First Class – Just the same as economy, but with a few extra millimetres legroom right? Well, not quite.
I’ll say right from the start, if you’re flying domestic first class in the USA, then the experience is more or less a bigger seat but not too much else. Although there are a few exceptions to the rule. If you’re on a 2+ hour flight, you’ll likely get a meal thrown in too.
In Europe, the general rule of thumb for premium cabins is that it’s a standard economy seat with the middle of 3 blocked. Although more often than not you’ll get free drinks and something to eat. These flights are generally shorter though. And they’re not seen as first class anyway.
What I will look at here are long haul first class products, with all the bells and whistles. Whilst I wouldn’t say I’m a seasoned first class traveller, I have flown at the front a few times. Therefore I will be mostly relying on my personal experiences with Thai, Cathay Pacific and British Airways in this article. Although I will refer to others along the way too.
Arrival At The Airport
There are a few airlines out there which will pick you up from your home and drive you to the airport. Emirates is one. Virgin Atlantic is another. Although in the case of Virgin Atlantic, they don’t offer a first class product. This is available with their full fare business class tickets.
In my experience with Thai Airways, I relied on a taxi to get me from the centre of Bangkok to the airport. Once I had arrived, I was met curbside by a couple of porters who confirmed that I was flying in first. One took my bags, the other escorted me to the first class check in area.
With British Airways and Cathay Pacific, this kind of service wasn’t offered.
Once you’ve made it into the terminal, more often than not, the airline has a dedicated area for first class passengers.
With British Airways at Terminal 5 Heathrow, there is a segregated area at the end of the terminal dedicated to first class. In early 2017, the first wing opened. This includes a private security channel that feeds directly into the Galleries First lounge.
In Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific aren’t quite as elaborate. There is a separate check in area for first class customers. This comprises of a number of podiums. Whilst it doesn’t sound quite as fancy, I get the impression its not supposed to be. More an area where your make a quick pit stop to drop your luggage and grab your boarding pass.
Once more though, the winner in this area though is Thai. As mentioned above, I was met before I had even entered the terminal and taken over to the first class check in area. Once there, I was sat down, brought a hot towel and a drink while the staff took care of everything. They returned with a boarding pass, and I was then escorted through security.
In Frankfurt, Lufthansa have an entire terminal dedicated to their first class customers. Although having never experienced that, I can’t comment too much.
Any airline that is anyway half decent will have their own first class lounge. At Heathrow Terminal 5, British Airways has the Galleries First lounge. Although this is more intended for top level frequent flyers. When you’re flying in first, you get access to the even more exclusive Concorde Room, just a few steps away.
In Hong Kong, where Cathay Pacific lacks before security, it certainly makes up for after. There are two lounges that are open to first class ticket holders. First off is The Wing, which features a decent restaurant and private cabanas.
The second lounge is The Pier. This is like a large living room, again with a very good restaurant.
Thai Airways also have a dedicated first class lounge. Once I had passed through security, a golf buggy pulled up, and I was driven through a somewhat secluded corridor and into the reception area of the lounge. Once there, I was shown to my own private room complete with a pair of sofas, tv and work desk.
Feeling peckish? Then you can grab a bite to eat in the lounge too.
And of course, the champagne is free flowing. In the British Airways Concorde Room, the champagne on offer retails for well over £100/bottle so its no cheap stuff either.
When it comes to boarding the plane, you’ll get to avoid the queues once more. You’ll be among the first few on board. Or in the case of Thai Airways, the very last on board.
During my experience with them, I was taken from my room in the lounge and down to the apron where a van was waiting. It’s a similar case with Lufthansa, except they throw on a luxury car. I was then driven across the tarmac to the waiting aircraft. Once onboard, the door was firmly shut behind me!
With both Cathay Pacific and British Airways it was a more standard procedure. The main difference being that once I reached the aircraft, I wasn’t just pointed in the general direction of my seat. I was shown to it.
Once you reach your seat, you’ll find something very different to economy. More often than not, you’ll have direct access to the aisle, no matter which seat you choose. So no jumping over anyone when you have to dispose of all the champagne you have drunk in the lounge…
More of the £100 champagne arrives shortly after you’ve sat down.
You’ll also be presented with an amenity kit and a pair of pyjamas to change into depending on the length of the flight and the airline. As my experience with Cathay Pacific was on a flight of less than 4 hours, I didn’t get either. They were present on British Airways however, as all the flights I have taken with them in first class have been over 5 hours.
One thing you are more likely to get though is a menu.
In The Air
Once in the air, youll typically be offered a bar service shortly after departure.
This will be followed by the main meal service. Obviously, whats on offer varies by airline. On Thai, I ate lobster for the first time.
With Cathay Pacific, it was steak, cooked medium rare just the way I like it. After the cabin crew asked how I wanted it done.
Where as on British Airways, I opted for the easy option of chicken burger and chips. Much to the annoyance of many of my YouTube viewers… but so what, I’d paid for the ticket, so I could eat what I wanted!
Once the initial service is done, then the time is yours to change into the pyjamas that were handed out, recline your seat into a bed and watch a film.
One of the few, if only, areas where the experience is identical to that in economy is the content on the IFE. That’s the same throughout the plane. Although in first, you generally get a much bigger screen and some form of premium noise cancelling headphones.
Feeling peckish during the film? A cup of coffee and/or some snacks are only the call button away. And again, they wont be presented in anything disposable.
Shortly before landing, on the longer flights at least, you’ll be given another snack.
Or in the case of overnight flights, breakfast.
Upon arrival, for the most part, your experience is pretty much over. There are still a couple of perks that you can look forward to however. First off, depending on the configuration of the particular aircraft, the cabin crew will hold back the masses so that you’re the first off. That generally comes in handy when you want to beat the queues at passport control.
But whats the point in being the first to clear passport control, only to wait around for your bag. Well, your bag is (usually) the first to be unloaded. Again, this is where Thai was the clear winner in this regard. My bag wasn’t only the first off, it had a lead on the baggage carousel by about a mile!
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said with British Airways. Despite having the yellow first class tag still firmly attached, I was still waiting the best part of an hour in Los Angeles a couple of years back. I guess you could argue that’s more down to the airport, as the crew were waiting just as long. But things have been just as bad at Heathrow too.
After that, it’s off home, right? Well, not always. Some airlines offer arrivals lounges too. Cathay Pacific do in Hong Kong, although I’ve not visited that one. British Airways have an arrivals lounge at Terminal 5 Heathrow.
By far my favourite though is the American Airlines arrivals lounge at Terminal 3 Heathrow.
It has great shower rooms, and offers a decent selection for breakfast.
Still think first class is the same as economy with a few millimetres more legroom now?!