Speedbird One

The British Airways (BA) that you may know today was formed out of the merger of the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and British European Airways in 1972. Rather remarkable to imagine if you live outside Europe or born after 1980, but BA was owned by the British government right up until 1987.

The callsign “Speedbird” comes from BOAC, which inherited it from Imperial Airways — itself founded in 1924! It was the name for the emblem of the airline, which through many iterations has now ended up becoming the British Airways logo, known as the ‘Speedmarque’.

I’ll come to what BA1 is today later, but first while we’re on a history lesson, a brief moment to remember BA1 of old.

The first British Airways Concorde, G-BOAC, taken in 1986 — by Eduard Marmet

Up until October 2003, BA1 went by the callsign “Speedbird Concorde one”[1]. Concorde was such a unique aircraft that it had its name appended to the normal BA callsign. And arguably it needed it — British Airways paid extra for her to skip the queue at Heathrow and JFK. (Something that annoyed Sir Richard Branson a lot.[2])

BA1 was BA’s and Concorde’s flagship flight. Departing at 10.30am from Heathrow each weekday morning, arriving into New York around 8.30am the same day. You could have breakfast twice without anybody judging you!

If you’re reading this you probably have some interest in planes, so I’m sure you miss her as much as I do, so I’ll move on.

Today

The BA1 callsign stopped being used, along with 2, 3, and 4, after Concorde retired. For a while it went unused, until BA started a brand new service.

London City Airport is a small airport in the docklands of London. It’s about 6 miles from the middle of London, and is 6 metres above sea level.

London City Airport (LCY/EGLC) from above — by Ercan Karakaş

If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s probably because it’s absolutely tiny. It’s so small there’s no room for a taxiway, so planes have to backtrack down the runway to get to the gates. The runway is quite short, which makes it unsuitable for any medium or long-haul flights. And to make matters worse, it has a steep approach. This prevents most aircraft you normally travel on for your holidays from landing there, and is mostly used by smaller aircraft.

There is an exception however, which is an Airbus A318. This is the smallest version of Airbus’ smallest aircraft. (If you’ve flown at all, you’ve probably been on an Airbus A319 or A320.)

Isn’t she cute? A British Airways A318 — by British Airways

But, there’s a couple of conditions.

First, in order to get anywhere further away than Europe it needs extra fuel. This is somewhat simple, some cargo space has been replaced with extra fuel tanks.

Second, it needs a light load. This would normally be trickier to make work as airlines survive by cramming people into planes as much as possible, but here it’s flipped on its head. These A318s are entirely business class-only flights.

Dollar dollar

The thing about London City is that it’s mostly used by wealthy people. 41% of the people going through the airport are either a chairman, MD, or other senior employee. The average salary of somebody using London City is €136,000/$150,000/£115,000 a year[3].

Loading up a tiny Airbus with entirely rich people and their luggage? No problem.

So where would these people want to go? New York — of course.

BA1 is a almost daily service from London City Airport to New York’s JFK. Departing at 9.40am, arriving at 2pm in New York. (Not quite as fast as Concorde, and actually even slower than a 747 or 777 from Heathrow.)

But, there’s a problem

The issue is that while the A318 can land in London City quite easily, it can’t takeoff with enough fuel for the trip to New York. So BA1 has a stopover, in Shannon, Ireland. Here it can load up with fuel for the flight over to New York.

Rather helpfully, Shannon also has a US immigration centre. So when you arrive in New York having probably got quite a lot of work done, and possibly had a little nap in the specially-made business class beds, you arrive as a domestic flight and can simply go straight through to collect your luggage.

Future

BA1’s sister flight, BA3, which departs a little later, was cancelled a few years ago as there just wasn’t the demand to use it. I know somebody that has flown on BA1, and there are so few passengers and so many cabin crew, that he was addressed by his title and surname throughout the entire flight. “Another glass of red, Mr Adams?”

BA’s parent company IAG is heavily investing in no-frills services, including the new Level airline for cheap Atlantic flights from Barcelona. But they recently reported that their ‘luxury’ products are still selling well. However with only one service a day, it’s not entirely clear how long BA1 will keep running, but for those who are fortunate enough to use it, hopefully it will continue for the future.


Further reading

Next week

I’ll be looking into KLM’s KL1 (or will I?)


  1. Listen to the ATC of the last BA Concorde flight leaving JFK, BA2
  2. From a documentary presented by Sir Richard on Five, in 2004 (can’t find it online anywhere unfortunately)
  3. London City Airport Passenger Profile
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