HFP’s history of BA1, the (now scrapped) London City to New York JFK flight

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The biggest news from IAG’s first half results on Friday – beyond the expected €1.9 billion loss – was the discontinuation of BA1, the all-business class flight from London City Airport to New York JFK.

BA1, often affectionately known as the ‘babybus’ since it was operated by the only A318 in the British Airways fleet, offered a unique transatlantic experience – ‘Club World London City’.

The writing was already on the wall.  A year ago, Rob wrote this speculative article in which he said 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.”

The limitations of operating at City Airport, the tired seats, the lack of ‘real’ inflight entertainment, the continued rollout of Global Entry and the (eventual) opening of Crossrail meant that a direct New York service from London City was losing its USP.

It looks like Covid-19 was the final nail in the coffin.  In March, the route was suspended as coronavirus took hold in Europe and North America. In its H1 results presentation on Friday, IAG quietly noted that British Airways would be ‘exiting the A318 fleet’. This spells the end of BA1, which is the only route operated by BA’s single A318, after just over a decade of service.

A brief history of BA’s all-business class BA1 flight

For many years, flight number BA1 was associated with the Concorde route from Heathrow to New York. This was not the flight number Concorde used when it entered service in 1977, however, and only began to be used in the mid eighties.  BA3 and BA4 were used for the second pair of daily Concorde flights.

In 2003 Concorde was retired and the BA1 flight number was retired with it.

In the mid noughties, a number of small new airlines launched dedicated business-only flights between the US and Europe. Eos and Maxjet operated flights from Stansted to New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.  At the time, both Lufthansa and SWISS also operated premium-only flights to the Big Apple from mainland Europe.

This caught the attention of Virgin Atlantic, which in 2007 boldly announced its intentions to launch what The Times called an ‘elite fleet’ from European airports to the US. According to a spokesman at the time, the flights would ‘certainly’ be operating within eighteen months of the announcement with a subfleet of 15 aircraft.

That never materialised, of course. The financial crisis meant that business travel was depressed, and Virgin Atlantic put its plans on ice. That didn’t stop British Airways, however, which announced plans to launch a rival all-business class flight from London City to New York JFK.

British Airways bought two new Airbus A318 aircraft to serve the route and fitted them out with 32 seats in a 2-2 seat arrangement. For whatever reason – perhaps aircraft width or seat weight – BA chose not to use its yin-yang Club World seat but introduced an entirely new seat that was all forward facing.

BA1 A318 interior view

Thanks to take-off restrictions at London City Airport (Canary Wharf is directly in front of the runway) the A318 was not able to take-off with a full tank of fuel: the weight would prevent it from being able to climb steeply enough. This meant that the aircraft had to make a 40 minute refuelling stop in Shannon.

At the time, Shannon was one of the few airports outside the US to offer a US customs and immigration service.  This allowed travellers to clear the US border in Ireland and land in New York JFK as domestic passengers. This saved considerable time given the queues that US customs and immigration are renowned for.

Google Street View of BA1 A318

The return flight was direct as there were no take-off restrictions.  Landing into London City required a particularly steep approach for which the aircraft was modified and pilots were specially trained.

The flights launched twice daily in the middle of a global recession in 2009 bearing flight numbers BA1, BA2, BA3 and BA4. For a long time, in addition to its unique Club seats, the flights also enjoyed dedicated catering which was significantly better than what you would have got from Heathrow. Passengers loved it, and I am sure you will find some readers sharing stories in the comments below!

Although London City has no lounges, British Airways turned the departure gate into a ‘mini lounge’ and offered an arrival service at the Radisson Edwardian hotel.

Gradually, BA’s Heathrow services caught up. Improvements in catering meant that BA1 no longer enjoyed this advantage, and the US began rolling out Global Entry which expedites customs and immigration for frequent travellers to the US.

British Airways stopped catering at the departure gate, instead offering passengers a voucher to spend at Pilot’s restaurant.  As Rob found out last year, however, if you were travelling with just hand baggage and skipped the desks you did not get a voucher.  The ‘arrivals lounge’ was also closed.

In 2016, the second daily flight was scrapped and one of the two A318 aircraft sold to Titan Airways.

Gone but not forgotten

Now, it seems, one of the last all-business class flights in Europe has officially come to an end.

The story doesn’t have to end here, however. Whilst the A318s used by British Airways were getting old and in need of refurbishment, a newer generation of aircraft is offering a better passenger experience and better flying performance.

The A220, now marketed and owned by Airbus but developed by Bombardier, leaves the door open. It is the largest aircraft to be certified for operations at London City and can carry 100-150 passengers in a typical layout. It has already operated test flights with an all-business configuration between London City and New York, and can fly the distance without a refuelling stop.

Odyssey Airlines, a new start-up airline, has already outlined its plans to operate a premium service between the two airports. In 2013 it ordered 10 A220-100s with delivery pencilled in for this year, although they do not yet appear on the Airbus construction list.

While it is unlikely that British Airways will place an order for the A220 soon, it is not impossible that we’ll see BA1 being used on a premium service between London and New York in the future. Unfortunately it looks like the Google Street View walk-through has been taken down – a screenshot is above – so you won’t be able to relive any BA1 memories.

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Comments

  1. David Wakelin says:

    So does BA’s / IAG’s statement means it will never fly again ?
    I have booked for March 2021 and I haven’t been advised of a cancellation or flight change – and it is still for sale on ba.com !

    • Certainly in the medium term it means that. BA doesn’t have an aircraft suitable for the route without the A318!

  2. My favourite BA flight. I flew this with 17 passengers which is the closest to a private jet experience I’m likely to have unless there’s a massive change in circumstances. I found BA1 to be much better than standard Club World, even better than upstairs in the Row 64 on the 747. Not quite as enjoyable as 1A on the 747 🙂

    Glad to have expereinced this while it lasted.

  3. Bluekjp says:

    As Rob found out last year, however, if you were travelling with just hand baggage and skipped the desks you did not get a voucher.
    Above untrue;
    You just went straight to Pilot’s restaurant and showed your boarding pass for the breakfast and alcoholic drink. I last travelled hand baggage only in June 19 and this was the case.

  4. Thought the moniker was Speedbird 1 and contributing reason for outbound stopover at Shannon was insufficient range for A319 to manage eastbound hop against prevailing westerlies, that’s why inbound flights USA > UK around an hour less, most of year.
    But hey, let’s not stop the facts getting in way of a story.

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