Back story: Last year while we were driving to Perth Airport for me to catch my first flight on my annual trek to the US I got a text message from Qantas telling me that my Frequent Flyer points upgrade from Business Class to First Class had been approved for the long flight the following day from Melbourne to Los Angeles. I was SO excited! So excited that I Tweeted about it, Facebooked it, etc. Others online were equally as excited for me, and one friend, who has travelled First Class on Qantas to the US told me about the First Class lounge at the airport and its spa treatments for passengers prior to take-off. I was very much looking forward to what might be my one and only First Class experience. However, it was not to be. When I got to the check-in counter, the upgrade no longer applied (there are no guarantees, even with a text message displayed to the counter staff). With my tail between my legs, I had to announce to the world that I wouldn’t taste this rarified atmosphere.
This year: Ever the optimist, when I booked my flights to the US last June for this Feb/March, I also put in a points upgrade request. And every few weeks I’d check if it was through. Then as the departure date got closer, I’d check online more often, including even more often at the T-80 point. There was a glimmer of hope the night before my flight from Sydney to Los Angeles when I saw that I was waitlisted for First for that leg, but by the next morning that had disappeared from screen. And it didn’t happen. Again.
Coming back home, I checked online until I got back to LAX, then checked with the check-in counter as I knew there was still one First Class sear available (thanks to http://www.flightstats.com). The check-in guy said that it hadn’t been allocated yet, and I’d only know if I had it if they called me in the lounge or if I beeped when putting my boarding pass through at the gate (i.e. the very last minute!). He did say that anyone who was a Gold, Platinum, or Platinum Plus Frequent Flyer would have priority over me (a lowly Silver!).
There were no lounge announcements calling my name, so imagine how surprised I was when I handed in my boarding pass to get on my flight from LAX to SYD and the system beeped! I had to go over to the counter where I asked the girl if I’d got my upgrade — and I had! I think she was as excited for me as I was ;-)
My flight was on the A380, so instead of going upstairs for Business and Premium Economy, I was downstairs at the pointy end. I was going to make the most of it, as it’s likely the one and only time I’ll fly First Class. (For my American readers, what you call ‘First Class’ on your domestic routes is no more than ‘Premium Economy’ on Qantas international routes. Qantas has two further steps up from Premium Economy — a true Business Class with lay-flat beds, and First Class of course, with all the associated pampering and treatment you get with both. There is no comparison between ‘First Class’ on a US domestic airline and ‘First Class’ in international on an A380 or 747.)
So, what was it like? I’ll list the good, the indifferent, and the bad (no, just kidding, there’s NO bad… except if you’re paying, in which case the bad is the cost!). And at the end are some photos I took — I didn’t want to seem all agog that I was in First, so I tried to take the photos surreptitiously and without a flash, therefore I couldn’t get any overall shots of the First Class cabin — you know, like from standing on my chair! ;-)
- There are only 14 seats (sorry, ‘suites’) in First Class on the A380. Each ‘suite’ is a self-contained unit separated from fellow passengers. Each suite has access to the aisle, and those along the sides also have two windows. There’s a spare seat in each suite in case you have a partner with you and want to share a meal together. You don’t sit together on the flight, but you can sit together to chat or have a meal.
- The suites have half-size ‘walls’ so you’re fairly private in your little cocoon.
- There are two to three staff just for these 14 passengers, so you are treated VERY well. However, this is Qantas so they are typically down to earth flight attendants, which was refreshing — I thought they might be a bit hoity toity.
- There are two toilets for 14 passengers, so there’s never a wait. And the toilets seem to be cleaned by the staff after every use as I didn’t notice any drops of water left in or around the sink.
- The PJs are roomier than those in Business Class and are dark grey, instead of the Business Class light grey ‘prison garb’.
- The seats are MUCH roomier than in Business. They are wider for starters, they swivel to face the spare seat/TV, the arms go down when the bed is made up for sleeping, and there’s a full control panel of all the seat functions (and other functions such as lights). The seats also have in-built massage components.
- The staff make up your bed when you are ready. And it’s as close to a real bed as you’ll get in an aircraft. There’s a thick woollen padded mattress thing, covered with a fitted white sheet and more padding, a top white sheet/doona, and white pillows (with the Qantas kangaroo embroidered on them!)
- I could sleep! This is really big for me, as even in the Business Class lay-flat beds I have trouble sleeping (even with drugs). One issue I have is the constant drone/hum/vibration of the aircraft, even though the A380 is much quieter than the 747. I just can’t get over that constant noise/vibration even with ear plugs in and noise-cancelling headphones on. The other issue is that I’m a front-facing sleeper — I sleep on my belly in the ‘coma’ position that first aiders put someone into. So a lay-flat bed with arms in not good for me as I can’t sleep in my normal position. If you’re someone who sleeps on your back or even your side, you should have no trouble sleeping on a lay-flat bed. So with the wider seat (bed base), the woollen ‘mattress’ and the fact that the seat arms were out of the way, I could sleep on my belly… and thus I slept! I didn’t sleep for long — about 3 hours with about another 3 hours of cat napping, but I did sleep. That’s a huge achievement for me on a long-haul flight.
- It’s a really little thing, but there was a very handy little hook on which you could hang your headphones when you needed to get up. Too often, headphones get sat on, fall off the centre console, or fall on the floor when you have to go to the bathroom and you have to rummage around in the dark to find them again.
- The toilet facilities seemed to be no bigger or much different from those in Business Class. I sort of expected them to be a little more capacious, although I didn’t expect a shower (no, there wasn’t one). The main difference is that the toilet has a window! And no you can’t see in from the outside when you’re pulled up at the gate — I asked!
- The food and drinks weren’t much different to that served in Business Class. Yes, there was a welcoming glass of champagne and some dip and fancy crackers on getting to your suite, but you get the champagne option in Business too. While the food and drink options may have been a step up from Business (and the steak sandwich and the lamb rack were EXCELLENT), the food and drink offerings in Business aren’t anything to sneeze at.
- The toiletries bag didn’t have much in it and was very little different to that you get in Business Class. I didn’t recognise the cosmetics brand, but then I’m not big on fancy cosmetics, so I’m sure it was expensive. While the bag looked like it was leather, I think it was fake leather.
- The entertainment offerings were the same as in Business Class and were exactly the same as on the flight over, even though I travelled in a different month. It used to be that Qantas changed the entertainment offerings each month, but from what one of the flight attendants told me, she thinks it’s now every two months (part of cost cutting, I suspect). So the movies, TV shows, etc. on the PVR were the same as the previous month, the same as Business Class (and I suspect the same as Economy and Premium Economy too as all seats have a PVR). Aside: The movies I watched on my four flights were all light and mostly fluffy: Enough Said, The Butler, About Time, We’re the Millers, Last Vegas.
- In-seat power/USB connections were the same as Business Class, though it was a little easier to get to. I think on the A380 many Economy/Premium Economy seats also have in-seat power, so that’s not the differentiator it used to be a few years ago.
- There’s no special treatment for First Class passengers when you get off the aircraft. Yes, you get an Express pass for the immigration lines, but you get that as a Business passenger too. The bags didn’t seem to come off any earlier than Business bags, though I couldn’t say if they came off earlier than the Economy bags. There are no ‘private’ lines for First Class — you’re all treated the same at immigration, baggage claim, and customs.
Well, there’s the cost. First Class is NOT cheap. In fact, it’s VERY expensive. Even on points it’s expensive, as it ‘cost’ me 45,000 points to upgrade from my Business Class fare to First for a single, albeit long, leg. But as I have close to 700,000 points, I figured that blowing 45,000 on a once-in-a-lifetime experience was probably worth it.
Bottom line: Would I do it again?
Yes, but on points only. I wouldn’t pay for a First Class ticket (unless I had unlimited funds from a REALLY BIG Lotto win, as as I rarely play Lotto, that’s not going to happen!). The differences between Business and First aren’t enough, in my opinion, to justify the massive increase in cost. But that sleep was good! ;-)
These last photos are from the Skycam on the top of the A380’s tail fin. I started taking photos of the video stream as we saw Australia and started coming in to land, right until we were taxiing to our gate. Pretty cool! (Nothing special about this for First Class, as the Skycam option is available to everyone on the entertainment system.)