AvGeek dreams do come true: British Airways' all-biz flight to New York
Editor’s note: This article has been edited from the original. During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips. However, we have resumed the publication of new, previously unpublished flight, hotel and lounge reviews, from trips taken before the lockdown.
This week, British Airways announced that it would be retiring its sole Airbus A318. To many, that meant one thing: The airline would be suspending the widely loved BA1 flight. The all-business-class configuration on the A318 flew between London City (LCY) and New York (JFK) with a refuelling stop in Shannon, Ireland (SNN) along the way.
To celebrate this fan-favorite route and aircraft, we’re republishing a review done by TPG's Zach Honig on board the A318 from London City to JFK from 2018.
Excerpt: A transatlantic crossing on British Airways' "Baby Bus" is a must for any premium-cabin-loving AvGeek. Pros: departs from London's City Airport, comfy seat, attentive flight attendants, great food, just 32 passengers on a busy day. Cons: mandatory stop on westbound flights, window seats don't have aisle access, no high-speed Wi-Fi.
Once in a while, I become especially excited about a particular flight, in a way that — to most travelers, at least — would defy logic. A hop across the Atlantic on the world's largest passenger plane would be a natural cause for excitement, of course — but making that same trip on one of the smallest airliners, instead?
Yeah, that's exactly what I'd been dying to do — a 10-hour, one-stop trek in a single-aisle Airbus, when a much larger plane could make a similar trip in considerably less time, with a more comfortable product, to boot. The AvGeek in me had just gone to heaven.
It also helped me justify trying something a bit different for this year's ITB travel show in Berlin. JT Genter attended to cover the show for the site, while I focused specifically on sharing the experience through TPG's Instagram account.
Since it was no small ask to have TPG send me across the pond just to capture and share Instagram Stories, I wanted to find an extra-special product to review as part of the trip. A business-class sale from Germany to the US landed me the perfect opportunity: British Airways' all-biz Airbus A318, from London City (LCY) to New York-JFK.
In total, the round-trip cost TPG $2,125 — or 106,250 Amex Membership Rewards points, since we paid with TPG's Business Centurion card, which, at the time, came along with the otherwise-defunct 50% Pay With Points rebate. That got me the flight on British Airways 1, booked as an AA codeshare, and a return to Europe for the Farnborough Air Show this July. Quite the score, if you ask me.
In addition, I earned 7,778 Elite-Qualifying Miles, 998 Elite-Qualifying Dollars and 6,920 redeemable AAdvantage miles (thanks in part to a 40% Gold elite bonus), including the flight from Berlin. I'll walk away with similar earnings for the return trip in July.
There also appears to be great award space on this route — I even found one date this month with 9+ open seats! You can book online via American Airlines (57,500 miles each way) or British Airways (60,000 Avios).
The issue is that BA tacks on carrier-imposed fees of $195.50 and the UK government adds an insane $211 Air Passenger Duty. In total, you'll pay more than $500 in fees for the one-way trip, making an award ticket seem much less appealing. The charges below apply to tickets booked through both AA and British Airways.
Airport and lounge
My journey began with an unremarkable intra-Europe business flight from Berlin Tegel (TXL) to London City. LCY isn't a common transfer point, and since the airport isn't set up for airside transfers, I had to pass through immigration and security before making my way to the departure area.
London City is designed for speedy departures — even if you're checking a bag on the JFK flight, you're only required to check in a mere 20 minutes before the departure time. That's pretty incredible!
It also means that passengers typically don't arrive hours in advance, and there isn't much to do if — like me — you happen to have a four-hour-long connection.
British Airways doesn't even have a business-class lounge to hang out in — instead, BA1 passengers can get a free meal at Pilots Bar & Kitchen, which I only discovered from reading trip reports online. I actually preferred that to a lackluster Galleries Lounge, though.
With just 18 passengers booked on the flight, boarding took only a couple of minutes — and didn't begin until just before the departure time.
That left very little time to grab photos, though I rushed on board to snap a few shots and a very quick video tour.
Cabin and seat
I decided to try something new for this review — all of the photos and videos were captured with the Samsung Galaxy S9+ smartphone, rather than a dedicated camera. While I've since returned to my typical camera setup, I think they turned out pretty well!
This particular plane is entirely one of a kind — it's the only all-biz aircraft in British Airways' fleet, as well as the only active BA A318.
There are just 32 seats in total, arranged in a 2-2 configuration and spread between eight rows.
All of the rows seem more of less identical, though it quickly became clear that BA assigns seats from the front to the rear, so at check-in I grabbed a window seat in Row 7, near the very back of the plane.
My hope, of course, was that the seat next to me would go out empty — I ended up doing even better than that, though.
You've probably noticed that there aren't any seat-back screens. Say what?!? Yeah, I know. It sucks. But overall these seats seem more comfortable than the typical Club World product, and ideal if you're traveling with a companion.
Here's BA's typical Club World seat, for example:
Given that this seat is entirely different from those in the rest of BA's Club World fleet, there's a handy guide in the seat-back pocket to walk passengers through the features and controls.
I was bummed to see that storage was fairly limited — though with just 32 passengers on the plane, there's plenty of space in the overhead bins.
There were few compartments within the seat itself, though — one beneath the ottoman and another to the side of the seat, by the universal AC outlet.
While they're great for traveling with a companion, these seats don't offer much privacy from strangers — beyond this small slide-out divider.
Fortunately, I had all of Row 7 to myself, and there weren't any passengers within my line of sight in front or behind, either. Score!
I was also thrilled to see that there were overhead air vents — a must on long-haul flights for me.
There were two lavatories — one behind the cockpit and one at the rear. With just 18 passengers on board, there was never a wait to use the lav.
Connecting in Ireland
Aside from the unusual configuration, there's something else unique about BA1: the fuel and immigration stop in Shannon, Ireland (SNN).
While BA2 flies nonstop from JFK to LCY, the longer return leg needs to make a pit stop on the Emerald Isle. The issue here is that London's City Airport has an especially short runway — with a full fuel load, the A318 wouldn't be able to take off.
The airport is far more convenient to downtown London than Heathrow is, however, making it an appealing option for business travelers looking to minimize their trip to, and within, another London airport. BA softens the blow of the mandatory fuel stop by allowing passengers to pass through US immigration in Shannon, making the most of their time as the plane fills up for its Atlantic crossing.
The stop also allows BA to operate the flight with just one set of pilots — a captain and first officer operate the one-hour leg from London to Shannon then hand off the plane to pilots just coming off their 24-hour rest in Ireland. Then those LCY-SNN pilots operate the 7+ hour SNN-JFK leg on the next flying day. In the case of a Friday flight, such as mine, the crew spends an extra night in Ireland, since BA1 doesn't run on Saturdays, which worked out quite nicely for our Irish captain.
The flight attendants work both legs, though, and pass through US immigration alongside BA1's (up to) 32 passengers.
The experience is fairly seamless, kicking off with a speedy security check.
While there isn't much time to waste, you can pop into a duty free store or two if you're quick about it.
From there, it's off to US Preclearance, which was entirely empty during my visit. I used a Global Entry kiosk and made my way through in only a minute.
After a short transit, I arrived right back at the same gate, where boarding had already commenced.
There is a small gate lounge to hang out in if you happen to make it through especially quickly, but I certainly wouldn't rush through just for the chance to check it out.
And with that, it was time to continue our journey to New York!
Amenities and entertainment
Most of the service begins after the Shannon stop — that's when I first received my amenity kit, for example.
There was some fantastic bedding as well, from the White Company. Super comfy!
And since you don't have seat-back entertainment, the crew loans out iPads instead. While the iPad itself wasn't anything special, the Sennheiser headphones I got to use were fantastic.
There was a mix of movies and TV shows to choose from, but the selection was more limited than what you'd find on a seat-back screen. I'd suggest bringing your own content, instead.
Food and beverage
BA saves the heartier stuff for the longer leg, but I was offered my choice of beverage shortly after our departure from London. I opted for Champagne, but with three options on the menu, I had trouble making up my mind. The flight attendant suggested I try the two non-rose options, so I did. That included a Henriot Brut Souverain ($45 on the ground) and Castelnau Reserve Brut (about $30). I was perfectly happy with both.
British Airways now offers Do & Co catering on select long-haul flights, including BA1. While this was actually my first time flying BA's Club World product, I can only imagine this new F&B contractor helps to improve the in-flight experience.
Lunch was served on this flight, with the starter making its way down the aisle during our short hop to Shannon. Since I was one of the last to be served, I asked to try both the fruit brochette and vegetarian sushi rolls.
Both were great, but I was especially impressed with the sushi — every other time I've had sushi rice on a plane it's been very dry, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was still moist here.
That was it for LCY-SNN — the main event began after we took off from Ireland.
My table was set shortly after takeoff, with a tasty salad and fresh warm roll.
I selected the beef for my entree, which included both a short rib and filet. The filet was a bit overdone, but both were very flavorful, as were the gnocchi.
I did encounter one challenge, however — what to do with the iPad during the meal. I ended up having to rest it against the window, which wasn't ideal.
Naturally, I had to try all of the desserts... for science!
That included an assortment of brie and cheddar cheese, with fig chutney, followed by a delicious warm plum and almond tart with vanilla cream.
Of course there was a snack setup in the galley, too, had I needed any more sweets. I will say that the menu kinda oversold BA's "Club Kitchen" just a bit...
"Club Kitchen has been designed for you, as a space where you can come and stretch your legs and help yourself to a little treat or snack during your flight. Today you will find a great selection of indulgent delights, including Walkers shortbread, a chocolate selection and premium crisps."
"There's a snack basket and some cartons of juice over by the bathroom" would probably have been more appropriate.
I didn't really need any snacks though, given that this was a seven-hour flight and there was a second meal on the way. "Afternoon tea" was served just before we began our descent. I chose the roast beef salad, which was served with biscuits and pastries... and tea, of course.
There's not much to this picture below, but I think it sums up BA1's appeal: convenience. You arrive at JFK Terminal 7 as a domestic passenger, which speeds up the process of getting into the city and making your connections, especially if you travel without Global Entry, or aren't eligible for the Mobile Passport app.
With the stop in Ireland, you probably aren't saving time in the long run, but there's no question that this is a seamless experience, from start to finish. Several of the passengers on my flight appeared to be regulars, and quite familiar with the Shannon transit process. It's clear that British Airways and the Shannon Airport folks put their heads together to come up with a compelling solution to the A318's payload restriction at LCY, making this flight's unusual routing appealing for the airline and its passengers alike.