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A history of BA1, the (scrapped) London City to New York JFK flight

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Back in 2020, as airlines across the world moved to shore up their finances in the face of the pandemic, British Airways announced 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’.

We published a version of this article at the time of the closure announcement. I thought, almost four years later, it was worth dusting off for the benefit of readers who may never have flown on it – or perhaps not even heard of it.

History of BA1, London City to New York JFK flight

The writing was already on the wall for BA1 before the pandemic.  A year earlier, 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 forthcoming opening of what would become the Elizabeth Line meant that a direct New York service from London City was losing its USP.

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, which announced plans to launch a rival all-business class flight from London City to New York JFK.

History of BA1, London City to New York JFK flight

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.

History of BA1, London City to New York JFK flight

Due 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 on the outbound.

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 were renowned for.

History of BA1, London City to New York JFK flight

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 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 catering which was significantly better than what you would have got from Heathrow. Passengers loved it.

(The fact that the flight earned 210 British Airways Executive Club tier points each way, compared to 140 each way in Club World out of Heathrow, didn’t hurt either.)

Although London City has no lounges, British Airways turned the departure gate into a ‘mini lounge’ and offered an arrivals service at the (not quite so) nearby 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 on his 2019 trip, however, if you were travelling with just hand baggage and were unwilling to queue at the check-in 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. The remaining flight was cancelled at the start of the pandemic and not reinstated. In May 2022 the Elizabeth Line opened, creating a fast route from Canary Wharf to London Heathrow and killing any remaining prospects of BA returning to the route.

A history of BA1, the (scrapped) London City to New York JFK flight

Gone but not forgotten

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 for a New York service from City Airport. 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.

It is likely, as Airbus ramps up production of the A321LR and A321XLR, that single aisle aircraft will become the primary method of travelling between the UK and New York. JetBlue is already flying them between the UK and the US East Coast, and Aer Lingus is flying them from Dublin to multiple US cities.

The maths should be attractive enough for most UK airports to support daily transatlantic flights on a single aisle A321LR / XLR, and it must only be a matter of time before someone else attempts an ‘all business class’ service from a London airport.

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Comments (107)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • V Burns says:

    1. It had 32 all Business Class seats, offering what they called a special Club World London City seat (although it was lie flat). The reason for this was they had to fly “light”. They couldn’t carry 107 people in typical two class, since they were at their max range (including diversion) with the jet stream Eastbound.

    2. London City Airport has a relatively short runway (4948ft.), meaning that the A318 wasn’t able to depart with enough fuel to get across the Atlantic. The A318 with a full load of fuel needed to reach JFK because of headwinds, would need a 5800 ft. runway. The new A220 only needs 4800ft at MTOW, and can easily make JFK (only 3100 nmi) since it has a range 3450 nmi

    3. Departure angle had nothing to do with it. LCY actually has a shallower than normal takeoff for noise abatement, 6.76 to 7.2 degree departure angle depending on runway direction compared to a standard 10 degrees. SNA Orange County, CA USA is steep at 25 degree. London City only has a very steep approach of 5.5 degrees compared to std. 3 degrees

    • Stu_N says:

      Yep departure from SNA is quite surprising if you don’t know what to expect. I guess if you can afford a beachfront mansion at Newport Beach, you can swallow the cost of a bit of lobbying…

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

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