Just after the British Airways Concorde fleet returned to service following retrofitting in the wake of the Air France crash I wrote to Rod Eddington, the then CEO of BA, to make the point that it was only a matter of time before Concorde would be retired and that this was the time to think of what replaced it in terms of customer experience. My suggestion was taking the non-supersonic parts of the experience (single class, small number of passengers, minimal check-times) and combine it with some enhancements such as on-board concierge, tailor and crucially TWO seat assignments for every passenger, selected from ‘work’, ‘rest’ or ‘play’. I received a polite response.
Single class, business carriers in the shape of Maxjet and Silverjet came…and went, unable to offer a wider network or service.
And then in 2010 BA launched a new service from London City Airport (LCY) to JFK based on an, optimised for steep take offs and landings, Airbus 318. Only 32 seats and a twist on their Club World service – the outward journey includes a refuelling stop in Shannon, Ireland (the runway at LCY is too short for the fully laden plane to take off) and a helpful completion of US immigration and customs formalities so you land at JFK as a ‘domestic’ passenger – so the time lost is a wash.
On the return journey no stop is required and it is that journey I embarked upon on Tuesday evening as I headed back from New Year in New York. There are two flights a day in each direction and all are romantically given the old Concorde flight designations – so I was on BA 004. The nod to Concorde continues with boarding from Gate 1 which runs straight off the JFK Concorde Lounge corridor. A boarding which, begins only 15 minutes before push-back. Yes, that’s right 15 minutes.
32 seats over eight rows and that’s it. You can see why boarding is such a quick and efficient process. That, combined with the fact that it tends to be an exclusively business clientle with no children, surplus luggage etc.
We were pushing back before I had come anywhere close to draining my Champagne glass and the flight attendant did really have to pry it out of my hands as we got to the runway.
The on-board ambience is more akin to being upstairs in the 747 ‘bubble’ and in many respects there are stong comparisons with that experience. I’ve always thought that Club World in the bubble is a better environment than in First Class on the main deck but I digress.
The interior design of the plane is simple and elegant and, with all seats facing in the same direction, does not have the same visual disruption as Club World seating on the 767, 747 and 777. I was in seat 1K, the window seat, which is pictured below (BA picture library) and despite the flight being almost full I had no one next to me.
The seat is an improvement on the current flat-bed seat with two power sockets, a great reading light and a much more ‘cocooned’ experience. Inflight entertainment is centered on an iPad which comes in a leather case all fully loaded with similar content as on the standard system. Combined with a good pair of supplied noise cancelling headphones the set-up was a big improvement on the fixed system. Allowing you to adopt the position that suited you.
I dined (a little) in the lounge prior to boarding and then again on-board but the service is so much faster than the usual so, within an hour of take off I had wined, dined and settled down for a sleep which was broken only by a shake of the shoulder as I had asked to be wakened for a bacon roll – you can opt for a cold breakfast and stay asleep until 20 minutes before landing.
I should add there was a total lack of galley clanking and bright lights throughout the flight – regular fliers will know what I am talking about.
Landing at LCY is a treat in itself. As we were advised a few minutes before touchdown there would be some ‘sporting braking’ and you do feel the anchors being thrown out of the back ! Within minutes you are walking off the plane (always a great experience) down the steps and I could not resist taking this picture myself.
It took 30 seconds to clear UK Border and I had my bag and was walking onto the Dockland Light Railway train 10 minutes after.
It’s superfluous to say I enjoyed the experience, but I will. It was a refreshing return to a more intimate, less jarring way of travelling and I would be very happy to make this my regular way to cross The Atlantic.
British Airways deserve a lot of credit for launching this route in the depths of a global downturn and to keep at it. If my flight is an indication it seems to be succeeding. However I hope their imagination does not end there – running this configuration out of LHR (using one of the soon to be acquired BMI slots) perhaps as First Class only could be a very interesting proposition. Being one of the few in a plane with fewer seats is certainly a more reliable and enjoyable experience than being one of the few at the front of a very, very large and busy bus !