For most of my adult life I've been a regular on East Coast trains, starting with GNER who introduced me to on-train dining up to today with Virgin Trains East Coast. Until early 2015 I had a job that involved a lot of travelling, enough to get me gold status in British Airways Executive Club, back then Heathrow felt like a second home but this year I've only flown once back in January so I thought it would be good to see how British Airways compares now.
On the London-Newcastle route British Airways have a monopoly from Heathrow and there's now no other airlines offering a service from the other London airports this means prices are not as competitive as you'd expect and for the last couple of years the train has always been the cheapest option, in many cases even first class on the train was cheaper than the lowest air fare. Your experience may vary, it depends when you book. For this flight a return trip departing Friday evening on the 20:55 flight (BA1338) and returning on Sunday evening on BA1337 cost £253.12 and this was a 'basic' fare with no hold baggage allowance but as it was a short break then hand baggage only is acceptable. The flight was booked the Monday before the trip so at relatively short notice. On the other hand the train was showing as £215.50 in first class (£129.50 outward on the 18:19 and £86 for the return leg on the 18:03) and in standard class £130.30 for a super off-peak return which is valid on any train from 18:19 onwards on Friday evening and any train on a weekend.
On top of this you also have to take into account the costs getting to the airport or railway station. From the office getting to King's Cross is just a short trip on the Northern Line or less than 30 minutes cycling where a large portion of the route is covered with cycle superhighway. To get to Heathrow you need to either take the Picadilly Line (cheapest option, but can be very crowded) or head to Paddington for the Heathrow Express (fastest but most expensive) or the Heathrow Connect (mid priced option, but less frequent). As I miss getting free train tickets I used some of my Heathrow Rewards points to pay for the Heathrow Express ticket. Heathrow Express has mTickets that seamlessly integrate with the Apple Wallet and don't need a separate ticket wallet app like most mainline rail operators do.
Getting to Paddington was slighly more difficult than usual as Bakerloo Line trains aren't stopping there so I used a combination of the Northern and Hammersmith & City Lines. The Express trains run every 15 minutes and there was no problems getting a seat in standard class. The Heathrow Express has one of the most spacious first class carriages of any UK train but for such a short journey you can't really justify paying extra for first class. The air conditioning was definitely welcome and like most modern trains has sockets available by every seat. The free WiFi wasn't working but no big loss for such a short journey. The journey time is 15 minutes to terminals 2 and 3 (terminal 1 is closed now awaiting demolition) and an extra 5 minutes to terminal 5 where most British Airways flights operate from.
Arriving at the terminal was painless due to having already checked in and having my boarding pass on my phone. The boarding pass integrates with Apple Wallet and a direct link appears to it on the phones lockscreen a few hours before the flight so it's readily accessible. Thanks to BA Gold status I was able to use fast track for security and was through departures in minutes. Due to the school holidays the regular queue looked massive and so this benefit was worth having.
In Heathrow British Airways has three categories of lounge and there's also an Aspire lounge for those who have a Priority Pass card or want to pay to enter if they have no access to the BA lounges. The categories are Galleries Club for silver card holders, business class passengers or those on full fare domestic tickets, Galleries First for gold card holders and the Concorde Room for first class passengers and their top frequent flyers. All the lounges offer complimentary food and drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) Galleries Club offers a self service buffet, Galleries First offers an improved buffet plus a menu of items to order as well as a champagne bar and the Concorde Room offers a sit down restaurant service as well as cabanas to sleep in if you have a long connection.
Having access to the Galleries First lounge definitely helps kill time which is important considering my flight was delayed almost two hours. I ordered a burger and chips washed down with some champagne. I had a wander around the lounge and noticed they now have cans of Tribute, which is a Cornish ale which I sometimes drink when travelling on Great Western.
For the vast majority without lounge access there's a large range of places to eat and drink at various price points and plenty of shops if that's what you prefer.
Once on-board the delayed flight service was quick, friendly and efficient. If you want food on the plane you'd be disappointed as all you get is a small snack such as a biscuit or tiny packet of crisps. Tea and coffee is served in a tiny cardboard cup and soft drinks in mini cans. Those who like spirits or lager are well catered for but oddly enough BA stopped offering a British beer on domestic flights many years ago. On domestic flights the aircraft is in an all economy configuration although they do sell so-called 'Business UK' tickets that allow you into the Galleries Club lounge (and fast track security and boarding) if you don't have BA status but on-board these tickets give you no additional benefits.
As you may have guessed the real reason I decided to fly was to make some use of my BA gold status before I drop to silver, but despite the benefits that gold status brings I still found the train the best option overall.
As the cheapest first class rail ticket was cheaper than the cheapest air fare I could have spent three hours relaxing in a comfortable seat enjoying roast lamb, a nice dessert and Hop on Board ale for less than the cost of the flights. Even with the benefits of fast track and lounge access the train is a much better option as it's less hassle and closer to the city centre. Of course that's assuming you want to be in the city centre. When I was working in Windsor the plane had the advantage as Heathrow was so convenient whereas getting to King's Cross was a hassle.
So what about journey times? I usually catch a train on Friday evening between 6 and 7pm. This gets me into Newcastle before 10pm. There's two flights to Newcastle after work, one leaves at 18:30 which is impossible to make due to the longer journey time to the airport as well as the need to arrive early to get through security, the one I caught is scheduled to depart at 20:55 and arrive at 22:05, however due to delays the flight didn't arrive until after midnight. But even if the flight was on time I would have arrived later into Newcastle and then I also have a longer Metro ride (or taxi in this case due to the delay) to my final destination. I know from when I was working in Windsor and regularly flying from Heathrow that the last flight to Newcastle on a Friday is often delayed, although there's times of severe delays on the trains too I have been lucky enough to avoid most of them, but then again your mileage may vary.
Delay repay: if my train was over an hour late I would have got a full refund for that leg. Due to EU law airlines have to offer compensation at a fixed rate if the flight is over 3 hours late but nothing for a 'short' delay of only 2 hours! The good thing about airline compensation though is it is a fixed rate and not related to your fare paid so if you get a bargain or are redeeming Avios points/miles you will still get the same compensation as someone who paid full fare. On a train you're not entitled to Delay Repay if using a Rewards or other free ticket.
What about standard class on the train? Would I prefer standard to flying? Definitely if I didn't have lounge access with British Airways, the lounge gives me a chance to eat and relax before the flight, access to fast track security also helps close the gap but I think the train still edges ahead. As long as I've reserved a seat then standard class is fine. I can grab some Hop on Board from the Foodbar, watch a movie on Beam, grab a bacon roll if there's any left (for some reason they're listed as available before 11am, but often they have some left in the evening) and relax and enjoy the trip. As the seating is 2x2 in standard class as opposed to 3x3 on most aircraft it means there's also no risk of a dreaded middle seat.
For longer journeys such as London to Aberdeen the plane can be more attractive as at that distance the plane offers a significant time advantage and to Edinburgh it can be worth flying if the price is right (there's more competition on London-Edinburgh so the fares tend to be lower).