British Airways has introduced the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner to its fleet, promising a host of new benefits to new and frequent flyers, as well as a number of technological goodies for travellers to experience. But does travelling on a brand new aircraft make a difference? We flew to Austin, Texas, to find out.
A new cabin
The new cabin focuses on four new areas of improvement: noise, lighting, air, and comfort. As you can imagine the comfort part comes in the way of new seats and the air part in better air conditioning. Lighting has been improved with a new mood lighting system and bigger windows, while noise has been reduced by a new engine design and better sound dampening efforts in the materials used. All this, British Airways hopes, will make for a much better in-flight experience, but also one that leaves you refreshed when you get off the plane.
Cabin noise levels
The 787 features a new engine design and better air conditioning that promises to make for a much quieter journey. While it was noticeably quieter on take-off on both our flights, we had mixed experiences in-flight when it came to noise levels.
On the way to Austin we couldn't discern any noticeable difference to the volume of the aircraft compared to the dozens of other flights we have taken across the Atlantic. That might be because it isn't any different regardless of what BA says, or because we experienced very high head winds that resulted in our flight being delayed over an hour in the air.
On our return leg at night, however, it was noticeably quieter. We were able to talk to another passenger at a whisper and still hear them perfectly. We also had no trouble sleeping. It was a very chalk and cheese experience. If every flight was the same as our return leg it would be very welcomed.
It's not just sound levels. The newly designed cabin features mood lighting that - according to BA - subtly changes across the flight to help you sleep better and feel less jetlagged too.
The idea, says BA, is that you get a fresh morning light at breakfast, cooler more energetic midday light at lunch, a warm candlelight in the evening, and a blue glow for night time flights.
We liked that when the lights were on the daylight setting it was a white, clean light which made reading or working easier and the fact that when we were lit with a more yellow, warmer light, it worked really well for relaxing.
However while the new in-flight lighting certainly makes a difference, we couldn't always determine a defined pattern to the experience. We are unsure, for example, whether the flight was keeping the lighting pattern associated with our destination or departure city, and at times it broke with the pattern we would have expected.
The windows, which are very big, also somewhat destroy the interior lighting scheme if sunlight blazes through, which it inevitably will at some point.
Light plays a big part in the flight experience with the new 787 and the big windows that run down the side of the plane only help stress that further.
That, combined with a very neutral grey and white colour scheme, set the mood well for efficiency and peacefulness. Unlike Virgin there are no brash red and purples to be seen. That can at times be fairly soulless but it does mean that you are the accentuation of colour rather than the plane.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner boasts the biggest windows on any commercial aircraft currently flying. They are big, and if you are flying Club World you'll get three of them to peer out of. The windows are made even bigger because they don't feature any blinds.
Instead, you get a button with five settings on it. Press it five times and the window goes from clear to dark blue over a couple of minutes completely reducing the amount of light that comes through to nothing.
With all the variants of the setting you can still see the world outside, but with those variations comes a relaxing blue light that cascades across the cabin. It works really well if you are sitting at a window. You can have a softly softly approach to lighting your area rather than the all or nothing approach of the more traditional blinds.
Cleaner claims BA, and while we didn't test it scientifically we have to say that post-flight we noticed that we weren't as dehydrated. British Airways says this is because the cabin has been pressurised 2,000 feet lower than other aircraft and that means there is more moisture in the air.
All this is supposed to help fight jet lag, however those jet lag busting skills were lost on us. It didn't make a blind bit of difference. In Austin we woke up at exactly the same time we always do when travelling to the US (minus one hour our usual EST wake up time), and on our return, while we've been better in the evenings, the mornings have been just as tough.
Sitting in Club World
The aircraft cabin is centred around Club World (Business), World Traveller Plus (Premium economy), and World Traveller (Economy) with each passenger sharing much of the same technology throughout the plane.
We flew Club World for the 10 hour flight to the US from London Heathrow's Terminal 5 and then the quicker 9 hours return two days later.
Club World features 35 seats across two smaller cabins within the main cabin. Seats are arranged in a 2:3:2 formation with passengers facing each other. In the central three seats the middle seat faces backwards, but you do get more space to put your stuff. Additionally you very well isolated from aisle traffic. Due to a fairly empty flight (in Club) on the way to Austin we were able to try the middle seat and an aisle seat and enjoyed the middle seat over the choice of the two. On our return leg back to London we were able to sit in a window seat, which also has its benefits. Likewise we were able to try both Club World cabins. The front cabin is the larger of the two holding around 20 seats, the rear smaller and more intimate.
The seats themselves are comfortable, feature BA's foot rest (which you still can't sit on) and can go flat for when you want to get some sleep. The seat has a number of preset reclined and upright positions as well as any gradient of that. Everything is controlled via a panel at seat height that is easy to locate.
Because of the seat configuration passengers are facing each other. Great if you are flying with a colleague a partner, or someone pretty to look at, but not so if it is just an average stranger.
BA business travellers will know all too well that uncomfortable moment where you have to pluck up enough courage to press the button on top of the privacy barrier to raise it, and to solve that problem, BA has now added a button at seat height so you can play dumb as the divider starts rising, as if by magic.
The top button is still there so cabin crew can do it for you, or lower it for drinks, but it is a good option to have. Once up, you are very sheltered from what is around you, especially that middle seat, and if you like being nosey and doing the odd spot of people watching, this setup isn't for you.
In terms of locker space, you get a drawer to put your shoes, glasses, or whatever you have, and that's about it. Unlike Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class experience you don't really get a small fold down drinks tray, or much room to put magazines, pillows, water bottle, or other paraphernalia (unless you bag that middle seat). You do get a tiny bit more "put" space on the window seat, but we found it was easy to lose things as the seat isn't as cocoon-like as the VA cabin.
Entertainment is provided by BA's fleet-wide entertainment system, and Club World passengers get a 12.1-inch personal in-flight entertainment touchscreen with noise-cancelling headphones.
They'll also get a UK/US/EU power socket, two USB sockets, and a Video RCA connection in order to use their own digital equipment to play back on the screen, which is great regardless of whether you have an iPad.
The 12.1-inch matte screen is big, certainly big enough to enjoy any movie and unlike some airlines where you are reluctant to watch movies like Batman for fear of seeing nothing, there isn't that problem here.
The British Airways in-flight entertainment system is feature packed. A good selection of content and a big screen make this is a great experience.
Going to the toilet
They say you should always go to the toilet in a fancy restaurant and someone has taken that attitude with the bathrooms on the 787 too.
The Club World toilet has a motion sensor to lower the seat and flush the loo once you are done, and a tap where temperature is controlled by a push of a button; hot and cold. Sticking your hand under the tap automatically turns it on. The only thing seemingly missing is a Dyson Air Blade dryer.
BA 787 Dreamliner routes available
Currently the 787 flies to Toronto, New York, Austin, Hyderabad, Chengdu, Philadelphia, Calgary, and Chennai. We flew to Austin.
It's a new route for starters and is also the first international direct flight into the city outside of the Americas.
Austin, famous for the annual South by Southwest conference held every March, is a thriving tech city with hundreds of startups launching off the back of the Dell money that flooded into the area after it made over 2600 of the locals millionaires over night. Those Dell alumni are now keen to invest that money and experience, but not leave the city for the lures of Silicon Valley.
It has created a vibrant city that has yet to get out of control, but one that makes for an interesting, eclectic, experience.
Best seen as a smaller version of Seattle or downtown San Diego with a bit of the "Valley" thrown in for good measure, it doesn't suffer from the West Coast's sometimes aggressive feel.
Downtown, and chain shops are nowhere to be found, while bars, centred around 6th Street, let you enjoy the waft of BBQ while you drink a pint of the local brew, 512.
If you are looking for a spot of shopping the antique and curio shops on South Congress will feed your urge, especially if you are after archaic camera gear.
In terms of tourist destinations and things to do however you are limited, this doesn't have the same cultural impact of San Francisco, New York, or Washington.