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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 here. My 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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