Can 'son of Concorde' succeed?

Six years after the supersonic era ended, British Airways is about to launch another flagship service to New York. Simon Calder checks in
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The Independent Travel

A time machine: that was Concorde, which flew supersonic for the first time 40 years ago this week. Forget "lunch in London, dinner in New York": you could enjoy lunch in London, lunch at 60,000 feet (and 1,350mph) and lunch in New York, where you arrived – local time – an hour before you had left. On Tuesday, "son of Concorde" will be born.

Six years after grounding the supersonic jet, British Airways is bringing back the call-sign "Speedbird One" for its flagship jet from London City to New York. While passengers on what was dubbed "The Rocket" could expect to be halfway across the Atlantic within two hours of leaving Heathrow, passengers on "son of Concorde" will only be taking off from Shannon in Ireland, where the Airbus is obliged to refuel on the westbound leg. Yet BA believes the new link will attract an exclusive, rich clientele to a scruffy corner of London E16.

Anyone at London City airport last Tuesday morning would have seen a plane endlessly circling, touching the runway and heading skyward once more. A strange-looking plane, too – the biggest to use City airport, yet the smallest in the British Airways Airbus fleet. It is an A318, a foreshortened version of the narrow-bodied jets flown by BA and easyJet. But unlike those planes, this is a small aircraft with big ambitions: to fly 32 high-achieving individuals 3,500 miles from the doorstep of the City of London's nearest airport to New York JFK.

Business-class-only aviation is nothing new. Since 2002, Lufthansa has operated narrow-bodied Boeing 737s and Airbus A319s on a range of routes with strong demand from business travellers but little appetite from economy passengers. Today, though, the German airline offers only a pair of esoteric little links to India: Frankfurt to Pune, and Munich to Mumbai. Long-term success with all-business-class transatlantic routes has proved as elusive for Lufthansa as it has for other airlines. Last month British Airways closed its OpenSkies operation from Amsterdam to New York, leaving only a Paris Orly-JFK link. From London the attrition rate is even higher: in the past two years, three airlines have gone bust trying to make money flying business travellers to New York: Eos, MaxJet and Silverjet all lost millions bravely trying to prove the concept. So what makes BA's link from London City any different?

"It's an airport on the doorstep to our most important corporate clients," says Michael Johnson of British Airways. The airline knows many regular transatlantic flyers, particularly Gold Card holders, work in the eastern half of London, a long slog from Heathrow. "Also, because we have OnAir connectivity [effectively turning the aircraft into a mobile phone cell handling data] it means that our business travellers can work and stay connected to the office," says Johnson.

The cabin, indeed, looks a little like an open-plan office. In place of the 100 economy seats, British Airways has installed eight solemn-looking rows of four seats. The colour palette is subdued (white and charcoal) and, dare I say it, would pass muster as a Lufthansa interior – or insurance call-centre.

As is de rigueur in transatlantic business class, the seats fold down to flat beds, though you would not want to be taller than 6ft2in to enjoy the ride. Also, unlike in the cleverly designed BA Club World and Virgin Upper Class cabins, passengers with window seats do not have reasonably easy access to the aisle (and the loo), but must instead climb past their companion just like us folk in economy. Other business-class flourishes are missing, too, such as an arrivals lounge at London City. But Johnson points out: "Our first service arriving from New York arrives at 7.15am, which means that if you have the onboard breakfast, or opt for the takeaway breakfast, you can be in your office by 8am." Whereupon, no doubt, you can cast disdainful glances at colleagues who cannot get in from New Malden, let alone New York, by eight.

You would not want to be asleep for the landing at London City, mind: engineers from Airbus and British Airways have worked wonders to allow the plane to land at the steep glide path required for City airport. My visit to the airport coincided with a squadron (or overbooking?) of BA captains, here to practise "touch-and-go" landings, making repeated circuits to get the hang of the unusual approach.

"Everybody has absolutely loved it," says Captain Dave Thomas, who will be commanding the first transatlantic sector on Tuesday.

"It's been dubbed the 'Mini Cooper S' of the family because it's got a bit more power than the A319 yet it's a bit smaller and a bit lighter so it's very responsive."

The new link will be crewed from a pool of nearly 60 pilots, who normally operate short-haul flights from Heathrow. A large contingent is required because of complex and expensive crewing arrangements. The pilots' working day technically begins at Heathrow, so they are on duty much earlier than if they reported at London City. To avoid the risk of going "out of hours" and having to cancel a flight, the first pair will spend only an hour in the air, handing over to another crew at Shannon. "It sums up BA," says an executive at a rival airline. "You'd have thought they'd have started afresh with new ways of working."

The three cabin crew, who are based at Gatwick, will not be hopping off in Ireland. Throughout the flight they will serve meals and drinks that, promises Johnson, will be "Club World-plus".

Fares will be "Club World-plus", too. Searching online for business-class returns from London to New York JFK on 1 December shows BA and Virgin Atlantic level pegging at £3,712 from Heathrow, but the London City service is 9 per cent more expensive at £4,056. Meanwhile US carriers, who have upped their game in business-class comfort, are charging much less; Delta has a fare from Heathrow of £2,151.

Is there much appetite for indulgence among the corporate clients who the service is designed for? "No," says Paul Charles of Virgin Atlantic. "Taxpayer-owned banks won't want to be seen paying over £4,000 for a slow, stopping BA flight to New York when they can pay less and get there quicker with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow."

Other competitors point out that operating only two services a day (from mid-October there will be a 4pm departure) is no match for the multiple flights from London's main airport: miss BA's 5pm departure to JFK from Heathrow, and there's another 70 minutes later – and a third at 8pm. But reach London City at 3.46pm, a minute after check-in closes, and you face a long haul to Heathrow for the next feasible flight. With only two aircraft in the fleet, the new link is susceptible to disruption if a plane "goes technical" – particularly at Shannon, where the last alternative flight to New York departs half-an-hour before BA1 arrives. Lunch in London, lunch in Ireland and dinner in Ireland is unlikely to impress the passengers who are buying that most precious of commodities: time.

Yet from an American perspective, BA's new service can look like a time machine: leave Wall Street at 5pm, arrive at Canary Wharf by 7.30am, solve the problems of the financial universe in eight hours flat and depart for home by 4pm.

BA's Michael Johnson says the airline is well aware of the need to get Speedbird One right: "This is a very prestigious service in the same way that Concorde was. We're not selling speed per se – it's the ability and convenience to work across the transatlantic and keep in touch with your office. This is a bespoke product for a bespoke audience."

Burning questions

As BA pilots burned fuel practising "circuits and bumps" at London City airport last Tuesday, their boss, Willie Walsh, was telling a United Nations forum in New York that "The forthcoming Copenhagen summit represents a historic opportunity for aviation to join the mainstream of the world's efforts to combat climate change".

BA's chief executive talked of halving the industry's net carbon emissions by 2050. Perhaps – but a business-class only jet, carrying one-third of the maximum number of passengers, is not going to do the planet any favours.

Friends of the Earth's aviation campaigner, Richard Dyer, said "We should be curbing the growth in flying, not laying on new flights. Worse still, the luxurious and spacious layout on these planes will mean each passenger is responsible for around three times the emissions from regular flights."

"We're buying new, very efficient planes," responded Chris Stubbs, BA's head of Customer Experience for the new venture. He argued that while multi-class aircraft often fly with empty seats in other cabins, "we can be very focused with filling this aircraft from that very core community based in Canary Wharf so we don't actually get an over-capacity scenario".