Familiar Types, New Experiences: London and Back on the A380 and 747


After an incredible trip to England in Fall 2014, I was extremely eager to go back. Since that trip doubled as my first time – first two times, actually – flying on a Boeing 747-400, and I was so in awe, it went by in a blur. Thus, I didn’t really get to “take in” the experience. As such, I wanted to go back, fly on a 747 at least one way, and – this time – really get to enjoy it.

As it was, I booked a trip back in December on British Airways, flying over on an Airbus A380 and flying back on a 747. With a base fare of $504.89 and seat selection fees which totaled $72 in order to ensure that I got window seats both ways, I ended up paying $576.89, a very good deal for a British Airways transatlantic round trip.

April 9, 2017

The day of the flight, I checked flightradar24 to see what aircraft I’d be flying over on. It turned out to be G-XLEB, nicknamed “LE Baron” by BA A380 Captain Dave Wallsworth, a pilot who I encourage you to follow on Twitter. He has unofficial nicknames for each A380 in the fleet – G-XLED is LED Zep, G-XLEG is X-tra LEGgy, G-XLEH is LE Hulk – and is just generally a friendly and affable guy who provides personable responses to the majority of passenger tweets.

Geared Up to Go

While I should have been at the airport a full three hours before my international departure, I was busy sorting out a minor snafu with my hotel room. After being on hold for a certain amount of time, I hung up, took a shower, and summoned an Uber to the airport. We got stuck in some traffic, but I still made it there with around an hour and 45 minutes before departure. Thankfully, clearing security didn’t take long, so I arrived at the gate with plenty of time to spare.

G-XLEB parked at the gate.

Shortly after the premium cabins boarded, economy started boarding. As I was sitting on the upper deck, I used the upper deck jetway, for which there was a sign.

The A380-specific boarding sign.

Immediately upon finding my seat in 82K, which is on the right side of the aircraft, I was struck by how spacious the upper deck window seats were. Not only was the configuration 2-4-2 rather than 3-4-3 on the lower deck, but there was enough room for storage bins next to the window, as well as the overhead bins.

Shortly after takeoff from Runway 15R.

After much delay, first pushing back from the gate and then sitting on both the taxiway and then Runway 15R, we lifted off at 8:08 p.m. We started out on the LBSTA4 departure, although there wasn’t much to see from my vantage point on the right side of the aircraft.

On the Way Down

We flew through the darkness for the majority of the flight. With about an hour until we were slated to arrive at Heathrow, I saw the first rays of light emerging. Soon enough, we started our descent to the Ockham holding stack.

Shortly after 7:00 a.m., we began our descent towards Heathrow, approaching over the city of London. I managed to see Big Ben, the London Eye, and several other very cool landmarks.

Descending into Heathrow.

Initially unsure as to which runway of 27R and 27L we were landing on, I realized just a second before touchdown – at 7:10 a.m. – that it was 27L. At that point, the spoilers came up and we slowed, pulling off the runway to taxi to the terminal.

April 17, 2017

While traveling throughout Europe, I took a couple of easyJet trips, one from London Southend to Amsterdam Schiphol and back, and another from London Gatwick to Paris Charles De Gaulle and back. Both were relatively uneventful as far as flying goes, and relatively short as well.

The morning of my return flight to Boston, we had arrived back in London from Paris. Having woken up at 4:45 a.m. in Paris, I managed to get a couple hours of sleep when we returned to London.

A Familiar Airframe

Around noon, I checked to ensure that the flight was still being operated by a 747. Sure enough, it was, and sure enough it was G-BYGD, the first 747 that I ever flew on back in November 2014. I became excited at the prospect of flying again on what I consider to be my favorite aircraft – mostly for sentimental reasons – and therefore making my 747 odyssey come full-circle.

I arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 at around 2:00 p.m. for a 4:45 p.m. flight. Security was relatively straightforward, and I managed to get to the B gates with plenty of time to spare.

After taking a couple of pictures, I went off to find some food. I had to walk back to the A gates to find a restaurant, but managed to get a grilled chicken sandwich in little time.

Return plane G-BYGD parked at the gate.

When I arrived back at the gate, boarding was just about to start. I waited around the gate until economy boarding was called, as I wanted to ensure that there was enough room in the overhead for my large carry-on.

I made my way back to seat 49A to find new, retrofitted economy cabin seats and an empty overhead bin. The seats appeared to be the same as those on the A380, a massive upgrade over the old 747 seats from 2014. Even if the 747 is a bit tighter than the A380 in terms of the space allowed for the 3-4-3 configuration, this was an evident improvement.

The cabin door closed, and the seat next to me (49B) was still empty. Needless to say, both the passenger in 49C and I were very happy to have some extra space.

Soon enough, the captain introduced himself over the P.A. system. During this trip, both the A380 and 747 captains were very friendly when making announcements, which hasn’t always been my experience when traveling on American carriers. In fact, I’ve had a number of experiences where the pilot hasn’t given an announcement until we’ve taken off. And while I understand that the pre-flight checklist requires the majority of the pilot’s attention, it is nice for the passengers to hear from him or her.

Time for Takeoff

After a short taxi and queue (by Heathrow standards) of around 15 minutes, we lined up on Runway 27R. I got out my phone in an attempt to film the takeoff, but the camera was having some issues focusing, so my video turned out to be a bit blurry which I wasn’t happy with. Nevertheless, I thought to myself that the most important thing was to enjoy the experience, regardless of how the video turned out, so I looked back at the runway and saw the ground whizzing by as we gained speed.

Soon after the plane pitched back, at 5:02 p.m., I heard the distinct “bang” of the plane’s undercarriage extending, signaling that we had left the ground. I was a little disappointed to not have gotten a better video of the takeoff, but – unlike the previous two 747 takeoffs, where I was very much in awe – I was very much aware that we had rotated when I heard the unique thud, which I was happy that I hadn’t missed.

Off of Runway 27R.

Cruising

Once we were at our cruise altitude of 37,000 feet, I started to see the two streams of contrails coming out of the number 1 and number 2 engines. A somewhat routine sight for wide body flights, but an interesting one nonetheless.

A snap of the contrails.

I passed the time with a combination of Tetris, wine, and Family Guy. Before I knew it, we were starting our descent into Boston. The captain had mentioned that there was a westerly breeze, so I anticipated that we’d be landing on either Runway 27 or 33L.

A cool shot of the wing that I got.

Letting Go of the Lift

As we began our downwind leg, it was evident that we’d be landing on 33L. I had half-expected this, since it’s significantly longer than 27, but would’ve been curious to see how the pilots would’ve approached landing on a short runway.

We performed a pretty aggressive turn onto our final approach. Soon enough, the flaps started coming down, and the distinct “bump” of the landing gear coming out soon followed.

As we crossed the threshold, I knew that touchdown was imminent. A few seconds later, at 7:01 p.m., we thudded onto the runway, and the spoilers came up. Since I was at the back of the plane, I could see the smoke come up from the main landing gear tires. The landing was a pretty hard one, and I got the sense that the rudder was being used, so I’m guessing that there was at least a small crosswind. Regardless, we were welcomed to Boston, and we taxied to the gate without incident.

Happy to be home.

Being in one of the last rows, I took my time to thank the flight attendants, who were extremely professional. I also remarked that I very much liked the new seats and IFE, and that it was a massively different experience over the previous version, which they acknowledged was a common theme among passengers. I disembarked the plane, getting ready to head for customs.

Just as I arrived at customs, I realized that I had left my landing card on the plane, containing my address, passport number, and more personal information. Even though I had no intention of getting back on the plane, I went to head back towards the aircraft to find the crew to let the cleaners know to throw it out, but was stopped by a customs official. When I informed him of my plight, he told me that I couldn’t head back to the gate area, but that I could talk to someone at the check-in desk who could take care of it. After a wait going through customs and then at the check-in counter and baggage transfer desk, I received confirmation that it would be thrown away, which was good enough for me.

I arrived home just before 9:00 p.m. While I definitely enjoyed the trip, I was very thankful to be back in my own place.

Afterthoughts

The last time I’d gone over, I was very much in awe with flying on the 747, so I didn’t get the chance to internalize it. This time, I was eager to “take in” the experience, and – although it did still feel like a somewhat surreal experience – I think I did that very well. And though my sample size of flights was much larger this time around than it was before, meaning that I have been on a significantly larger number of flights in 2017 versus 2014, I did realize that even a flight on a 747 still feels and plays out like any other flight. Somewhat anticlimactic, but still memorable.

Much has been made of British Airways’ elimination of complimentary refreshments on short-haul flights, and the perceived move away from high-quality service and towards being a “low-cost carrier.” And while I am a big fan of BA, I am not immune to being critical. As such, I was eager to evaluate all aspects of the flight, from the meals to the crew. Despite this mindset, I have to say that I had two excellent experiences: the crew was professional and friendly, the food was hot and fresh, and the new seats and IFE on both the A380 and 747 were high-quality. Moreover, both captains made good efforts to engage with passengers.

All in all, I have to say that BA did very well once again, and I look forward to flying on a BA plane at some point in the future – although I think my next trip across the pond will be on Virgin Atlantic. Why? Well, even though I have a well-documented affinity for BA, I have always been curious to try Virgin. And though there are a number of sentimental reasons that will keep BA ahead of Virgin, I am genuinely excited at the prospect of trying a different British carrier.

Being a somewhat superstitious individual, I have this weird obsession with the number three. I have now flown on the 747 a total of three times. As such, I don’t think I’ll fly on it again, but I am never one to say never. Either way, I enjoyed great flights both on the way over and coming back, and it was no doubt a trip to remember.