Saturday, July 12, 2014

British Airways A318 JFK – London City service

I've been fascinated by the JFK – London City flight ever since I first heard about it — a tiny plane with 32 seats (all Business Class) that flies right into the heart of London to City Airport (LCY). I'd never pay that much in cash ($6000), but with miles I was able to score a seat (details are here). 

Transatlantic on an A318!

Pros

  • insanely fast boarding and de-boarding both in JFK and LCY
  • London City has really quick security lines and customs
  • small cabin feels like you're on a private plane
  • arrival service is really nice (private room with shower at a hotel spa)
  • LCY has a bag storage service so you can easily do a "day in London" layover
  • LCY is close to the city center and is on the Tube/DLR so it's quick and cheap trip in
  • Flying into JFK you clear customs in Shannon, Ireland (a plus for non-Americans)

Cons

  • the small plane has a rougher ride in turbulence
  • no convenient connections to other places in Europe from LCY
  • arrival service is off-site and you have to be driven there
UPDATE: Google street view now has a complete walk-thru of this plane!

Pre-boarding

I'm not entirely sure of the history of this service, but I know that it inherited the flight numbers used for the Concorde: BA Flight 001 (and 002, 003, etc). Sadly you don't get to use the Concorde Room at JFK when flying this service, that's reserved for International First Class passengers and top-tier elites. You do, however, get to use the BA Galleries Lounge, which offers a sit-down dining option for people who want to sleep the whole way to Europe. 

Pre-departure champagne and dinner in the JFK Galleries dining room

Boarding

The picture says it all. No lines, no "gate lice", no "Boarding group six", you just walk on. The plane itself was comically dark once we got inside. Like darker than a nightclub. It was really a really dramatic effect when we were walking on, but once we tried to get situated, it became difficult to actually see what we were doing. Pre-departure champagne, water, and juice were offered.

The boarding area for a 32-person flight :)

sorry for the graininess, but it was realllly dark on the plane
with the Olloclip fisheye. Only 8 rows!


The bathroom was fairly standard

The flight

Everyone on board pretty much went straight to sleep as soon as we reached cruising altitude. The seats are fully lie-flat, and BA provides noise-canceling headphones so I was asleep rather quickly. A couple of hours in we hit some turbulence and it jolted me awake – I think at one point my entire body left my seat the bump was so hard! So yes, the tiny A318 has a much rougher ride than the big A380 we flew a couple years ago. The turbulence was over after about half an hour and I quickly fell back asleep until pre-landing service started. 

Prior to landing they served a traditional English breakfast with a really nice watermelon and cucumber juice. The landing is pretty steep but the view of central London as you approach the runway is stunning. There are no jetways, but we were off the plane and through customs in under 10 minutes.

There's a nice bag stowage service in the airport which we used. Given that the flight arrives around 10am and most of the morning intra-European departures leave between 7 and 9:30am, there are very few convenient connections. We chose to have a long layover in London and then catch an evening flight on to Spain. 

Landing in London


English countryside

About to land at London City

Our plane

Arrival Service

Due to how small London City is, there's no arrivals lounge. You're asked during check-in if you need arrival service and we said yes. Once we landed a driver quickly took us and 3 other passengers to a Radisson BLU hotel about 5 minutes' drive from the airport. We were each given our own treatment room with private shower, and they asked if anyone needed ironing done. Once we were done freshening up, the restaurant has complimentary food and beverages for arrival service passengers. Everyone at the hotel was super friendly and helpful. We opted to walk from the Hotel to the DLR station rather than use the driver.


Arrival service hotel

Private treatment room for arrival passengers

Returning to London City to head to Madrid

After our 8 hours in London, it was completely painless to take the DLR right back into the London City station. The airport is TINY so there's no airtrams or moving sidewalks or any real delay between the subway and the gate. The security line looked long but the entire airport (except us) was in business suits and they all knew the drill — seriously it was the fastest-moving security line I have EVER seen. 

Once we were inside, the entire waiting area feels like a Business Class lounge (except you have to pay for food and drink). We watched some World Cup action with a bunch of German businesspeople and then headed on to Madrid.

There's also some great plane-spotting from the parking lot breezeway!


Emirates Air Line is right nearby

View of London City airport from the Sky Line
Business people in the London City waiting area catching some World Cup action




Tuesday, July 8, 2014

British Airways 747 First Class London Heathrow to JFK

I've only ever flown traditional international first once prior to this trip — Munich to San Francisco 10+ years ago on Lufthansa's previous-gen product. I've sat up front quite a bit, but usually in Business class or in the "BusinessFirst" cabin that's so popular these days. No, when I think of traditional International First it's when there's a fully separate cabin above the normal Business Class. They're a dying breed these days, and they're mostly on national carriers like British Airways

Honestly, for a day flight I'm fine with an exit row or premium economy. I just want a bit more legroom and a place to charge my laptop and I'm good. On long or overnight flights I just want a place to sleep. Having fancy food and drink is nice but i think Anthony Bourdain nailed it when he said: 
"There's almost never a good reason to eat on a plane. You'll never feel better after airplane food than before it. I don't understand people who will accept every single meal on a long flight. I'm convinced it's about breaking up the boredom. You're much better off avoiding it. Much better to show up in a new place and be hungry and eat at even a little street stall than arrive gassy and bloated, full, flatulent, hungover. So I just avoid airplane food. It's in no way helpful"
So I rarely even search for First Class seats when I'm shopping for flights. The incremental cost of the miles is rarely worth it (there's only so much Dom Perignon one can drink before putting that lie-flat sky bed to work). But this time around we were using a companion certificate from British Airways that we'd earned on our BA Visa card, which effectively halved the number of miles we needed for the trip. So when the flight we really wanted had 2 seats in First but none in Business, we decided we'd take it. Plus, with it being a daytime flight, we'd actually be able to stay awake and enjoy the service and the food. 

UPDATE: We took this same route again in August of 2016

Concorde Room

Since we were flying out of BA's hub, we had a completely separate lounge from the people flying in Business – the Concorde Room. (Sadly there are no more Concordes in commercial service…) It's a beautifully designed interior space, with a full sit-down restaurant if you want to eat before takeoff, and an indoor patio with amazing views of the new Terminal 5 and of all the planes coming and going. 

I really only like lounges when I'm stuck at an airport – I'd prefer to just show up 20 minutes before the flight, walk on, and take off. We had about an hour to kill and while it's a stunning space, the experience was a bit lame due to the staff. In contrast to other lounges where there are big buffets and open, pour-it-yourself bars, everything in the Concorde room has to be fetched by the staff. And while the lounge had nearly as many patrons as staff, it was difficult to get someone to actually bring us food and drink. Sorry, but don't shoot for high class if you can't deliver. 

View of two runways and lots of T5 gates from the patio


View of two runways and lots of T5 gates from the patio

Boarding

First class is on the lower deck in the front of the plane. Because the boarding doors are behind First, there isn't a parade of people going through the cabin during the boarding process. The seats themselves aren't particularly different from most international seats, though you do have your own mini coat closet and shoe storage here. The internal shade window was a unique feature that definitely gave the cabin a distinctive look. 

Pre-departure the crew offered champagne and OJs, dinner menus, amenity kits, blankets, pillows and pajamas. The purser was very friendly and funny in a very professional manner. When he saw how much I was geeking out about the other planes at Heathrow, he suggested I take a vacant seat on the other side of the plane for takeoff since the view of the airport is better from that side. Very thoughtful.

Amenities


First cabin

Coat closet and shoe storage

My seat

IFE screen folds out. USB charger on the front


Service

Once we reached cruising altitude, our gin and tonics showed up, along with warm nuts. Landing cards for US Customs were handed out and I loved that the purser made a point of telling us that we only needed one per family. This might not seem like a big deal, but 9 times out of 10 the staff will say this to straight couples, but never to gay ones. It's not a big deal, but extraordinary experiences happen because all of the little things. 

After taking our meal orders, the purser offered to set up the empty center seat next to us in the dining configuration. Even though I often feel like a jaded traveler who's seen it all, this was impossibly romantic and awesome. It really did feel like we were on a (very large) private plane. 


Amuse bouche

Soup and goat cheese mousse

Duck and a Russian River Pinot

English cheeses with Port, Sauternes, and Taittinger Rose

Chocolates

Sleepytime

As we were finishing up our chocolates, the purser offered to make up our beds for us. The seats lie flat, but they also put down a mattress pad and give you a proper duvet and a bottle of water. I was going to try to stay awake the whole flight, but I figured a nap would be a good thing to help me stay up until bedtime on the New York timezone.

A sandwich and cookie snack was offered before landing. Kel had that, but I decided to just have a double espresso. (Also, can I just say how much I LOVE that there's an onboard espresso machine!?!)

My bed



Midnight snack

Tour de Cockpit

As our purser had already noticed that I was geeking out about planes, he offered to take us up to the cockpit for a tour after all the passengers departed. I was in heaven :)

BA's "hard product" (the seats, the interiors, the entertainment) were all top notch, but it's really the "soft product" (the staff and how they treat you) that made this such a memorable flight.



Monday, July 7, 2014

Using "Book and Upgrade" to upgrade British Airways flights

Last summer I did a mileage redemption to fly one-way JFK to Heathrow in British Airways' Business (Club World). It cost me 40,000 points + $437 in fees. While I'm no fan of BA's high fuel surcharges, it was still a great deal for the upper deck of a 747. 

Overnight Club World sleeper service in the upper deck of a BA 747

I've been reading a lot lately about using BA's "Book and Upgrade" feature as a better use of your money/miles than a straight-up mileage reward seat. BA lets you use miles to upgrade one class of service, so you're essentially buying a ticket in Premium Economy with cash and then using miles to upgrade it to Business. This is a clunky process on many other airlines' sites, but BA has a nice interface to help you find an upgradeable ticket to purchase and then instantly upgrade in one step. I'm not going to price out the Economy-to-Economy Plus option because it's not something I'd bother with upgrading to, nor the Business-to-First option because I'd never pay full price for a business class ticket in the first place. 

Click the Book and Upgrade tab to search for instant upgrades

Summary

I'll put the details below but here's my takeaway:
  1. Book and Upgrade is a bad deal for 1-ways, use a pure-mileage redemption instead.
  2. I'm sure there are differences in availability between pure mileage vs. B&U, so check out both options if you're trying to fly on specific days and have enough miles to be flexible. 
  3. If you don't have many miles in your account Book and Upgrade is a good option
  4. Remember that BA caps the number of miles you can buy per calendar year at 24,000

Details

When you book a trip purely with miles, BA has a unique feature that shows you several options on a cash/points continuum, so to me it feels like Book and Upgrade is just another point on that same scale. 

In this case, a roundtrip NYC–London pure miles ticket is 80,000 points + $1204 in fees. If you look at the last of the options in the picture, you can "keep" 40,000 of your points if you're willing to pay an extra $1120 in cash. If you think about it, they're essentially "selling" you 40,000 points at 2.8¢ each that don't count against your 24,000 per year cap. (BA seems to charge around 2.8¢ whenever they sell you miles). 



80,000 points + $1204 or choose one of these other options... 

Now compare that to Book and Upgrade: 20,000 miles + $2277 — a great deal compared to 40,000 + $2324 above. So assuming you can find an open seat on a trip that fits your needs, the Book and Upgrade option is "selling" you the 60,000 mile difference for 1.8¢ a piece – a full cent cheaper per mile than any of the mileage-only discount options.

(FYI, I tried pricing out the one-way options here and, unfortunately, it was a much worse deal: 10,000 points but $2130 in fees – half the miles but almost the same amount of cash! I guess this makes sense since one-way fares across the Atlantic are often as expensive as roundtrips and you're technically buying a cash fare here.)