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CHEAPER, BETTER, CIVILIZED FLYING
By Joe Brancatelli
October 23, 2008 -- Everything you need to know about OpenSkies, the boutique airline that British Airways launched in June, was explained to me by Mark Ziekman, a frequent flyer I met on Sunday.

A lawyer with a large Dutch firm, Ziekman was in Seat 1C on OpenSkies' fourth flight from Amsterdam to New York's Kennedy Airport. I was curious to know how he'd come to be in business class on a brand new airline rather than KLM or Northwest, the longtime incumbents, or Delta or Continental, which also fly between Amsterdam and New York.

"Actually, I booked KLM because I always book KLM and I'm a big player in SkyTeam," he said. "But the company's travel agent called and said, 'Why don't you fly BA? It has beds and it's half the price.' I didn't even know BA flew the route."

I didn't bother Ziekman during the flight, but I watched him carefully. He read the newspaper, worked a little, broke for lunch (sea bass with leeks and mashed potatoes), watched a movie, then reclined the lie-flat bed and took a nap. He also walked to the back to check out prem+, OpenSkies' premium economy cabin and the only other class on the 64-seat Boeing 757.

Just before we landed in New York, I asked him how he rated OpenSkies.

"I thought the bed was quite good. And the flight was better and cheaper than KLM. What's not to like?"

Ziekman's succinct assessment is the takeaway about OpenSkies, which began flying in June with a route between Kennedy and Paris' Orly Airport. The airline is better and cheaper than its competitors, so what's not to like?

When you think about it, there hasn't been much new or innovative in the skies during the last decade. Economy Plus, which created a few extra inches of legroom on United Airlines' otherwise dreary flights. JetBlue Airways, which brought free TV and a casual, comfortable approach to all of its flights. Singapore Airlines' ultra-long-haul, point-to-point flights to Singapore from Newark and Los Angeles. And, even though they tanked in the blink of an eye, the all-premium-class transatlantic airlines like Eos, Maxjet and Silverjet.

If you ask me to describe OpenSkies, I'd say it's a fusion of all of those new and innovative ideas. It's comfortable, it's affordable, it's intimate, it's relaxing, it's point-to-point and it's civilized.

Remember civilized flying? OpenSkies really is.

As I say in my Portfolio.com column this week, the prem+ cabin on OpenSkies is a stunning success. The seats, configured 2x2, are 20.5 inches wide and offer 52 inches of legroom. They are fabulous. The food is good, the entertainment is good, the people are nice. And since there are only 40 seats and no coach cabin, it's all, well, civilized. The back of the bus has never been like this before.

The so-called "biz" class on OpenSkies is also quite good. The 24 seats will be familiar to anyone who has flown British Airways in recent years. They are the first generation of BA's forward/backward business-class beds. But they've been spiffed up with new upholstery and black fabric privacy fans, which replace the original, flimsy, rice-paper-like fans. A new in-flight entertainment system has been added. And even some of the drawbacks of these circa 2000 chairs--limited storage, confusing trays, less-than-intuitive seat positions and controls--are mitigated by the intimate nature of the airline.

The food and wine up front, if anything, is over the top. And attention must be paid to the so-called "second service." Rather than a tea service or something light, business-class customers on the flight from Amsterdam are presented with a huge box from a famous local bakery; it's stuffed with a half-dozen cheese-filled pastry balls, a hunk of apple torte, a full-sized raspberry tart and chocolates. Thousands of calories, enough food for several meals and, when you think about it, not necessarily the kind of grub frequent flyers eat anymore. But, boy, from the nibbles I tried, the stuff was delicious. (Passengers on the Paris-New York flight in business receive a box of goodies and macaroons from Ladurée, the oh-so-trendy Parisian patisserie.)

Pricing is breathtakingly fair. The recent $499 one-way deal in prem+ to Amsterdam ($599 to Paris) expired yesterday, but the regular fare is about equal to walk-up coach on other carriers. There are some great business-class deals available and, on a walk-up basis, OpenSkies' C fares undercut the competition by about 25 percent.

In other words, you should rush to fly OpenSkies. Self-connect to Kennedy if you're not in the Metro New York area. Use OpenSkies to Schiphol and then make a connection to other cities in Europe, Africa or Asia even if your destination is not Amsterdam.

Still, you and I know better. Self-connecting to Kennedy and one-stop flights with a plane change at Schiphol are not our normal way of doing business. Few of us want to switch airlines just for one or two routes when it costs us miles and elite-status credit. (OpenSkies does participate in the BA Executive Club program.)

And these are lean, lean times in the airline business. Premium-class traffic is disappearing fast, so you wonder if there'll be enough flyers for OpenSkies to steal away for its better-and-cheaper "biz" cabin. And as spectacular as it is, prem+ is problematic. It's miles better than coach--but more expensive, too, and coach is still a commodity buy no matter what we tell ourselves. And it isn't even listed when you call up coach fares in computer-reservation services or third-party Web sites. Its code, W class, is still something of a novelty even after almost 20 years of premium economy service. (We talked about this existential crisis in a column when OpenSkies launched.)

Of course, OpenSkies has some marketplace advantages, too. It's got a fairly deep-pocketed parent that will pay the bills (for a while, at least) and bring passengers via the power of a BA code-share. OpenSkies runs a lean shop, has a new-carrier pay scale--and BA's buying power helps OpenSkies keep purchasing costs down. And OpenSkies has snapped up L'Avion, the French all-premium-class carrier. L'Avion brings a French operating certificate--OpenSkies is technically a British airline--and Boeing 757s powered with engines that permit the airline to fly routes from Europe to as far east as India.

"We're not a luxury brand," explains managing director Dale Moss, who is one of the industry's most-respected executives. "We're a business brand. We'll have the cheapest [priced] bed in business class and the cheapest business-class seat [in prem+]. I think we have the product for the times."

Time will tell, of course. But they've made at least two customers. Mark Ziekman and me. Two down, 62 to go…
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

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This column is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.