Tried and Tested: BA A318 London City to New York04/10/2012
First impressions This was the second flight taking off from London City airport to New York JFK, the day after the inaugural service with BA's CEO Willie Walsh. As can be seen from previous news reports, the flight is all-business class, with 32 seats. For news stories and information concerning the launch, click here.
I was part of a media contingent on the flight, and so had not checked in online, instead checking in when I first arrived at the airport at 1120. I was immediately told that there was an hour delay because of a technical problem with the aircraft, which required a spare part. Up the escalator to the first floor and turning right for security there is a dedicated queue for the New York flight, perhaps because of extra immigration requirements, and with only 32 seats on the flight, this was extremely swift.
The flights depart from Gate 24 where there is a lounge at tarmac level with 32 seats looking straight out at the A318 (registration G-EUNA). There is free wifi (courtesy of London City airport) in the lounge, and some hot and cold drinks, as well as Ayala champagne and red and white wine.
As the time came around to the original departure time, the captain came into the lounge and told us that the part that needed replacing was one of the aircraft's engine sensors, which had been obtained from Gatwick. It would take 30 minutes to fit, but then there was quite an extensive testing regime because it's a major engine part, and we would now be departing at 1430.
How did this go down? Remarkably well, mainly because I got the impression that most of the people flying were aviation enthusiasts of one sort or another, many of them tweeting and posting on flyertalk.com (long may they continue). A few other passengers were very upset, particularly one couple who had meant to fly from London Heathrow in the first place, and couldn’t understand why they were in a narrow-bodied aircraft which stopped at Shannon and with a departure time two hours longer than they expected. They were in a minority, however.
Boarding: When the call came for boarding at around 1420, we quickly packed up and walked across to the aircraft. The A318 (referred to by the captain as Speedbird) is squeaky clean and very white, with each pair of seats reclining into a hard, curved shell. This reminded us of the surface of a fridge - think Smeg and it's close, and someone joked about buying some fridge magnets to hold notes for the cabin crew. There is a footrest with a seat cushion which raises, and a magazine storage pocket beneath, and between each set of seats (if leaning forward) there is a narrow gap for more magazines, and a button on which you can hang your jacket. A coat hanger and a paper slip with the seat number written on it was waiting on each footrest, however, and our jackets were quickly hung in wardrobes. I was towards the rear of the cabin in an aisle seat (J). Drinks weren’t offered on boarding, although this might have been because of our late departure.
The seat: The A318 has been configured with 32 seats in a 2-2 configuration of eight rows. Click here to see the seat plan. The seats – termed Club World London City – recline fully-flat, but are very different from the Club World seating on the rest of BA’s long-haul fleet. They face forwards, in pairs, with a small privacy divider between them. The in-flight entertainment comes via a personal video player that slots into an arm which is pulled out of the central armrest. The tray table also comes out of this, and was a little difficult to stow – in fact the flight attendant cut his hand trying to do so. When fully extended, the table vibrated when typing on a laptop, although not quite as noticeably as the tray tables in normal Club World do. There are two power sockets for each seat person, one by your ankles between the seats and one by your elbow, allowing you to work and charge another device at the same time, particularly useful for anyone with an iPhone.
This is the first BA flight to have Onair service, allowing passengers to send SMS messages and use Blackberries. There is a light whcih comes on overhead (next to the seatbelt sign, and with the same "chime" when the service is available. Phones can then be switched on, and a text message appears: "Welcome to OnAir, the in flight mobile network. Calls cost 199ppm to make & 147ppm to receive. SMS 41p." (In fact, voice calls aren't activated on the flight. BA says this "... is out of consideration for other customers and also to maximise the onboard bandwidth for all users. Therefore Skype and Voice Over IP websites is [sic] not permitted onboard".) I asked a representative of OnAir who was on the flight about this. He said the system had a maximum capability of dealing with 12 voice calls at any one time, but it was BA's decision if they wanted to turn it on or not, and at the moment, that decision is to leave it turned off. Connection worked intermittently, though I was reasonably successful (Vodafone contract). I also have a Vodafone 3G mobile wireless SIM card in my laptop, but this didn’t help me to connect to the web or Outlook email.
There is no over-wing exit on the A318 so don’t worry about trying to get the exit seat for the most legroom. Both rows two and three have slightly restricted views because of uneven spacing of the windows (presumably due to the superstructure of the aircraft), although this depends on how reclined your seat is, since your head moves position depending on the degree of recline. If views are your thing, a window seat in row one or seven and eight would be perfect.
There is a washroom at both the front and rear end of the plane, so there’s a possibility of disturbance from that, particularly if on a night flight (the return). There are no overhead lockers above seats 7A, 7B, 8A and 8B. This obviously affects those in seats 7J and 7K and 8J and 8K, as all eight passengers are trying to put their bags into the same overhead lockers. Also bear in mind that when seats are fully reclined to a horizontal position, you are either going to be stepping over the feet of the person in the aisle seat or be stepped over. If sleeping, I would prefer a window seat, because no one will be climbing over you, and because when people walk up and down the aisle quickly, the vibration of their footsteps is quite noticeable when you are lying down only a few inches to one side of them as they pass.
The first part of the flight was quite hectic. There were only a couple of empty seats, and it was the second day of the service so the crew tried to fit in a drinks service and appetiser, as well as bringing us our customs forms. The crew (and the passengers) struggled with the timings on this, with drinks being served half an hour into the flight (so only 20 minutes before we touched down in Shannon) just as we had our laptops out. This part will improve, not least because I think regular users of the service will just relax for this first part rather than settling down as though it is the start of a seven-hour flight only to have to pack everything away again ready for disembarkation.
Arrival at Shannon: this is the novel bit. We landed at Shannon airport, disembarked with all our hand luggage, walked into the terminal, had our bags X-rayed (shoes off, but metallic objects could stay in jacket pockets) and then went through immigration. At immigration, if you have checked-baggage, the officer can ask you to describe it or identify it, apparently. There was very little queuing, and then we were through to a dedicated seating area. This was less a lounge, and more of a fenced-off area by the side of a corridor with a duty-free shop at one end, but we were there only five minutes before the flight was called. We walked 20 metres to the air bridge, had our documents checked (passport and boarding card) and then got back on to the plane via an airbridge.
All of this can involve a fair amount of physical effort if you have heavy bags (as I did), although the presence of the airbridge both for disembarking and embarking helped (there are a few steps to negotiate, just after customs/immigration). The walk is no more than a couple of minutes, however, and you know you’re in Ireland because everyone smiles at you.
Once back on board, we went through another safety demonstration. Once airborne, Elemis amenity bags were handed out, containing socks, an eye mask, balancing lavender facial wipes, ear plugs, hand and nail cream, a toothbrush and toothpaste, lip balm and moisturiser.
Food and drink:
“Shortly after take off, we will be serving you an appetiser and drink service on our short journey to Shannon.” Appetiser: Welsh Carmarthen ham with Cox’s apple potato salad and pea shoots. Eating this was so rushed I can’t really comment on the taste.
Lunch: Dedham Vale Farm fillet of beef with Scottish girolles and Madeira sauce; British corn-fed chicken cooked in a Somerset cider sauce; grilled sea bass served with a roasted fennel and caper dressing; penne pasta in a courgette and aubergine tomato sauce with chestnut mushrooms and Berkswell cheese; Inverawe smoked salmon and prawns with new potato and horseradish salad.
Dessert and Liqueurs: Eton mess; Cornish Yarg and Cropwell Bishop; Stilton with Bath Oliver and Orkney; oat biscuits.
Working Lunch: “If you prefer to eat later whilst you finish off some work, we will be happy to serve you a main meal salad together with your choice of dessert from the lunch menu.” This was: Inverawe smoked salmon and prawns with new potato and horseradish salad.
“After lunch, please help yourself to a selection of tasty treats including crisps, chocolates and biscuits available in the forward galley area for you to choose from. Drinks are available throughout the flight.”
“We will be serving a traditional British afternoon tea approximately one hour and 30 minutes before our arrival into New York.”
Sandwich selection: Roast beef with horseradish cream and beetroot chutney; smoked salmon with cream cheese, mature English farmhouse Cheddar with tomato or Laverstoke Park buffalo mozzarella with roasted figs and port reduction.
A selection of plain and sultana scones served warm with English preserves and Cornish clotted cream. Afternoon Tea cake selection of coffee éclair and lemon tart.
Drinks: Tea, ground coffee or decaffeinated coffee. Herbal teas include green tea with jasmine, peppermint, blackcurrant and camomile with honey.
The wine menu was Ayala Brut Majeur NV champagne or Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top, but only the first was on board.
The whites: Terra do Gargalo, 2007, Monterrei and Marmesa Vineyards Chardonnay, 2006, were on board. Edna Valley, Chateau de Rully, 2007, Rully and Arboleda Coastal Sauvignon Blanc, 2008, Chile were listed but not available.
The reds: Montes Alpha Syrah, 2006, was absent as was La Haute Marone, 2007, Gigondas. Chateau Bournac, 2005, and J Lohr, Los Osos Merlot, 2006 Paso Robles were available. Lagers were Heineken and Grolsch. London Pride was absent. I missed this the most.
The crew were friendly, enthusiastic and keen to make a good impression, very admirable when you consider how long this trip was for them – I was told they had left their hotel at 1100 in the morning and we didn’t land until 2310 (UK time). If you like swift service, then I’d say it would be best to sit in the first few rows.
One word of warning – you need to make a decision about the in-flight entertainment before the meal service starts because the arm that holds the screen (measuring 6in x 4in) is awkward to access once your table has food and drink on it. The helpful card which detailed the working of the seat, the Onair system and the in-flight entertainment said that the onboard magazine (High Life) would detail the choices available on the flight, but I couldn’t find this. Instead, most people plugged in the players and simply started watching the films.
It isn’t a perfect system, but then, anyone who has used the Rockwell system on British Airways' mainstream long-haul fleet will be used to quirks. The units are charged as they are handed to you, but to keep them going they are plugged into one of the two power sockets, which means you lose one of them for charging your own gadgets. I noticed that if you are watching a programme and the captain makes an announcement, the show doesn't stop, whereas the sound does. The only solution for the passenger is to immediately pause the programme. If not, you have to wait until he or she has finished speaking, and then rewind to where you got to.
After the meal service at around 1930 (1430 UK time), I fell asleep for over two hours. I woke in time for afternoon tea (I had the sandwiches) and had a final 15 minutes of texting and checking emails before the Onair system was turned off. The headsets and video players were collected about 20 minutes before landing.
Arrival: As predicted – landing at 1805 and on the stand by 1815. We disembarked five minutes later at 1820, and were kerbside at JFK seven minutes later, with the few of us who had checked in baggage collecting it from the carousel as we walked through.
Verdict: Something totally unique. From the A318 taking off from London City and clearance at Shannon, to the onward flight to New York JFK arriving as a domestic passenger, this is something that even jaded travellers will want to try. Will it succeed? On our flight, because of an hour’s delay there wasn’t much talk of how much time we were saving by having pre-cleared US immigration. We set off late (1430) and arrived at 2305 UK time, so it was slower than from London Heathrow, even allowing for a journey from the City (or even Docklands) out to Heathrow. The stop at Shannon was well handled, but you will have to carry all your checked luggage off the aircraft and put it through the X-ray machines, which somehow feels like an extra hassle so soon after you have done the same at London City, However, arriving at JFK and being able to walk straight out of the airport is rather special.