To Heathrow and back — AA vs. BA business class. Which was better?

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The weekend before last, I flew to London Heathrow airport on Saturday and returned home on Sunday… on purpose.  My goal wasn’t to visit London (which is a great city to visit, by the way), but rather to earn the remaining EQPs (Elite Qualifying Points) I needed to secure American Airlines Executive Platinum status for another year.  I had to earn a total of 100,000 EQPs by the end of this year, and I thought this trip would get me there.  To see how wrong I was about that, please see: How I screwed up my end of year AA mileage run.

In October, there was a brief window of opportunity where three British Airways promotions overlapped (see: Ignoring terms and flying cheap via 3 stacked promos: BA sale, AARP discount, and Avios promo).  Actually, four promotions overlapped.  The fourth promo ends January 31 2016 and offers up to 125,000 bonus miles on flights to Europe.  I paid $446 plus 30,000 Avios for a round trip business class flight from Chicago to London.  In exchange, I earned about 43,000 redeemable AA miles and lots of elite qualifying miles and points (but not as many points as I expected).

My Saturday morning flight was aboard AA’s 767-300.  My Sunday return flight was aboard BA’s 747-400, where I had secured a seat in the upper deck.

Cabin / Seats

American Airlines’ business class had two aisles with seats in a 1-2-1 configuration.

AA vs. BA business class: AA middle seats

As you can see above and below, side tables alternate between large and medium.  I had a window seat, 3J, with a small side table to my right.  The even row window seats have larger side tables and a bit more privacy for sleeping.  If this had been an overnight flight, I definitely would have preferred an even numbered row.

AA vs. BA business class: AA window seats

On the British Airways flight, I was in the upper deck, which had a single aisle, and seats were in a 2-2 configuration:

AA vs. BA business class: BA upper deck

I had used Seatguru to pick seat 63 B.  Seats in green are supposed to be the best choices:

AA vs. BA business class: Seatguru BA 747 400 upper deck

If I had been on an overnight flight, I would have been really pissed off at Seatguru for this misleading advice.  Despite Seatguru’s claim, all business class seats have the same ample legroom, as far as I can tell.  Plus, window seats are far, far, far better for privacy, storage, and space to put stuff.  Here’s a photo from my aisle seat:

AA vs. BA business class: BA aisle seat

As you can see, above, the seat was wide open to the aisle.  For a daytime flight, this was actually good: it was easier to catch a flight attendant’s eye for service.  For an overnight flight, though, it would be far worse than a window seat due to lack of privacy.  For storage, there was only a small drawer near the floor, but it proved to be adequate for my needs.  One nuisance was the lack of any kind of side table. When the tray table was stowed away, there was literally no place to put anything down.  One time during the flight, I put my empty wine glass on the floor because I had reclined my seat to a position in which the tray table would have been in my way.

Contrast the above, to the window seats…  As you can see below, the window seats have a long windowsill trough for storage and for putting stuff down (when the trough lid is closed).  The seats also have a lot of privacy, especially when the screen divider between seats is raised up.

AA vs. BA business class: BA window seat

Overall, despite my quibbles regarding the BA aisle seat, I found the BA seat to be much more comfortable than the AA seat.  Even when the BA seat was in the full upright position for takeoff and landing, I found it very comfortable.  The AA seat was not bad at all.  I simply preferred the feel of the BA seat.  I’m pretty sure that this is one of those things that varies by each person’s body size and shape.  In my case, the ergonomics of the BA seat fit me perfectly.  The AA seat, though was a literal pain in the butt after a long flight.

Service

AA service was good, but unremarkable.  BA service was excellent.  Two flight attendants covered the 747’s small upper deck, so there was always someone available for anything I needed.  And, while both AA and BA staff were friendly, the BA staff seemed a bit more so.

Food

AA exceeded my low expectations with breakfast.  The smoked salmon was very good:

AA vs. BA business class: AA breakfast

And breakfast was followed by a delicious dessert:

AA vs. BA business class: AA dessert

The pre-arrival “snack” (actually, a pretty complete dinner), was not as good.  I ate the lobster mac and cheese (not pictured), but didn’t enjoy it at all.  The chocolate ice cream dessert (not pictured), though, was amazing.

On the BA flight, I selected the chicken meal (not pictured).  The appetizer was excellent.  The main course was good, but unremarkable.  I was looking forward to the pre-arrival afternoon tea, until it arrived.  My mental image of “Buttermilk or fruit scones served warm with clotted cream and strawberry preserves” was quite a bit nicer than what actually appeared:

AA vs. BA business class: BA afternoon tea

To be fair, it all tasted fine.  My judgment was simply clouded by higher expectations.

Overall, I enjoyed most of the food on both flights.  I’d have a hard time saying which was better.  They were both good enough.

In-Flight Entertainment

AA provided tablets which were setup on a dedicated tray for that purpose.  Imagine a tablet computer plugged in here:

AA vs. BA business class: AA shelf for tablet IFE

This setup would be great for those who bring their own entertainment (since the shelf could be used for just about anything), but I personally prefer built-in screens when I plan to use the airline’s entertainment system since they take up less room and often include larger displays.  AA’s in-flight movie selection was great in one way: it included several movies that are still in theaters.  On the other hand, I’ve been flying AA a lot lately, so I had already seen most of their movie selections.

BA had a built-in touch screen display with a larger selection of movies.  Overall, both systems were good, but I preferred BA’s larger screen and wider movie selection.

Wrap up

Both AA and BA offer a solid business class product will lie flat seats, decent food, and decent in-flight entertainment.  I’d happily fly either one again.  In both cases, strategic seat selection is important for overnight flights.  On AA’s 767-300, I would choose a window seat on an even row so as to get slightly better privacy.  On BA’s 747, I would choose the upper deck, and I would definitely pick a window seat for maximum privacy.  Note though that, unlike AA, BA charges extra to select seats at the time of booking (starting at about $83 for business class international flights) unless you have OneWorld Sapphire or Emerald status.

If I had to pick one or the other, I would choose BA over AA mostly because of the seat comfort.  Somehow, for my body shape, the seat fit perfectly and simply felt great.  On long flights, that’s really important.

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