Regular Frommers.com readers know how to get deals in cattle-car class. But a few new, small, luxury airlines are showing there's another way to fly. Luxury flying doesn't make you wait on long lines or play knee-battles with your neighbor's tray table. And yeah, sure, it's expensive, but it's cheaper than it's been before.
Walking up to the Eos Airlines (tel. 888/357-3677; www.eosairlines.com) counter at JFK airport, we thought at first that there couldn't possibly be a plane leaving soon. Three sharply-dressed ticket staff chatted behind the counter as a lone traveler sauntered up to be checked in. Nearby, about a hundred people queued up grumpily for the next Swiss Airlines flight.
That's Eos' secret: for their 48 passengers per flight, they use infrastructure built for much more. The privileged few who get to fly their one daily route between New York and London's Stansted airport hang out before their flight in the Emirates Airlines lounge, built for 100 or so, drinking Absolut cocktails and surfing the Web on a bank of PCs. Then they file into the same Boeing 757 airplane that domestic airlines like Song (tel. 800/359-7664; www.flysong.com) pack up to 199 people into. Needless to say, Eos fliers get a heck of a lot more room per person than the average 757 traveler.
Flying only 48 passengers means more personal service than you're used to, as well. We were escorted to the front of JFK's security line by an Eos staffer; unlike the Norwegian backpackers behind us, we didn't even have to take off our shoes. As Eos only has two planes (and a spare to throw into service if a 757 sheds a bolt or a nasty storm brews over the North Atlantic), the cabin crew knows its regular passengers. After one frequent traveler expounded on the richness of Newcastle Brown Ale, a beer Eos doesn't generally carry, a bottle began to appear on his tray table shortly after takeoff. It's no wonder members of the British royal family have been known to throw over their flag carrier for the occasional Eos flight.
Eos' seats fold flat into beds and reconfigure into groups of four or five for meetings. Champagne flows freely, though probably not during meetings, and food comes whenever you feel like it. The headphones for your personal DVD player are Bose noise-canceling models. We tried the samosas and the beef filet, and they were definitely more restaurant-quality than galley class. "Eos is what Virgin Atlantic used to be" in terms of a commitment to service, one ex-Virgin cabin crew member told us aboard the Eos plane.
Eos doesn't match the extreme intimacy of British Airways' 14-seat first-class area, says Rob Laney, co-founder of 1stAir (tel. 585/383-4470; www.1st-air.net), a travel agency specializing in discounted first-class tickets. But Eos bumps you up into a first-class experience for less than you'd spend in business class. New York-London is typically one of the most expensive business-class routes in the world per mile, with unrestricted tickets running up to $8,000 round-trip. (You can fly to Japan for less than that.) Eos comes in at $6,000, with sales often lowering that to $5,000 and a special holiday sale for a mere $2,500.
Eos has two major disadvantages compared to the bigger guys: the lack of a big frequent-flier program and of a global network of flights to feed into their New York-London route. Eos' own frequent-flier program, Club 48, gets you a free companion ticket after one round-trip and will soon let you redeem your points on at least one other airline, according to Roberto Lebron, Eos' director of corporate communications.
Both Eos and Maxjet (tel. 888/435-9629; www.maxjet.com), its even-lower-fare competitor, fly from JFK into London's Stansted airport, which presents an unusual opportunity for the budget-minded luxury flier, 1stAir's Laney said. JFK is JetBlue's hub, while Stansted is home to a slew of European low-fare airlines. As domestic business class is generally nothing to thrill over, Laney suggested stringing together JetBlue, Eos/Maxjet and a European low-fare leg to get you pretty much anywhere in Europe for $3,000, flying in high class over the Atlantic.
If Eos promises first-class service at better-than-business-class prices, Maxjet wants to seduce the premium-economy-class traveler by offering business-class amenities. Flying on that same JFK-Stansted route once daily, Maxjet gives you 60 inches of seat pitch to Eos' 78 inches, and their seats don't lie flat. Maxjet also puts 102 travelers into a widebody 767 jet with two aisles in a 2-2-2 configuration, while Eos uses a narrowbody 757 with a 2-2 layout. In English, that means with Maxjet you might end up in the middle of the plane; with Eos, you're never more than one seat away from a window. Like Eos, Maxjet promises high-class food (though on their schedule, not yours) and personal entertainment systems at every seat.
But you can fly a couple of Maxjet roundtrips for the price of one Eos flight. Maxjet's fares start at $1,358 round-trip plus tax, which Laney says is 70% lower than American Airlines' typical business-class fares. And Maxjet is expanding faster than Eos; early next year they'll introduce their second route, between northern Virginia's Dulles Airport and London, the company says.
Laney also said that on the domestic front, affordable private jet-shares are biting into business class travel. That's where Linear Air (tel. 877/254-6327; www.linearair.com) finds their opportunity.
On the surface, Linear Air looks like a luxury, scheduled airline shuttling people between the Boston, New York, and Nantucket areas and around the Caribbean. But that's a bit of a ruse: they're really a charter company, using their four-times-weekly scheduled service to convince people to move up to their private plane rental services.
Linear flies 8-passenger turboprops fitted out as private planes with work tables and refreshments, president William Herp said. "We're giving people a low risk way to experience the benefits of flying privately," he said. "You don't have to spend thousands of dollars to charter the airplane; you can spend a couple of hundred dollars to buy a seat." At $418-$438 roundtrip plus tax ($514-$534 total) from Boston to New York, it isn't cheap, but it's cheaper than chartering the whole plane. That is, unless you can fill the whole plane yourself; a Boston-New York roundtrip will run you about $2,500 for 8 passengers, says Herp, coming out to a "mere" $312.50 per person.
Linear's planes will get sleeker and faster in 2006 with the introduction of "very light jets," 4-passenger planes that fly twice as fast as their existing 185 mile-per-hour Cessna Caravan turboprops. Herp said Linear plans to introduce their light-duty scheduled service into popular upper-crust vacation markets like D.C. to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and San Francisco to Lake Tahoe, hoping to convince those fliers to upgrade to private service on the new light jets.
Eos, Maxjet and Linear Air sound innovative, but at least two luxury airlines have failed in the past: Dallas-based Legend Airlines (which was pummeled to death by competition from American Airlines) and most famously MGM Grand Airlines, mogul Kirk Kerkorian's shag-carpeted paean to 80s excess, which shut down in 1992. Eos (and by association Maxjet) are avoiding those airlines' fates by just skimming a few passengers off of high-fare routes, Eos' Lebron said.
With 1,000 premium fliers per day between New York and London, "all we really need is 48 of those 1,000 seats to be really successful -- 48 to fill our plane, and 37 to be [financially] successful," Lebron said.
But these new guys will have to show staying power to win over the loyalty of high-fare fliers, even with their discounted prices, Laney said.
"Longevity will be the key with these airlines," Laney said of Eos and Maxjet. "It could take some time for people to make the plunge."
Share your comments about this article on our Air Travel Message Boards.