Your Guide to Luxury in the Sky
The Web site had me at hello, with a flash-enabled tour I took no less than ten times during prime working hours. United Airlines (UAUA) calls it a First Suite, and it cost me 120,000 miles, plus an almost equal amount of calls to its Indian-outsourced reservation desk, to fly round-trip from Los Angeles's LAX airport to London Heathrow on its newer fleet of 777s.
My seat location in 1A was ideal, the type where people from Economy try sneak glances ahead to look for celebrities and where flight attendants offer you the best wine. But what I expected would be a well-equipped, luxurious leather seat with high-definition video screen was an antiquated poly-blend, hard-to-navigate flatbed with minuscule TV offering manual-load premium movies a la 1980s Betamax.
Cue the business-class airlines. With a growing rebellion of flyers tired of the scaled-back services and dated amenities of many U.S. air carriers, a new spate of all-business airlines with expanded destinations hopes to quell the demand of the luxury-starved.On the surface, the business model is quite simple, offering upgraded business-class services to key international cities at competitive prices. But what looks like a straightforward solution comes with its own concessions that may make our domestic carriers look better than anyone imagined. Launched in autumn 2005, EOS Airlines touts itself as "the first airline focused since inception exclusively on the trans-Atlantic business traveler." Guests transfer through EOS's own personalized gates at JFK and new Club 48 Lounge at London Stansted -- each significantly faster than surrounding competition. Using 757s designed to hold up to 220 people, EOS reconfigures its planes for 48 ergonomically designed seats featuring high-profile walls and fully flat beds arranged in a staggered two-by-two layout. Personal entertainment units are not integrated within the seat, which means that on-demand movies, television shows, music and games are available via an external laptop. Turndown service features high-thread-count sheets, Tempur-Pedic pillows and steal-worthy cashmere blankets that typify a truly first-class experience. In early 2007, Silverjet hit the trans-Atlantic skies with new service from London's Luton Airport to Newark Airport in New Jersey. The airline promises a 30-minute check-in at a private air terminal, but really requires 45 minutes for anyone checking luggage -- and I don't remember the last time I went to Europe without checked baggage. Transit time to Luton takes on average 20 minutes longer than Stansted and 30 minutes longer than Heathrow; there went the time saved at check-in. The airline operates three specially equipped 767 aircraft between the U.S. and U.K., with a new Dubai-London flight that debuted in December 2007. Silverjet's 767s are larger than EOS's 757 fleet, but smaller and less luxurious than the usual 747s or 777s of most U.S. trans-Atlantic carriers. Before arriving at the airport, Silverjet customers can choose their seat online, pre-order a range of made-to-order meals, and check in through exclusive lounges located near Newark's Terminal B and Luton's EasyJet Terminal. Check-in is conducted in the lounge, which can be a bit chaotic for those arriving in the final moments of boarding. Once aboard, the seat configuration is 2-2-2 with side-by-side business seats that force interaction over a communal cocktail table. The nt in-flight entertainment arrives via handheld laptops, which are difficult to get rid of once it's time to sleep. Service is best of the bunch, with gourmet five-course meals and top-notch British staff. Recently expanded Maxjet is now offering service from London Stansted to New York's JFK, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The airline offers conventional business-class seating with beds that almost, but don't quite, put you horizontal. To make up for the pared-down luxury, the airline offers more departing cities and is usually 30% cheaper than its competitors. But the savings come with a price. MaxJet flies an aircraft similar to SilverJet's, namely a 767 outfitted with 2-2-2 seating, but not nearly as luxurious or service-oriented. In the air, the aircraft feels dated with its Southwest-esque leather seats and narrow aisles. Pullout trays and antiquated electronics on the armrest also feel a bit recycled. The newest player to join the all-business market is France's L'Avion, offering service between Paris Orly and Newark. Catering to "Paryorkers" -- Parisians living in New York or New Yorkers residing in Paris -- the airline operates a small fleet of 757 aircraft equipped with 90 seats (twice as many as EOS Airlines). Guests arrive to Newark's Terminal B and make their way to the airline's three small check-in kiosks. Don't expect a fancy lounge on the other side of security; for now, anyway, it doesn't exist. Once on board, flyers are looked after better, with gourmet French cuisine and a wine list created by master sommelier Frank Lucet. The seats are well designed, with stylish work areas and custom upholstery, but only recline to a 140-degree angle. The fashion is one-of-a-kind with pale-blue pill hats and buttoned-up uniforms for the very French staff. The overall experience feels remarkably similar to the Premium Economy offerings on British Airways or Air New Zealand or even United, albeit on a much smaller aircraft. Perhaps that United First Suite isn't so bad after all?
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