For years, air travel has had three classes: first, business, and coach. Then came the low-cost carriers, with their coach-only aircraft, followed by the hybrid "premium-economy" class. The latest development?The all-business-class airline. Five have emerged in the last two years (though one has already discontinued service), promising business-class perks—multicourse meals, flat beds, personal media players—for far less than business class tickets on other carriers. Maxjet and Eos launched in the fall of 2005, offering daily flights from New York’s JFK to Stansted, outside London (Maxjet has since expanded service to Washington-Dulles and Las Vegas). In January, two more took to the air: Silverjet, with service from Newark to London’s Luton airport, and L’Avion, flying from Newark to Paris Orly. So, why now?According to Lawrence Hunt, CEO of Silverjet, the timing makes perfect sense. "The growth of premium economy changed the landscape," he says. "Passengers were willing to pay an extra $300 more for another nine inches of legroom, but didn’t want to shell out $5,000 for a business-class seat." Silverjet offers prices Hunt hopes will lure premium-economy and business-class travelers away from legacy carriers. "We don’t have a coach class to subsidize, so we can afford to charge less."
Some analysts are skeptical. "It’s very easy to find money to start an airline," says Tim Coombs, managing director of Aviation Economics, a consulting firm. "But very few break even." (The first of these five airlines to be grounded was Eurofly’s MiMa, which flew between New York and Milan from May 2006 to February 2007.) Though they all have plans to expand, most of the new carriers have small fleets, which can translate into big problems: a faulty plane likely means a cancelled flight, since the airlines don’t have other jets waiting in the wings. Then there’s the question of convenience—these upstarts often use smaller airports that have fewer mass-transit options. And while British Airways has 11 daily flights from New York to London, these new carriers may have only one flight per day.
To find out if these carriers were up to snuff, I flew Silverjet to London and returned on Maxjet. Turn the page to see how they stacked up.
Report Card: Silverjet
Date: January 25, 2007
Route: Newark, New Jersey, to London’s Luton Airport
Departure Time: 7:30 p.m.
Fare: $1,020.50, one-way
Online booking and check-in were a snap, and the links to transportation providers from Luton to London are a plus. My only complaint: the website’s small light-gray type isn’t easy to read.
Ground Transportation: A
Passengers don’t have to arrive at the airport until 30 minutes before their flight, but I gave myself a three-hour window. Silverjet’s chauffeur service picked me up promptly at 4 p.m. for an additional $90.
Instead of the usual throngs of passengers, I encountered two smiling attendants who took my luggage, checked my passport, and then pointed me toward the lounge—all within three minutes.
Indulging in the fresh fruit, pastries, and top-shelf bar helped me survive the lounge’s chilly temperature. Passengers chatted over cocktails while the white, pod-like chairs and mood lighting made the space feel like a swank hotel bar.
An attendant announced boarding at 6:50 p.m., and I was through Silverjet’s fast-track security by 6:57 p.m.—an absolute breeze.
The interiors of the Boeing 767 are brand-new, with a two-by-two-by-two configuration and capacity for 100 passengers. The brown-and-beige interior was drab, but the airline gets kudos for the futuristic flat beds. A plastic privacy screen tucks into the armrest, and the seat has a built-in back massager and reclines 172 degrees. Instead of overhead lighting, each chair comes with a fluorescent lamp that juts out from the top—it seemed to poke me in the head every time I moved—and there wasn’t a seat-back pocket where I could store my book. Luckily, the 60 inches of legroom and a women-only bathroom, with a calming aromatherapy moisturizer, made up for these oversights.
Silverjet recruits flight attendants from the hospitality sector, and for the most part, it shows. They were so friendly that service gaffes were easily forgivable. But the absence of call buttons was a design blunder; it was nearly impossible to signal an attendant. After dropping my fork in the aisle before dinner, it took 10 minutes to get anyone’s attention. What’s more, dinner service was spotty. My neighbors had finished dessert before I received the first course.
The canapés of salmon, Brie, and prosciutto that welcomed us on board were served on cardboard-like bread. The lettuce in my salad was wilted and the chicken breast was rubbery, though the spinach and potatoes were fresh. The full bar, with La Baume Merlot and Cockburn’s port, was some compensation.
In-Flight Entertainment: A+
The entertainment selection and screen resolution on my personal media player were exceptional. I had a choice of 13 movies, from The Way We Were to The Last King of Scotland, 25 television shows (I caught up on The Office), and five music categories (jazz, rock, classical, dance, and "greatest hits," with a total of 100 songs).
Silverjet might be a fantastic airline once it irons out a few kinks. The laid-back yet professional vibe made for a relaxing flight, and Luton Airport is a plus too—only an hour from London and easier to navigate than Heathrow.
Report Card: Maxjet
Date: February 4, 2007
Route: London’s Stansted Airport to JFK, New York City
Departure Time: 11:45 a.m.
Fare: $905, one-way
Although booking and check-in were easy, the site lacks needed information. I couldn’t find any suggestions, for example, on how to get from Stansted to London.
Ground Transportation: B-
The trip to the airport was a pain. A cab from South Kensington would have cost $150, so I planned to catch the 7:30 a.m. train from Liverpool Station. It was cancelled at the last minute (if only Maxjet offered chauffeur service!) and I lugged my bags onto a Stansted-bound bus.
The five gate agents made check-in a breeze, but they were all business, and I missed Silverjet’s smiling faces.
I felt a tinge of schadenfreude looking at the lines for other carriers as I sped through Maxjet’s fast-track security. I was in the lounge within five minutes.
The modern orange and blue décor was overdone, and the food selection mediocre—pastries, cold cuts, and passable coffee. The lone waitress told me she didn’t know how to make a cappuccino.
The 102 blue leather seats are arranged in a two-by-two-by-two configuration. They aren’t flat beds, but recline to a 160-degree angle and have adjustable leg rests, which are extremely comfortable. My side table, however, was sticky and the bathroom unremarkable (no special products here). There was, however, a great selection of magazines and newspapers.
The cabin crew was grumpy and rushed. Although the glass of Kir Royale and canapés before takeoff were nice treats, I would have enjoyed them more if the attendants had provided a napkin. Later, I was refused a Diet Coke because "drinks had already been served."
I was impressed by the watercress, artichoke, and calamata olive salad. Unfortunately, they ran out of the chicken entrée I wanted. I opted for the teriyaki salmon instead—surprisingly fresh—followed by a delicious chocolate banana dessert. Maxjet serves excellent wines, including a buttery Cardiff 2004 Chardonnay.
In-Flight Entertainment: B+
The selection was more limited than Silverjet’s, and the screen was not as clear. Plus, my personal media player kept shutting itself off. Only 12 TV shows were available, with stale classics like Will and Grace (points go out for ABFab reruns, though), and 18 movies. The music selections beat Silverjet’s with 10 categories, from R&B to classical, and 10 to 15 songs in each genre.
Despite better food than Silverjet, the attendants’ devil-may-care attitudes would make me think twice about flying this airline again. Stansted airport is a winner, though, with good facilities and a 45-minute train ride from central London.
The recent rise of all business-class airlines, along with surging competition for passengers, has driven carriers to step up their premium-class service (the class between business and coach). Beginning this month, Virgin Atlantic—the pioneer of the concept—is revamping the category with service and cabin upgrades. The first improvement will be a new ergonomically designed leather seat that slides forward for a deeper incline. With a pitch of 38 inches, the premium-economy seats (there are 28 to 58, depending on the aircraft) boast seven more inches of legroom than those in coach, and are 3 inches wider than the old seats; adjustable head-and footrests and inflatable lumbar cushions provide extra support. A revamped meal service will be added next (think smoked-mozzarella ravioli topped with red and yellow peppers), to be served on china and crystal by two additional crew members. Virgin Atlantic has long had a separate cabin for premium economy, but now it also has two designated bathrooms.