Every day, over 30 flights depart London for New York, and for most passengers, the overall experience isn't much different to any other trip: except, that is, for guests aboard British Airways' Airbus A318 all-business-class service, from London City Airport to New York JFK.
In a nod to high flying in the years gone by, this service carries the airline's flagship BA1 flight number – famously used by the Concorde before it retired – and with only 32 seats on the entire plane, plus a quick detour in Shannon, Ireland to clear US Customs and passport control en route, you'll touch down in New York like a local, after taking a very unique voyage across the Atlantic.
Australian Business Traveller put the BA1+BA2 service to the test on a recent return trip between London and New York, to bring you this review.
- Frequent flyer program: British Airways Executive Club. As a Oneworld member airline, Qantas Frequent Flyer members can instead earn Qantas Points and status credits when travelling on eligible British Airways fares.
- Checked baggage allowance: 2x32kg bags, or 3x32kg for Oneworld Emerald cardholders such as Qantas Platinum and BA Executive Club Gold.
- Carry-on baggage allowance: A 126cm bag of up to 23kg (no, that’s not a typo!), plus one 85cm handbag or laptop bag, also of up to 23kg: perfect for photographers carrying lots of sensitive equipment, or regular business travellers who don’t like checking their bags in.
- Seat selection: Unless you’re a Gold or Platinum-grade frequent flyer (Sapphire or Emerald), choosing a seat in advance attracts fees starting at £62 (A$109) per passenger per flight on this route – or even more for seats closer to the front. Seat selection at check-in is free, and if you’re a Qantas Silver (Oneworld Ruby) member, you can make your selection at no charge up to seven days before the flight.
- Check-in deadlines: The main selling point of this service is departing from London City Airport – near many of London’s financial headquarters – rather than Heathrow or Gatwick, and from take-off to touchdown, the flight is designed to be more like a private jet than a typical commercial flight. Check-in at City Airport closes just 15 minutes before the flight departs (20 minutes if you have a checked bag), while at New York JFK, you can check-in up to 45 minutes before departure.
- Airport fast-track: There’s a priority check-in desk at London City Airport reserved exclusively for passengers on this flight, while in New York, you can actually use the first class check-in zone as a ‘Club World London City’ passenger, located next to a priority security screening point.
There’s apparently a fast-track security queue at London City Airport too, but as I’d been ‘randomly selected for additional screening’ on this flight with SSSS on my boarding pass, I was escorted through a different channel and didn’t get to see it, but still got through quite quickly.
Believe it or not, for its flagship BA1 flight, British Airways doesn’t offer lounge access, as there aren’t any lounges within the terminals at London City Airport – and remember, this flight is all about saving time, so it’s designed for passengers to simply turn up and go.
If you do arrive early though, BA1 passengers can head to the Pilots Bar & Kitchen restaurant for a pre-flight meal after clearing security.
A flash of my boarding pass covered a latte and a tasty butternut squash and sage tortellini, with other options available including soups, salads, burgers and laksa – or breakfast favourites if flying on the days that BA1 departs earlier in the morning.
In Shannon where the aircraft stops en route to New York, there’s also no lounge. BA has a simple waiting area set up near its usual boarding gate…
… but by the time I’d cleared security in Shannon, gone through US passport control and made it to the gate, it was already time to get back on board – and even with SSSS on my boarding pass, I was the first person to step back on the plane, so I can’t say that BA really needs a lounge here.
It’s a different story in New York, where passengers on BA2 can visit the airline’s Galleries business class lounge at JFK Terminal 7, where you’ll find private shower suites and a complimentary day spa, among other features…
… including a dining room reserved for business class flyers inside the main lounge. It’s nothing flash, but there’s a small selection of salad, chips, sliders, and other hot bites at the buffet.
Unlike London Heathrow, there’s no BA arrivals lounge at City Airport, either – so British Airways does things differently for its BA2 passengers, partnering with the nearby Radisson Edwardian hotel instead, provided you 'opt-in' at check-in, in the lounge or at the boarding gate before your flight departs from New York.
On arrival at City Airport, head to the BA counter pictured above to meet your driver, and you’ll be chauffeured to the hotel, where you can shower, work out in the gym, make use of the business centre and WiFi, and enjoy complimentary breakfast at the hotel restaurant by the water, with plenty of sunlight flowing in to help you wake up and start your day:
Coffee and breakfast dishes can be ordered from the a la carte menu – I was happy with my latte and Eggs Benedict – and there’s a buffet inside for everything else.
From the Radisson Edwardian, you’re on your own, although Blackwall DLR station is within easy walking distance, with connections from the DLR to the London Underground available at Bank and Canning Town, and to the London Overground at Shadwell, to get you to your hotel or the office if you're not arranging a driver.
This journey isn't like most other flights – in fact, this is the only long-haul flight serving London City Airport, period – and keeping with the 'private jet' vibe, boarding doesn't even begin until 20 minutes before departure: by that stage, most international airlines would be closing their boarding gates!
As check-in remains open until 15 minutes before the flight departs, you can literally show up at the last minute, step on board just before departure time and take off: try doing that on any other international flight!
London City Airport's runway isn't long enough for the plane to depart with a full load of fuel to reach New York: thus its detour via Shannon, but the transit isn't so much an inconvenience as it is an opportunity to save time.
That's because the United States offers a handy Preclearance facility at Shannon Airport, where during the pit stop, you clear US passport control and Customs before boarding your onward flight to New York.
As a US visa holder, I'm accustomed to waiting in line for an hour or more every time I arrive in the States, as most US visas don't allow travellers to use the USA's automated passport kiosks: and that typically means joining the back of a very lengthy queue.
In Shannon, however, there was no line at all: I walked straight up to a passport agent for a brief chat, and received my stamp while still on Irish soil.
Because you've already entered the United States (albeit some 5,000 kilometres away from the country itself) and you've been cleared by Customs, you arrive in New York as a 'domestic' passenger, which means you're free to leave the airport and head straight into the city – or if you have a checked bag, to pick it up and walk straight outside, without any further checks (and without waiting long, because there aren't many bags to unload).
On the flight from New York back to London, there's no Shannon detour, so your chariot runs non-stop from JFK to City Airport overnight, giving you a chance to get some uninterrupted sleep.
As there's no 'UK Preclearance' in New York, you're welcomed back to London by clearing passport control the old-fashioned way after your flight... but hey, you were spoiled enough on the way over!
While this might be an all-business-class flight with much of the journey detouring from the norm, when it comes to your business class seat, don't expect the latest in luxury flying – this jet adopts a 2-2 layout, which means passengers by the windows need to step over their seatmate to access the aisle:
Here's something you don't normally see: business class seats at the very back of the plane – so for something different, I chose to sit behind the wing rather than up the front:
On boarding, there's a coat hanger waiting for your jacket, which the crew then hang up. Your seat number is already marked, which is particularly handy if you've checked-in using your phone and don't have a printed boarding pass to stash into the pocket.
You'll also find a plush pillow and sleeping kit from The White Company on your seat, containing a mattress cover for your bed and a duvet to go on top, but you'll need to swing the kit into the overhead locker before you can sit down – and on a flight like this with a focus on bespoke service, that's probably where it should start its journey:
As the flight to New York runs during the day and the flight back to London is overnight, this wasn't an amenity I needed on the way over, but was one I appreciated on the return leg, where I managed to get a little over six hours of sleep on the 7hr 20min flight, by going to bed straight after take-off and waking up not long before landing.
As to the seat's other features, there's an international AC power outlet (although not a USB port) atop a small side storage zone...
... an adjustable reading light in addition to the normal overhead lamp...
... a small privacy panel, which opens and retracts in between each pair of seats, but which doesn't offer much privacy if you're sitting upright...
... and in front of you, which later forms the tail end of your 183cm bed, a foot rest. Above that, a literature pocket, and a slot for something larger like a laptop:
Your seat is controlled via the arm rest with the usual settings and pre-sets...
... and to make it easier to create your bed or get up in the morning, there are two lighted shortcut keys inside the seat's side wall which are easier to reach when standing up or fully reclined:
Overall, I found the seat comfortable once I'd reclined it slightly, but the fixed headrest is quite bulky, and when sitting fully upright, feels like your neck is pushed forward rather than cradled: something you only have to deal with during take-off and landing, of course, not the entire journey.
This journey is broken up into three flights: London to Shannon, Shannon to New York and New York to London, and the service works a little differently on each leg.
London City to Shannon (BA1)
On this 1.5-hour hop, drinks are served after take-off, rather than before departure on the ground: again, because it's assumed that most passengers will just turn up and go, not board early and sit around waiting.
With three Champagnes to choose from – the Henriot Brut Souverain NV, Castelnau Brut Réserve NV, and Castelnau Brut Rosé NV – I found it fitting to start at the top of the list with the Henriot...
... before tucking into my starter of vegetarian sushi rolls, which were very fresh and tasty with plenty of spice for those so inclined (the other option being an 'exotic fruit brochette', if you don't fancy sushi):
That tides you over until the next leg, where the rest of the meal service takes place.
Shannon to New York JFK (BA1)
After take-off in Ireland, there's another drink service, so I move onto the next Champagne on the list: Castelnau Brut Réserve NV, which BA also serves in Club Europe (business class) on shorter flights, joined by a small snack:
AusBT review: British Airways Airbus A320 'Club Europe' business class
The main lunch course to follow provides a choice from these options, all served with a beetroot and goat's cheese seasonal salad on the side:
- Beef cheeks and rack of spring lamb with eggplant Parmigiana, rosemary jus and baked new potatoes
- Caramelised black cod with wok-fried vegetables and wasabi mousseline
- Homemade ricotta agnolotti with sautéed mushrooms, green asparagus and cherry tomatoes
- Main course salad of Severn and Wye hot smoked fillet of salmon with cucumber ribbons, creamy celeriac and lemon olive oil dressing
The beef and lamb sounded a little heavy, but I wanted something a bit more substantial than a salad and had already eaten pasta for brunch, so that left the cod:
The presentation wasn't great, and the wasabi mousseline seemed a bit off-balance with the cod, being more commonly paired with fish like salmon and tuna.
Warmed rolls are available from a bread basket, but there's no bread plate to put them on – so after you stick your hand into the communal basket and grab one out (as it's not served it to you), you're stuck putting it straight onto the linen. A more refined approach would be for the crew to serve this using utensils, and onto a plate, rather than the tablecloth.
Lunch concludes with dessert: a caramelised apple tarte Tatin with vanilla anglaise, fresh fruit, or cheese and biscuits with mango chutney. I went for the cheese plate, which provided a Cropwell Bishop Stilton blue with an Applewood Cheddar:
The crew also bring around little boxes of chocolates, which you can enjoy straight away or save for later:
Bar and snack service remains available throughout the flight, with afternoon tea served closer to arrival in New York.
I kicked things off with, you guessed it, the final Champagne from the list – the Castelnau Brut Rosé NV...
... after which, there's a choice between a Mediterranean chicken salad and a sandwich plate (coronation chicken on whole-grain, salami with truffle mayonnaise on white, and Loch Fyne smoked salmon on pumpernickel), joined by homemade scones (plain, or lemon and date) served warm with clotted cream and strawberry preserve:
The sandwiches were fine – not what you'd get at an afternoon tea at The Savoy, but fresh all the same – although the absence of a bread plate was again noticeable with the scone basket came past.
Personally, I'd have preferred a small plate with at least one of each type of scone to be served by the crew, rather than reaching into the basket and squeezing a solitary scone on the side of the sandwich plate: but as with the bread plate for the previous meal, this is a BA policy (which should be reconsidered), not the crew being lazy.
I ordered a white coffee afterwards (only filter coffee is available, not espresso), at which time some tasty treats were offered on the side, which didn't need any convincing on my part:
New York JFK to London City (BA2)
On the flight back, drinks are served before take-off, where a glass of Champagne was in order:
Being a 7hr 20min flight that departs New York in the evening and arrives into London the following morning, this leg of the service is designed for passengers to maximise their sleep, by eating dinner in the lounge before take-off and breakfast at the arrivals facility after landing, which is what I did.
However, if you rushed from the office to the airport and didn't get to eat on the ground, a full supper service is available, as follows:
- Starter: Pepper encrusted tuna tataki, tabbouleh and fresh herbs
- Salad: Niçoise salad with Niçoise vinaigrette
- Main: Beef fillet, monkfish brochette or homemade gnocchi
- Desserts: Vanilla bean panna cotta, cheese plate, fresh fruit, and/or a hot chocolate with warm milk chocolate chip cookies
To avoid disturbing those who are sleeping, the crew avoid using trolleys on this leg and hand-deliver your meal tray from the galley, with the cabin lights also remaining off after departing JFK: and as one of those sleeping passengers, I wasn't woken up by any noise throughout the flight, and dozed through until close to landing.
Speaking of landing, breakfast is available if you'd like it, where you can choose between a standard breakfast if you're up early enough, or the specially-designed City Breakfast.
Standard breakfast choices include:
- Chilled fruit juice
- A pomegranate and blueberry smoothie
- Fresh seasonal fruit
- Greek yoghurt with lime marinated banana
- Toasted panini with scrambled eggs, Cheddar cheese and grilled bacon
- Selection of warm breads and breakfast pastries
Unless you've asked to be woken up, the crew will let you rest until 20 minutes before landing, at which point the City Breakfast is available and is served in a carry bag, from which you can eat on descent or take it with you from the aircraft, offering a bottle of fruit juice, fresh fruit and a breakfast pastry.
That's a great option for travellers who want to maximise their rest but who don't have time to stop by the arrivals hotel for a proper meal, but I wasn't in a rush, so opted for the extra sleep and brekky on the ground.
Entertainment & Service
When it comes to inflight entertainment, BA provides iPads pre-loaded with a selection of movies, TV shows and music, which most travellers simply set up on their tray table.
But what the airline doesn't tell you – and doesn't mention in the supplied pamphlet explaining the features of the seat – is that each seat comes with a fold-out entertainment arm, which can be retrieved from within the centre console:
Pull it up, twist it around and slip the iPad in, and the screen will sit closer to your eyeline, providing more comfortable viewing over longer periods, and keeping your tray table free for your own devices or the inflight meals.
The high-quality, noise-cancelling Sennheiser headphones were appreciated, as was an amenity kit (or "wash bag") from The White Company, containing socks, an eye mask, a dental kit, ear plugs, and items from the company's Restore and Relax Spa Collection.
As to service from the cabin crew, the very nature of this flight puts it into a different territory than your typical business class experience. With only 32 other passengers on the plane, or even less when the flight isn't full, there's more time to chat and interact with the crew, if you're not busy working or trying to sleep.
As it happened, the same three crew members who worked my BA1 flight from London were also on board my BA2 service back from New York the next day, which kicked off with a friendly "Welcome back!" at the aircraft door.
Remembering my fondness for Champagne from the flight over, an announcement of a long taxi before take-off at JFK was quickly met with a glass of my favourite Champagne from the previous flight (the Henriot), without having to ask for my preference.
Of course, pre-departure drinks are standard on flights from JFK: I just didn't have to say which drink I wanted – the glass simply appeared with a smile, which is true five-star service.
If you snag a window seat, don't close it too early (or open it too late): the views over New York can be beautiful...
... as can the sight of flying into London City in the morning when flying past Central London:
BA also operates a dedicated Club World London City contact centre to assist with any enquiries or special requests on these flights – similar to the You First service when flying BA first class – but other than advising me how quickly my bag would arrive on the belt after landing in New York (so that I could better-plan my evening), there was nothing else I needed from this team.
The Airbus A318 serving this flight is equipped with a mobile roaming hotspot too, allowing for text messages, emails and light Internet browsing over GPRS, but true WiFi is absent: so unless your mobile provider supports inflight data roaming (which many Aussie telcos don't), you won't be able to surf in the sky.
All things considered, this is a very unique flight experience, and one with a price tag to match.
On the dates I travelled (when the aircraft was half empty), return fares from London to New York on BA1+BA2 were selling for approximately A$9,000 for UK locals, although for Australian business travellers, a more practical approach would be to include one of these legs as part of a Oneworld round-the-world ticket.
These flights can also be booked using Qantas Points and other Oneworld frequent flyer points and miles as availability permits, but however you get your boarding pass, this isn't a flight you'll soon forget!
Chris Chamberlin travelled to New York as a guest of British Airways.