Yet another try: All-premium transatlantic service

By Arnie Weissmann

Arnie WeissmannSilverjet tried and failed. Eos tried and failed. MaxJet tried and failed. Even Lufthansa tried and failed.

Why is it that an all-business-class transatlantic service -- as close to the Holy Grail as exists for U.S. and European airlines -- is so difficult to pull off? And why, shortly after putting OpenSkies, its all-premium New York-Paris subsidiary, up for sale did British Airways launch yet another all-business-class service between New York and London?

The rewards of a successful all-business-class transatlantic service are significant. Although carriers transport many more economy than premium-class passengers on long-haul flights, airline executives will tell you that most of the profit derives from passengers in the front of the plane, where yields and revenue per passenger mile are much greater.

But if this latest British Airways service, shuttling between New York Kennedy and London City Airport, doesn't succeed, it seriously raises the question of whether any such service can. It is a near-perfect test case for whether the all-premium concept will ever get off the ground.

The new route offers two roundtrip flights per day, each carrying a maximum of 32 passengers. But for a product serving such a modest number of passengers (just .0015% of BA's passenger load), it is a surprisingly complex and differentiated product.

It is being promoted primarily as a convenience for business travelers who have day-of-arrival appointments in the City, as the financial and corporate center of London is known. But there are so many features unique to this route that BA has produced both an 18-page pocket guide and a 21-page, large-format, seat-pocket manifesto to explain its many singularities (and these don't even include a four-page menu and the 18 pages of entertainment options detailed in BA's High Life magazine).

That it is complicated is not necessarily bad. In fact, the route may even prove to be an attractive alternative to Heathrow or Gatwick for well-heeled leisure travelers staying in West End hotels, on the other side of the city from the airport.

The equipment is a new Airbus A318, very possibly the smallest plane most prospective passengers will ever use to cross the Atlantic (I was surprised to find that my seat in Row 4 was in the center of the aircraft). I spoke with some business executives in London who expressed concern about the relatively small size of the equipment, but if my experience was typical, it was as stable as larger planes. The flat-bed seats, food and entertainment are similar to other BA Club World (the airline's label for its business-class service) experiences, and the service seemed, if anything, even more attentive.

There are a few bugs to be worked out. For instance, the do-not-drink-the-water icon above the lavatory sink was 2 feet away from a sink-side dispenser filled with drinking cups. I found it bothersome that my seat's headrest, in its highest adjustable position, was still a couple of inches below my shoulders (I'm 6 feet tall), which made sitting up straight uncomfortable.

My pocket service guide indicated there was a WiFi link that would send and receive data from a mobile phone (email and SMS texts only; no voice calls are allowed). The flight crew and I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out why it wouldn't work for me, and we were ultimately unable to resolve the problem. I later found out that the only U.S. carrier that will work with the service is T-Mobile and that even that won't be activated until next spring. This struck me as a serious limitation.

IPhone users (among others) will be excluded from this appealing option.

London City Airport itself, however, is a delight. It's small; I doubt it's even the same square footage as the duty-free shops in just one Heathrow terminal. I was 28th in line for immigration and was cleared within five minutes, even though there was only one agent on duty. If I had wanted to declare something at customs, I would have had to hunt for someone to declare it to, because that hall was empty.

The Marriott connection

Though the service launched at the end of September with just one flight per day, a second was added two weeks later. The eastbound flights depart Kennedy at 6:40 p.m. and 10:10 p.m., and like most eastbound transatlantic flights, the London City Airport service arrives in the morning, at approximately 7 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.

For the convenience of corporate flyers who have day-of-arrival business appointments, BA has worked out a deal with the London Marriott West India Quay Hotel and Executive Apartments in the Canary Wharf area of the Docklands, near the airport. Arriving passengers are allowed use of its fitness center, complete with shower, locker room and sauna, to freshen up. If they have the desire and time, they can also use the gym.

Those who opted to sleep through breakfast on the plane can either take a boxed breakfast with them or get 50% off a meal at the Marriott's restaurant.

I found the Marriott option to be a significant bonus, even for leisure travelers. Nothing deflates the excitement of an early-day arrival in Europe like discovering that your hotel room won't be available until the late afternoon. The facilities at the Marriott are a pleasant alternative to performing one's toilette (and trying to change clothes) in the plane's lavatory before landing.

The deal with Marriott must have occurred after all those passenger guides were printed, because there's no mention of it in them. I discovered it only by picking up a card at the check-in counter at Kennedy. (If an onboard announcement was made about the service, I slept through it.)

There are yet more special considerations for those arriving on these flights to London City Airport. Passengers are also provided with an Oyster Card, a rechargeable pass for the London Underground, with enough credit to take the Tube almost anywhere in town (the Docklands are on the extreme eastern end of London).

I collected my Oyster Card and information about the Marriott arrangement from a woman sitting behind a table by the baggage carousel. (I was apparently the only one on my flight to do so.) I could have used my Oyster to take the Docklands Light Rail to within a block of the Marriott, though I should note that it's not at all obvious where the Marriott is from that stop. It's down an alley-like passage.

Instead, I took the advice of the woman behind the information desk and rode there on a shuttle van, which cost about $10. The van, apparently new and with leather seats and even electrical outlets beneath some of the windows, is a significant step up from SuperShuttle.

The van schedule lists two stops and suggests it will take 30 minutes to reach the hotel; mine made one stop, and we reached the Marriott in 11 minutes. Apparently, the schedule is set for worst-case scenarios, but traffic is seldom heavy in the morning. En route, one gets a nice tour of the gentrified Docklands area, including a quick glimpse of sites being prepared for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The staff of the 4-year-old Marriott was polite and efficient, checking my bags and walking me to the fitness center. If you have clients who might be interested in this option, suggest they take a day bag with a change of clothes as well as workout clothes if they want to use the gym.

The gym is spacious and well-equipped, and in my locker I found Molton Brown lotion and mouthwash as well as a razor, shaving cream, a toothbrush and toothpaste.

A taxi to West London would be fairly expensive from the Docklands, but Docklands Light Rail connects with the London Underground. Clients who have more baggage than they can comfortably carry up and down stairs should consult the Tube map handed out with the Oyster card to see which station nearest their hotel has a handicap icon, indicating an elevator. From there, they can take a taxi the rest of the way.

Direct, but not nonstop

British Airways Airbus A318Return flights to Kennedy currently depart at 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. I took the former, and it was half-empty. British Airways wouldn't release specifics but told me load factors were above expectations for the service. Again, I found the scale of the airport to be as convenient for departure as for arrivals. I got to the airport two hours early (per usual for international flights) and found there was no wait for check-in. After breezing through security, I was told that the departure lounge for the flight didn't open for another 75 minutes. (There are no lounges at the airport, so BA offers champagne, wine, tea, coffee, water and light snacks at the departure gate.) The check-in agent told me I probably could have arrived 20 minutes before take-off, though I think that would be pushing it.

The oddest part of this complex service is that, westbound, the plane stops to refuel in Shannon, Ireland, a little less than 90 minutes after takeoff from London. The reason is that the London City Airport runway is too short for a fully fueled Airbus A318 to lift off. So, like software developers who try to make the best of a glitch ("It's not a bug, it's a feature!"), promotional literature makes much of the fact that passengers clear U.S. Customs at Shannon while the plane tops off its fuel tanks, and then arrive as domestic passengers at Kennedy, compensating for the 30 minutes or so they were on the ground in Ireland.

The Shannon customs experience was by-and-large painless, with one of the most remarkable ratios I have ever encountered while traveling: Five customs officers for 15 passengers.

Ultimately, I did appreciate the benefit of arriving at Kennedy as a domestic passenger, without having to deal with customs upon arrival. Even though I had checked a bag, I was in a taxi within 20 minutes from the time the plane pulled up to the gate.

There's ample evidence in the London City Airport service that lessons have been learned from previous attempts at all-premium transatlantic service.

Although previous efforts also targeted business travelers, Eos and MaxJet flew into Stansted and SilverJet into Luton. Neither airport is convenient for business travelers, no matter how hard the airlines tried to compensate for the distance (Eos handed out train tickets into town). London City Airport's proximity to the City and Canary Wharf is a significant attraction.

Also, by flying an aircraft that holds only 32 passengers, British Airways doesn't have to find as many customers as they would if they were flying a Boeing 757, as the discontinued carriers did and as OpenSkies does.

I suspect the reason my flight back was only half full was that passengers have lots of options for their westbound crossing. The stop for refueling adds time to the return trip that may be off-putting to business travelers, but British Airways has many flights out of Heathrow that are direct. If time is a consideration, the option to get to the U.S. using a more conventional routing is available.

The number of passengers taking the Heathrow option might soon increase. The London City Airport service is priced the same as Heathrow only for the first three months; then it will rise. Someone has to pay for two takeoffs and two sets of landing fees on that return flight.

Whether the London City Airport service could work as a standalone product without a nonstop flight option on the return is perhaps irrelevant. British Airways has lately been demonstrating, for all to see, the difficulties of being a large, legacy international carrier. It's only fair that it also leverage some of the advantages of being a large, legacy international carrier when pursuing the most potentially lucrative product of all.

Contact Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com, and follow him on Twitter.

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