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Alt-Europe: How to Fly for Less Across the Atlantic
April 20, 2017 -- No, your eyes and wallets are not deceiving you: Fares to Europe, at least down the back, have been plummeting.

How low can they go? Listen to Scott Kirby, the numbers-obsessed president of United Airlines.

"Advance-purchase fares are down, call it 20 to 30 percent," Kirby said this week during United's first-quarter earnings call. Kirby was quick to add that he was estimating that decline for his competitors in the Oneworld and Skyteam alliances. His little gang, the Star Alliance, has seen transatlantic fares plunge only about 10 percent, he claimed.

Regardless of Kirby's our-plummet-is-less-than-their-plummet dance, we've known the reality for months. As far back as November, in fact, I was flagging the price declines. We got through a winter where $400 roundtrip fares to the continent have been common. Summer prices--again, at least in coach--are about half of what they've been in recent years.

What's the cause of the coach bounty? Lots of capacity, of course. Relatively cheap oil, which allows airlines to keep the capacity flying at low prices and still make money. A strong dollar, which makes America pricey for European travelers, who choose to vacation elsewhere. That forces the major carriers to trim coach fares further to fill the empty chairs.

But where, you might logically wonder, are the business class discounts across the pond? Why aren't fares up front falling as fast as coach fares--or at all, in some cases? The answer is simple: Big airlines are selling tons of business class seats to Europe without cutting fares. And if people are buying your product, why cut the price?

But what if you are looking for a bargain up front to Europe? At first glance, the landscape is daunting. After all, the three alliances operate more than 75 percent of the available capacity on the North Atlantic. They may dominate an even higher percentage of the premium class seats, too.

But as you can see by the 17-carrier Alt-Europe chart I cobbled together, there is premium class life beyond the 75 percent. Lots of it, in fact.

Norwegian Air Shuttle, for example, has generated reams of publicity for its fast growth and low come-on prices using Boeing 787s and its impending all-coach launch of Boeing 737MAX flights from secondary gateways such as Hartford, Connecticut, and Newburgh in New York's Hudson Valley.

But what people haven't seemed to notice is Norwegian's respectable premium cabin. No, there are no lie-flat beds, but the seats have a commodious 46 inches of legroom. You get meals and lounge access and at-seat power and USB receptacles. The all-in price including checked luggage? About $1,500 to $2,000 roundtrip to key European destinations such as Paris, London and Stockholm.

If you are wary of the start-ups, look to a carrier such as Condor. If the name sounds familiar, that's because Condor was once a charter carrier owned by Lufthansa. (Condor's Web site still looks eerily like Lufthansa's site.) These days, however, Condor specializes in scheduled flights with an all-inclusive business class product that costs less than a third of what the transatlantic majors charge.

Although much of the service is seasonal and doesn't operate daily, Condor now flies nonstop to Frankfurt and Munich from nearly a dozen key U.S. cities, including too-often-ignored gateways such as Pittsburgh, San Diego, Austin, Baltimore and Seattle. The value proposition is compelling, too. For prices as low as $850 each way, Condor is offering a business class with angled-flat seatbeds, 15-inch seatback monitors, full meals, generous checked-bag allowances and lounge access. You even earn Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.

"We're a hybrid of low-cost and traditional airlines," explains Wilken Bellmann, Condor's head of long-haul operations. "We've found our niche and we're happy serving it. We can offer all of what the legacy carriers offer at a lower fare."

Bellman insists the right kind of business travelers--small business owners, independent flyers and younger, more flexible customers--have discovered Condor. "They find us when we have the frequency," he explains. "We've got an aggressive product at a very attractive price and we're focused on underserved markets."

Savvy business travelers can also save serious dough if they find the "fifth freedom" flights operated by some terrific global carriers. They fly from the United States to Europe en route to their home hubs such as Singapore, Dubai or Auckland, New Zealand.

I wrote several years ago about Air New Zealand LAX-London nonstops and it still plies the market at about half the price of British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and the U.S. carriers. Singapore has two transatlantic routes--New York/JFK-Frankfurt and Houston/Intercontinental-Manchester--and it brings its excellent business class product to those markets.

Emirates' two Europe routes--to Milan/Malpensa from JFK and Athens from Newark--are controversial, of course. The U.S. airlines claim Emirates abuses the fifth-freedom process since it has nearly a dozen U.S. nonstops to Dubai. But Emirates can legitimately claim that the Milan and Athens flights continue on to Dubai.

Besides, for passengers, the flights are a boon. Launched in March, the Athens run is the first year-round nonstop to Greece in years and the business class price--as low as $3,000 roundtrip with modest restrictions--is attractive. And while Alitalia and the U.S. legacy carriers fly to Milan, only Emirates has a first class cabin to Italy's fashion and financial capital. In other words, no matter the politics and the gamesmanship and the arcane global aviation rules, Emirates is competing where the U.S. airlines won't.

Meanwhile, it's hard to beat the $1,300 roundtrip business class flights to Paris/CDG currently offered by La Compagnie, the last all-business-class carrier standing. Even when you can't score the French airline's cheapest promotional price, its current "standard" discount fare of $1,800 roundtrip from Newark is about half the major carriers' advance-purchase rate.

"Is it as good as Air France in business class? Of course not," says Kathleen Johnson, a New York-based fashion-marketing consultant who has flown La Compagnie more than a dozen times since its launch almost three years ago. "But it's always inexpensive, real value for money. And at less than two grand roundtrip most of the time, I never have to think before I tell my Paris clients that I'll be there tomorrow."


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