More Flights: Is Discount Biz Class Catching On?

Eos, one of the four discount business class airlines flying the trans-Atlantic route to Europe expands its schedule today, a hopeful sign that the concept may be taking off with travelers.

Eos, which began service in October 2005 between New York's JFK Airport and Stansted, a secondary airport outside London, will now have 32 flights a week.

"We think the model works," says spokesman Roberto Lebron, who added that Eos planes, on average, are 67 percent full.

That figure is below the average load factors for major airlines flying the North Atlantic, but the others offer not only business but first class and large economy class cabins.

Maxjet, which flies between JFK and Stansted, Las Vegas and Stansted and next month will resume service from Washington's Dulles to Stansted, followed Eos into the air in November 2005. Those U.S.-based carriers were joined this year by Britain's Silverjet, which flies from Newark to another London secondary airport, Luton, and France's L'Avion, which flies from Paris Orly to Newark.

The concept for all is basically the same. They fly either Boeing 757 or 767 aircraft that normally carry 220 passengers, and fill them with lie-flat or almost lie-flat seats. The number ranges from 48 on Eos to 100 on Maxjet.

Each promises an escape from the usual travel hassles, offering quick check in, "fast track" to short security lines, a quick exit from customs and immigration, and airport lounges.

Round trip fares vary, from less than $1,500 on Maxjet to about $3,000 on Eos. Major airlines charge $5,000 or more for a round-trip business class ticket.

Individual personalities differ. Eos, for example, fashions itself as replicating first class service, with individual seat "pods" that feature privacy, "buddy seats" so two people can dine together, and a fully flat bed. Eos' early success has led to a new round of financing from private sources totaling $75 million. Still, Lebron says the airline will not be profitable for at least another year.

"We're very Frenchy" chuckles Marc Rochet, CEO of L'Avion, speaking from Paris. But that hasn't stopped Americans, he says, from flying the new airline.

"At the beginning we expected 80 percent of our passengers to be French and only 20 percent American," he says. "But to our surprise, it has turned out that it's 60 percent French and already 40 percent American."

Rochet says L'Avion, which charges $1,652 per round trip, will be profitable in 18 months if trends continue. He faces less competition in Paris, which has only 10 flights a day each way to New York, while London has dozens.

Silverjet says its business is well ahead of plan with load factors approaching 60 percent for its daily service. Stressing its use of Luton, principally a private jet airport, Silverjet has aimed its advertising at small and medium sized businesses, "not the Fortune 500 or even 100," says spokesman Greg Maliczszyn.

It has also found, he says, a ready market in individuals over 50 who want to travel in business class but are looking for value.

Maxjet, which is privately held, is adding more planes, but recently dropped year-round service from Dulles in favor of flights during the summer when travel is at a peak.

Because it is private, Senior Vice President Josh Marks would not disclose exact load factors.

"They're strong in Las Vegas," he says, "and consistently good in New York."

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