person. To the right of check-in was security where I lost my deodorant. Nothing flammable was allowed on board. When I protested that had I put it in my checked baggage, they wouldn't have known, the man smiled and said "you should have". I received a ticket which I could use to collect said items on my return.
We sat in the holding area which could hold no more than 20 people for 10 minutes or so, before they asked those traveling to Quepos to board. Aside from the four of us, there were two other passengers. As I handed over my reusable laminated boarding pass, I was asked to follow our Captain who led us on board.
There it was. I had never been in a plane so small before. As I grinned with excitement, Mrs BiH got out a magazine, a move she later confessed helped take her mind off what she thought was going to be a frightening experience. After the First Officer had completed a visual inspection of the plane, he entered the cockpit and the Pilots went through the pre-flight checklist.
We taxied out to the runway and following a short take-off roll, climbed into the clear blue sky. The aircraft shook a bit during the climb but as we steadied out at our cruising height the ride was smooth. The flight time was approximately 20 minutes and at the halfway point, I got my first glimpse of the Pacific coast
Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park.
We began our descent, but I couldn't quite see what we were descending towards. Suddenly, from between the trees (as I thought, sugar plants as I later discovered) I saw the runway.
We came in hard and fast and the brakes were slammed hard as the wheels hit the ground. The aircraft quickly slowed down and we parked in a tiny area just off the runway. As I got off the plane, I took a photo from our end of the runway looking back towards the other.
We walked across the runway to the terminal (a corrugated iron garage) whilst our bags were retrieved from the hold.
A few days later and it was time to make our way home. We were doing the journey home in one go.
Cessna 208B Grand Caravan
Seats: Just behind the Pilots
We arrived at Quepos airport an hour before our flight departed. The terminal is a private building and anyone who enters (including passengers) is charged $3 for the privilege of doing so!
Inside the small one room building we found the SANSA check-in desk, (as yet unmanned), a refreshment stall, a timeshare sales stand and a seating area in the middle of plastic garden furniture. We sat patiently as the other passengers on our flight began to arrive. When the check-in desk finally opened 15 minutes later, everyone approached the desk in the order they arrived. Unlike our flight from SJO, there was no excess baggage fees (despite the bags weighing the same) and our hand baggage wasn't subject to any form of scrutiny.
Once the last passenger was checked-in the Pilots led us out to the aircraft
We sat in the same seats as on the way out. This Cessna Caravan was a little older than the one on the way out. It had a traditional cockpit with dials rather than the glass screened version we flew in to Quepos. The view was different as we flew towards the more densely populated capital. We landed at San Jose on time and the small aircraft quickly taxied to the domestic terminal.
American Airlines (Coach)
Seats: 25B and C
Bags retrieved, we walked back to the International Terminal and joined the line to pay the Costa Rican departure tax. First time visitors to Costa Rica all seem to do the same thing (us included), you join the line and as you get closer, are able to read the signs that state that using a credit card to pay the tax will be classified as a cash advance by your card issuer. Cue people leaving the line to queue at the ATM to withdraw US Dollars and then rejoining the queue. My own slight variation was to leave my card in the ATM machine and walk off with my money. A good samaritan came running after me to return it and I thanked him profusely.
Tax paid, we joined the American Airlines check-in queue. Despite having 7 desks open, it moved very slowly and it took almost 45 minutes before we were called to a desk. Boarding passes in hand we went through security where Mrs BiH's handbag was subject to great scrutiny. The language barrier meant that it took place in silence with the bag eventually handed back with a nod "okay".
We made our way to the gate. Here we found a few others who had been at the wedding. They had taken a private taxi from Quepos to the airport. It had left an hour before us and arrived before check-in was open. They had been waiting around and looked tired. Our flight was slightly delayed and eventually we were called to board. Thusfar we had been spared the usual liquid restrictions but people were seemingly being stopped randomly on the jet bridge and items confiscated.
The last few rows were quite sparsely populated so each couple had three seats. I moved to the window seat and took a photo as we began pushback. San Jose airport appears to have been extensively rebuilt and looks very much like the usual glass and steel structure seen across the world. The gates used by AA appear to be new and the building work in the photo below would seem to be the existing gate area being rebuilt.
Tired from the last few days, I (and most around me) fell asleep soon after take off waking only when the drinks cart reached our row. I had a Ginger Ale and continued (re-)reading "The Man who ate the World". Soon we we beginning our descent into Miami. The warm haze of Southern Florida illuminated the cabin as we flew past MIA and then turned back to land. We reached our gate and then waited almost 20 minutes whilst an errant jetway was slowly coaxed into life. The ground crew's persistence was much appreciated as the heavens opened shortly after we arrived on stand. Eventually we made our way out of the aircraft and in to the terminal building. We had arrived at the remote E gates which looked deserted as we made our way to the train that links back to the main building. The remote gates have their own FIDS area but we were directed to the main terminal and the facilities there.
I have a knack of picking the slowest queue and so ordinarily I invite whomever I'm with to choose. For some reason, I ignored my own poor form and we paid dearly. We appear to have picked the queue where everyone in front of us had a problem of some sort. We moved queue a couple of times until it was almost empty and we were amongst the last of the wave we arrived in to be processed. At one stage, I saw the Officer who had processed us on the way into Miami, report for duty and take over at a booth nearby. Mrs BiH vetoed my plan to move to his queue for she feared that I wouldn't be able to help myself reply sarcastically if faced with the same barrage of questions. All the bags from our flight had been delivered by the time we reached the carousel. The ground staff had started to remove them from the belt and pile them up in the corner of the hall.
The other couple were flying home on Swiss via Zurich. They went to find their check-in desk as we found ours.
The WT and WT+ desks we busy with a small queue. On the lcd display above the desks they were offering upgrades to WT+ though it didn't say how much. At one of the Club World desks adjacent to us a Silver card holder was rather annoyed that he couldn't pay to upgrade to Club; the reason being that the flight was full in F and J! We approached the empty First Class desk and I handed over our Passports. Unlike LHR, there were F baggage tags available for hand baggage (and CW at the CW desk). I took one as a souvenir. We had enjoyed 1A and 1K on the outwards journey and thanks to a friend at home, we had managed to secure them on the way home. As the check-in agent tapped away, I caught sight of a laminated piece of A4 paper that had a seat map of the F cabin. The agent explained that it was helpful for passengers unfamiliar with the F product on BA in either explaining where they were seated or allowing them to select a seat.
We met up with the other couple who had checked-in at the Swiss desk in the shiny new terminal. I can't visit the US without eating a ridiculously large burger or a huge rack of ribs. Since it would be a few hours before dinner on board and given that we had skipped lunch, we decided to have dinner in the terminal. Spying a branch of Chillis, we sat down for an early dinner. As others ordered more sensibly, I explained my predicament to the waiter who immediately recommended a burger doused in bbq sauce and several strips of very crisp bacon. What a recommendation; it was magnificent.
It was time to part ways, they went off to their concourse and we walked back to concourse F where BA flights depart from. We went up the escalator at the back of the check-in area to an empty security area. There is a fast-track line for BA and Virgin premium passengers but there was no need to use it. Through our last (and thankfully quickest) security check of the day, we walked the length of the F concourse to the Club America lounge. A charming member of BA ground staff with a french accent welcomed us to the lounge. She apologised that it was nowhere near the standard of a Terraces or Galleries First Class lounge, adding that of course nothing could compare to the Concorde Rooms. This was nowhere near as cheesy as it may look on screen. We were directed to the F section of the lounge.
I had read much about the Club America lounge here on FT and it was as described; a standard Business class lounge with virtually no food (not that I needed any after eating the aforementioned burger) and a small selection of alcohol. Moreover, as an F lounge it felt very crowded and noisy though this is an accusation I can level at others I have visited. The WiFi wouldn't work and the computer in the business centre were so old that the Smithsonian were in the process of collecting them for posterity. I passed the time by reading the Independent, getting my first fix of British news for a number of days. My attention was occasionally diverted by yet another person with an iPad. I would continue to remind myself that I didn't need one.
Finally, the member of BA ground crew made an announcement that the flight was now ready for those in the lounge to board. She reminded us of the gate and that priority boarding for those eligible was from the adjacent gate.
(Again, apologies for the blur)
On arrival at the aircraft door we were shown to our seats and warmly welcomed to the F cabin by the CSD. We would be served this evening by a male steward from Northern Ireland and like his female counterpart on the outbound flight, he was excellent. Mrs BiH asked for a glass of water explaining that she didn't want any dinner and intended to sleep all the way to London. She was offered pajamas and changed before we pushed back. I on the other hand had got a second wind and decided to sample a light dinner and little wine. I had a glass of champagne as boarding continued. We were amongst the last to board and the doors were closed soon afterwards.
The cabin lights were dimmed as we made our way to the active runway. With the lights down, I felt a little sleepy but in the interests of my trip report and enjoying the F experience, I decided to soldier on once we took off. Many on the BA board recommend flying F to the US and J on an overnight flight back; the point being that F service is worth enjoying during the day but at night, a flat bed and a snack is all you really need. The 25k mile difference (total, remembering that this was two award tickets for the price of one) seemed small, neither of us had flown BA F before and let's face it, I like flying First Class! The four powerful Rolls Royce engines made light work of heaving a fully laden 747 towards London. As the cabin lights went up, those who hadn't changed into their pajamas did so. Our crew member came over and suggested that he made Mrs Baggageinhall's bed first and then served me dinner. We agreed. As I looked around a full cabin, it appeared that only three of us intended to eat, the other 11 turning in for the night. Mrs BiH asked to be woken for a cold breakfast before donning her headphones to listen to some soothing music as she drifted off. She was kind enough to take a moment to remind me that I had sampled most of the bar on the way out, that I might not want to repeat the outbound mini-hangover and that finally, I could find paracetamol in her handbag as a last resort and even then only in the morning, well after I had stopped drinking!
The advice heeded, I took a look at tonight's menu and wine list. The former had been emailed to me by YouFirst a month previously, the latter was as the outbound flight and can be found above.
* Smoked salmon on fingerling potato salad.
* Cherry tomato, basil and smoked Mozzarella tart with aragula pesto cream sauce
* Corn and red pepper soup
* Fresh salad leaves with your choice of balsamic vinaigrette or creamy Greek dressing
* Steakhouse rib-eye with creamed spinach and roast potato wedges
* Pan-roasted scallops with warm vinaigrette, saffron potatoes au gratin and green beans
* Lamb shank shepherd's pie with peas and pancetta
* Indonesian-style chicken with wild rice and barley salad with pineapple chutney.
* Smoked Mozzarella gnocchi with peperonata sauce.
* Cherry crumble with vanilla ice cream
* A selection of biscuits
* A selection of cheese and fruit
* A choice of smoothies, fruit juice, cereals and fruit.
* A wide selection of breakfast pastries and rolls
* Warm bacon roll.
* Traditional English breakfast of freshly scrambled eggs, bacon, bangers, mushrooms, baked beans in tomato sauce and roast tomato.
* Wilds mushroom and cheese herb crepe.
* French toast stuffed with blueberry Mascarpone.
* Selection of teas and coffees.
After the massively disappointing steak on the outbound flight I steered clear and chose the scallops. The lingering effects of the earlier burger was atoned by selecting the salad dressed with olive oil. My table was laid and tonight's amuse brought to my table.
Three stone cold slices of duck breast with a very ordinary chutney and a small slick of balsamic reduction. The duck was overcooked and very chewy. The layer of fat had been crisped at the very edge but in its cold state, had returned to the same thick gelatinous consistency as the layer underneath. In short, it was terrible. The steward returned and took away the plate noting that very few people had anything good to say about it. He replaced it with my salad and a small bottle of extra virgin olive oil.
By complete contrast, the salad was fresh and the artichoke that sat proudly on top was delicious. I was impressed with the olive oil too. Whilst the menu suggested it was available for a limited time only, I can recall seeing it on the menu of just about every BA F trip report I have read on this forum. With the salad, I had a glass of the Margaux. On the outbound I hadn't really been that impressed with it. It may just have been too cold. The Steward had mentioned it was a favourite of his and had taken the liberty of trying to get it back up to room temperature soon after take off. This time I could taste some of the more subtle notes that were missing previously.
Remembering for a moment that I was on an aircraft, the scallops were quite good. Considering they had been reheated in a small oven they weren't too tough or rubbery. I knew the risk when I ordered them and in part that is why I did, just to see how they would turn out. The gratinated potatoes had been smothered in bog standard salty, acidic American made cheese and were hardly touched. I drank the small glass of Chablis and pushed the food around for a moment more before giving up.
My appetite for something savory still hadn't been extinguished. I didn't want pudding so opted for piece of Wisconsin blue. I'm not really a fan of American made cheese but if anyone could produce something edible, it would be the good people of WI. Sadly not. It was replaced by a piece of Brie which I enjoyed with a glass of The Noble Mud Pie.
Time to turn in for the night, or so I thought. After my table was cleared, I tried to turn my seat into a bed but after a few seconds of movement the seat froze. I hit the call light and explained the problem to the Steward who came back with another member of the crew. They removed the bottom panel at the back of the seat and began to manipulate my seat into a bed. I suggested using the spare seat in F but was told that it was inoperable and wouldn't move from the normal seating position. As a last resort, there was a spare seat in Club World that I could use if necessary. After a few more minutes of manipulation, my seat was now a bed. The various prodding seemed to have reinvigorated the electronic controls and I was able to select a comfortable position to watch a film before dozing off. I had asked the Steward if wouldn't mind checking whether I was awake before the breakfast service commenced. If I was, I would take the traditional English breakfast; if not a double espresso and an orange juice would suffice just before descent.
I slept well and woke just after the breakfast service began. There was still time for a traditional breakfast but I opted for coffee and juice on the basis that we intended to eat in the arrivals lounge. As we came in to land I managed to get a photo of my house (it's there somewhere in shot!)
We taxied to the same gate that we departed from on the edge of T5B. A short queue at immigration and the journey time to the baggage hall left me hoping that our bags might emerge quickly from the depths of T5. Alas after 20 minutes of inactivity we were told that there was a problem with the cargo doors which were refusing to open. It was just over 90 minutes after we landed before the first bags arrived and thankfully ours were amongst the first wave. We made our way to the arrivals lounge for breakfast and headed into the Concorde Room breakfast room.
There were two other couples (one from our flight) already in the room when we arrived. Mrs BiH had a vegetarian breakfast and I opted for the full English. Unlike in the plate presented to me in the Concorde Room departures lounge, this was awful. The bacon was cheap and nasty, the sausage was bland and the eggs tasted like they were made with egg powder. It was a disappointing way to end the BA F experience.
Our taxi driver rang to say he was almost at T5 so we collected our bags and made our way home
British Airways First is a good product that is let down by obvious cost cutting. The Concorde Room fulfills all the criteria I look for in a lounge, it's quiet and has a good selection of food and drink. Onboard, BA still have some fantastic crew who are willing to go the extra mile. The seat may be outdated but it's comfortable and affords a decent degree of privacy. If BA can continue to operate 14 F seats, profitably, then I don't see why they should make the cabin smaller to increase either the size of the seat or the multitude of partitions available on other carriers.
Against that, the premium experience from the Concorde Room lounge to the aircraft leaves a lot to be desired. I'm not the first to say it and I certainly won't be the last but BA really need to improve this. The food onboard osculated from being pretty good to pretty poor. Finally, the quality of the wine served onboard is low compared with other airlines in First. The recent news that Jancis Robinson has tendered her resignation from the wine panel at BA comes as no surprise.
I've now flown First Class on BA (747), Swiss (A332 and A340), Singapore Airlines (747), Lufthansa (747) and Thai (747). In my limited experience, here is how I would rank the various facets of their First Class product. Whilst I appreciate that the sample size is small, there is something to be said for First Class delivering consistently.
1. Thai Royal First Lounge, Bangkok. Massive, spacious, quiet, top notch food and drink.
2. The Concorde Room, Heathrow.
3. The Lufthansa First Class Terminal, Frankfurt. Excellent food and drink complimented by a very well stocked bar.
4. Swiss First Class Lounge, Zurich. A little disjointed and industrial
First Class seat
1. Swiss. Comfy plump leather seat. Felt like sitting on a favourite coach. Converts into a soft bed.
2. Thai / BA / Singapore. Not much to separate the actual seat. In terms of cabin layout however, the order suggested is from most spacious to least.
3. Lufthansa. Outdated. No privacy
Food and Drink
2. Singapore Airlines
4. BA / Lufthansa
Very nice read. Enjoyed all of it. Too bad that it cost you more miles in the end. They could have been put to good use. I love the comment that your wife is now going to be more diligent about using her CC for everything....my wife has not used cash for months...
Mind boggling that after all this time that they can't present something as simple as a steak that's edible; once upon a time it was a fillet of beef carved on a trolley, but if they persistently can't provide a decent, basic steak, why are they bothering? BA, bear in mind that passengers in F are potentially paying $ 000s. Pathetic
I've only seen the laminated F seat plans at SFO which I thought was quite a nice touch.
I don't entirely get the whole 'amuse bouche' thing. Being BA it is obviously a cost cutting thing over the previous canape 'selection' of 3 items. At least with 3 small items there was a chance that non-seafood, vegetarians etc etc might actually get something they could enjoy. This way it is 'take it, or leave it' with a high chance that many passengers just don't want what's thrust at them (and who wants to eat with a plastic spoon?)
I am going to start a campaign to bring back a tray of various canapes that are passed around with drinks after take-off so that passengers can actually choose what suits them.
Great report that just about sums it up for BA F which can be described as a Curate's Egg. Saw the news about Jancis Robinson - watching from here to see if there is a further descent in quality in the wines, which IME have tended to be a high point on BA. We can't afford to splash out willy nilly on F travel; we enjoyed LX recently and will probably keep a watch on BA to see if we can get the new F cabin but will stay away unless we hear that ground handling and Food/Beverage are enhanced (in the true meaning of the word).
Thanks for the report, BIH. Did you enjoy the flight to Quepos? I know the novelty would wear off quite quickly but I really enjoyed it compared to the more plastic experience of ordinary commercial flights. You really get a sense that you are flying in those wee planes...