Flying International First Class During A Global Pandemic
Flying during the covid-19 pandemic is very different from the flying that we once knew and loved. As travel demand has plummeted, many airlines have reduced their inflight service offerings partly to minimize contact between passenger and crew, but mainly to cut costs.
These service cutbacks and alterations have taken different forms depending on the airline, and it’s safe to say that flying in business and first class during the pandemic is more akin to flying economy class in terms of the onboard service. These service alterations have taken different forms on different airlines. Lufthansa Group, for instance, have kept their inflight service largely unchanged, whereas airlines such as British Airways have taken a very radical approach, much to the displeasure of their passengers.
During the fall of 2020, I had the chance to fly both airlines in international First Class. In this article, I’ll discuss my thoughts on how the experiences differ.
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After a seven-month hiatus, I was more than excited to be back in the air. My first trip after the start of this pandemic took me to Mexico City. Lufthansa, like many airlines, has significantly cut back the capacity in First Class by switching to smaller planes without First Class on the routes that the airline still maintains. Mexico City, however, was the odd one out being one of the few destinations still served by its flagship Boeing 747-8. It features an 8-seat First Class cabin in the nose. In the interest of full disclosure, I specifically booked my trip to Mexico City for this reason alone.
The Ground Experience
With most newer business class seats catching up to the levels of first class in terms of comfort, space, and privacy, the lines between the classes are slowly getting blurred. What sets first class apart is the ground experience where Lufthansa is world famous for offering its first class passengers access to a private terminal at Frankfurt Airport. Passengers are chauffeured directly to the aircraft from the terminal when it’s time to board, ridding them from the hassle of waiting in line at the gate.
Unfortunately, due to the low number of first class passengers, Lufthansa made the decision to close its famed First Class Terminal back in March, with no reopening plans in sight. In the meantime, first class passengers will have to make do with the existing first class lounge located in the main terminal. The lounge offers largely the same amenities as the first class terminal, sans the private limousine ride to the plane.
Lufthansa operates two First Class lounges at Frankfurt Airport, one in the A-terminal situated within the Schengen area and one in the B-terminal for flights departing outside of Schengen. With the latter one being closed, I had to plan my visit accordingly and leave some extra time to clear immigration.
As a result of the pandemic, Lufthansa has significantly reduced the food offerings in the lounge. The buffet and extensive à la carte menu have been replaced by a fairly limited menu with only two breakfast options and three lunch/dinner options. The drink selection has remained unchanged, including the extensive Champagne selection, which frankly was all that mattered to me at that point.
To summarize: Contrary to many other airlines who have closed their premium lounges completely, Lufthansa has still managed to maintain an acceptable ground experience for its first class passengers.
The Lufthansa Group have been an outlier during the Covid pandemic in the fact that they have kept their inflight service largely unchanged. This can’t be said for the majority of the world’s major airlines, which have significantly cut their onboard service.
On the ground, I was welcomed by the friendly crew who provided me with menus, pajamas, and slippers. After changing into my pajamas, I was served a glass of Champagne along with Lufthansa’s signature macadamia nuts.
Once airborne service began, I had another glass of Champagne accompanied by an amuse-bouche. This was followed by the traditional caviar service, a trio of appetizers, and a bowl of pumpkin soup. Did you know that Lufthansa is the world’s largest buyer of caviar? Well, now you know!
The caviar and appetizers were served separately as per the usual protocol, this despite the fact that on some flights the crew have been instructed to serve them together to minimize contact. Personally, I was happy to be served “the old way” and I was even offered a second serving of caviar which I gladly accepted.
The main course followed shortly afterwards. I opted for the beef, which unfortunately was overcooked. There’s a general consensus among frequent flyers to never order beef onboard planes. While that’s largely true, there have been times where the beef has come out perfectly cooked. Today was not one of those times.
The lunch service was rounded off with a chocolate ice cream quenelle for dessert. The crew's offering of cheese and port wine were politely declined as I was more than full at this point.
Following the meal service, the crew offered to convert my seat into a bed. Lufthansa provides full bedding in first class, consisting of a mattress pad, duvet cover, two pillows, and a day blanket. More than enough to ensure a good night’s sleep…or a nap in my case.
After a solid two-hour nap, I spent the remainder of my flight watching movies and drinking Champagne. The crew were very attentive throughout the flight, always keeping the bottle at hand.
Two hours prior to landing it was time for the second meal service. Lufthansa offers a dine-on-demand feature in First Class, though this has to specifically be requested. The second meal service began with an appetizer consisting of a Spanish tapas plate. This was followed by a trio of beef sliders with coleslaw and beetroot chips. For dessert, a slice of apricot pie was offered, which came with a cup of freshly brewed coffee.
Flying Lufthansa First Class during the Covid-19 pandemic served as a stark reminder of how flying used to be, mainly in the fact that the airline has managed to maintain the same service standards as before. Lufthansa was named a five-star airline by Skytrax in 2017, a classification that many consider to be unjustified. While Lufthansa may not be on the same level as Singapore Airlines, All Nippon Airways, or Qatar Airways in its business or economy class, its first class product is, in my books, a solid five-star experience. Couple this with the fact that Lufthansa has maintained the same service standards throughout the pandemic, they may certainly be considered a five-star airline for now.
British Airways is an airline that has taken a different approach to its inflight service during the Covid pandemic. In late March, the airline decided to cut its inflight service in all cabins, a drastic move that many other airlines followed. Hot meals were removed from all cabins except first class and replaced with boxed salad meals. Alcoholic drinks were initially removed but reintroduced in early June after customer complaints. The airline has since made gradual improvements in its service by bringing back hot meals to business and economy class on long-haul flights, though it still has a long way to go before the service can be considered on par with its pre-pandemic offerings.
The Ground Experience
My flight to Barbados took place shortly after England went into its second lockdown. Arriving at Heathrow, I was checked in at the First Wing, a dedicated check-in area for first class passengers and Oneworld Emerald members. The First Wing also has a dedicated security channel which leads passengers directly into the Galleries First Lounge. Due to the lockdown, British Airways made the decision to close all of its lounges despite the fact that airport lounges were exempt from the lockdown rules.
Much of Heathrow Airport was closed during my visit. Only pharmacies and two cafés were open in Terminal 5. First class passengers received no compensation for the lounge closure which came as a disappointment as the ticket was purchased before the lockdown rules went into effect. Thankfully, I was able to arrive at the airport fairly late, giving me just half an hour to kill at the gate before it was time to board.
Today’s flight to Barbados was sold out in all four cabins mainly due to widespread cancellations all week. Boarding was done via row numbers where the back of the plane boarded first, and the front rows last. This is done in order to ensure social distancing and to minimize unnecessary contact between passengers.
As a first class passenger, I was among the last to board, and after turning left at door 1L I was greeted by the friendly crew who offered to escort me to seat 1K.
The Inflight Experience
British Airways is currently in the process of refurbishing its long-haul fleet, starting with the older Boeing 777-200ERs. These aircraft were delivered in the late 1990s, and the refurbishment includes new seats in economy, premium economy, and business class. Most notable are the Club Suites in business class, where each seat is a fully enclosed suite complete with privacy doors.
First Class has yet to receive an update, and the current seats are nearly a decade old. What’s different, however, is the fact that British Airways has reduced the size of its first class cabin from 14 seats in the old configuration to 8 seats in the current configuration. The smaller cabin ensures a higher degree of privacy and a more attentive service from the crew.
Once settled in my seat, I was presented with a pair of slippers, an amenity kit, a set of pajamas, and a bottle of water. No printed menus or pre-departure drinks were offered.
Shortly after takeoff, the service began with a beverage. I opted for a glass of Champagne, which was served in a miniature bottle with a plastic glass. I was quickly offered a refill as well as some nuts to go along with my drink. The meal service began shortly afterwards.
First out were the appetizers which came in a paper box. Inside the box were the two appetizer plates, a bottle of water, bread, butter, olive oil, crackers, and croutons for the salad. The appetizers were an iceberg salad with radishes and pumpkin puree, and roast beef with grilled vegetables and horseradish cream. Both tasted excellent, despite lacking presentation.
Next up was the main course, which was served in a tinfoil tray similar to what you’d normally get in economy class. The dish itself was a rather odd combination of chicken breast with grilled vegetables, mashed potatoes, and bacon wrapped sausages.
Lastly, cheese and dessert were served, which came in three sealed plastic containers. Chocolate mousse, berries and cream, and cheese with its traditional assortments.
Overall, a satisfactory meal service more akin to what you’d expect to receive in premium economy class rather than first class. My already low expectations were exceeded by a good margin.
Following the meal service, the crew offered to convert my seat into a bed. In the meantime, I decided to have a look around the newly introduced Club Suites cabin. Both business and first class are laid out in a 1-2-1 seating configuration, which gives all passengers direct access to the aisle. The Club Suites offer a higher degree of privacy and better storage than its first class counterpart.
The first class seat, however, still wins in terms of seat comfort and personal space. This becomes noticeable once the seat is converted into a fully flat bed. In the Club Suite your feet go into a small cubby hole under the entertainment screen which does restrict movement. In first class, there’s enough space to stretch out and move around with ease while in bed mode.
I managed to get a solid four hours of sleep before the second meal service. On daytime westbound flights, British Airways offers an afternoon tea service as a pre-arrival snack. The service consisted of finger sandwiches, scones with jam and clotted cream, as well as a small box of macaroons. Apart from the presentation, the food was largely the same as what was served before the pandemic.
Summary British Airways
British Airways has received a lot of criticism for drastically reducing the inflight service during the pandemic, and to a large extent I’m inclined to agree. Flying British Airways First Class during covid is more akin to flying premium economy and the lack of lounge access was perhaps the biggest disappointment, since I was really looking forward to visiting the famed Concorde Terrace at Terminal 5. At the very least, British Airways could have offered a £20 voucher at Pret to compensate for the lack of a lounge, but that wasn’t the case.
As far as the onboard experience goes, I was expecting it to be much worse than it actually was. Items such as amenity kits, bedding, and pajamas were provided and the crew were excellent throughout the flight. The meal service, while subpar to the pre-pandemic offerings, was actually better than expected. And I especially enjoyed the generous servings of Champagne, which made for a pleasant flight.
British Airways has announced that it will bring back its full inflight service offerings starting January of 2021, and I certainly hope that more airlines will follow.