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BA001 - Not just a flight number

Generally speaking when you book a flight the number allocated doesn’t really register, it is pretty much irrelevant until the day of travel.

There is one notable exception however. Flight number ’1’ is predominantly assigned by an airline on to it’s most prestigious or historic route, often what is considered their flagship route.

QANTAS possibly has the longest running version of this with their QF1 service from Sydney to London which commenced in 1947 and nicknamed the Kangaroo route.

There are currently around 40 routes which have the flight number ‘1’ and are, perhaps not surprisingly, concentrated around some major cities.

One, possibly surprising, city in the list is Honolulu sitting in joint third with Los Angeles, both having five flights each. Less surprising is that the top two are New York in second with seven flights and London in first with ten. In fact, these two city pairs are the only route that has more than one service with Delta DL1 from New York John F Kennedy International (JFK) to London Heathrow and the topic of this feature BA1 from London City Airport (LCY) to JFK.

Additionally some airlines appear to reserve their flight number ‘1’ for use by that countries head of state. Philippine Airlines, Air India and Vietnam Airlines for example have been known to do this.

A very special service.

British Airways arguably had the most prestigious example with its Concorde service from London Heathrow to New York JFK (Air France also assigned its Concorde operated Paris - New York service AF1). Concorde service on the route goes back to November 22, 1977 when after a legal battle the US Supreme court overruled a local court ruling instigated by New York and New Jersey’s Port Authority banning the aircraft from using its airports, in contravention to a country wide lifting of the ban on the aircraft in 1976.

The banning was as a result of perceived noise problems both supersonically and subsonically. It was later stated that a noise report actually found out that, at subsonic speeds the aircraft used for Presidential flights, a Boeing VC-137, was actually louder at take off and landing than the Concorde, effectively pulling the rug from any further representations.

Surprisingly perhaps, the use of BA1 as a flight number did not happen until 1991. BA thought that the prestigious nature of the flight and its clientele, famously arriving in New York before it took off in London, flying at twice the speed of sound and up to 60,000 feet in the upper regions of the atmosphere, befitted a number emphasising the fact. It was therefore changed from BA171 to the iconic BA1. Why it took 14 years to make the decision is anyones guess!

The differences of the BA1 experience started before boarding.

There were dedicated Concorde check in desks for passengers who, without hold baggage, could check in just 30 minutes before departure If you arrived at the airport somewhat earlier than that, then a special lounge was available just for the lucky few on BA1 and other Concorde services where there were facilities over and above what was available in the ‘standard’ first class lounge. The lounge was awash with luxurious classic materials such as Marble, Walnut and Oak.

One luxury was the ability to board directly from the lounge at both Heathrow and at JFK. The JFK lounge is still in existence and named the Concorde Room.

On board, the menus were special to the flight changing every week and served using Royal Doulton bone china crockery and silver cutlery, accompanied by the obligatory fine wines and champagne chosen specially for the service.

Even on arrival the BA1 experience was different with overnight bags delivered within eight minutes to passengers ‘younger’ by one and a quarter hours due to the speed of the aircraft outrunning the earths rotation.

This all came at a cost of course. A ticket on BA1 in the Concorde era cost 20% more than ‘standard’ first class.

Passengers really felt part of something special, the service, the prestige and the journey, not forgetting the kudos of flying BA1.

Unfortunately with the demise of Concorde this all came to an end on October 23, 2003 when the last Concorde operated BA1 took off for JFK.

A new type of service

Given the prestigious value of the flight number BA did not simply apply it to a subsonic JFK flight and it remained dormant for nearly six years.

With Londons reputation as a major business and financial centre, the hub of which having an airport on its doorstep, British Airways came up with a plan which it announced to the world in February 2008.

London City Airport (LCY), which until then was known primarily for connecting European capitals with London, was to become the new home to BA1. This time utilising an Airbus A318 in a unique 32 seat all business class configuration designed specifically for the route and the expected customer base, initially operating twice a day to New York and making it the first time there was a long haul destination from LCY.

The inaugural flight of this ‘new’ BA1 took place just over 18 months later on September 29, 2009. In the run up to this first flight there was some speculation as to the sense behind the service and wether it would indeed ever take to the skies. Particularly in the light of global business travel having fallen 20% and with similar services having failed not long before. Maxjet in 2007 with SilverJet and EOS Airlines in 2008.

At the time the then Chairman of BA, Martin Broughton, said: “This is the result of a real can-do attitude from the whole team”, with Willie Walsh the then CEO underlining the decision: “At times like this, you have to demonstrate your competency by investing in your business.”

The BA service, however, had certain advantages that these failures lacked, not least of all the departure airport which is central to the expected customer base and therefore does not ask them to increase their journey time by using out of town airports, something that Walsh alluded to at the time: “While they [the previous failed airlines] targeted the business market, they flew to Stansted and Luton. This [City] flight is the type of service that BA passengers expect” With prices similar to those from Heathrow, Walsh went on to say that: “ a load factor of 70% was needed for the service to be profitable.”

Everything about this new flight was designed specifically for the business user, particularly those who work in offices just a short drive or DLR journey away in Canary Wharf. In fact at the time, financial institutions accounted for 13 out 50 of the airlines most important customers. Walsh expanded on this soon after the inaugural flight: “We have launched the service in response to what some of our most important customers have told us they want, it is statement of our confidence in the future”

There were a number of firsts this new service created. First long-haul service from the heart of London’s financial district. First service to offer kerbside check in at LCY. First to give customers mid-journey clearance for US immigration. First to provide mid-air connectivity with office and home via email, text and access to the internet on a mobile devices using the OnAir system.

Speed is the key.

Passengers can arrive at the LCY just 15 minutes before departure and as many prefer to do just that the lounge that had been created specifically for the service was closed as it was under-utilised. Then on arrival at JFK as a domestic passenger it takes around six or seven minutes to be with your onward transport option into Manhattan.

The A318 was chosen for a variety of reasons, not least the savings coming from operational commonality with the existing A320 fleet.

It was also at the time the largest aircraft with widest cabin and the required range, able and licensed to operate from LCY. The process to get the aircraft licensed at LCY required all four parties involved (Airbus, the CAA, London City Airport and BA). One of the main requirements was the steep approach function offered by Airbus to be installed to deal with the 5.5 degree approach.

A simple push of a button in the overhead panel activates the steep-approach control laws and the auto call-outs which are modified as follows: 1st standby at 120ft; 2nd standby at 90ft; flare at 65ft.

The pilot also configures the aircraft by selecting: “CONF FULL” flaps (40°) & slats (27°); speedbrake lever to “full” deflection (thus activating spoilers 3 & 4 to 30°); and landing gear lever down.

The A318 was in reality the only aircraft that could operate the route given the requirements of both the airport and the distance to be travelled. Even then cargo has to be limited along with it being just 32 seats.

The use of BA1 as the flight number for this service was considered beneficial in a number of ways as the Captain of the very first segment of the inaugural flight to Shannon in Ireland, Mike Blythe, suggested: “It’s an excellent choice, because when the air traffic control team hear it, they will prick up their ears, as will everyone else. The flight number is also great for customers and can give us a competitive advantage for sure. It certainly has an added cachet.”

The BA1 experience.

To get a feel for the service I took the flight just before the Coronavirus pandemic shut down most of the worlds commercial aviation.

Having stayed at a hotel just opposite the FBO at LCY, I had just a fifteen minute walk to the terminal. Online check in for this flight is unavailable due to the route and US Immigration requirements, however with check in closing just 15 minutes before departure with hand luggage and just five minutes earlier for passengers with hold baggage and of course a maximum of 32 people to check in, the process was painless. With this and security as promised I was through into the departures area in under the time of my walk to the airport. With no lounge available any passengers wishing to eat or drink before the flight can go to the Pilots Bar and Kitchen for a complimentary breakfast upon presentation of your boarding card.

The gate is also nothing special but again this has been determined as unnecessary with the majority of passengers simply arriving just in time to depart. On boarding you are greeted by name and shown to one of just 32 club world seats unique to this service on an aircraft that can hold 132 so the feeling of space is palpable, very much a biz jet vibe. The layout is somewhat dated now as it is forward facing side by side 2x2 which might be seen as a disadvantage but as they are slightly better than the old standard and passengers know exactly how the aircraft is configured, this is less of an issue. In addition there is plenty of room to bypass your neighbour should you be in the window seat, particularly on the outbound service when very few sleep, choosing in the main to work. It is a greater issue on the return journey when most choose to sleep given the time of arrival of 06:30 back in the UK.

Service as you would expect for such a prestigious flight is excellent with coats being taken away and drinks brought in their place. Orders are taken for the inflight meals with the appetiser served shortly after take off.

There is one operational difficulty which BA has turned to its advantage. The outbound flight has to stop at Shannon to take on more fuel as the aircraft cannot depart LCY with enough fuel to make it to JFK due to the shortness of the City airports runway. So just over an hour later the aircraft lands on Irish soil.

On arrival all passengers are asked to deplane, taking their hand luggage with them. This is to enable us to go through security again and more importantly, US border pre clearance meaning when we get to JFK we are arriving as a domestic flight, thereby avoiding immigration queues. As the flight is BA1, passengers go through the priority queue and the process, including identifying any hold luggage from an image taken on the Shannon ramp is quick and easy.

There is no lounge again at Shannon but as we were airborne just 59 minutes after touch down it would be a somewhat pointless extravagance.

Back on board we are greeted first by the crew and at our seat by a bottle of water and the ubiquitous amenity kit quickly followed by a drink from the bar and a bowl of hot nuts. The A318 does not have fixed inflight entertainment screens and passengers are offered iPads and Bose headphones. Again a little old fashioned but functional. I only used it to listen to music whilst working on my laptop and never even asked for one on the return, preferring to sleep.

Both Flightdeck and Cabin crews are dedicated and based at Gatwick. The cabin crew remain with the flight throughout but the Captain and First officer change at Shanon. This is in case the vagaries of the US east coast weather requires a diversion meaning that a single crew would, at the end of a long day, potentially be flying more segments than would be ideal.

The meals on board I have to say were of excellent quality from the rump of lamb to the ubiquitous afternoon tea.

On arrival the aircraft always uses the same stand at BAs JFK terminal seven thereby keeping the history of BA1 going. It is the same stand that Concorde used when it operated the service and whats more, in a nostalgic look to the past, there are still markings on the apron system stating ‘SSC Only’ just prior to turning onto stand number one, what else?

Shortly after my return it was announced that BA1/2 was to be suspended until September 1, however that did also include the standard August suspension for scheduled maintenance on the single aircraft used on the route. Unfortunately the current crisis has since caused todays announcement of the permanent cancellation of the route with the A318 being retired. Business jets such as the Bombardier Global 6000 can operate direct from LCY to any New York airport including Teterboro without the fuel stop and this must look like an option for some.

It is a sad day that the second incarnation of this very special flight number has gone the way of the first. I very much hope that at some point in the future the iconic BA1 takes to the skies again.

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