This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
For much of its 30+ year history London City airport was one of London’s best kept secrets.
Passengers at London Heathrow would have to grapple with poorly maintained and ageing terminals with little resilience to operational disruption. They were caught between airlines and the airport, whose relationship could at best be described as dysfunctional. Those in the know, however, headed east to the Royal Docks and London City airport.
BA’s start there was fairly inauspicious. It’s CityJet that can take credit for building the airport’s presence. The first BA liveried flight from London City launched in 1999 when British Regional Airlines began a three times daily service to Sheffield.
The first BA operated route launched in April 2003 to Glasgow, operated by a subsidiary British Airways CitiExpress, using a 110 seat RJ100 jet aircraft. Paris and Frankfurt would soon follow.
The real turning point came after BA had jettisoned what was left of its regional operations (earning itself the moniker “London Airways”) and turned its attention properly to London City. What is now BA CityFlyer took delivery of its first Embraer aircraft in 2009, replacing much less efficient Avro jets. BA now has a fleet of 6 Embraer E-170 and 18 Embraer E-190 aircraft based at London City. 2009 was also the year BA launched what remains the only transatlantic route from London City, to New York JFK.
BA has over time built a respectable portfolio of short-haul routes. These are primarily business routes such as Edinburgh and Zurich, but also leisure routes such as Ibiza, Mykonos and Skiathos. Not all have been successful. Some have been suspended such as Copenhagen, Hamburg, Stockholm and, inexplicably, Madrid.
At London City, the Embraer aircraft offer substantial improvements in comfort over the workhorses of short-haul travel at Gatwick and Heathrow.
For industrial reasons these aircraft cannot operate with more than 100 seats. This means a generous amount leg room and these aircraft are spared the “densification” that has befallen their Airbus counterparts.
BA has often been criticised for adopting a “cut and run” approach to competition outside of Heathrow. However, London City is an example of where BA has been able to see out competition. Ten years ago, CityJet had twice as many take-off and landing slots as BA at London City. Aided by a large frequent flyer base in the airport’s catchment, BA went directly head to head against CityJet on many routes such as Dublin and Rotterdam. Now, after progressively cutting one route after another, CityJet has withdrawn from all scheduled operations together. Whilst BA still has many competitors at London City, it is by far the most dominant carrier.
Aided by greater awareness and better transport links, London City has started to become a victim of its own success with the terminal becoming very crowded in peak hours. It is also not immune to operational disruption, particularly fog in winter. The airport does have plans to expand its terminal building as well as the number of flights and operating hours, which are currently capped to address noise concerns from local residents.