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.