Travel Q&A: OpenSkies flies into tough airline market

OpenSkies, a subsidiary airline of British Airways, began flying in June 2008, offering premium class transatlantic service priced to compete with the first and business class fares from its major competitors.

OpenSkies flies Boeing 757s configured in two cabins — business class with lie-flat beds, and premium economy with 52 inches of legroom — with a total of 64 seats. It launched with daily, nonstop service between New York John F. Kennedy and Paris Orly, and soon expanded with JFK-Amsterdam Schiphol flights. In July, OpenSkies agreed to buy France-based L'Avion, a premium class carrier that flies between Newark Liberty and Paris Orly.

OpenSkies isn't the first carrier to pursue the premium transatlantic market. Maxjet, Eos and Silverjet all had similar business models, but eventually failed due to sluggish demand and high fuel prices.

In an interview with USA TODAY, OpenSkies CEO Dale Moss outlined his company's strategy to avoid the fate of those other carriers. The 30-year industry veteran, who has worked for British Airways and India's Jet Airways, also spoke about the challenges of launching and operating a new business at a time of great economic upheaval.

•The timing of OpenSkies' launch couldn't have been worse. How's your business so far?

Heck, if I could have predicted that the world would have gotten as challenging as it did back in July, I could have made a lot of money. Even if the market is 20% down, there's a lot of people still flying. Now they have an opportunity to choose a product that's markedly different at cheaper prices.

There was just no way we could have seen the economic malaise coming. So our number is down, but not markedly. We're pretty much tracking along.

•Q: Others have tried the premium-class-only airlines across the Atlantic. Why do you think you will be successful when they have failed?

There is a significant difference between us and others. There were two others that used 767s, Silverjet and Maxjet, and they were both flying to London. We chose not to fly to London. British Airways has its franchise and does a super job. No point in competing with ourselves. The 767 is very big, heavy and fuel inefficient (for) this mission.

The other one was Eos and they operated with 757s. But their configuration was very rich. Their product was pitched somewhere between first and business class. They had 48 seats and had distribution issues.

When the price of oil spiked, it had reached a level where it flushed out people who were working with 767s or a configuration that's very rich. None of them had frequent flier programs, which we do. None of them had the support of British Airways, which we do.

(We set our) pricing points (for premium economy seats) same as full fare economy in other airlines. We want to position away from economy, but it's priced as full fare economy.

•Q: Travel managers are tightening their belts. How do you get your product out there in these conditions?

We're a business airline with two products (beds and seats). It may be the very precise product for this time. People still need to travel business class, and they can fly for thousands of dollars less on a product that's markedly better. What does that mean for a company with (several) people traveling a week? That's not an insignificant amount of money.

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