Review: Should BA scrap BA1, the ‘all business’ London City to New York service?

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This is my review of BA1, the ‘all business class’ service from London City to New York JFK, via Shannon.

Well, more accurately, tomorrow will be my full review.  Today I want to give you some background to the BA1 service and my reasoning for why I don’t think it will be with us for much longer.

Until 24 hours ago, it had been a long time since I last flew BA1.  It was back in September 2010, before HFP was launched.  By total chance, it was the first anniversary of the service, and we were greeted with cake and music during the stopover in Shannon!

Having flown it again yesterday, it is time to question whether BA1 still has a place in the market.

BA’s official website for BA1 can be found here.

The history of BA’s London City to New York route

First, let me remind you of the background to BA1.

Until 2003, BA1 was the flight number associated with the Concorde route from London to New York. Six years after Concorde was retired, British Airways introduced a service from London City Airport to New York JFK and re-used this prestigious flight code.

There were originally two flights per day, but the second was dropped in 2016 as we reported here.

What makes BA1 special is not only that it is the only long-haul service from London City, an airport that is constrained by both its short runway and surrounding skyscrapers, but also that it is an all-business class configuration.

This is not your standard Club World seat. The business class seat on the BA1 and BA2 return service is an entirely different, all forward-facing 2 x 2 product:

BA1 A318 interior view

The novelty of this service is so great that you can even do a walk-through of the aircraft on Google Street View!  Click to see it:

Google Street View of BA1 A318

To make this route work, British Airways uses an Airbus A318.  Thanks to London City’s short runway and airspace restrictions, the A318 is the largest aircraft type to be able to land.  Even then, it had to be modified with a “steep approach” function.

Taking off is also a problem, since with full fuel tanks the aircraft cannot get enough speed to clear the runway!  Instead, it departs London City with a very small amount of fuel and makes a stop in Shannon to fill up.  The clever trick here is that the stop also allows passengers to clear US Customs and Immigration in Ireland, allowing you to land as a domestic passenger in New York.

To put this in perspective, it took me exactly five minutes yesterday – with only hand baggage – to get from the door of the aircraft to the Airtrain station at JFK Terminal 7.

On the return flight, the aircraft flies directly to London City without a stop.

It all sounds great! 

It is, in some ways.  Passenger loads are also usually low and you will often get a pair of seats to yourself, which gets around the seat mate issue.

(Of course, this does not bode well for the economic viability of the one remaining daily service.)

As it happened, British Airways has no problems filling the Monday morning service which was virtually full.  Departing London City at 09.40, it landed in New York JFK at 13.50.

If you want to get to New York at a sensible time, it remains a good option – although the 08.25 from Heathrow beats it by almost three hours, landing at 11.05.

BA 1 New York to London City

And yet ….

As someone who flew BA1 in the early days, it was sad to see the decline of the service yesterday.  At the same time as BA1 has been doing downhill, other airlines have been raising their transatlantic game, including BA’s sister airline Aer Lingus.

In Part 2 of this review tomorrow I will look at the current service in more detail.  In this piece, I want to focus on WHY I think it doesn’t have a future, at least in its current form.

The problems with BA1 in 2019

I was hoping to get a list of 10, but got stuck at nine.  Nine is still nine too many, however ….

Problem 1:  London City Airport

Let’s not get our rose-tinted glasses out. London City Airport has been a nightmare at peak times for a long time, and I doubt it was much better back in 2010 when I last flew BA1. When the new terminal is complete, we should have a transformed airport. In the meantime, we are dealing with a space which struggles massively in terms of number of passengers per square foot at peak times.

My trip from West London was entirely trouble-free.  London City has also taken steps to improve security screening, and I got through surprisingly quickly for 8am on a Monday.  After that, however, it went downhill.  There is minimal seating space in the terminal which meant that paying a shocking £3.59 for a small Americano at Illy was actually good value, since it got me a seat and a table for the next hour.

There are no lounges in London City Airport.  You CAN use the lounges in the private jet terminal next door and be driven to the steps of your aircraft (I did it myself recently and it is a fantastic service, read my review here) but US security restrictions mean that BA1 passengers cannot use this facility.

When the BA1 service launched and there were two daily services, the aircraft had a dedicated gate. British Airways would set up a little buffet in the gate area for passengers. It wasn’t great but it was better than nothing. This has now been swept away.

(EDIT:  the comments below suggest that you get a credit at Pilots restaurant. If true, this is something which is kept deliberately secret by BA! Whilst check in staff may mention it, this is mainly a hand baggage only customer base who do not use the desks.)

Boarding is now from a random gate with just enough seating for the plane. There is nothing special about it at all, especially as you have to walk across the tarmac to the aircraft – not fun on a rainy day.

BA1 review London City to New York

Problem 2:  The food and service

Back in 2008, BA1 led the way in terms of British Airways food with the service catered in a partnership with the Roast restaurant in Borough Market. Do&Co has now taken over and, whilst I am generally very supportive of them, there was no apparent difference to the food offered on the New York services from Heathrow now that BA has raised its game there.

Problem 3:  The tired seats

The BA1 seats are unchanged in 10 years, whereas the rest of the industry has moved on. A 2 x 2 layout with no real privacy from your neighbour no longer cuts it. It looks very poor compared to the new British Airways and Virgin Atlantic seats – and Virgin Atlantic is planning to put the first three A350 aircraft with the new Upper Class Suite (reviewed here) onto the New York JFK route.

Problem 4:  The IFE and wi-fi

There is no built-in IFE on BA1 – you are supplied with a pre-loaded iPad instead. This was a fancy novelty 10 years ago, but the iPads are not the latest models.  Capacity is limited, with just 14 movies loaded plus some TV, audio and games.  Improvements in IFE screens on mainline aircraft means that the current set-up is now a bit of a joke.  BA1 also has no wi-fi – not a big deal 10 years ago, but more of a deal breaker now.

BA 1 New York London City review

Problem 5:  Global Entry

The quiet revolution in travel to the United States for non-US citizens in recent years has been the ability to sign up for Global Entry. It is a bit of a faff, but once you’ve had your interview (which can be done in London at various times of the year) you can skip US immigration lines for the next five years.  A key selling point of BA1 is that it is time-neutral, since the 50 minute stopover in Shannon lets you clear immigration, saving you 50 minutes in New York.  If you have Global Entry, this isn’t the case – BA1 is noticeably slower for you.

Problem 6:  The introduction of APC immigration machines

I don’t have Global Entry. However, if your fingerprints are on file with US immigration, you can now use the APC immigration kiosks at most US major airports.  A few taps of the keyboard and you will be issued with a slip which you hand in to a separate immigration desk, and you are on your way.  The system keeps getting easier, which means the need for Shannon pre-clearance keeps reducing.  (You can also use the kiosks if your fingerprints are not on file, but you will still have to go to a separate desk afterwards for scanning.)

Problem 7:  Crossrail

OK, I admit that the continual delays to Crossrail mean that this point is less relevant than it would have been a year ago. However, once Crossrail opens you will be able to travel directly from Canary Wharf to Heathrow. With the benefits of First Wing check-in, decent lounges, better retail, a far wider selection of departure times and – soon – Club Suite (or the new Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Suite), heading to London City for a second rate experience on BA1 will no longer make sense.

Problem 8:  The loss of First Class tier points

For almost a decade, British Airways tried to bribe passengers to fly BA1 with the offer of First Class tier points. Instead of 280 tier points for a return trip, you would receive 420. This made BA1 particularly popular with people chasing status.  This benefit was removed in the last BAEC reshuffle.

Aer Lingus Business Class

Problem 9:  The growth of Aer Lingus

Even if you are a fan of departing from London City and completing US immigration in Ireland, you can’t deny that there is a better way of doing it – flying Aer Lingus.  There are regular services from London City to Ireland, and from there you can connect to a New York flight.  Aer Lingus has an excellent business class seat and service – see our review here and the photo above.

The only downside is the lack of British Airways Executive Club tier points – although you will earn Avios, just not tier points – and the possibility of a missed connection due to delays in London.  Because BA1 uses the same aircraft on both legs, you won’t miss your onward flight however late it leaves City.

Even the tier point problem with Aer Lingus should go away soon, because the airline has applied to join the transatlantic joint venture with BA, American, Finnair and Iberia.  If this is approved by the authorities, Aer Lingus flights to the US will earn tier points.

It isn’t all bad news, of course

BA1 still offers a fairly early arrival into New York compared with many of the Heathrow and Gatwick services.

There is also something very pleasant about travelling on a 32-seat aircraft even if you have to share a seat pair with a stranger.

Clearing immigration at Shannon is also a good experience for anyone who is used to your average US airport – yesterday I walked straight up to an agent (no queue, Shannon has a dedicated business class lane) who was substantially more cheerful than your average US immigration official and I was through in literally seconds.

My full review tomorrow will look at BA1 in detail.  In the meantime, you can find out more on ba.com hereMy gut feeling, however, is that if you want to fly it, I would try to do it sooner rather than later, because it may not be around for long.

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Comments

  1. Used BA1 last Friday. You can use The Pilot restaurant with unlimited champagne and any dish on the menu. Did the check in agent not tell you this? Otherwise I don’t understand why you paid £3.5 for a seat at illey.

    • David says:

      Also, why would anyone spend an hour at LCY anyway? The key selling point of the airport is check-in closing 20 mins before departure.

      • ‘Cos if you’re coming from West London you need leeway.

        • The whole world doesn’t live, work or stay in Kensington. I know you do Rob but it’s a bit like the “Dubai” factor. I agree the airport is congested but if you are central London based it beats LHR hands down.

          • And if you live in North London? Or South or East for that matter?

            Tsk… Inner city based people… 😮

            😂

          • David says:

            LCY is East! Nobody actually *lives* outside Zone 3 do they? You might go there for a rural weekend retreat, but actually spending an extended period of time there? Crazy talk…

          • Here’s the thing …. in terms of the ‘senior City banker’ demographic targeted, it does. This is another issue against BA1 – with a 9.40am departure, no-one is going from their Canary Wharf office to the airport. They are going from home.

  2. ChrisC says:

    I love the BA 1 and will be doing it again in July. It’s not perfect but is anything perfect? I’ve used it several times since my first BA1 in 2013 after it came up in a BA sale!

    But why did you pay for a coffee when you could have gone to Pilots Restaurant and got a full breakfast – or even just your single coffee – in lieu of the old Gate 24 lounge?

    And even when BA had gate 24 you still had to walk across the apron, And gate 24 only had 32 seats to match the capacity of the flight. Much like the gate they use now.

    (And before anyone complains about BA penny pinching in closing the gate 24 lounge it was LCY that took the space to allow LX to use if for their CS series (now A220) planes) flights.

    • Andrew says:

      I think this was one of those rare things that EVEN Rob wasn’t aware of! And as he was hand baggage only, didn’t visit a check-in desk but went straight through and so no one told him.

  3. Not bothered now it’s not 210 TPs

  4. Simon says:

    And while the seat configuration isn’t great for singles, it’s perfect for couples…

    Ultimately I agree it’ll be Crossrail that kills it though, if the next major check for the A318 doesn’t come first.

  5. Joe C says:

    Every year since I can remember on FlyerTalk there is a thread where someone says BA1 will end because they can’t see it being viable for much longer, every year it carries on.

    I use this route quite a lot, it’s usually towards the full side I find. Especially BA1 on Friday and BA2 on Thursday

    • Andrew says:

      I think the reason it remains viable is that those who are more likely to travel on it are more likely to pay full fare and maybe you only need a few full fare pax to make it viable. Plus LCY Ltd must LOVE being able to say you can fly to New York from LCY, so probably let BA have the slot and ground handling for peanuts.

    • I understood that the BA1/2 BA3/4 service(s) were subsidised by one or more of the banks based in CW to ferry their staff to the NY office. Not sure if that is still the case or if it changed when BA3/4 were withdrawn, but it changes the economics of it somewhat if you have some guaranteed income/flight.

  6. Luthar says:

    Can you book BA1 flights with avios?

    • ChrisC says:

      Yes. And there is often good availability as well.

    • Yes

    • Yes, there is quite often very good availability. I hope it continues as I would love to use it one day, the logistics of being based in the north and being restricted to school holidays make it impossible for the next couple of years.

    • Yes, standard rates

  7. You didn’t mention the propensity of London city to close in a light mist!

    I also just don’t understand the issue of US immigration. On the one occasion I was booked on the BA001 city was closed so reroute to LHR where I flew AA to JFK. I don’t have global entry but as a business class passenger I cleared the machine in less than 5 minutes. Indeed my last 5 or 6 trips have all seen me clear US immigration at DFW, PHL, JFK in less than 10 minutes with family. This is now usually faster and friendlier than navigating the hostile environment of The Border Force at LHR. It might be that this is because I usually fly AA but even last July flying on BA clapped out 747 to PHL the experience was painless

    • mradey says:

      GE is great – I don’t need to scan my passport any longer – if the machine can recognise my face – 100^% success with that so far (and my young son). It already ‘knows’ my flight etc., so I just need to press the “no to all” button and wait for the slip of paper. Having said that, I have noticed, if I’m waiting at the luggage carousels, that non GE passengers are arriving there with less delay at the airports with banks of APC machines.

    • JP-MCO says:

      The problem with US immigration without Global Entry is the number of variables that affect your wait. Even flying in a premium cabin you can’t be certain that your wait at immigration will be short. If your flights arrives late it might coincide with the arrival of another flight, if your flight is on time it might coincide with the late arrival of another flight, if the APC kiosks aren’t in use or a number are broken, if only a handful of the immigration desks are open when you get there due to shift changeover. In my mind GE eliminates these variables which, as frequent travellers to the USA, is why we have it for our entire family. That said it’s not cheap and it’s a fairly long process to apply. For a family of 4 you’re looking at around £485 for GE. Applicants are currently waiting in excess of 80 days for conditional approval with some people even going over 120 days. It’s not the easiest programme to find decent articles about (and by that I mean an article that’s not US based and trying to flog you an AMEX Platinum card at the same time). An article from the perspective of a UK citizen might be a nice addition to HfP. Let me know if you like the idea Rob – happy to contribute.

      • JP-MCO says:

        PS: I don’t think they do interviews at the London Embassy anymore at all. I think that because so many airports now offer Enrollment on Arrival in the US there is no need for it.

      • On the last two trips to USA the immigration experience was poles apart
        Boston
        Economy
        Used machines and straight through to officer whole lot cleared in literally 10 minutes
        Seattle
        Club but this made no difference
        New Passport so no machine
        Huge queues and made worse by military planeload arriving who were put to front
        Lots of people missing connecting flights and immigration’s approach was tough
        2 Hours overall

        • JP-MCO says:

          The problem is inconsistency – sometimes you can breeze through and other times it’s a 2 hour wait. GE eliminates the inconsistency and it’s nice to know when you’re getting off a 9 hour flight that you will be out of the airport in 30 minutes rather than wondering whether you’re still going to be there 2 hours later.

          • Doug M says:

            Agreed. The other huge benefit to me has been TSA-Pre. One departure from MCO made the cost of GE worthwhile to me. The non TSA-Pre queue headed off in the distance, through in less than 3 minutes with -Pre. Also, the reduction in bag emptying, shoe removal etc. has made the £140ish worth it for me.

          • Ha! It was also a couple of experiences at MCO that made up my mind to get Global Entry: a 90-minute wait in line when we landed, and then when we departed a very long line to security with no communication about what was causing the hold-up, while TSA Pre passengers were breezing through on the other side of the barrier. Otherwise, I’ve generally had no issues recently when landing (without GE) from the UK at JFK, ORD, or SFO. Even the one time I flew Norwegian to FLL it was relatively painless.

          • Geoff says:

            Agree that it is inconsistency which is the problem. Not just for leaving the airport but for connections. Based on nearly 2 hours getting through immigration and customs at MIA a few years ago we give ourselves at least a few hours between flights following an international arrival. That said, at PHL and recently AUS, we were through in 20 minutes – at PHL our bags went on the earlier flight that we would have taken had we not been too scared to book a 2 hour connection.

        • marcw says:

          Same experience in Seattle. Massive waiting time. It seems all international planes arrive at the same time, creating a massive backlog.

      • “An article from the perspective of a UK citizen might be a nice addition to HfP”

        +1 for an analysis of APC vs Global Entry (vs TSA-Pre?)

        • I might take a look if it the London interviews come back … but I do 1, max 2, solo US trips per year so it isn’t top of my list.

          • Doug M says:

            It’s very straight forward. Assuming UK citizen you go here https://www.gov.uk/global-entry-usa and pay UK gov £42 for a background check. If approved you then apply to US gov for $100. The last bit requires an interview. I did interview at Grosvenor Square a couple years ago, was little different to a 5 minute chat. By the time I’d left and turned phone on I had approval. It lasts 5 years and can be moved to a new passport if you change. It doesn’t replace an ESTA, you still need VISA or waiver, it’s a security pre check so that they ‘trust’ you at the border. It comes with TSA-pre which is a status allowing access to a more trusted lane at security in the USA for both international and domestic flights. Typically you have a much shorter queue time, and an easier experience. Laptops and liquids don’t need to be removed, bags are scanned with contents in place.

          • JP-MCO says:

            Interviews in London won’t come back. Enrolment on Arrival is the replacement for this. Essentially you complete the interview aspect of GE when you complete immigration formalities upon arriving off an international flight.

    • Lady London says:

      I agree that US Immigration has overall become more streamlined in past few years. But when it’s bad, it’s still very bad.

      • Lady London says:

        PS on my first First’ out of SEA i discovered that apparently BA pays for TSA Pre for some US airports. I was directed to lunes that had 3 people queuing for TSA Pre, instead of lines going out of sight round the terminal. Not sure if BA pays for this just for First. It made a h*** of a différence.

        • Nick_C says:

          I think TSA randomly give “TSA pre” to passengers, hoping they will pay and sign up for the programme as a result of a positive experience. I’ve had it several times, and got it with BA club flying back from JFK last year. I’ve also had it flying Y class on United. I think BA only became an approved airline relatively recently?

          It didn’t seem to be option for BA last month at JFK, where the premium security line just merged with the standard line towards the front.

  8. William says:

    Re Aer Lingus, discount Business Class fares (I think it’s fare code P) do not earn BA Avios. I’ve been caught by this. You can credit to an Aer Lingus account and transfer later though.

    • Lady London says:

      Aer Lingus can be transferred to BA now?

      • Charlieface says:

        Always could

      • Lady London says:

        Ta Charlieface. That might influence my decision to look again at EI. Seems almost too good not to push the miles into UA, though, while it’s still possible!

        Now it’s going to get a bit quiet for the summer and while the Amex shocks die down, I hope the next exciting thing Rob gets to write about doesn’t turn out to be a massive Avios devaluation!

  9. Jason says:

    Great article Rob. It’s been a few years since I flew BA1 as well, I’ve found myself choosing Heathrow of late, even though I’m closer to City airport. Here’s your number 10: Arrival lounge facilities at the Radisson “enhanced”.

  10. David says:

    Number 11 -getting rid of 1 of the A318s so there’s no possible backup if the plane goes tech

    • Frenzie says:

      There is. And it happens sometimes.
      People are rebooked to an LHR service.

  11. Always felt that long haul flights on single aisle narrow body aircraft was a no no so that rules it out for me before we even get to the other problems.

    • Shoestring says:

      This isn’t really LH though, is it? It’s Middle Haul. Not too much worse than flying to Istanbul.

      • Not sure but I thought flights over 5h were considered long haul? Personally I’ve always felt ok in an economy seat for up to 7/8h but beyond that feeling of discomfort increases rapidly. Always felt more comfortable in large wide body aircraft too regardless of distance flown or class of travel.

        • Doug M says:

          I think in terms of how you feel the B787 and A350 have really been game changers. I love upstairs on the 747, but the reduction in jet lag and that urrrggh feeling from the two newer planes is really marked.
          Having said that I’d never sit in economy on a B787, the whole pack them in mentality means it’s a no no for me.

      • Lady London says:

        Some people used not to be comfortable with only 2 engines across the Atlantic though.

        • Nick_C says:

          Including Boeing and the FAA at one time! I remember when ETOPS first allowed twin engine pages to fly transatlantic, Virgin Atlantic ran an advertising campaign boasting that all their planes had four engines.

    • Nick_C says:

      What’s wrong with long haul on a narrow body?

      As Doug M points out, upstairs on a 747 is very popular. And it’s basically a narrow body experience on a wide body plane.

      With planes like the A321XLR, we could be seeing a return to long haul single aisle flights.

      With a comfortable seat, what’s the problem?

      • I liked upstairs and the nose of a 747, small cabins but I knew I was on a large aircraft so it was fine. Just don’t like the feeling of being on small aircraft for many hours, didn’t like transcontinental flights in North America on a320s or 737s.

      • Aer Lingus has just bought 14 narrow body planes to fly to the US!

        • Yes, not unusual at all, and will become increasingly common with a320nXLR. I imagine it will be good for the regions where widebody aircraft can be more difficult to fill.

    • when i flew BA2 (on points) the cabin crew stomped up and down the aisle during the night … which made the seats move … which stopped me sleeping. less likely to be a problem on a widebody.

      never again.

      • Nick_C says:

        I’ve had the same problem in J on AA’s 77W. Think it’s down to the crew, not the aircraft.

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