A number of journa-bloggers have tried British Airways’ new transatlantic Airbus A318 service between London City airport and New York JFK. But few have broken down the experience in a really in-depth fashion.
That’s why I asked Plane Talking, the self-described “fuelling aviation conversation” web site, to write a guest blog and describe what it was like to fly this unique bird.
There is lots of good stuff in here, including an assessment of BA’s procedure for handing out portable media players (supplied by IMS).
Private Jet Anyone?
It was a late Wednesday evening when I made my way to the British Airways Terrace Lounge at JFK. As I provided my flight number to the lady behind the reception desk I was met with the reply – “oh you’re on the private jet!” – It brought a smile to my face.
This new prestige service from BA, using the Concorde flight numbers, is as close to a private jet experience that I have had and it certainly provides a unique way to travel across the Atlantic.
But what is this service really like?
My journey started two days earlier at London City Airport. The usual self service machines provided my boarding card and l had arrived with plenty of time before the gate closed for BA001. You can check-in as late as 20 minutes before departure with hold luggage (15 minutes with just hand luggage), although I wouldn’t risk it with security to go through, twice, before you get to the departure gate.
After a short walk from the cosy BA lounge, out across the tarmac to the new Airbus A318, I was soon inside the new bright white cabin. Each pair of flat-bed seats are set in a large white pod giving this new cabin a clinical, futuristic look, especially from my seat on the back row at 8B. Although there are only 32 seats overhead locker space is limited. These storage areas do not hinge down, like on larger aircraft and although my bag was not as large as the maximum allowed as a carry-on it was a tight fit to secure it.
Walking to my seat I noticed that not only was this flight almost completely full but that there were children on board too. Something I didn’t expect for a service that has been promoted as linking two major financial centres.
As we taxied out, due to the lack of fixed in-flight entertainment screens, there was a ‘live’ safety demonstration complete with ‘live’ voice over. Why is it I always sit next to the passenger who thinks the safety information is either on their iPod or in the Financial Times?!
Take-off was swift and we were soon heading towards Shannon to top up the fuel tanks and get US immigration out of the way.
On the way to Ireland, once you are above 10,000ft, the mobile phone icon disappears (like the seat belt sign) which meant the new OnAir SMS/email/data system was operational. All I had to do was switch on my mobile phone and then I was able to send / receive texts and emails as if I was on the ground. Yes it was that simple.
Don’t get too carried away with using the communications though as you do need to fill in all the immigration paperwork correctly, eat the light snack that is served and choose your drinks. All before you land at Shannon.
What wasn’t available on this first leg of the journey was the in-flight entertainment. Inside the centre storage area, between the two seats, you will find only the stand that the media player is mounted on when it is handed out to you.
Distribution of screens does not happen until the Shannon JFK leg. The only explanation I had from the crew was that it was due to ‘security reasons’. I can only imagine that as you have to take all your belongings off the aircraft in Ireland, any (very) expensive media players left on the seat might just be removed.
[Having spoken with BA since the flight they say that the system would need to be switched off on approach to Shannon before customers would be able to benefit from using it - not sure about this answer - see below.]
Once on the ground at Shannon it was a short walk to the security and immigration area. Again belts and shoes had to come off for the x-ray and then I wandered over to the immigration processing desks. There were three very friendly US officers on duty and with such a small number of passengers waiting time was minimal. After the photo and fingerprinting I then walked out into a large corridor where there was a seating area specifically for BA JKF bound passengers.
After being on the ground for about 40 minutes we were back onboard and in the air heading for the USA. The cabin crew were soon serving drinks and taking orders for the lunch service. It wasn’t too long before one of the crew began to hand out the in-flight entertainment screens.
The personal media player is operated by touch screen and can be mounted via the moveable stand (stored between the seats) or you can just hold it. It requires its own power supply so uses one of two plug sockets on each seat.
One socket is in the side of the centre armrest and the second socket is at the lower front of the seats again in the centre armrest. The headphones then plug into the side of the screen. One thing to watch is that you do not get caught up in all the cables especially if laptops or other devices are plugged in around you.
A member of the cabin crew explained the in-flight entertainment service to each passenger and set up their media screen on the seat mounting bracket. Although this was a very personnel service it did leave passengers at the rear of the aircraft waiting over an hour to receive their player.
[British Airways have agreed that the distribution of the players is taking a little longer than they anticipated. This, they say, is due to the fact that customers are not familiar with the system and that time taken to hand them out in the future will reduce dramatically once the crew and customers get more familiar with its use.]
Once fitted to the seat mount the screen lacks any tilting movement (fore and aft) this means that depending on your seating position and height you may not get the best picture.
The touch screen was very easy to use, the controls were easy to understand and the player offered a great range of current and classic movies. As these screens are not available on the (normal) BA fleet there specific pages in the in-flight magazine for the entertainment information for the LCY-NYC route.
Because all the movies, music and television programmes are stored on each individual player the in-flight entertainment is missing the ‘moving map’ facility. This may not be a big issue but with the ‘live’ systems used throughout the BA fleet, where screens are fitted to the business class seats, you can find out where you are and when you are due to land whenever you want. On this route you have to ask a crew member – who then has to speak to the flight deck. This point is now being monitored by BA and they are looking into ways of building something into the onboard communications between the cockpit and cabin crew.
I would guess that on this route a higher percentage of passengers will want to know when the aircraft is due to land, if it is on time, early or late. This is especially due to the fact that passengers can email or text from the aircraft to update their arrangements.
According to BA, due to the short runway at London City and the steep climb on takeoff, there are specific weight constraints on the Airbus A318. With the increased weight of hard wired IFE systems the lighter ‘stand alone’ handheld units, as used by Open Skies, were chosen.
Now you would be right in thinking that the flight crew do update passengers with the arrival details using the normal announcement system. Normally if you are on flights with the hard wired entertainment systems the programme usually pauses or mutes when these announcements occur. With these individual players this does not happen and as the supplied headphones are of such a good quality, cutting out the extra background noise from this type of aircraft, you can easily miss any updates/messages.
The use of mobile phones on aircraft in the USA is prohibited so when approaching New York the OnAir system is turned off. One thing that I missed, and it may have been due to the watching of a movie, was any announcement that this system was being deactivated. This again is only a small detail but could be an issue to passengers who may not be aware of the regulations.
Overall the flight was a great success and arrived 35 minutes early. From the lack of empty seats this route is already popular. Being a smaller aircraft, with the majority of the seats located alongside and behind the engines, there may be slightly more cabin noise than experienced in forward located Club World cabins.
By passing immigration in Shannon you depart the aircraft at JFK as a domestic arrival so if you only have hand luggage you can be leaving the airport in minutes.
Flying back on the Wednesday evening I had chosen the BA004 ‘sleeper service’. This allows you to maximise the amount of rest on the flight back by dining in the Terrace Lounge before you board the aircraft. Check-in from JFK closes 1 hour 45 minutes before departure.
On entering the terminal you see all the BA desks in front of you. Although there was still over two hours to departure the Club World desks were closed so I joined the World Traveller queue. Once I reached the desk I was advised that check-in desks for the London City route were around the corner. I saw no signage for this in the terminal. Once checked in I headed for the Terrace Lounge.
After the ‘private jet’ comment when I entered the lounge I was advised that when the Captain was ready to depart they would put out a call for passengers to make their way to the gate. On my boarding card it showed the time the gate closed, 22:50 for a 23:10 departure.
At 22:45, with no announcement made, I decided to make my way to the gate. All other flights had been called in plenty of time but for some reason BA004 was not. The departure gate wasn’t the closest to the lounge and when I arrived to hand over my boarding card I was met with various comments on my punctuality and how the aircraft door was closing. They did however wait for the other passengers that were still in the lounge!
This time I was in seat 4K.
Soon after take-off the cabin crew served the ‘night cap’ food and drink service for those that wanted it. They also made a note of any breakfast orders for the morning, checking if passengers wanted to be woken for this service. You can also arrange to take a ‘breakfast bag’ off the aircraft and eat on the run.
The media players were also available on request.
An announcement was made soon after take-off about when the OnAir system would be available and that it would cease approximately 15 minutes before landing. British Airways have almost 300 cabin crew specially trained for this specific route. This was proved as the crew provided a very high level of service, adding that little extra touch which although may seem small makes the passenger feel special.
Again we arrived early into London and the approach to City Airport is well worth a window seat.
British Airways certainly have something unique here with the 32 seats and the OnAir service. Yes you do have to go to Ireland but the service and lack of queues at immigration make the detour worthwhile. After speaking with them about the check-in at JFK BA are making sure passengers are updated on flight departures and it seems that my experience was a ‘glitch’ in the usual smooth running at this airport (the Yankees were playing which seems to bring most of NYC to a standstill).
It might just be me but I think the in-flight entertainment needs looking at. A quick fix would be to fix the screens to the seat brackets, permanently, so the crew just had to hand out the power leads. Even if every passenger knows how to work the player a crew member can only really carry two screens and tow power leads at a time.
Although my comments may seem unimportant it is the small things that passengers remember and if they have travelled Business Class on BA, or another airline, they will compare the facilities and services. This route is promoted as a prestige service and it does all its facilities to live up to its passengers expectations.