British Airways London City trans-Atlantic service
by David C Forward
ALL PHOTOS: LONDON CITY AIRPORT
Airline: British Airways
Flights: BA002, BA001
Route: New York (IATA: JFK/ICAO: KJFK), USA–London (LCY/EGLC), England–JFK (westbound via Shannon, SNN/EINN, Ireland)
Aircraft: Airbus A318
The dedicated desk at JFK is hidden away around the corner from the regular BA check-in area and could use better signage, judging from the number of passengers who needed to be escorted to the right area. Since the entire flight is business class, passengers are invited to BA’s spacious 'Terraces Lounge'.
To confer the aura of premium service on the route, British Airways has resurrected former Concorde flight numbers for the LCY-JFK services: BA001 and BA003 for westbound flights and BA002 and BA004 for the eastbounds.
We began boarding BA002 at 1800. Each passenger was greeted by name at both the gate and the aircraft door. The seats were BA’s cradle-type Club Class, in a 2-2 layout. Each seat had a power point and reclined to 180˚. While there was no IFE (in-flight entertainment) system installed, cabin attendants offered passengers individual DVD players with movies, TV shows, and games. BA has also teamed with OnAir to provide free wireless Internet and cell phone texting capabilities on the A318s. Pushback was precisely on time at 1840, followed by takeoff 15 minutes later. The three Gatwick-based flight attendants served drinks about ten minutes after takeoff, followed by a light snack. Then it was lights out. Apparently, some passengers had not been informed at check in that this is a 'sleeper service', with no dinner offered; BA assumes customers will be informed that they should eat dinner in the lounge.
Pilots are chosen from A320 family crews that operate from Heathrow and Gatwick. The cabin crew is invited to interview for the LCY route and receive special training. They then fly a mix of regular rotations from Gatwick and at least one LCY–JFK trip each month.
Ninety minutes before landing, those passengers who had ordered a full breakfast were served a hearty meal, while those who elected to have the takeaway 'City Breakfast' are allowed to sleep until we began descent. From the top of the final approach path, the thin, short ribbon of concrete—surrounded on three sides by water—looked as challenging as landing on an aircraft carrier. After the steep approach, BA002 touched down—hard—on the numbers and the captain applied full braking and reverse thrust to bring it to a stop. With no other arriving passengers, we cleared immigration in five minutes, and within ten minutes of leaving the aircraft, we were on the train. BA offers arriving passengers the spa and shower amenities of a nearby Marriott hotel.
Returning the next day, it was remarkable to witness some passengers checking in for a trans-Atlantic flight less than 20 minutes before departure. BA has no lounge at LCY but offers a small assortment of drinks and snacks at the departure gate. BA001 was almost full with 27 passengers. Most of them had only carry-on baggage, seeming to confirm BA’s profile of customers who would make only a brief trans-Atlantic trip. With no cargo, and the light passenger, baggage, and fuel load, the aircraft had a 25-second takeoff roll and then a climb that pinned us back in our seats. It wasn’t Concorde, but grabbed your attention.
The cabin crew served drinks and canapés and 40 minutes later we began our descent into Shannon, touching down at 1445. We cleared US immigration and customs, refueled, and began reboarding by 1510. Now weighed down with full tanks, we had a much longer takeoff roll and normal climb over the Irish coast. Flight attendants came around again with drinks and then—90 minutes later—served lunch. The trans-Atlantic crossing does have a more intimate feel than the cattle-car atmosphere of a typical wide-body. We landed on Runway 31R at JFK at 1715 local time—9½ hours after taking off from LCY. Had we flown nonstop from Heathrow on a Boeing 777 or 747, it should have taken eight hours—but you would then have to add the time to reach and transit Heathrow, and you would still have to stand in line at US immigration and customs during a busy time of the day. Having cleared formalities in Shannon, we arrived at JFK as a domestic flight, and eight minutes after leaving the aircraft we were at the curb.
British Airways says it is pricing its LCY-JFK route approximately 10% higher than LHR-JFK tariffs, which it believes is justified by the time-saving and convenience of the unique LCY location. A check online for a two-day trip a week later showed BA offering JFK-LHR Club Class flights ranging from $8,174-$10,021, while services into LCY showed up at $8,563-$10,021 (including taxes).
There are, of course, operational risks in operating two daily flights while having only two aircraft. And the airline graveyard is filled with corpses of other aspiring business-class-only carriers which thought they could tap into the lucrative London–New York market. But this is a different scenario. None of them offered the unique convenience of London City. They did not have the power of BA’s marketing brand and the allure of the best frequent flyer program in Britain. They did not have one of the most well-connected, successful corporate sales teams in the industry.
The passenger seated next to this editor on the westbound flight was one of seven executives from her company on the same flight—all of whom were going to New York for a one-day meeting. Her team unanimously thought the convenience of City Airport far outstripped the longer stage length and the tech stop.
It seems BA has done its homework. And this is a market it has all to itself.
(BA's new trans-Atlantic service from LCY is featured in the January 2010 issue of Airways, and London City Airport is featured in the March 2010 issue of Airways.)