The “international” in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport bumped up a notch on March 3 when British Airways launched direct flights between Austin and London. Five days a week now, and daily beginning in May, the Boeing 787 will depart Austin at 7 pm and arrive at London Heathrow at 10 am London time after approximately nine hours in the air.
The first flight, which I was a passenger on, departed amid much fanfare: live music (of course), balloons, a buffet of very British fare (fish and chips!), TV cameras and an enormous cake. City dignitaries were on hand, as direct flights into Austin from London can only help our business community and coolness factor.
Known as the Dreamliner, the Boeing 787 is a new and technologically advanced aircraft. I enjoyed the view through windows larger than any commercial aircraft, and appreciated the cool electronic dimmer blinds; the push of a button darkens the glass to cut out the sun but allowed me to still see outside, the better to spot the English coastline as we approached.
The cabin uses lighting adjustments to help passengers gradually acclimate when crossing time zones, to help reduce the effects of jet lag. Advanced filtration systems mean purer cabin air, and pressurization to a lower altitude also helps reduce jet lag, not to mention that dried out, headachy feeling many of us get post-flight.
The 787 also features quieter air conditioning and engines, advanced vibration isolation, and technology that counters the effects of turbulence, providing a smoother ride. All of this, plus a Club World seat that converts to a six-foot flat bed, made it easy to sleep on the overnight flight so I arrived rested and ready to take on London.
(Austinites will also appreciate that the Dreamliner is the most fuel efficient airliner of its size, using 20 percent less fuel per seat than its predecessor. It can also travel further without refueling.)
The plane carries 214 passengers, 35 in Club World (business class), 25 in World Traveler Plus (premium economy) and 154 in World Traveler (economy). All seats have personal entertainment screens, noise-cancelling headphones, power sockets and USB ports.
From Austin to London, Club World passengers are served dinner with a choice of starter, main course and dessert and have access to a self-service snack and refreshment area throughout the flight, along with complimentary bar service.
World Traveler Plus seats have a footrest, recline position and headrest and 20 percent more legroom than World Traveler seats, which have adjustable headrests and extra padding. Both of these classes are served a three-course dinner and complimentary bar service throughout the flight.
Our city became one of only 25 US destinations with direct service — including Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta and Denver — thanks to Austin’s robust economy and events such as SXSW and Formula 1. “Austin has just got so much going for it,” says Catherine Meenan, British Airways vice president regional sales for North America. “It’s a hotbed for start-ups, entrepreneurs and innovators. And it’s very cool – full of arts and entertainment.”
To accommodate the service, the Austin airport has made improvements, with more to come. British Airways officials note that Austin folks couldn’t have been more enthusiastic and helpful about making it all come together. The 787’s engine configuration required some adjustment to the jetway, and the baggage claim and customs area is still a work in progress.
Renderings of its future self on the wall indicate plenty of room and efficient movement of people, but on my return flight, there was quite a bit of congestion and a long line for customs once I’d claimed my bags. It’s only fair to note that this was the first Friday of SXSW; in fact, many of the passengers were Europeans on their way to the festivities.
The new direct service is a wonderful thing for the individual business or pleasure traveler, as those of us who have suffered many a mishap connecting through Dallas or Houston will quickly tell you. Nonstop service eliminates the chance of missing a connection, removes the opportunity for you and your baggage to part company, and cuts out hours of layover time. That’s worth baking a cake to celebrate.