On Monday 8 November, there will be a rare moment of public cooperation between two arch rivals.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic will each operate special flights from London Heathrow to New York JFK to mark the reopening of the US to passengers from the UK and Europe who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
This may have seemed unthinkable 18 months ago. For the two airlines, it is no exaggeration to say the reopening of the biggest long haul air corridor in the world is a matter of commercial survival.
In 2019, before COVID-19 ravaged the airline industry, nearly 5 million passengers flew between London and New York airports.
The route is often the first entry point for new long haul operators, whether it be Norwegian or, more recently, JetBlue. It is also the showcase for many innovations, successful or not, such as fully flat beds in business class or all business class airlines.
The Yankee Clipper
It was in July 1939 that Pan American World Airways, the closest the US has had to a flagship global carrier, completed the first passenger flight across the Atlantic from New York to Southampton with its “Yankee Clipper” flying boat.
The trip was completed in 27 and a half hours with a flight time of 19 hours and 34 minutes. The flying boat departed Port Washington Long Island, stopping en route at Shediac, New Brunswick; Botwood, Newfoundland, and Foynes, Ireland. A mere 19 passengers were onboard. Regular services would operate just once a week.
Good news for British commercial flying, with the opening at Heathrow of BOAC’s constellation air service between London and New York. These super airliners are even equipped for showing films during the Atlantic crossing. Passengers go on board for the first flight of the new service, a service only made possible by the British pioneers of the past, who’ve turned a high adventure into an everyday affair.
“For Very Particular Jet People”
In 1950, BOAC introduced a dedicated “Monarch” First Class service to New York, initially with the Stratocruiser aircraft.
This was extended to other aircraft such as the Comet 4 and to Montreal, BOAC’s gateway to Canada.
You can see the in flight Monarch service on the Comet 4 aircraft in this no way staged footage, with no sound:
The Transatlantic Jet Age
BOAC and Pan Am would become fierce rivals on London to New York. On 4 October 1958, BOAC beat Pan Am to operate the first transatlantic jet flight to New York.
BOAC flew two de Havilland Comet 4 aircraft between London and New York International Airport, Idlewild.
This was a mere 24 hours after the Port Authority of New York granted approval for passenger jet services following concerns over noise.
The westbound flight left London at 09:55 and landed in New York at 15:15 local time after a refuelling stop in Gander, Newfoundland. The total journey time was 10 hours and 20 minutes.
There were 31 passengers out of a capacity for 48 on the aircraft, many of whom had made reservations in anticipation of passenger jet services years ago and were called to travel at short notice.
The eastbound flight left New York at 07:01 and arrived in London at 18:13 local time. It arrived 32 minutes ahead of schedule, travelling at an average speed of 580 miles an hour and hitting a top speed of 640 miles an hour. This was a record journey time of 6 hours and 12 minutes for a commercial aircraft flying across the atlantic. This cut the journey time in half compared to piston driven aircraft.
Pan American had a Boeing 707 aircraft in London ready to operate flights had taken out advertisements promising to operate the first jet flight. However, it did not begin scheduled flights until 17 November, partly due to difficulties in negotiating with pilot unions.
“British Gloat As Their Comet Wins Race To Inaugurate Transatlantic Services” was the headline in the New York Times.
The transatlantic rivalry between the two airlines did not abate. “707 Outruns The Comet At Sea” was the headline in the New York Times on 19 November 1958 after a Pan Am Boeing 707 overtook a BOAC Comet, beating it by 11 minutes to fly to New York.
As passenger volumes increased, so did frequencies to New York. In the late 1960s, BOAC boasted of five flights a day to London on either the VC10 or Boeing 707 aircraft.
The Jumbo Jet Area
Pan American Airways, for whom the Boeing 747 was designed, operated the first passenger flight from Heathrow to New York JFK in January 1970.
Trans World Airlines also constructed “Flight Wing One” at its Flight Center to accommodate the 747:
BOAC was not shy in promoting the fact it was the only international airline to have its own terminal at JFK, with its own Customs & immigration facilities, as per this message from BOAC’s well known manager at New York, Ron Burrage:
The terminal, now known as Terminal 7, remains BA’s home at JFK. Whilst it has been popular with passengers for its relatively small size and has recently been refurbished with new Club and First Class lounges, it has been earmarked for demolition.
“You Leave. Arrive Before.”
That was the promise to Concorde passengers flying to New York.
It took some time to secure approval for Concorde to fly to New York JFK. Scheduled services to New York began on 22 November 1977 by which time Concorde had already operated to Bahrain and Washington.
This would prove to be Concorde’s last remaining route until its suspension on 24 October 2003.
The Wall Street Era
On 22 June 1984, Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural flight VS1 departed London Gatwick for Newark, operated by a leased Boeing 747-200 aircraft “Maiden Voyager”.
Whilst Virgin Atlantic promised “Rock Star” service, a more staid BA was preparing itself to be seen as fit for privatisation in 1987.
This was the year of the “Big Bang” deregulation of the City Of London. Restrictive practices and rules on foreign ownership of stock brokers were abolished. This helped develop London into a major financial centre to rival New York.
In an advert from 1988 for BA’s new Club World brand, a reflection of the dog-eat-dog Wall Street culture, a group of colleagues think they have set up a colleague from New York to fail by despatching him on a Red Eye flight to London “Like a lamb to the slaughter, gentleman”.
So, two years in New York and he thinks he can tell us how to run things. Well, we won’t have it.
It’s alright. I’ve fixed things. He’s travelling overnight on the red eye. He had no choice.
Not First Class.
Course not. Company policy.
By the time he gets in, he’ll be exhausted. And he won’t have had time to incorporate those new figures I sent him in his report.
He will be hungry and tired.
I’ve arranged for the chauffeur to bring him straight here, not to the hotel.
Like lamb to the slaughter, gentlemen.
New Club World delivers the business man ready to do business.
Yes, thank you.
The early 1990s saw a significant re-ordering of London – New York services.
Pan Am and TWA, both facing financial difficulty, sold their London Heathrow route authorities to United Airlines and American Airlines.
A renegotiated Bermuda II treaty between the US and the UK saw Virgin Atlantic gain access to Heathrow. This soon resulted in a signifiant deterioration in the relationship between BA and Virgin.
The Bermuda II treaty restricted access to Heathrow until EU-Open Skies in 2008 which allowed Continental and Delta to move New York services from Gatwick to Heathrow. This also ultimately allowed American Airlines and BA, on their third attempt, to secure a transatlantic joint business and launch a shuttle service between London and New York.
The Flat Bed Wars
London Heathrow – New York JFK is a route that BA and Virgin Atlantic have always prioritised for newly refurbished aircraft and cabins.
It was the first route BA guaranteed to operate with its then revolutionary fully flat beds in Club World in 2000.
(NB. The above advert is apparently not the work of Photoshop and did involve filling a New York street with beds!)
New York City has featured prominently in many BA adverts, notably these spots highlighting its Club World Sleeper Service:
New York also features prominently is this no-expense-spared “Masterbrand” advert from 2004:
The Boutique Airline Area
In 2005, Eos, founded by former BA director David Spurlock, launched an all business class Boeing 757 service from Stansted to New York JFK, carrying just 48 passengers on each aircraft.
MAXJet launched all premium service from Stansted to New York. Silverjet also launched an all premium Boeing 767 service from London Luton to Newark.
Whilst these were well received, partly due to Heathrow’s poor reputation at the time, they did not survive rising oil prices and a lack of new finance ahead of the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
Still, they did not escape the attention of existing airlines. Virgin Atlantic announced it planned to launch all business class services to New York from a number of European cities, not that it ever came close to fruition.
On 29 September 2009, BA lunched its own all business class service from London City to New York JFK, operated by Airbus A318 aircraft.
Due to take off restrictions at London City, the aircraft would stop at Shannon for refuelling en route to New York JFK. This was turned into an advantage as passengers would disembark and clear US customs and immigration in Shannon.
Such was the prestige attached to it, it was allocated Concorde’s former flight numbers BA1-4.
It was well received by passengers. It was seen as step above services from Heathrow, partly due to the convenience of London City, a small cabin with seasoned travellers and no queues on arrival.
Events conspired against it. Customs & immigration pre-clearance hours were cut in Shannon, reducing one of the main benefits of service for the 2nd daily flight which was subsequently cut. The service ultimately fell victim to COVID-19 and is suspended permanently.
It is highly unlikely that IAG, now increasingly conscious of its environmental impact, will relaunch a similar service. Odyssey Airlines had planned to launch its own all business class service, but little has been heard for some time.
London – New York Post COVID-19
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic various claims have been made about the “new normal”. New York is over. Cities are over. Business travel is over. The office is over.
All will, to varying degrees, prove ultimately wrong.
Airlines are gearing up for the return of transatlantic travel. United Airlines will operate seven flights a day from London to Newark next summer. JetBlue aims to operate up to five transatlantic flights a day from London next summer.
BA and its fellow IAG airlines will operate almost 100% of their 2019 transatlantic capacity next summer.
Whether its BA’s new Club Suite or JetBlue raising the bar for economy travel, the market will remain as competitive as ever.
New York. We’re back.