Home The Washington Diplomat July 2010

OpenSkies Is All Business in Its Push To Resurrect Air Luxury

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Flying has lost its luster. Gone is the golden age of air travel when passengers dressed up for the occasion, and a transatlantic flight was an experience and not simply a means to an end. Today, passengers feel more like cattle being herded from one locale to another, often in ever-increasingly cramped accommodations, where anything not nailed down to the seat — from a blanket to a glass of water to perhaps the carryon stowed above your head — will cost you.

Even that slightly roomier seat by the emergency exit is extra now. Of course, the obvious solution is to upgrade to business or first class, but nowadays many business-class fliers are feeling the pinch in the wake of recent corporate belt-tightening. A sample round-trip flight from Washington, D.C., to Paris in early July calculated by Expedia cost upward of $1,800, while upgrading to business class easily tacked on more than $3,000 to the price, for round-trip fares starting at $5,000 — reaching all the way up to $9,000 in some cases depending on trip variations.

Like their private sector counterparts, diplomats and public officials are having a hard time justifying those kinds of expenses to cash-strapped governments back home.

But many people are willing to settle for a happy medium and pay a reasonable amount to avoid being corralled into the economy class circus. From that simple premise emerged OpenSkies, an all-business-class airline that aims to put some of the sheen back into the lackluster experience of 21st-century flying.

A subsidiary of British Airways, OpenSkies was launched in the summer of 2008 with the acquisition of L'Avion, the all-business-class French airline that billed itself as an attractively priced "private jet" experience.

OpenSkies tweaked that concept to offer all the advantages of business class — comfort, service, amenities — but at what the company describes as "competitive rates."

How competitive? Do the math and the value quickly adds up. Remember that $5,000-$9,000 round-trip flight from D.C. to Paris? A flight on OpenSkies at the same timeframe costs roughly $2,000.

If your dates are flexible and you throw in promotional specials, the price differences can be even more staggering. The next obvious question is whether the luxury is comparable to major airlines, and on that front OpenSkies delivers as well.

The company operates a fleet of four redesigned Boeing 757s that have been divided into two cabins — the "Biz Bed" section featuring lie-flat beds and a compartment of "Biz Seats" with a roomy 140-degree recline. Flights carry a maximum of 84 passengers, and a two-by-two seat configuration with no middle seats ensures that everyone receives either window or aisle seating. Also included are the expected business perks — from personal entertainment systems, to business-class lounge access, to upscale meals.

The only major downside is that current routes are limited, with OpenSkies operating daily flights out of New York (from Newark Liberty International Airport) to Paris, and vice versa, seven days a week.

The bright side is that the company just opened up a brand new D.C. route in May, giving Washingtonians the chance to try out this unique business model — along with the opportunity to take an affordable jaunt to Paris in the summertime.

Even the final destination for U.S. passengers — the City of Lights — conjures romanticized images of transatlantic flying. But again, the OpenSkies strategy is to balance high-end comfort with practical convenience. So flights land and originate at Paris-Orly Airport, which, unlike the much larger Charles de Gaulle Airport, offers quicker and easier access to the main parts of Paris. Exclusive fast-tracking for OpenSkies passengers at Orly also speeds up the check-in process immensely.

So what's the catch? There isn't any except that of course OpenSkies is still testing the waters in a turbulent industry — and economy. On the flip side, the recession could be an advantage to the airline by attracting folks reluctant to downgrade to economy but equally reluctant to fork over several thousand dollars for business upgrades.

And that was exactly the theory Dale Moss, OpenSkies chief executive officer, was operating on when he began thinking about the project back in March 2007. He'd been tasked by British Airways to come up with a direct U.S.-European service that could be profitable and capitalize on the recently passed EU-U.S. Open Skies agreement, which allows airlines to fly between any U.S. and EU city, without any restrictions on pricing or capacity.

Convinced by the potential of providing "a very exclusive product at a non-exclusive price," he took his idea for OpenSkies to British Airways in July of that year, and won final approval and funding in December 2007.

Moss spoke to The Washington Diplomat a day before OpenSkies's official two-year birthday, reiterating his optimism that the fundamental promise of quality air travel for less will resonant with passengers.

Part of that quality, he said, lies in sheer size, pointing out that when an airline with 100,000 or more employees receives a complaint from a single customer who has a bad experience, "they probably don't care because they know they're not going to go down the tubes."

"The difference is we do care ... because we are small and still at such a fragile, critical stage," he said of OpenSkies, which has just shy of 200 employees. "We're just too small to have a bad day. We count on everyone working together as a team."

So far the teamwork seems to be paying off. Moss cited a recent customer survey asking 3,000 passengers if they would recommend OpenSkies to their friends and family. The response? "I guessed 70 percent," Moss said. In fact, it was a "shockingly high" 97 percent. "These are numbers we are not making up," Moss told us. "Customers say they love the warmth and personal attention."

At the same time, he insisted that the company wouldn't rest on its laurels, explaining that one of the main goals is "to make sure we don't read all the good press about us — that we remain as hungry as we were a year ago, two years ago."

But press is also crucial to Moss's other goal of getting the word out about OpenSkies. "The most important thing is to establish our brand as a company that offers more products for a better price," he said. After all, what good is having a great product if no one knows about it?

In addition to publicizing its New York and D.C. routes to Paris, Moss said the company is actively considering expansion plans, with a route selection committee currently reviewing 20 key business destinations. He declined to identify which cities are being considered because a final decision hasn't been made, although he did say the company could pick a city by late summer and launch the route by late fall or early winter.

For now though, the immediate focus is on ensuring the success of the New York and D.C. routes, and future growth will in part hinge on how the Washington debut fares.

But already the company has enjoyed a solid track record with the New York route since its inception two years ago, carrying more than 155,000 passengers from June 2008 to May 2010 and grabbing nearly 30 percent of the premium market share between New York and Paris in 2009.

That success led OpenSkies to expand its presence to the nation's capital — which Moss said had always been mentioned in the initial plans (along with Boston) — and so far, the airline seems to be getting a warm reception from Washingtonians. According to the company's communications representatives, D.C. bookings are already exceeding expectations, and OpenSkies anticipates the route to be profitable by the end of the second year of operation.

That sense of optimism was on full display as passengers toasted the airline's inaugural D.C. voyage with champagne and cake at Dulles International Airport on May 3. "This maiden flight is a strong symbol for the company," said Moss, who cut the red ribbon at the gate before the first batch of passengers boarded. "This is an important step forward, confirming our position as an innovative and flexible airline."

Your humble Diplomat reporter was on hand for the maiden trek to Paris, forced to test out the business-class amenities for the sake of journalism. And the experience didn't disappoint — offering a smooth, refined ride that becomes all the more pleasurable when you remember how much it costs.

The cabin is spacious, service is attentive yet unobtrusive, and the ambience is pleasant. In fact, what stands out is how uniform the flight experience is, regardless if you have a business seat or the upgraded "biz bed." The beds of course lie completely flat, which is a necessity for some passengers on long-haul flights, but the regular seats recline nearly as far, and other than slightly different menus, there's little distinction between the "biz seat" and "biz bed" portions of the plane.

That may or may not be good news for the company since there is a price difference between the two, but it's great news for cost-conscious consumers.

And all the business-class basics are on hand in both sections of the plane. The only complaint would be that the touch-screen entertainments systems are a bit fussy, but otherwise OpenSkies does a commendable job of paying attention to the details. For instance, it sets the mood with elegant black-and-white photographs of Paris, as well as a gourmet menu designed by French culinary master Michel Richard — a nice local touch given Richard's revered status on the D.C. dining scene.

Among the French-inspired dishes are duck breast with port cinnamon dressing, Michel's twist on fried chicken featuring wholegrain mustard remoulade and parsnip puree, and the chef's signature chocolate bar with butterscotch sauce.

"Partnering with OpenSkies is a match made in heaven," said the acclaimed restaurateur behind Citronelle and Central Michel Richard. "I'm excited for passengers to experience my food up in the air."

But overall, the question of financial viability — let alone profitability — remains very much up in the air in such a bumpy market. Many high-end boutique airline brands went bust when the economy tanked in late 2008, and today the industry watchwords are low-cost and no-frills. But CEO Moss is confident that the OpenSkies idea of affordable luxury will take off with passengers.

He admitted though that one of the first questions he's asked is why he decided to start a boutique airline in the midst of a recession. He's quick to point out that he actually began the project in 2007, before the financial crisis hit, and regardless, he believes the OpenSkies vision will withstand the current economic pounding, and may even benefit from it.

"I believe that conceptually there's an opportunity to provide business-class travelers, [whether corporate or leisure ], with an alternative to $5,000, $6,000, $7,000, $8,000, $9,000, $10,000, even $11,000 ticket prices," he said, comparing the thinking with bargain shopping at a local grocery store. "If you knew there was a product out there that was not only just as good but even better, that cost 50, 60, 70 percent less, it's hard for me to think that you wouldn't at least try it out."

To try out OpenSkies, you can visit their website at www.flyopenskies.com or call (866) 581 3596.


About the Author

Anna Gawel is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and news columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.

Last Edited on July 1, 2014