25th Aug 2013 – London
BA's new First and where to find it
Update as of 21 February 2014: the chances for a New First equipped 747 is on the increase. As new 787s/77Ws/A380s arrive, older 747-400s are heading for the scrapyard in Victorville, California. Many of the 747s being withdrawn from service have the New First cabin, but when this is the case, the New First interior is being salvaged and installed into aircraft with the Old First. In short, BA is now making a concerted effort to phase out Old First, and what remains of the 747 fleet will eventually all have New First. It’s taken BA far too long to make this happen, but it’s good news either way. There are now ten 747s remaining with the Old First installed and more will be retired in coming months.
I’m on my way to Altimtr founder Gabriel Leigh’s wedding, at the midpoint of a circuitous Prague-London-Paris routing at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and enjoying the comforts of British Airways’ Galleries First lounge. Off the main lounge area there’s a terrace balcony, which is one of my favorite airport spots in the entire world, and it struck me that this terrace is the perfect place to write an Altimtr dispatch about British Airways (BA). Specifically, British Airways First.
Just now I saw two BA 747-400s trundle past and by looking at the nose-section window arrangement I was able to discern that one had the old first class product while the other had the new product. (New First 747s have a few blanked out nose-section windows—Old First 747s do not). Unfortunately, you can’t use the window-trick to make sure your flight will have the new First at the time of booking. You see, new First, or “NF” is well ahead of the old First, or “OF”, and you wouldn’t want to have spent your hard-earned miles (or money!) only to end up in a crusty old seat from some time in the 90s. So, here’s a quick guide on how to get the New First.
The New First cabin refit was supposed to have been completed across BA’s four-class long haul fleet by now. That hasn’t quite happened. All aircraft received the nice new seats, with the exception of 14 747-400s. These 14 aircraft are now within a couple of years of retirement, so BA have chosen to let the old first class seats remain rather than pay for a whole new cabin outfitting that will largely go to waste.
Altimtr loves BA’s 747s – a true beauty in the sky if ever there was one – but sadly the best way to avoid the old first class is to simply avoid their 747s. All of BA’s 777s (-200 and -300ER series) now have New First, as do BA’s A380s (slowly entering service as we speak). Do keep in mind though, that some 777 flights are three-class, and don’t have a First cabin at all. The same goes for BA’s 787s.
If you must fly a 747, the equation gets a little trickier. BA has two subfleets of 747s, designated “Mid-J” and “Hi-J”. The designations refer to the number of Club World (business class) seats onboard, but the designations also give a good clue as to whether your flight will have New First. All Hi-J 747s have New First, so if your flight’s business class seat map has 70 seats (see below), things are looking good.
If you draw a 52-seat Mid-J 747 and your business class seat map looks like the one below, you stand a roughly fifty-fifty chance of getting New First – which isn’t great odds by our count.
Hi-J 747s tend to fly routes with heavy amounts of paid business class, so destinations like New York JFK are a good bet. One useful website, FT Dashboard, keeps track of which aircraft are dispatched on each route, and is a fun place to obsess over your route’s history and any statistical implications this may have for your flight. Here is an example for Phoenix, a route that sees more than its fair share of old first class. For flights to London, I like to elevate the avgeek factor and use Flightradar24.com to look up the inbound aircraft (For example, BA 213 to Boston will return as BA 212 to London). Flightradar24 will show the aircraft registration, which can be matched up to the list on The BA Source of New First-configured aircraft.
As is always the case with aircraft seating configurations, we are at the mercy of last-minute maintenance issues and the whims of aircraft dispatchers, so even if your 747 flight looks a lock to be New First, you’ll only be sure when you get to the gate and see a 747 with some windows blanked out. Or… you could just avoid the 747s and be done with it. Good luck.