After a short but productive time in London, it was time to head back to the States. But this wasn’t an ordinary return. For the second time in my life, I was taking British Airways flight 001. Last time, it was on Concorde. Could this flight live up to the flight number? It actually did. The flight from London/City to New York/JFK was easily one of the best experiences I’ve had on an airplane, but that report will have to wait tomorrow. Let’s talk about why this flight even makes sense at all.
[Note: BA arranged the flight and accommodation for me without charge.]
I knew it would be a good day when I opened the shades at the Four Seasons in Canary Wharf and saw this incredible view of London and the Thames:
Canary Wharf is the main financial district in London, and it lies to the east of town. The area isn’t very large nor is it distinctive. It has none of the charm of the London you imagine; instead it’s just a towering mess of glass and steel. But it has one very important thing: rich bankers. And the Four Seasons makes them feel right at home, as you would expect from the luxury brand.
Canary Wharf’s buildings are plastered with names like HSBC, Bank of America, Barclay’s, Citi, and more. The number of people traveling between there and New York on a daily basis is high, but Heathrow is all the way on the other side of London. It’s a pain to get there and it takes a long time. That’s why BA started looking at City Airport.
City Airport lies just a 5 minute cab ride or 20 minute train ride from Canary Wharf. It is surrounded mostly by water, right on the Thames River. Because of its geography, its runway doesn’t even hit 5,000 feet. That’s less than half the length of a runway at Heathrow and it’s even shorter than the notoriously short runway at John Wayne/Orange County.
That restriction means that only smaller airplanes can fly to the airport and they can only go short distances. Up until recently, all routes went within Europe. You’d see a lot of flights to key markets like Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Geneva, Milan, and more. But a couple things changed that made a new service a reality.
For one, the airport arranged it so that the A318, the smallest member of the Airbus narrowbody family, was certified to fly in. That opened up the possibility of new routes because of its long legs, but there was still a problem. There wasn’t much room to actually park the airplanes.
So City went ahead and actually built a raft to sit on top of the water and act as a terminal extension. This not only provided a small lounge area for a longer haul flight, but it also created a large parking apron for these airplanes.
After I left the Four Seasons, I made the short journey via the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) over to City Airport to meet with the airport’s chief, Richard Gooding. While looking out over the airport, he confidently explained that the airport is simply executing on its master plan.
The airport’s goal is to continue to serve major European destinations for those businesspeople in Canary Wharf. That’s how it can actually close for 24 hours from midday Saturday until midday Sunday without causing a ripple. But it’s more than that. Much of the development surrounding the Olympics is happening in this area, and even after the Olympics are over, the population in the catchment area will continue to grow with this new infrastructure in place.
Apparently, London/City along with several airlines looked at the possibility of service from London/City to the largest market for those bankers, New York City, for some time. Though I wasn’t told which airlines were interested, I can only imagine that Air France was one considering its large presence at the airport. But in the end, BA was the one that decided to move forward.
This service was no small investment. BA didn’t own any A318s so it had to purchase two of them just for this service. It wanted an all-business class service, but its existing Club World didn’t work on the airplane. So a new seat was designed that fit better and was lighter. Only 32 went onboard.
In the end, the biggest difficulty was around what to do on the westbound flight. The airplane could easily fly from New York to London/City but the short runway prevented that on the return.
In the end, BA settled on a stop in Shannon, Ireland. Why Shannon? Well I’m sure the airport was hungry since it had lost a lot of service over the last few years. And Ireland was particularly attractive because it, like Canada, has pre-clearance for US customs and immigration. That means that passengers could get off the airplane in Shannon and go through customs and immigration while it refueled. Upon arrival in New York, customers could just walk right off the airplane as if it were a domestic flight.
The stage was set, but then the economic downturn hit. BA was just about ready to go but it thought about whether to postpone the service in light of the banking meltdown. It didn’t, and within a few months the service was actually profitable with two flights per day.
The flight continues to do well today, and I can see why. It’s one of the most pleasant flying experiences I’ve ever had; about as close to a private jet as I could imagine.
Once I was done with Richard, I walked over to the terminal and used a kiosk to get my boarding pass. It’s an incredibly small terminal and they’re doing some work in there that makes it feel claustrophobic, but ultimately the goal is to improve the speed of passing through the airport. Travelers can arrive 15 minutes before BA’s New York flight and make it onboard.
I sailed through security and entered into a small concourse area with a couple shops and restaurants. To get to the BA gate, I had to walk down a long, sterile concourse until I found a couple of strangely-numbered gates. Going downstairs, I found a ground-level lounge with some snacks and drinks along with comfy chairs.
When I walked in, there was a gate agent waiting to check my information. He was very friendly and told me that there were only 14 people on the flight (it’s usually between 15 and 20, I’m told) and my seat had nobody next to me. After heading back upstairs to use the restroom, I came down to find it was time to board.
Walking out on the ramp, I saw both of BA’s A318s sitting there. One would operate our flight 001 while the other would operate flight 003 later in the day. I was excited, but I really didn’t realize how cool it would be. For that, come back tomorrow and I’ll have, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.