My nearly endless journey to Atlanta is over and I’m happily home for the next week or so. This trip gave me a chance try both Silverjet and Maxjet, which add up to my L’Avion flight from last March, so I’m now able to provide my fellow readers with a short review of how all those all-business airlines fare and why I think they are a great idea, albeit with some reservations.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, all-business airlines are the new kid on the block in the skies: as the name suggests, planes are exclusively business-class, which brings you obvious advantages such as comfy seats, lounge access and priority services and not-so-obvious benefits brought to you by having much fewer people flying, that is minimal boarding time and much shorter waiting at the luggage belt. Last but not least, they do all this at a fraction of regular airline price, so what’s not to love about them?
It’s worth mentioning that I’m not quite the typical business-class traveler. Running a startup means being realistic about travel policies and understanding that splurging on premium flight fares doesn’t quite make sense when it comes to making ends meet. There is nothing wrong, though, in being creative about alternatives, the bottom line being getting the most bang for the buck, all things considered. If you stop at square one, that is lowest possible air fare, you might be in for bad surprises: for one, the lowest deal on regular airlines requires a week-end stay, which in turn means hotel charges and restaurant bills for a start, not to mention wasted time. At roughly 200€/day in expenses alone (very conservative estimate), additional time spent away from home quickly adds up, turning a 700€ sardine-class journey into a 1.500€ affair (which is – what a coincidence – what an airline will shave you for a short stay trip: they can do the math after all). Now guess what? A typical trip on an all-business airline is likely to cost less than that and get you a much better flying experience.
My experience with flying all-business started six months ago, and I already posted a few thoughts about L’Avion, the French airline flying from Paris to New York. I now have more information to share, so let me try to quickly summarize how the three major players stack against each other when it comes to flying the smart way.
Check-in has been fast and effective with all the three airlines, but I have to say that Silverjet is a clear winner here. Nothing can beat their private Luton terminal where you actually don’t even bother with checking in: you dump your bags at curbside, you’re handed a silver ticket that you’re supposed to keep in a visible place, and you’re invited to sit and relax in a beautiful lounge. I was there for the morning flight, and they had an extensive breakfast being served: it took me just the time to grab coffee and nibbles to have a very professional assistant come visit me, grab my passport, and return in five minutes with my boarding pass. Just amazing. Maxjet and L’Avion are both running traditional check-in routines where you have to stand in a line, get to a desk and grab your boarding pass. They are both fast and efficient, but Silverjet has a clear edge here.
All three airlines will provide you with lounge access for your pre-flight routine. L’Avion is using a quite ordinary Orly lounge, with nothing really special about it. When I was traveling (back in March), there was no Newark lounge on my way back, but I understand they opened something as of recent. I already mentioned the excellent Silverjet lounge in Luton (probably the best I’ve been to in all my travels) while the Maxjet reception in JFK, shared with Korean Air and others, is a nice and comfortable place with good food and drink services and very professional staff. I understand that their Stansted lounge is even better, but I can’t comment as I was flying in from New York. From what I saw, Silverjet is the winner again.
Boarding has been smooth both with Silverjet and Maxjet, while I have a few reservations about L’Avion which first made us go through some silly double security procedures (I know airlines have a limited control over this, but still it seems flying from Orly isn’t easy), then boarded us using a way too small van which required lots of roundtrips. Having a much smaller bunch of people boarding, however, makes a lot of difference as operations are smooth, there is lots of room for hand luggage and you’re pushing out from the gate in no time flat.
Needless to say, all airlines provide a nice flying experience with lots of legroom, comfy seats and nice perks. L’Avion is flying the smallest airplane of the pack, a Boing 757-200 on a 2-2 configuration: interior design is nice and new, seats are generous in width and with easy to use controls. While they are not lie-flat, sleep hasn’t been a problem for me. Every seat comes with a regular 110-v power supply, which is great for laptop use. Silverjet offers brand new and modern massaging seats on their 2-2-2 Boeing 767-200, fully electrically powered and angled lie-flat: as an added bonus, seats recline by sliding against a hard shell cocoon, which basically means that legroom is not affected by the guy in front of you reclining his chair, and you don’t have to rest your head a few inches away from the feet of who’s behind you. While seats looked less generous in width compared to others, they all have both a power supply and a reading light, not to mention a lot of room for newspapers and other stuff. I have to say I’m not a huge fan of angled lie-flat though, as I don’t quite like the impression of sliding down, but again I had no problems taking a nap during my day flight to Newark. Maxjet feels a bit like flying in the 80’s as seats are quite old on their 2-2-2 Boeing 767-200, with not as many controls as the other guys and no servo. I sorely missed the power supply, which should be a given nowadays, and a better individual reading light could have helped as the ceiling floodlight from your neighbour is likely to bug your seat as well. I have to say, though, that at the end of the day the seat was very comfortable (possibly the most comfortable, actually) and had me sleep well for most of the journey.
Dining was OK on all flights: L’Avion is understandingly all about French cuisine, apparently with good wine selection (I’m staying away from alcohol when I fly). They run a traditional trolley service which can be slow at times: on my packed-full return flight, meal service took nearly three hours which is quite a bit for a nightly transport. Silverjet is again doing a bit more, by providing a personalized no-trolley service (aisles are always clear) and some above-average food, including some great cheese and a nice cake and tea service. Maxjet is quite ordinary when it comes to in-flight dining: they run a trolley service and they will hand your meal on a tray, which feels a bit like coach. They still seems to be more efficient than the French alternative, even on a full flight, and they offer you the alternative of an express one-course meal if you want to save time for work or sleep.
In-flight entertainment is just the same all over the place: all the three airlines provide you with the (in)famous Dig e-Player, which is a personal player packed full with multimedia content. While choice is fine and extensive enough, I have to say that I would appreciate much more something integrated in the seat rather than having a loose and quite heavy 7" monitor which you need to keep on your lap or tray table, but having said that entertainment is more than enough to keep you busy during flight time.
The icing on the cake of a nice flight is actually about ground services and what happens after you land, especially if you have some time to refresh and/or need to kill a few hours before a connection. L’Avion has nothing to offer here, as lounge access will be explicitely denied upon arrival in Orly. Devil is in the details here: it would take little effort to the French airline to provide customers with a nice added value, but apparently they didn’t bother. Silverjet will happily welcome you on their land-side lounge in Newark, which is definitely inferior when compared to the european counterpart but still nice (I guess there is no problem hanging out in their Luton lounge upon arrival). Maxjet has quite a notable edge here with their "Arrive & Refresh" program which allows you to have breakfast and spa access to the Radisson SAS hotel in Stansted: I was able to have a great shower and some good food before hitting my Italy bound connection. Maxjet should however do something more to inform their customers about this great feature: I read about the service on their website, but I wasn’t given any information while on board. I headed straight to the hotel, where I was confronted with the need for a voucher from the airline: eventually, I was able to break in anyways using my boarding card, but it would be nice if it didn’t take a lot of good will from the hotel staff to access the service.
All things considered, I have to say all-business airlines have been able to find a very interesting niche which appeals to a number of travellers who care about a better flying experience but still are on a budget. This is a category I clearly belong to: in all honesty, I don’t quite care about perks such as dining, entertainment and lounges, as I think that even the most luxurious plane travel is nothing more than glorified camping. I do value having substantial legroom to move about, I care about being able to work and sleep and I love streamlined ground service. Getting all this at a fraction of the cost regular airlines will want to shave you, with a clear and upfront cost structure that doesn’t play fare-jungle safari on you is just great, and I’m eager to see more destinations on the route map. I won’t be suggesting an airline over the other, as all of them provided me with a great and effective flying experience: even though my personal scoreboard lists Silverjet as a winner, closely followed by L’Avion and with Maxjet being last just because of their lack of in-seat power, the difference is not big enough to affect my future decisions. My upcoming travel plans will be mostly based on ticket prices or schedules rather than features, the tie breaker being perks I valued most such as the amazing pre-flight experience of Silverjet. I urge you to give those airlines a shot, though, as they might change the way you think about long-haul flying.