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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 (48)

  • NFH says:

    I flew on BA3’s maiden flight in 2009. It was a fantastic service with 9 passengers and 3 cabin crew. It was the closest experience on BA to flying on a private jet. In-flight 2G mobile data (no wifi) was a real novelty in 2009, even though most UK networks charged for this data roaming at around £8,000 per gigabyte.

    • Chrisasaurus says:

      I never saw anything above above that loading – I wonder how often they came close to 32?

      There was very often award inventory too, have to assume it wasn’t often full

      • Mr. AC says:

        As a data point, last autum on BA1 there were 15 pax (this was a Tuesday).

  • Nick_C says:

    Flew it last year (for the second time) and I didn’t find the seating tired. It was a very special experience. Always lightly loaded westbound. 20 pax on my first trip. 16 on my second. There was nothing else like it. The on board service was great. Think it was a treat for the cabin crew as well.

    Must have been an expensive flight to operate. Cabin crew brought in from Gatwick. Pilots from Heathrow. A change of pilots at Shannon. And frequent diversions to Gatwick cause of bad weather at City.

    I had hoped that BA might have moved the flight to Heathrow when City closed. I would have thought it would be economical to carry the small number of premium passengers who have needed to fly during covid.

  • Jordan D says:

    Didn’t the recent BA mortgage documents hold that BA still owned *both* 318s, and that EUNB was simply on a long term charter by Titan?

      • Jordan D says:

        In which case you may want to edit the “one of the two A318 aircraft sold to Titan Airways” line…

    • Chrisasaurus says:

      It was a 2 year lease in 2018 with option to purchase after that – so may or may not have still been on the books

  • riku2 says:

    I flew it once and never chose it again. The seats were shorter than club world when in bed mode (and even club world is a little on the short side for me). Boarding and arrival when there are only a dozen or so passengers was simply amazing though, totally different to the normal flight experience.

  • Spaghetti Town says:

    “IAG quietly noted that British Airways would be ‘exiting the A318 fleet“

    Is that right, is it supposed to be the other way round?

    • David says:

      “A is exiting B” is management wankspeak for “A is getting rid of B”

  • G Flyer says:

    I found the service much more personal and a nice change from the bigger BA aircraft.

    I was also a fan of the 210 Tier Points offered on the route, up until a few years ago!

  • Peggers says:

    As an inexperienced points traveller I chose BA1 ✅ in 2013 for my first trip to the USA ✅. The lounge was still open at the gate for champagne and we even had a few words with the crew there before boarding. Around 20 pax, all very well looked after.
    My return was upstairs on a B747 ✅ My first trip with points ✅.

    Ive been back to the USA since and used points for trips to several places, but this 2013 trip meant lots of boxes were ticked ✅ for me.

  • e14 says:

    A few inaccuracies, additions and clarifications if I may

    The A318 route was underwritten by at least two Canary Wharf Banks (think fully flex J flights on this was route was circa 2K)

    The issue with the A318 and LCY was more of the TORA takeoff runway available at LCY (think it’s 1.2). To get to NYC with enough fuel for LCY would require a longer takeoff run, it’s not completely the steep climb.

    Yes the inflight entertainment was lacking – not an issue on the overnight flight back into LCY, but the onboard WiFi connectivity needed to be replaced with a better system (maybe .air) and that was going to be prohibative.

    A few other facts.

    Catering used to be from Roast Restaurant
    The service did earn 210 TP’s from it’s inception but that was culled a few years ago.
    There was a small lounge at gate 24 but that was also culled
    It was available for a time as a Cash+Avios upgrade, when BA had a T class fare filled that covered BA 1-4

    The crew were Gatwick based, and that was the prime divert airport for when LCY was unavailable (not handy if their cars were at LCY though)

    • ChrisC says:

      It was LCY that ‘culled’ the lounge. It was needed for the LX flights on the A220 only place on the taxi way that could accommodate it and They also needed the gate space for passengers. There was no other space at the time available for the BA lounge to go.

      BA replaced it with breakfast at Pilots though without the unlimited champers.

      Whilst the cabin crew came from LGW the flight crew came from LHR. They reported for duty that morning at LHR and then travelled to LCY. Doing that meant they would have exceeded their flight hours hence their stay overnight at SNN and the swap of pilots there. I wonder if the pilots who left their golf clubs at the SNN hotel (I know some did) ever got them back?.

      The LGW crew overnighted near LCY. Most of the crew I talked to took the train up from LGW rather than drove there or they car pooled.