Luxury Airlines Take Off
Until recently you had a choice to make on international flights: cost or comfort. Pay plenty for a pleasant seat up front or suffer through a series of small indignities and big discomforts in coach class. But on the new luxury airlines you can get first-class perks for lower prices -- often much lower -- than you'd likely pay for a business-class ticket on a commercial airline. Why? Because you aren't subsidizing those low, low fares for the people in coach class. Remember, luxury airlines don't have a coach class.
At the moment, the choice of destinations offered by the four luxury airlines is limited. MaxJet, SilverJet, and Eos offer flights from New York City airports (see below for details) to London. MaxJet also offers London flights with departures from Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. L'Avion flies from New York City to Paris. All have plans to broaden service, but none have stated where they plan to fly to next or when.
Naysayers have noted that the luxury airlines have less-frequent flights than commercial airlines. True, the new lines typically have one flight a day, whereas commercial airlines have a half-dozen or more. But more frequent doesn't mean more convenient. Two of the private airlines -- Eos and SilverJet -- allow passengers to experience the long-forgotten joy of checking in a mere 45 minutes or less before their flights (commercial airlines typically require passengers to arrive three hours ahead for international flights). And all of the luxury lines fly non-stop to your destination, unlike commercial airlines, which are annoyingly fond of scheduling only multiple-stop flights.
Crunching the Numbers
To compare ticket prices between commercial and private airlines, we checked the airlines' web sites for roundtrip tickets for February 15-22 (45 days advance booking) from NYC to London. We requested business class on the commercial airlines sites, non-stop when given the option, and let the airlines choose the time of day and itineraries.
MaxJet's fare from JFK to Stansted airport (about 45 minutes from London's center) priced out at $1,795. SilverJet asked $1,798 for NYC-London (it flies into Luton airport, also about 45 minutes from central London). Eos came in at $3,280 from JFK to Stansted, London. All are non-stop flights.
Compared to the prices and routes presented by some commercial airlines, the luxury airlines begin to sound like a bargain. American Airlines offered flights from New York City through Boston, Fort Worth, or Chicago and then onto London. For the specified departure date, we could book business class on the first leg of the flight, but only first class on the second leg. The roundtrip fare was a hulking $7,187.
US Airlines offered flights that went from NYC to Washington, D.C., then to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then to London. On the way back -- bliss! -- we only had to stop in North Carolina. The fare was $3,693 in a mix of first, coach, and business-class seats.
British Airways -- bless their hearts -- delivered a nonstop flight in business class from NY (JFK) to London's Heathrow for $5,794.
The luxury airlines seem to be the obvious winners here, but there are issues to consider. Private airlines don't have huge fleets, so mechanical problems or delays can really impact flight schedules. (Posts on some online message boards criticize MaxJet for flight delays and cancellations that passengers seem to believe are above the norm for the airline industry.)
Another thing to consider is that commercial airlines have interline agreements that enable them to book passengers whose flights have been cancelled on other airline's planes. This is something that privately owned airlines have yet to fully sort out, with the apparent exception of Eos. Judging by posts on travel forums, passengers seem to be universally delighted with Eos's service. (SilverJet and L'Avion started flying more recently that MaxJet and Eos, so there are few comments on message boards as yet.)
Finally, it's important to remember that the luxury airlines fly out of "secondary" airports, like Stansted, Luton, and Orly. But is this really such a problem? It's likely that when polled about airlines and airports, most international travelers will gleefully tell you they'd rather visit the dentist than trek through London's Heathrow or Paris' De Gaulle. That said, fliers who need to connect to another airline in London should know before leaving New York whether or not their connecting flight flies out of the airports these lines serve or if they have to drive to another airport to make their flight (if so, leave yourself plenty of time for delays).
Flights and Fares: Flies New York (JFK) to/from London (Stansted). $4,330 roundtrip if you book 21 days in advance, $3,280 if you book 42 days in advance.
Airplane: Boeing 757 with 48 passenger seats converting to 78-inch fully-flat beds. Each seat is in a private 21-square foot "suite."
On Board: Passengers -- Eos refers to them as "guests" -- dine whenever they wish. Eos offers four-course gourmet meals, lighter meals, and snacks. Passengers on evening flights to London can opt to have their dinner served at JFK's Emirates Lounge before boarding. Onboard passengers snooze under cashmere blankets with full-size pillows. Flight attendants provide a pre-bedtime turn-down service with chocolates. When awake, passengers can amuse themselves with a personal entertainment system pre-loaded with current hit movies and television selections, music videos and audio entertainment from classics to the latest hits. Entertainment systems are equipped with Bose noise-canceling headsets. Electrical outlets are available in every suite.
Special perks: You can arrive as late as 45 minutes prior to departure. Running late? No worries. Call Eos and you'll be met curbside and escorted through security so you can make the flight. Eos also has a concierge who can schedule ground transportation and arrange for hard-to-get reservations at popular restaurants, hotels, and clubs around the world.
Frequent Flier program: Yes.
Private Lounges: Yes.
Flights and Fares: New York City (Newark) To Paris (Orly) $999 roundtrip special limited promotion now in effect; standard non-promotional fare from $1,599 roundtrip.
Airplane: Boeing 757-200 with 90 seats, 2-2-2 configuration, each reclining up to 140 degrees.
On Board: L'Avion focuses with laser-like intensity on the quality of its on-board dining, serving classic French four-course meals and wines/Champagne. When they are not eating, passengers, many of whom the airline rather annoyingly refers to as "Paryorkers" -- those who travel frequently between Paris and New York City -- can amuse themselves with a digEplayer, loaded with international films, exclusive premiers and music. PC power plugs at each seat.
Special Perks: They're French, isn't that enough for you?
Frequent Flier Program: No
Private Lounges: Yes
Flights and Fares: Flies from New York (JFK), Washington (Dulles), Las Vegas (McCarran) to/from London (Stansted) from $1,795 roundtrip NYC to London.
Airplane: Boeing 767-200 with 102 business class seats in a 2-2-2 configuration. Seats do recline but not into fully flat beds.
On Board: The airline serves four-course, gourmet meals. MaxJjet offers customers a choice of three entrees, one of which is a reduced-calorie meal. The "Chef's Pantry" also provides snacks throughout the flight. Each passenger has a personal digEplayer loaded with over 100 hours of movies, TV shows, and music.
Special Perks: MaxJet takes great pride in its wine list. In fact, the airline's web site states "We have searched the globe to find great wines with just the right flavors to accent our onboard cuisine."
Frequent Flier Program: Yes.
Private Lounge: Yes, although not currently in McCarran Airport.
Flights and Fares: NYC (Newark) to London (Luton), roundtrip from $1,798.
Airplane: Boeing 767 with 100 seats, 2-2-2 configuration, which convert into 75-degree flat beds with built-in reading light, laptop power and a seat back massager.
On Board: Passengers can choose from an exhaustive offering of meal options whenever they want to eat, or can pre-request meals from the online specials menus. Those who sleep through breakfast can request a packed breakfast to go. Individual personal entertainment systems boast a wide selection of movies, TV programs and music, along with noise-reduction headsets.
Perks: SilverJet offers online or private lounge check in as well as check in via mobile phone. Passengers in Luton board in a private terminal with SilverJet's own security. Minimum time to be at the airport to be accepted for boarding is 30 minutes before the flight for carry-on baggage only, or 45 minutes for checked luggage.
Frequent Flier Club: No
Private Lounge: Yes
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