Friday, January 26, 2007

The Frequent Traveler: Comparing business-class-only flights across the Atlantic

"I have seen the future and it works." Lincoln Steffens's remark back in 1921 about the Soviet Union was hardly an auspicious prediction. But I am tempted to borrow the epithet to describe the new generation of business-class airlines, with business jets or reconfigured airliners, on trans-Atlantic routes.
I recall an acrimonious argument with Bob Crandall, the iconic former chief executive of American Airlines, some 20 years ago when I waxed lyrical about all-business-class flights with small jets on long "thin" routes, such as Nice to Atlanta, Birmingham to Minneapolis; what I like to call "regional long haul."
Bob was dismissive: "It won't work; you have to fill the back of the plane with economy passengers," he said.
What we might have agreed upon is that niche carriers might one day exploit lucrative business markets, especially between Europe and North America. Arguably, it is the next best thing to riding your own jet.
Fares are typically pitched at one- third to one-half that of business class with major airlines, and passengers may get to use private terminals at either end of the route, just like a corporate jet, allowing them to arrive 30 minutes or so before a flight, instead of shuffling in line through immigration and security. The downside is that you have far less choice of flight times, and if your plane should be canceled or delayed, you can be terminally stuck.

Here is how the start-up business class carriers compare:

[] Silverjet (www.flysilverjet.com), which started a daily service between London Luton and Newark airport in New Jersey (that serves New York) on Thursday, operates a Boeing 767 with 100 seats that convert to 6 foot 3 inch, or 1.9 meter, lie-flat beds with individual reading lights.
There is a "quiet zone" on night flights, separate women-only lavatories, more than 100 hours of videos, noise-reduction headphones, and food and drinks individually served on request. On the ground, you can use a private air terminal at Luton with a 30-minute check-in time. Flights depart 10 a.m. London time, arriving in New York at 1 p.m.; from Newark, flights depart 7:30 p.m., arriving in London at 7:10 a.m.
Round-trip fares (for travel in March) are: £722, or about $1,432, in its "saver" category, £922 for "standard," and £1,340 for "flexible" — plus a £77.30 tax. (There's a promotional round-trip fare of £799 until June 30.)

[] Eos (www.eosairlines.com) operates a twice-daily service between London Stansted and New York JFK, with Boeing 757s reconfigured to carry 48 passengers, each getting 21 square feet, or 1.95 square meters, of personal space, and seats that recline into 78-inch flat beds. A second adjoining seat allows colleagues to converse face-to-face comfortably or to work or dine together. Other amenities include personal DVD players, with Boss noise- canceling headphones, a flexible meal service, use of lounges at both ends, and fast-track security.
Flights depart London at 10:40 a.m. and 7 p.m., arriving New York at 1:25 p.m. and 9:45 p.m.; from JFK, flights depart at 7:15 p.m. and 8:55 p.m., arriving London at 6:40 a.m. and 8:15 a.m.
Round-trip fares (for travel in March) are: £1,766 "restricted"; £3,266 "unrestricted" — plus taxes.

[] MAXjet (www.maxjet.com) operates daily flights between London Stansted and New York JFK with 102- seat Boeing 767-200ERs.
(MAXjet also flies between London and Washington, and Las Vegas, although the suspension of its Washington service until May 23 is not an encouraging sign.) Passengers get a conventional business-class seat with a 60-inch pitch and partial recline, and private lounges at each end.
Round-trip fares (for travel in March) are: £916 (including tax and surcharges).

[] Elysair aka L'Avion (www.lavion.fr) started a six-day a week service between Paris Orly-Sud and New York-Newark this month with a Boeing 757-200 with 90 seats in a 2 by 2 configuration. Seats have a 147-degree recline and a one- meter, or about a 3.3 foot, seat-pitch. I booked a notional round-trip flight in March for €1,000, or about $1,300, (without tax), benefiting from an introductory price for the first 1,000 tickets sold. Regular fares range from €1,600 (with tax and surcharges) to €3,000, depending on how full the plane is when you book.

[] Lufthansa pioneered business- class-only flights across the North Atlantic in June 2002 between Düsseldorf and New York with 48-seat Boeing Business Jets (reconfigured 737s) and later, Düsseldorf and Chicago, and Munich and New York, all at normal business-class prices, with 48- seat Airbus A319LR business jets.

[] SWISS started an all-business-class service between Zurich and New York-Newark with a 56-seat Boeing Business Jet in January 2005 with lie- flat sleeper seats, at normal business- class fares.

[] KLM operates 44-seat Boeing Business Jets between Amsterdam and Houston.

[] British Airways quoted £2,090 (including tax and charges) for the cheapest (restricted) round-trip, business-class ticket from London Heathrow to New York JFK for travel in March. Air France quoted €2,386 for a similar round-trip business-class ticket from Paris Charles de Gaulle to New York JFK for the same dates in March.
Many travelers have learned to their cost that the price of an air ticket that they have bought online can just about double when it comes to the final amount charged. According to the London-based travel agents Trailfinders (www.trailfinders.com), there are 453 different taxes that passengers may have to pay, depending on when and where they book a flight and where they are traveling. Taxes range from the U.S. animal & plant health inspection tax and the British air passenger duty to the Sydney noise tax and the Canadian airport improvement fee.
The British air passenger duty will go up by £5 to £40 per ticket on Thursday. Most airlines raised fares as soon as this increase was announced on Dec. 6. But some are demanding extra payment for tickets booked months in advance. Ryanair has announced that all passengers will receive an e-mail regarding payment, and if they have not paid the extra tax by the day before their flight, they will not be allowed to travel. British Airways says it will absorb the extra costs for passengers who booked before Dec. 6.
But not all airlines agree how they should charge. An EasyJet spokesman said, "It's absolutely chaotic. There's going to be a lot of uncertainty on Feb. 1." Be prepared to pay extra tax when you travel from a British airport.
The new air passenger duty beginning in February is: economy class in Europe, £10; business class in Europe, £20; economy on long-haul flights, £40; business or first class on long-haul, £80.
Trailfinders takes the example of a British Airways round-trip economy flight from London to New York. Taxes make up 55 percent (£156) of the advertised £279 fare (valid from Thursday). The largest components are: fuel surcharge & security tax, £75; U.K. air passenger duty, £40; U.S. international transportation tax, £15.40. (Roger Collis in The International Herald Tribune)

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