Behind the scenes... Heathrow's BA Lounge
The champagne is help yourself and the celebs are hard to miss at British Airways’ first class lounges at Heathrow Terminal 5. Gemma Bowes gets an exclusive look at the inner workings of this salubrious facility.
“It’s like a private members’ club, or the bar from Cheers, where everybody knows your name.”
It doesn’t take long for me to spot a celebrity. I’m 10 minutes in to an exclusive private tour of British Airways’ opulent first class lounges at Heathrow Terminal 5, when a face familiar to me from the hit TV drama Game of Thrones draws my attention. It’s one of the leading actors, perusing the buffet table heaped with tempting snacks.
Seeing legions of celebrities is something those of us unused to turning left on the plane can’t help but imagine is the norm for those who do. In reality, though, he is the only one I recognise that day, although my guides, lounge supervisor Julie McClure, and Lukasz Wyrzykowski, global lounge business executive, assure me Gordon Ramsay, Sam Smith and Tom Jones were in just the other day. And they regularly have lots of Premier League footballers (I admit I would be none the wiser should one of those cross my path.) Julie is actually employed by BaxterStorey, the company that operates the lounges for BA. She takes me into the Galleries First lounge, open to those flying First (or Gold Members of BA Executive Club, and oneworld Emerald travellers). David Beckham, Beyonce et al are nowhere to be seen today; it’s mainly business people in office wear or expensive casual clothes that are settling into leather armchairs with laptops, pressing coffee machine buttons and topping up their flutes at the glamorous help-yourself champagne bar. Around 50 per cent of customers who use the lounge are travelling for business, 30 per cent for leisure. I imagine they’re all contemplating their good fate in avoiding the teeming fray in the airport proper, the stressful dash between WHSmith and Pret a Manger that most of us tackle before the whistle blows and the gate flashes up on the screen. For First travellers, the airport can be an enjoyable, relaxing experience.
One of the most recent innovations is the calm, quiet First Wing private entrance and check-in area, which opened a year ago and is more akin to a luxury hotel lobby. It addressed customers’ complaints about missing out on time in the lounge due to the normal check-in taking too long. “Such adaptation to customer feedback, and new trends, is key,” says Lukasz. Adding more plug sockets for smart phones instead of having big business centres is another example.
These days the world’s top-rated international airports boast everything from swimming pools to butterfly gardens, while their luxury lounges have cinemas and steam rooms – but there isn’t the capacity for that here, says Julie, where 3,000 people can visit the First lounges a day (55 per cent men, 45 per cent women).
It takes a team of 800 staff to look after them, and an incredible amount of labour goes on behind the scenes, but the atmosphere is unswervingly peaceful. Except when a big sports game gathers a crowd around the TV screens, or during school holidays, when the kids’ room is packed and strawberry yoghurts, chocolate croissants and sausages have to be endlessly topped up. Despite all the free champagne, no one misbehaves, or even falls asleep and misses their flight, I’m told. Food and drink are very important of course. Vegan, gluten-free and organic preferences are provided, but one of the most popular dishes is the BA burger, which Lukasz thinks is because most people don’t enjoy flying, so crave comfort food. Stomachs attuned to different time zones must be catered for too; it could be breakfast time for one traveller, supper for another.
The trend for local/artisan producers has reached Terminal 5, where cheeses are British, smoked meats for the tapas counter come from a small producer, pasta from a local. In summer, the airy ‘terrace’ space hosts gin festivals and other promotions. All the food is supplied by outside companies, but when I stick my head into the kitchen the team is working pell-mell in a tight space. Sandwich crusts are cut off in house, breakfasts cooked to order, the buffet restocked at least every two hours. One of the biggest challenges faced by lounge staff, aside from massive flight disruption and delays, is lack of space. Still, there’s room for an Elemis spa, where First travellers get free 15-minute treatments, along with a run of 18 showers.
Next we visit the even more luxurious and exclusive Concorde Rooms, which only those flying First can use. Here travellers can book their own ‘cabana’ – a private room with en suite, TV, day bed, and room service. They are not huge, and have a slightly clinical feel, but compare an hour relaxing here to one fighting cattle-class for a free seat in Wetherspoons and you appreciate the luxury they represent. The Concorde Rooms’ decor has a country manor vibe, with designer lighting by Porta Romana, humungous flower displays, velvet seats and chandeliers. The dining area has stylish private booths and there’s a long glitzy bar (espresso martini is the most popular cocktail).
I get chatting to one traveller, James Moore, who works in the beer industry and uses the Concorde Rooms several times a week, usually for business but also for leisure, such as when he flies to Thailand for a few days’ relaxation. “I feel like I live here sometimes,” he says, “but there are worse places to be. It’s like a private members’ club, or the bar from Cheers, where everybody knows your name. I’m very well looked after, so I try to get here early to relax before my flight. When I walk in, there’s always a glass of champagne waiting before I reach my seat.”
I mention my Game of Thrones celeb, and he beams. “Oh yes, I’ve seen quite a few celebs myself! I’ve sat next to Brad and Angelina, my girlfriend chatted to them. Piers Morgan... I didn’t talk to him as I don’t like him! Once when I was sitting at the bar, a guy came up and started chatting to me about the champagne – it was Pierce Brosnan!” You should have ordered him a martini, I say. Celeb-spotting is something akin to wildlife watching, I suppose; it brings out our spotter jotter tendencies. There’s something funny and reassuringly human about the fact that even the seriously loaded, the people who fly First all the time, and those who work in these upper echelons, can’t help but get excited when they see a famous person.
One fellow whose jotter would be full to bursting is the Concorde Rooms’ legendary head concierge Mohammed, or Mo, as regular customers fondly call him. He’s worked here for 24 years, since before the actual Concorde stopped flying. He absolutely loves his job, he says, because of the lovely people he welcomes every day, 75 per cent of whom are regulars. Come on then Mo, I say, tell us who the most famous ones are. “Oh, I’ve met everyone!” he smiles, “Madonna, Elton John… Liz Hurley is a good friend, Michael Jackson was very nice…”
Ok Mo, I think, you win.