Business plus: Is this the next best thing to a private jet?
London City airport offers 'business plus' travel to New York JFK – with a refuelling stop in Ireland. David Phelan takes his seat
Sunday 25 March 2012
However much you pay for your plane ticket to New York, it's hard to avoid congestion at the airport. You can understand why some celebrities and top executives opt for a private jet. But what if there's a way to mimic that private feeling while still paying the same as flying commercial? Avoiding super-busy airports such as Heathrow could be a good first step.
When British Airways launched its London City to New York business-only service in September 2009, it billed it as "business plus", with a price premium to match. It even gave the service the BA001 and BA003 flight numbers previously used by Concorde. Now, the ticket prices match those of other BA business tickets, but the flight still aims to be a cut above.
There are civilised check-in arrangements at London City. If you have luggage for the hold, you can check in just 20 minutes before take-off, or only 15 minutes for those with carry-on bags only. For comparison, you won't even be let through security at Heathrow Terminal 5 less than 35 minutes before departure.
The BA plane is an Airbus A318 – the same basic aircraft type as easyJet uses, only shorter. It is configured with only 32 seats in eight rows. This means that check-in queues are likely to be small, speeding you to the BA Business Lounge at the gate. This lounge is the first snag: it's makeshift at best. Still, there's champagne to sip while you wait.
On board, the seats are wide, well spaced and highly comfortable. Because it's such a small plane, with so few seats, it genuinely has a special, intimate feel to it.
London City Airport has a short runway. This means a plane loaded with enough fuel to make the journey to JFK doesn't have enough space to take off. So, BA flies first to Ireland's Shannon airport to refuel. Here is snag two: at Shannon, you have to get off the plane, with all your hand luggage.
The 45-minute refuel stop is used to maximum effect: there are US border officials stationed at Shannon and the stop is long enough for the plane's passengers to go through US immigration procedures. The two- to five-year tour of duty in leafy Shannon seemed to have a positive effect on the staff: they were relaxed and friendly. And the benefit of going through customs here is that you can walk off the plane at the other end in a domestic terminal with none of the formalities or lengthy queues that await most international arrivals in New York.
Strangely, you do not need to take your checked baggage through customs. It stays in the hold, but must be identified and declared cleared by the authorities. While this happens, or if the Shannon officials are not quite ready, this leads to a pause in what can only be described as a holding area. This feels anything but business class with its hard plastic bench seating in a windowless hall. Take hand luggage only and you go straight through to immigration – when I flew, the authorities were ready and waiting.
The departure lounge and this holding area were the only times the other passengers came into focus. Though this was a business flight, there was a mix of suits and well-to-do families, though some had clearly used the service before and knew the hand-luggage-only fast track. There is another delay in a slightly more convivial gate area before reboarding; Irish coffee, said to have been invented at Shannon airport, is served while you wait. Apparently, BA had wanted US officials to come on board and check everyone's passports in their seats, which would have been the height of nostalgic elegance, but the US didn't agree to this.
Back on board, the business-plus element is on display again. Once aloft, the crew hand out iPads, which explains the lack of seatback screens. The 9.7in iPad screen is better than most seatback screens, but the capacity is not enough to hold all the content BA offers; the airline is looking into reducing TV programme content to cram in more movies.
There's another bonus to this service: Wi-Fi and mobile phones. You can't make calls from the plane, thank heavens, but you can send and receive texts and emails, or surf the internet. Texting was oddly liberating. It's priced in line with international roaming charges so, for instance, Orange charges 40p per message back to the UK. The internet connection isn't fast and drops occasionally, but this is a massive step forward. Food on board is on a par with BA's Club World, and service throughout was attentive.
The return flight from JFK to London City is quicker, as the prevailing winds are in your favour and there is no need to refuel. You can also use the BA lounge before you set out. There is no arrivals lounge at London City, so the airline has an arrangement with the nearby Radisson Edwardian New Providence Wharf Hotel instead.
This isn't an executive jet. But it is a jet for executives. The pairs of seats are private and spacious, comfortable for sleeping when they stretch out flat. The freedom offered by the seats, and how few there are on the plane, make it feel like the next best thing to private.
Doing the biz: Orly to Newark
In 2008-9, three business-only airlines – MaxJet, Silverjet and Eos – went bust. The sole survivor is OpenSkies, a Paris-based airline owned by BA. It operates business-only flights between Paris Orly and New York's other international airport, Newark, New Jersey. I took this route back across the Atlantic.
Check-in at Newark can be precarious: though this is a business flight, there are two classes (reclining Biz Seat and the lie-flat Biz Bed) with separate check-in desks. Biz Seat customers behind me grew angry at being asked to wait, pointing out that this was supposed to be an all-business flight.
The lounge at Newark is shared with other airlines. The plane is an elderly Boeing 757, but the specially configured seating and bright lighting made it look fresh. It is much bigger than the Airbus, with a dozen Biz Beds and up to 72 Biz Seats. Biz Seats are wide and comfortable, arranged in pairs. They don't quite feel like business seats, though – more like premium economy.
Biz Beds are analogous to BA's business seats, though not as comfortable. In-flight entertainment is now via iPad, like on the BA City flight. The food was also BA business-like.
There's nothing wrong with the OpenSkies flight, but the larger plane makes it a much less special proposition. From June, OpenSkies re-introduces economy seats and (revealingly) renames Biz Seat as Prem Plus.
British Airways flies twice daily between London City and New York JFK. The lead-in fare is £2,418 return. On OpenSkies, between Paris Orly and Newark, fares start at £3,240 for Biz Bed and £1,160 for Biz Seat.
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