British Airways A-318 Elite: Lie Flat and WiFi Ready.
So there I was, somewhere close to Newfoundland, reclining in a generous seat that would eventually lie flat. I had eaten the roast halibut fillet with lemon caper sauce and new potatoes, sipped a bit of Chablis, and was sending an email from my Blackberry at 36,000 feet while watching a documentary of Mick and the boys make Exile on Main Street on my private video monitor. Around me, perhaps three of the other 31 passengers had elected to order dinner. Most had dined on the run at BA’s JFK lounge, and then maybe ordered a glass of Bordeaux, drunk it in haste, flattened their six foot long lie flat seats, donned eye mask and ear plugs, and settled in for a six hour snooze before touching down at London City Airport.
Welcome to British Airways new all-business class service from New York’s JFK to London City Airport. It’s beyond remarkable – it is peaceful and quiet, a flying boardroom with enough creature comforts to soothe without really pampering. Start with the aircraft, an Airbus A 318 Elite, which is one of the smallest — the smallest perhaps — aircraft flying transatlantic on regularly scheduled service. Designed to carry 100 passengers, British Airways has outfitted it with just 32 business class seats that lie flat.in a 2-2 configuration of eight rows. They face forwards, in pairs, with a small privacy divider between them. There are two power sockets for each seat, and there is in flight WiFi, a blessing for everyone as umbilically linked to the internet as I am. There is an arm that extends for the personal video player, which is brought to you upon request. In fact, it’s a hard drive, and that touch seemed anachronistic. But a friendly BA steward explained that “It’s all about the weight. This system is lighter than a built-in one. And weight is everything at London City Airport, or else it would sink into the Thames.”
This wasn’t an apocalyptic remark. London City Airport is, for the uninitiated, in London, on an estuary in the Thames, and it’s close to the water’s edge. It’s about the size of a large suburban airport. The A-318 Elite is the largest aircraft that it can handle, and it can handle it only when its fuel tanks are not full. Every ounce counts on this plane.
London City Airport.
But why London City Airport? Well, the biggest reasons are speed, accessibility and location, because this airport is three miles from Canary Wharf and six miles from the City of London. When you land, you step onto the tarmac like you do in rural airports. Except this airport is in the heart of the city, in Docklands. You walk into the diminutive terminal, get in a special line for passengers from your BA flight, pass through in maybe five minutes, and come out to find your bag, should you have checked one, awaiting you. Then you stroll out of the tiny terminal and to the platform for the Docklands Light Railway, which connects to the Underground. Even during morning rush hour, it took me all of 30 minutes to get to the West End. And London City has connecting flights to a couple of dozen other European cites, should you need to be traveling further.
All of this is longhand for “This is not Heathrow.”
The A 318 in flight.
Judging from the fellow travelers who deplaned with me that morning, the City was their destination. For them, the frills of the flight were secondary to six hours of lie flat shut eye, allowing them to get to an office in London remarkably fresh and ready for action. The return flight to JFK leaves in early afternoon, giving you a morning of work in London and gets you to New York in around five PM, in time for an early dinner meeting. British Airways says that if you arrive at London City Airport with just hand luggage, you can check-in just 15 minutes before departure. For those with a late-running meeting, that’s a godsend. But during this time of enhanced security measures, I might give myself a tad more time than 15 minutes.
Now, back to that weight issue. It’s why the return flight from London City to JFK makes a stop in Shannon, Ireland. It leaves the ground in England with a less than full fuel tank, lands, and takes on all the fuel it needs in Ireland. And oh yes, the lucky 32 passengers on board get to pass through US Customs and Immigration in Shannon, a privilege long reserved for Aer Lingus passngers. So when you hit the ground in JFK, you hit the ground running, as a domestic passenger would, deplaning and going to the taxi stand, not a long immigration line. If you were quick enough in Shannon, you could grab a pint of Guinness as well. Though it would be a fast pint. I don’t think we were there more than 25 minutes.
To give you an idea of how important these flights are to British Airways, the airline revived its flight numbers 0001, 0002, 0003 and 0004 and bestowed them on these flights. For those who pay attention to such details, they’ll be remembered as the flight numbers of the late, much missed Concorde.
The A-318 Elite is not Concorde, whizzing across the Atlantic in three hours at 59,000 feet. It’s stubby where Concorde was sleek, roomy where Concorde was cramped. But it does seem like a Concorde for our time. Ready for business, delivering you fresh and refreshed on the other side of the pond, leaving you with bragging rights at the office. In this age of mass travel, travel on BA’s A-318 Elite feels like a private jet. It was, in short, a blast.
The price of such travel is not insignificant, but in November, December and January, fares are running $2,083 one way. If you, or your company can afford it, or a special occasion deems it a necessity, it is the only way to go.
At least one way. At least once.