It used to be that gourmet meals, turndown service and cushy leather seats were the special touches one could count on when flying business class to London or other points abroad.
But thanks to the growing number of Americans flying overseas and the prospect of collecting lucrative transatlantic fares, some airlines are aiming to capture valuable market share by kicking up the level of premium services they provide.
For newcomer Eos Airlines, the strategy appears to be working.
The airline's formula of providing lavish service at competitive prices -- along with the unprecedented amount of personal space allotted to passengers who board its specially designed planes -- is quickly winning over business-class fliers.
Eos has been flying daily from New York City's JFK International Airport to London's Stansted Airport since October 2005, and it recently increased its number of flights from one to two per day in order to meet increasing customer demand.
The price of a round-trip unrestricted ticket on Eos is $6,850; other airlines offer a similar premium service for as much as $9,000.
Single Market Focus
It's no wonder the competition is so intense: For the airlines, transatlantic fares are far more profitable than those from domestic flights.
And international travel is on the rise.
The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that international travel from the U.S. increased 6% during the past year, compared to 2005.
Eos's founder and Chief Strategic Officer Dave Spurlock is an airline executive whose experience includes five years as director of strategy with
Spurlock says the inspiration to create Eos was in part a result of a weakness he saw within his own industry.
"I realized the international airline industry was 20 years behind other industries, because it hadn't migrated to a set of specialists who were the best at what they did. Instead, it was dominated by a 'be all things to all people' model that wasn't serving anybody well," he explains.
"It occurred to me that it was possible to launch a business specializing in one segment of this market -- the business traveler who's flying overseas."
Spurlock looked to successful luxury brands in other industries to see how they built a specialty company for one type of customer.
"We looked at auto manufacturers like BMW that focus solely on the high-performance, high-end car market. In retail, it was places like Williams-Sonoma, Tiffany and Ann Taylor, where the store layout and service protocols are all dedicated to one type of consumer."
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He also looked within his own industry. "Successful newer entrants like
chose their market first, then ruthlessly designed every other aspect of the business around that customer," he observes.
In every successful venture, it's all about the service.
"It starts with defining who you're trying to serve and knowing their preferences. We had to create a true service and product-led airline. This had not been done yet by other international airlines."
Dawn of a Service Era
The name Eos is Greek for goddess of the dawn, and in some ways Spurlock's new airline represents a new day for business-class fliers.
His vision of high-touch, end-to-end service begins when a passenger calls Eos's contact center to book a flight, and is offered personal services through the airline's partnership with
Quintessentially, the world's leading private concierge-service provider.
Quintessentially links passengers with things like last-minute hotel reservations, theater and sports tickets, and restaurant reservations; Eos guests are entitled to use the concierge service for free from the time they schedule their flight until 24 hours after they've arrived at their destination.
At the airport, Eos staff members are curbside to welcome passengers and help them with check-in and luggage. They then personally escort fliers through airport security, to lounges equipped with wireless Internet access and an assortment of fine foods.
Once on board, passengers can comfortably conduct business, enjoy a four-course gourmet meal, unwind or sleep in the privacy of their personal suites. When the plane lands at Stansted, Eos offers complimentary limousine service from the airport to downtown London.
Lower-priced competitors like MaxJet offer international business travel at economy rates, but the unique interior design of Boeing 757s in the Eos fleet give this airline an edge when it comes to passenger space and comfort.
This design is one of the airline's strongest selling points.
These planes, originally built to carry up to 220 passengers, have been reconfigured to hold a maximum of 48 "guests," each in a distinct 21-square-foot suite.
This is private space that's spacious enough to hold a face-to-face business meeting, or provide a restful sanctuary complete with a 78-inch, fully flat bed and a personal media system with Bose noise-reduction headphones.
Spurlock himself conceived of the interior of the aircraft, and went on to win a prestigious Red Dot design award for the plane's unique suites. Every guest has unimpeded access to the aisle, and the seats are staggered so that no one has to battle for an armrest.
In addition, "the tray tables deploy out close to 60 inches across, so you can hold a meeting for two with laptops, legal pads, cups of coffee. All of these details are grounded in what we wanted to offer each customer on board," Spurlock explains.
Finding Good Help...
The right balance of employees to passengers -- and training those employees to represent the Eos brand -- has been critical to the airline's success, says Spurlock.
"Other airlines are certified for four flight attendants per trip; we have six flight attendants on board every flight, so they each attend to a maximum of eight guests per flight," he notes.
To acclimate staff to the Eos brand, flight attendants complete an eight-week training program that includes trips to day spas and a culinary institute for education about a five-course gourmet meals and English high tea, among other experiences.
That's compared to two days of training required by others in the industry, says Spurlock.
"We also spend a day walking through the Westchester County Mall, going into individual retail outlets to discuss how people in these surroundings are part of that store's brand, and how its service style becomes part of a brand," he adds. "All of our staff was hired to be part of the Eos brand."
Spurlock coined the term "commercial corporate jet" to describe Eos, positioning it as a hybrid that provides the best of both commercial and private aviation.
By focusing on premium service and launching Eos with the New York City-to-London route, he is achieving his goal to create a new kind of airline.
"For our competition -- British Airways,
, among others -- the entire business is built on high volume. They fly aircraft with 300 to 400 people per flight, and they have giant hub-and-spoke operations. To build a service culture inside that world is almost impossible," he points out.
Recently, Eos announced it had raised a second round of institutional investment money, and with this capital it is in negotiations for new aircraft and will also determine new routes.
"We proved our business model by launching flights and generating revenue and customer loyalty," Spurlock says. "The next step is growth."
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Anne McDarby is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. Her professional experience includes work as a newspaper reporter and editor in northern New Jersey and more than 15 years in health care public relations and marketing.