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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.

(Want to earn more Avios?  Click here to visit our home page for the latest articles on earning and spending your Avios points and click here to see how to earn more Avios from current offers and promotions.)

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Comments

  1. Charlieface says:

    What I can’t understand is why they don’t swap out the plane for Airbus A220 (Bombardier CS100/300) it’s approved for LCY, far more efficient, more seats and could prob do the full run without a fuel stop.

    • If they starting again, they probably would. IAG has no other use for that 220 if the service gets pulled though.

    • AlexT says:

      Fuel stop would still be needed due to the length of the runway. CS300 isn’t certified to land at LCY. CS100 is the only option, and I’m not sure the cabin is wide enough to fit 2×2 J seats…

  2. IslandDweller says:

    I’m sure the (eventual) opening of Crossrail will persuade some LCY passengers to switch to LHR. But I don’t think it is a total game changer. There will be six Crossrail trains per hour to T2/3, but four will continue to T4. Only two per hour will serve T5, so most BA passengers will need to change trains at the T2/3 station. Not the end of the world, but removes some of the perceived convenience factor.
    Meanwhile. TFL has just ordered new trains for the DLR. One consequence is that all services on the LCY route will be ‘full length’, rather than (as now) half of them being shorter length. This plus the opening of Crossrail (which many woolwich passengers will switch to) should reduce overcrowding on the LCY route.

  3. IslandDweller says:

    Rob. Your geography is off. The Crossrail tracks are south of the airport, going underground at the west corner of the complex by the jet centre, to emerge at Custom House (Excel).
    Canary Wharf paid for (by physicality building at no cost to the Crossrail project) the Crossrail station at the Wharf. The property developers at Woolwich contributed to the cost of building the station there. The owners of LCY refused to contribute to the costs of a station at LCY so it didn’t get built.

    • Michael Jennings says:

      That section of Crossrail runs along the tracks of the former North London Line, which used to be an infrequent and crappy Silverlink service. Much of that line is now London Overground, another bit is now DLR, and this bit is going to be part of Crossrail. (All of these things are individually much more useful than the old North London LIne was, so this is all good). The former Silvertown station on that line was right next to LCY, but that station was much too narrow and much too short to be used as a Crossrail station. Building a Crossrail station there would have involved much demolishing and much rebuilding, and this would all have been extremely expensive. Also, you do not want Crossrail to have too many stops, as that will increase journey times. Given that LCY is only a small airport and has one decent rail connection already, it likely genuinely didn’t make economic sense to build a Crossrail station for LCY.

      I’ve also heard it said that the Crossrail people find the existence of LCY annoying, because it places height restrictions on some of the development opportunities in that area of East London, and the LCY people find Crossrail annoying because it makes it easy to get from Canary Wharf to LHR, thus potentially taking away some of their business. I’m not sure how true any of this is.

    • ChrisC says:

      As I posted elsewhere they keep offering £50m towards the cost of a station. Every time they do TFL asks LCY to produce a proper feasibility study and LCY consistently fails to produce one. Rinse and repeat.

      There is passive provision (i.e. space) for a station at the old Silvertown station site. That’s the closest a station can be due to the lengths of the train and the need for a straight platform.

    • Lady London says:

      didnt see your comment Islanddweller till just now.

      Amazing the level of corruption that must go on behind the scenes in all these large civic projects that taxpayers, community charge payers and passengers pay for, isn’t it

      We’re all just bought and sold by the momey men.

  4. Gerry says:

    BA0001 was my first ever redemption, with a return upstairs on a B747 to LHR from JFK. This was in 2013, no wonder I have been hooked on points ever since. I thought the whole experience was great.
    I liked the lounge at LCY, the fact that the cockpit and cabin crew said hi in the lounge on their way to the aircraft so it’s sad that the lounge disappeared a couple of years ago. As have the free connecting return flights from EDI. 😩

    • The Urbanite says:

      I did the same in 2017, only discounted with a Lloyds upgrade voucher and with the pre-flight supper on the way back.

      It was a nice experience, first time long haul business class. There were around 12 people on board that time.

      If time isn’t a pressing factor I would do it again.

  5. Libby says:

    Does BA1 charge for seats now?

    When doing a dummy booking in order to select a seat at time of booking it was a minimum of 70 pounds a seat (as a BA Blue). I thought that seat allocation was free on BA1?

    • ChrisC says:

      yes they charge but given the generally light loads and the small number of seats there really isn’t any need to pay.

  6. Shoestring says:
  7. Wittgendworkin says:

    Rob, you mention Global Entry being available for sign-up several times a year in London, but you link to an article from 2016. Interviews were briefly available again in Spring 2018, but I haven’t seen anything since then. Are you aware of any way to complete enrolment in London currently?

    I’m from US living in London. The last two times I flew to the US enrolment on arrival was unavailable (first because of staffing and then because of the government shutdown)—and neither time was any notice given to arriving passengers. My 1 year period to complete enrolment lapses in 2 months and there’s no chance of me having time to fly to the US again before then, so my wife and I have both wasted our application fees if we can’t do enrolment interviews in London soon.

  8. BA1, during refuelling at Shanon we were going through the airport security with our hand luggage with lots of other people. My impression was that it was the Irish rather then the US security, which surprised me a bit. Out of interest, if anyone knows, which one was it?

    • Nick_C says:

      You go through SNN security first. I’m assuming this is a security check for passengers in transit, as you will find some other passengers are arriving from the US. You then go through Duty Free and on to the US Immigration hall.

      If you have hold luggage, this is scanned but you don’t normally have to handle it.

      When I flew GTW-SNN-JFK with Aer Lingus back in 2010, the initial flight was very late. We were met at the gate and escorted directly to the Immigration hall, bypassing security.

    • Irish – which is odd, because LCY is presumably fully secure and so there is no need for rescreening, unless the US is being a bit funny.

      • on entry into the US immigration facility within Dublin airport, all passengers are re-screened … so it wouldn’t be a surprise for them to require it at Shannon too

  9. If they scrape NY, what could be the alternatives to use A318s for similar flights? There was a hearsay about Moscow but I think it’s unrealistic in the current climate. Maybe Israel or Dubai?

  10. I took this a few times back when it was fresh… most notably when you were able to MFU from a non-existent WT+ to it 😀 although they closed that loophole pretty quickly.

  11. OT – Has anyone recently flew to the new Istanbul airport (IST) and used lounges? I can’t seem to find any info on Priority Pass/ Lounge Club/ LoungeKey lounges in IST, just the IGA lounge with €59 entry fee!?

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