More Flights: Is Discount Biz Class Catching On?

Eos, one of four airlines in discount business class niche, expands schedule.

April 15, 2007 — -- 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."

But some skeptics question whether the discount business class model is working that well.

"They're not filling their seats by a long shot," says aviation consultant Michael Boyd.

The airlines offer a good business class product, says Boyd, "but why should I fly Eos when it has just two flights a day to Stansted, when I can get on British Airways which has eight flights to Heathrow."

Boyd adds, "They are a very small corner of the business."

"Of course we are not a huge market," says L'Avion's Rochet, "we are a niche."

But he argues there is money to be made, especially with flights 97 percent on time and cheerful, individual service, at a low price.

"And this concept is just beginning in Europe," he says, "where discount air carriers have had great success."

Rochet believes L'Avion and the others will soon expand, particularly with the "oOpen skies" agreement between Europe and the United States taking effect in March 2008. The agreement will end restrictions for carriers on both sides of the Atlantic. It will permit any European-owned airline to fly from any European country to any destination in the United States. It will also permit any U.S. airline to fly to any country in Europe and beyond.

"That means," says Maxjet's Marks, "we can take passengers from Stansted to the Middle East or India."

He says the airline some day could have a 30-plane fleet.

Maxjet and Eos are currently looking at new U.S. cities to serve, especially on the West Coast.

Open skies will also help Lufthansa, the first airline to launch all business class flights between Europe and the United States. Called Lufthansa Business Jet, the airline leases narrow-body Boeing 737s and Airbus A-319s. They have 44 to 48 new lie-flat seats. The service operates between Chicago and Düsseldorf, Newark and Düsseldorf and Newark and Munich. Round trip fares are as low as $2,400.

"We have a key advantage," says Jennifer Urbaniak of Lufthansa, "our global network."

The open skies agreement may also bring a new and quite different transatlantic service to the United States. Ryanair, Europe's biggest, pack 'em in, low-cost carrier may launch a transatlantic airline. President Michael O'Leary says he envisions a fleet of 30 to 50 planes serving American cities from secondary airports throughout Europe.

And the price? Well, O'Leary told reporters, "Some tickets could sell for 10 Euros ($13.45), for a service altogether different than the four new discount business class airlines.