Return Trip Report: London City LCY to New York JFK via Shannon, Ireland SNN
After a busy few days in the UK, including a visit to British Airways’ impressive Waterside corporate headquarters and its fascinating Speedbird Heritage Centre Museum, plus a ride on the last passenger DC-10 flight, the time has come to return home. I am especially curious about today’s flight, BA001, an all-daytime service from London City to New York via Shannon, Ireland for the aforementioned refueling and US immigration clearance stop. BA’s 2nd flight of the day, BA003 to New York JFK, departs at 4:00pm. As mentioned above, the short length of the runway at LCY, doesn’t allow an aircraft the size of an A318 to be provisioned with a full fuel load and therefore doesn’t have the range to make it westbound non-stop from London to New York. The maximum take-off weight MTOW at LCY is 48 tons out of a possible 60 tons on the A318, thus necessitating a technical stop at Shannon, Ireland with enough fuel to divert to Cork.
This will prove to be a much different experience then the overnight JFK-LCY flight a few days ago. After a quick ride from my hotel near Victoria Park on the London Underground and Docklands Railway, I arrive at London City an hour before the scheduled 9:45am local time departure of BA001. Remarkably, passengers on the westbound flights to New York only have to check-in 15 minutes prior to departure, or 20 minutes if they are checking luggage. What other flight, including domestic, anywhere, allows such a late check-in?
Ten minutes after turning up at the dedicated counters for JFK-bound passengers and breezing through UK immigration and security, I am at the tarmac level Gate 24. This gate, specially configured for just these flights, masquerades as a mini-lounge. One can indulge in champagne, a cold fish platter, cappuccino, yogurt parfaits, smoothies, high-speed Wi-Fi and outstanding views of the ramp and runways. BA CityFlyer E-Jets and BA’s other Airbus A318, G-EUNA that I flew over on prove to be the stars of the show. G-EUNA pulls in and does an impossibly tight 180 degree turn on the cramped ramp unassisted. Flight crews operating into LCY are clearly very skilled not only for landings and take-offs, but in navigating the small and crowded ramp.
Boarding is called a mere ten minutes before scheduled departure. Instead of taking the bus, we are able to walk about 100 feet to the air-stairs and a quick climb up to BA Airbus A318 G-EUNB. With “Swiss precision” but on a UK airline, the boarding process takes five minutes with engines starting just two minutes after it is completed.
Traveling in a low demand season and mid-week, the cabin is a little less than half-full, with fifteen passengers and five crew. My Club World seat 5J (and 5K) offers a great view of the wing. We immediately begin our trek down the runway and once again the flight crew executes a 180 degree maneuver to line up for take-off. At 10:02AM, just ten minutes after the A318’s Pratt & Whitney 6124 engines are spooled up, and our take-off roll commences. With a very light fuel and passenger load, V2 take-off speed comes at 112 knots, we rotate, and the twin Pratt’s effortlessly have us airborne, using less than half of the runway.
I can’t help but have big smile on my face triggered by this sprightly take-off as we wing our way to Shannon, Ireland for our 90-minute flight. With only 5 tons of fuel onboard and no revenue cargo carried beyond passenger luggage, we enjoy a massively high level of climb with no stepping up to 39,000 feet. Indeed it takes just 17 minutes to reach FL39. Our flight-path first takes us south before turning northwest over the UK Midlands and Irish Sea to the Western Island of Shannon.
Just eleven minutes after take-off while still in the climb, the seatbelt sign is extinguished and the in-flight service begins, the first of three we will experience today on our trip to New York. Upon reviewing the menu and imbibing in a Champagne Tattinger Brut Reserve NV, I preemptively loosen my belt again to deal with the coming culinary tsunami. Again, this is not for my enjoyment but my duty to you, my dear reader.
To tide us over, we are served canapés including smoked salmon and trout, prosciutto, and feta cheese complimented with an exotic fruit brochette. This savory, tangy delight is without question the best appetizer I have ever had on an airplane in terms of presentation and taste. I would have asked for seconds, but that would be déclassé and there were still two full meals ahead of us. Additionally, I had run out of belt notches.
The pampering but never cloying crew took our orders for the first meal of the SNN-JFK segment. I suffer from some notable food allergies, so when I asked about the ingredients, the very patient flight attendant produced a photo menu for people with food allergies listing every ingredient of every dish. I had never seen this before.
Quite different from the nighttime Friday flight, many passengers opt to work and decline the iPads. With the office opening up back home, I decided to try the On-Air in-flight connectivity system to check some emails and texts. The emails trickled in before stopping as my phone intermittently lost connection, before regaining it again. This temperamental and expensive service is better than nothing, but is clearly the major weak link in the otherwise nearly flawless service. Given the clientele and advances in connectivity since the service first launched in 2009, BA could afford to upgrade not only the A318 fleet but the rest of the non-connectivity enabled fleet.
At 10:50am we began our descent through rough air into Shannon. The “Baby Bus” A318 handles the chop with surprising aplomb and after exactly 90 minutes we grease the runway for our quick stopover.
Shannon is an airline geeks paradise with numerous types undergoing work or stored at various aircraft maintenance, repair, and overhaul MRO’s at the airport. Lufthansa Technik and Russian airline Transaero both operate MRO’s at Shannon. But with less than 45 minutes on the ground at Shannon, there won’t be much time for plane-spotting or anything else.
Everyone, including the flight crew, disembarks with their belongings during the refueling for the clever and convenient US immigrations and customs pre-clearance. Due to the lack of an international officer and the possibility of timing out if there was a diversion due the duration of the flight, there is a crew change of pilots here.
After just 45 minutes in Ireland, at precisely noon local time, we have re-boarded and are bound for New York for the 7 hour, 5 minute flight. Nearly fully loaded with 19 tons of Jet A fuel, our take-off roll is more than double the time at London City at 38 seconds and V1 doesn’t come until 143 knots. Even nearly fully loaded with fuel, we reached the jet stream optimized cruising altitude of 39,000 feet in just 19 minutes.
Following the obligatory warm towels, the decadent lunch service begins. With BA001 being a long, all-daylight flight, the meal service is an extended affair. We begin with mixed nuts and champagne. This time I opt for Champagne de Castelnau Brut Rose. I am offered a tasting sample before my glass is filled. This small touch contributes to the highly personalized, professionally executed service that is a perfect fit for this routing.
The menu cuisine and presentation are especially designed for London City as well. The prelude to my meal is a fresh seasonal salad topped with a tangy apple balsamic dressing and three bread choices, including pumpkin seed wheat. My carbs meter is now off the charts!
For the main course present a difficult, first world style problem, as I am forced to choose between a chicken koi soi with coconut cream sauce and steamed jasmine rice or an oven toasted New Zealand rack of lamb with sweet corn mousseline, and ratatouille. I select the latter. I must confess that though well cooked and succulent, the lamb was a bit tough. The asparagus was the most delicious I have ever tasted. I summoned the ingredients chart again to get the recipe. The sweet corn mousseline was truly spectacular but alas due to my lactose intolerance I couldn’t risk more than a few bites. A 2009 vintage Caramel Road Pinot Noir was perfectly simpatico with my entrée.
Absolutely stuffed, I declined the deserts and fruit course, holding out for what the High Tea service had in store. The night before I had an amazing dinner at London’s famed Quo Vodis. I am only half-joking when I say that the chefs at flight kitchen at London City could contribute to the Quo.
After the one-hour meal service, the cabin crew passed out chocolates and bottles of water and basically disappeared unless called for until tea. Most passengers were involved in their work or absorbed in a movie, while a few slept. They were probably happy to be not be disturbed. Even with a full load of 32, a regular passenger told me that flight is always very quiet and serene.
We crossed over into the Northern Maine with one hour remaining in the flight. The moment had arrived for the vaunted High Tea Service. A meal unto itself, BA’s version of Afternoon Tea is more a meal service fit for the Ritz, Mayfair, or maybe even Buckingham Palace. A plate of delicate sandwiches featuring roast beef with tartar sauce, wasabi chicken, tuna with sweet corn, and mature cheddar with caramel onion chutney were just exquisite.
These savories were followed up with traditional antipasti prepared with grilled king prawn, prosciutto di Parma, Vitello tonnato, and beetroot with goat’s cheese. What’s afternoon tea without sweets? I sampled one bite each of the homemade plain or lemon and date scones served warm with clotted cream and strawberry preserves, fearing I had gained five pounds just on this flight. There was absolutely no way I could even consider the afternoon tea pastries featuring Dundee cake and flamed lemon meringue tartlet. I have written many trip reports but this one was quickly becoming a restaurant review for a tasting menu.
We began our 42 minute descent into a frigid and windy New York JFK. Encountering mild chop as we were on finals from the west, BA001 kissed the ground at 125 knots, landing ahead of schedule at 2:11pm. Only ten minutes later we were disembarking. With no US immigrations and customs to clear, there was no undignified rush for the L1 exit door. As an anti-climactic coda to a nearly flawless service, with luggage in hand I was at the curb just ten minutes after leaving the plane – unheard of for a long-haul flight. It may be cliché, but it’s true. This was a perfect ending to a perfect flight.