Covid 19 claims another scalp. This time it is BA’s boutique service from London City airport to New York JFK, a tiny A318 with just 32 flat bed Business Class seats (making it the smallest jet by seat count to ever operate bookable transatlantic flights).
Video of BA A318 Transatlantic
London’s financial districts, The City and Canary Wharf, are at the opposite ends of town from Heathrow, requiring a 90 minute journey by road or rail, but are right on the doorstep of the postage-stamp sized London City Airport. The airport is famous for its steep approaches and a 1,500 metre (5,000 foot) runway, too short for even narrowbody jets and hence only capable of providing service to local destinations using regional jets and props.
The A318, which is the smallest Airbus and is a shrink of the A320 family, failed to find a significant market with only 80 built, but its diminutive size made it possible to fit into London City airport. In 2009 British Airways announced a new service from London’s financial district to New York, using a pair of specially configured A318s. The British Airways Business Class product (the first in the world to have fully flat beds) is branded Club World, on this particular route it was known as Club World London City.
The runway at London City is too short to lift 7+ hours of fuel, so the plane would stop at Shannon on the west coast of Ireland, where there is a US customs and immigration post, so passengers could clear formalities while the jet was refuelled. This meant that upon arrival at JFK passengers would arrive as domestic passengers, having ‘entered’ the United States in Ireland, they could then proceed directly to baggage claim, or if travelling with only hand luggage to the taxi rank, as opposed to wasting valuable business man time standing in line for two hours. The flight numbers were BA 1 and BA 3 outbound and BA 2 and BA 4 for the return, the old Concorde flight numbers and a worthy successor.
I was on the inaugural eastbound BA 2 (which could operate nonstop, no issues with the runway length at JFK) on September 29th 2009 and I made the trip a few times since. At the end of one such trip, we landed at 09:03 and I was home in Brick Lane at 09:37. You’d need diplomatic immunity, and a jet-pack, to go from touchdown to your own apartment in 24 minutes after a transatlantic flight at any other London airport. Although it was more expensive than normal Business Class from Heathrow, it was mixed in with discount business tickets when British Airways had a premium cabin seat sale. Regardless of the fare paid, it came with extra frequent flyer points. My most memorable trip was in the middle of Easter holidays, with just four other passengers onboard. Not only that, but I deduced from the welcome aboard announcement, which started with just “Gentlemen…”, that this was a men-only flight!
The operation was crewed out of Gatwick where the crew would assemble, then be bussed to London City and operate to Shannon; at Shannon the cockpit crew would leave the flight and go to a hotel for a night stop. They would then operate the Shannon to New York leg on day two, with a stopover in New York, and then operate back overnight on day three, getting home on the morning of day four. Cabin crew, however, operated all the way through on the outbound (Gatwick, City, Shannon, New York) as their contracts allowed for longer duty times.
This was a really special and innovative product. A new crosstown rail line, appropriately named Crossrail, would have finished this flight off; this line propels executives from The City / Canary Wharf to Heathrow in 20 minutes, instead of 90. However just like the 747 retirements, it is a shame not to be able to say goodbye; that being said, it did have a fairly unusual finale. On the last day it operated, there was only one passenger booked. Instead of flying from London City to Shannon and on to New York, it flew from London City to Heathrow (would love to know the flight time – with a gap in traffic and the right runway assignment, it could have been under ten minutes). The sole passenger was bussed across the Heathrow tarmac and put aboard a New York bound 747, then the A318 went into storage at the British Airways maintenance base. Unique to the very end! It will be interesting to see what’s next for those very special flight numbers.