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Open Skies and Lost Opportunity
Thursday, November 30, 2017 -- Early in 2008, I picked up a British Airways executive at Newark Airport and we drove to a nondescript office in a suburban Philadelphia strip mall.

What came next was a briefing on an ambitious--but, sadly, brief--moment in airline history.

Project Lauren, so named to keep the new airline under the radar of the vast British Airways bureaucracy, was going to take advantage of the soon-to-be open skies between the United States and Europe.

The point-to-point airline featured a revolutionary layout: Boeing 757s configured with 24 business class beds, 30 coach seats and a 28-chair premium economy cabin so good--2x2 layout with 52 inches of seat pitch--that it would have been a competitive business class just a few years earlier. There'd be high-quality meals, good wines and a nearly private-jet feel on the compact 757s. Even more shocking: the fares, designed to cost a fraction of what existing carriers were charging across the Atlantic.

The initial plan called for Project Lauren to connect East Coast hubs such as New York, Boston and Washington with major European business centers such as Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, Brussels and Milan. BA was targeting fumbling U.S. carriers and its continental competitors and hoping to woo premium flyers away from the established order.

I was jazzed and genuinely enthused by what I saw. But I disliked the name--OpenSkies--and vociferously despised the idea of a premium airline serving up a fairly pedestrian coach cabin. Why even bother, I remember saying, it'll ruin the entire brand strategy.

"I was told I could call it either OpenSkies or British Airways," explained the founder, Dale Moss, a longtime travel executive who had turned to BA for financial succor and competitive shelter for his new airline.

And coach? "We need it to make the numbers work," said Chris Vukelich, another former British Airways executive who'd been lured back to BA to launch Project Lauren.

I got over the name game quickly enough and even changed my mind on coach by the time I'd gotten back to my car and heard radio news of a dreary financial forecast. I remember calling Vukelich even as I was driving home on the New Jersey Turnpike and telling him I was already rethinking my opposition to a coach cabin.

OpenSkies received the corporate death sentence this week and I'm thinking part of the problem was that the airline was neither fish nor fowl, a strange little three-class unicorn that never flew enough routes, never received enough support and was born at exactly the wrong moment in history.

To make matters worse, BA's parent company is folding OpenSkies next summer to make room for an expansion of Level, its decidedly low-brow operation that has no business class, sells a cram-them-in coach class and offers a pallid premium economy with middle seats and 15 fewer inches of legroom than OpenSkies once featured.

The impending loss of OpenSkies is hardly a one-off, either. Lufthansa this week announced it would put Eurowings, its low-cost, no-frills, no-business-class division, on most of the transatlantic routes from Dusseldorf once flown by Air Berlin. And the trying-too-hard-to-be-cool Joon tomorrow replaces Air France on some of its international routes.

It's hard not to feel that business travelers don't matter much to the airlines just now. If a decade ago they were trying and gallantly failing to launch business-oriented airlines, today they are fanatically focusing on penny-pinching flyers, stripping in-flight perks and loading crappier cabins will all sorts of extra fees.

Still, the demise of OpenSkies next summer, when Level moves into Paris/Orly and begins flying to Newark, Montreal and two French Caribbean islands, especially hurts. I've lost count of the JoeSentMe members who discovered its Paris flights almost by accident and then stayed loyal because fares were compelling and the airline offered genuine value-for-money.

"We created OpenSkies for a different time," the now-retired Moss told me this week after hearing the news of its imminent end. "When I started working on it in 2007, it was blue skies as far as the eye could see. When we launched in June, 2008, you could see storm clouds on the financial horizons. Then came the global collapse in September and that was a smack upside the head. The premium airline market has never really recovered, either."

In an odd way, that's consistent with what Moss suggested back in 2008, when OpenSkies started flying. "I think we have the product for the times," he told me then.

Vukelich, who was tasked with fitting the OpenSkies unicorn into the existing airline distribution system, was much more succinct in his analysis. "It was launched. It languished. And it got lost in a bigger entity," he told me this week between meetings.

Make no mistake about it, though. If OpenSkies never executed its initial strategy--short-lived JFK-Amsterdam and Dulles-Orly routes were the only forays beyond New York to Paris--this was a personal project for the guys who created it.

The code name Project Lauren honored Moss' granddaughter Lauren. He named the first two OpenSkies 757s Lauren and Gloria, his mother's name. Moss even left his family back home in Philadelphia and moved to Paris for several years to run the operation.

For his part, Vukelich continues to believe that a product like OpenSkies can work.

"It makes me sad," he said. "I guess I understand it. OpenSkies never grew to plan, but there's a niche of people who want to fly more comfortably for a reasonable price."

No kidding. Even in its twilight--years after IAG, which owns it, stopped investing in it--OpenSkies remains a compelling proposition. Its business class bed is the same essential product that BA still flies at three times the price. Even now, not all of Air France's business class seats convert to fully flat beds. The OpenSkies premium economy seat, currently priced as low as $1,063 roundtrip, has shrunk to 47 inches--but that's still nearly 10 inches more spacious than any of its full-service transatlantic competitors.

For all of its promise and its innovation, however, OpenSkies will go out with a whimper. But it will be missed. The idea will be missed. The execution, no matter how limited the route network, will be missed.

And, as Vukelich said, it makes me sad.

This column is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.