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All-business-class airlines offer cheap flights to Europe

Several new start-up lines feature all-business-class transatlantic flights. Even on the least opulent of these lines, seating and service is orders of magnitude better than in economy on any of the old lines. So far, however, these lines are not well known, especially outside the East Coast.

One reader recently asked about them this way: “I remember hearing about a couple of airlines that fly to Europe from the U.S. with business- or first-class-only seating. After just having endured a grueling flight back to San Francisco from Europe on one of the giant lines, which overbooked me and then gave my business class seat away ‘by mistake,’ I am looking for alternatives.”

Actually, there are four such lines. And in addition to offering nothing but business class seats, their lowest fares are generally well below business-class prices on their giant competitors. The major downside is that, so far, only one of them flies from any U.S. metro area other than New York, and only one flies to any European city other than London.

The four lines

Here are the basics of these four airlines:

  • Eos links New York (JFK) with London (Stansted). Currently, Eos flies up to three flights every day, including a daytime eastbound flight on some days. Eos offers the most opulent product of the four lines, using 757s with only 48 seats. Each seat is virtually a cocoon, with space for a guest, and it converts to a lie-flat bed. Sample round-trip fares for mid-September start at $2,404, including taxes and fees.
  • L’Avion links Newark with Paris (Orly). Currently, L’Avion flies one round-trip daily except Saturday. It flies 757s with 90 seats—obviously, each seat is less roomy than those on Eos, but they’re competitive with many other transatlantic business class services. Sample round-trip fares for mid-September start at $1,694, including taxes and fees.
  • Maxjet flies to London (Stansted) daily except Saturday from New York (JFK), plus four times a week from Las Vegas; Washington, D.C. (Dulles); and starting August 30, Los Angeles. It flies 767s with 102 seats—not fully lie-flat, and not as wide as those on Eos or L’Avion, but competitive with many other lines. Sample round-trip fares for mid-September start at $1,450 from Washington, $1,549 from Los Angeles or New York, and $1,850 from Las Vegas, including taxes and fees. I suspect that the Los Angeles fares are introductory specials, with regular rates closer to those from Las Vegas.
  • Silverjet flies from Newark to London (Luton) daily, with a second flight planned to start late July. It flies 767s with 100 lie-flat seats. Sample round-trip fares for mid-September start at $1,954. Silverjet is taking possession of two new planes this year, but so far hasn’t announced where they’ll fly.

All four lines claim to offer premium meal and beverage service, expedited boarding, airport lounges, and state-of-the-art in-flight entertainment. I haven’t flown any of them, but I have no doubt their products are fully competitive.

Capacity-controlled fares

All four lines share what appears to be the same “capacity controlled” system for setting fares. That means allocating seats to various “buckets,” with different prices and rules:

  • The lowest fares (those are the ones I show above) are nonrefundable, and they carry a substantial extra charge to change flight dates. Moreover, seats at those fares are limited, with none at all allocated to some peak-time flights, and presumably they sell out early on many flights.
  • The highest fares are fully refundable and exchangeable with no penalties; on Silverjet, they include “free” chauffeur service to/from airports.

Most of the four include one or more intermediate fare levels, available with fewer restrictions than the least expensive and still available when the all the cheap seats are sold.

Secondary airports

All four carriers serve lesser-known airports in the U.K. and France, rather than Heathrow, Gatwick, or De Gaulle.

  • Stansted is the newest of the three BAA (formerly British Airports Authority) airports serving the London metro area; BAA also runs Heathrow and Gatwick. Of the three, Stansted is the farthest from central London—too far for practical taxi access. It also has the most modern terminal, and it is designated for the greatest amount of growth in coming years. Preferred access to/from central London is by express train link, with a stop at Tottenham Hale for an underground connection and a terminal at Liverpool Street station at the east end of the central business district. Trains operate every 15 minutes during busy times; travel time is about 45 minutes. Other trains at Stansted serve nearby Cambridge and several Midlands points.
  • London Luton is independent of the BAA system and home base for low-fare carrier easyJet plus lots of charter lines. Like Stansted, it’s a long way from the center and too far for reasonable taxi prices. Preferred access is by train (shuttle bus between the air terminal and Luton/Parkway rail station), with frequent trains on two routes: Thameslink to several central London stations and beyond to the south, plus Midland Mainline to Kings Cross or St. Pancras as well as much of the north. Minimum train time to London is 35 minutes (plus shuttle bus).
  • Paris-Orly was the city’s major airport for many years and still handles substantial numbers of flights. It’s actually a bit closer to central Paris than De Gaulle, and an easy taxi ride, but the available rail access service is a bit more cumbersome due to connection requirements.

Given recent horror stories about overcrowding at Heathrow, you’re likely to find Stansted an improvement even if the train trip is a bit longer. Luton is a bit more of a hassle.

Outlook for U.S. travelers

Although generally less than half of what the giant lines charge, even the lowest fares on any of the four lines are well above economy levels on the giant lines. But they’re not so high as to be prohibitive for consumers looking for an alternative to the miserable cattle-car experience that is now standard in economy.

Clearly, Maxjet is the most interesting of the four lines for most Americans. It’s the only one that doesn’t completely ignore the more than 250 million of us who don’t live in the New York area. And its fares are the lowest of the four. L’Avion is also unique in that it’s the only one going somewhere other than London.

My guess is that, of the four lines, Maxjet is most likely to add other major U.S. terminals, possibly including Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco. Maxjet is also the most likely to start flying—probably from New York—to other European points.

Meanwhile, with such limited routes, most of us will have to sit on the sidelines and wait for expansion. Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.

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