EBACE Convention News

Airlines wake up to bizav’s best secrets

 - November 30, 2006, 6:15 AM

The airline industry has finally realized that business aviation is a best kept secret and has recently been maneuvering to offer its passengers a piece of the action. A number of leading European flagcarriers–Lufthansa, KLM and Swiss International Air Lines–now provide scheduled services with long-range Airbus A319 LRs and Boeing Business Jets (BBJs), all flown on their behalf by Swiss executive aviation provider PrivatAir.

All three airlines are leasing the aircraft from PrivatAir on an ACMI (aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance) wet-lease basis. Aircraft are painted in PrivatAir colors and the crews wear PrivatAir uniforms, but the respective airlines are responsible for marketing the service and providing its own business-class product, including catering and in-flight entertainment. “Cabin crews are trained to our service and safety standards,” said Paul de Salis, PrivatAir’s v-p of Private Airline Services, “but the airlines provide some additional instruction to match their own onboard service.

“It really is a partnership,” he added, “combining our operational capacity and widely recognized expertise in VIP travel with the marketing and commercial acumen of the mainline carrier.” It was PrivatAir’s reputation and experience in operating and managing some 50 aircraft in the business sector, as well as its neutrality and discretion that made it a natural choice for what has been described as “a brave experiment” but is now, according to de Salis, “much more like a mainline product.”

Clearly, it would have been prohibitively costly for the three airlines to invest in separate management and crew, which would have been necessary to fit single BBJs or A319s into their fleets. “To operate the service with our own aircraft would have been too expensive,” confirmed Steffen Niesel, head of Business Jet Services at Lufthansa.

In June 2002, the German flagcarrier introduced what it claims was the world’s first intercontinental all-business class service, operating daily between Dusseldorf and New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International. Since then it has added Chicago from Dusseldorf, offering a five-times-a-week schedule between the industrial Rhein-Ruhr area and a major conurbation and financial center in the U.S., both flown by A319 LRs. A link to Newark from its second hub in Munich is operated on a six-days-a-week frequency with a BBJ.

Swiss International Air Lines followed Lufthansa, now its major shareholder, with its own service between Zurich and Newark, flown since Jan. 16, 2005, with a 56-seat Boeing BBJ2, an extended-range version based on the 737-800. The cabin is fitted with lie-flat seats with generous 60-inch legroom. Frequency is six flights a week, except on Saturdays. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines started an Amsterdam-Houston connection with a high-gross weight BBJ (737-700 IGW) on Oct. 30, 2005, also six times a week. The BBJ is configured for 44 passengers.

So what distinguishes these services from a normal two-class service in a mainline aircraft? Niesel explained that the 48-seat cabin with lie-flat beds and enhanced in-flight entertainment system provides a “very personal atmosphere, which, combined with fast custom clearance and boarding, creates a stress-free travel experience.”

Another significant advantage is that the business class travelers have the aircraft to themselves, at the same price that would have to be paid in a two-class and three-class aircraft. Could this eventually lead to a complete segregation of economy flights from the high-value segment? This is a subject now being seriously discussed by some of the major airlines, according to research by EBACE Convention News–although none of the carriers concerned would publicly acknowledge this.

Both Lufthansa and PrivatAir insist that all services out of Frankfurt and Munich have proven to be very successful, although neither is prepared to put hard figures to this assertion. However, Niesel confirmed that Lufthansa is looking to introduce this concept on other routes, not necessarily across the Atlantic, but it is not ready to make an announcement. De Salis said other major carriers have expressed interest in a similar offering and he hopes some will come on board before the end of the year. Swiss has been carrying 40 percent more business passengers since introducing its service.

KLM is similarly enthusiastic, but is also somewhat coy in revealing a specific measurement of success, saying only that its experience is one of high customer satisfaction and that the average load factor “is in the high 80 percent” range. In spite of the service proving very promising, KLM spokesman Bart Koster said it is “too early to draw a definitive conclusion,” adding that the airline has given itself a year before deciding whether or not to continue offering this service to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, or extending it to other routes.

Lufthansa has taken the business-class concept one step further with the introduction of the Lufthansa Private Jet service just over a year ago in March 2005, flown on its behalf by fractional ownership provider NetJets Europe with Cessna Citation Excels and Bravos. Offered initially at Munich to provide premium passengers on long-haul flights with seamless connections by private jet to destinations in Europe, it proved immediately successful, encouraging the airline to extend the service to Frankfurt in June that same year. “With Private Jet, Lufthansa continues its differentiation strategy and rounds off its portfolio in the high-value segment,” is how Lufthansa chief executive Wolfgang Mayrhuber explained the demand for this exclusive service.

Lufthansa points to several advantages that can be enjoyed by the traveler: a single e-ticket covering the private jet and airliner flights, as well as check-in and baggage handling through to the final destination; short-notice advance booking (the 24-hour deadline has been scrapped); transfer to the private jet by limousine; and an all-inclusive package price. Additionally, Lufthansa has also dropped the previous €100 charge for additional passengers. The cost of the service is grouped into tariff zones. For example,a Frankfurt-Lugano trip costs €4,550 ($5,460). Services are available throughout Europe and to selected destinations in the Middle East, north Africa and Ukraine. Lufthansa is planning to extend the service to Russia.

One year later, and with up to 10 bookings daily, this unique service has far exceeded expectations. According to Lufthansa, more than half its customers have booked for a second time and interest is increasing. “Demand has emerged for future use of private jet services operating to Lufthansa standards in the U.S., Middle East and Asia,” remarked Lufthansa executive vice president of marketing and sales Thierry Antinori. “Expansion of the product to those markets is now being considered.” Bookings are now also being offered on NetJets’ Raytheon Hawker 800XP and Dassault Falcon 2000, both of which have greater range. The Falcon 2000 can also seat up to 10 passengers and will be provided with a flight attendant.

New Premium-Rate Airlines

Europe has clearly taken the lead in lifting transatlantic business travel to a new level, but Eos Airlines claims to be “the first single-class, premium transatlantic airline.” The U.S. company probably has a point in that rather than experimenting with a single aircraft wet-lease operation–like Lufthansa, KLM and Swiss–Eos has embarked on a risky strategy of building a fleet of its own for an all-business-class service.

The operator’s three Boeing 757-200s all feature 48 seats in a suite arrangement with seats that fully recline into six-foot flat beds. Each suite is located adjacent to a window and includes a second companion seat that allows travelers to meet, work and dine together. Eos inaugurated its service between New York JFK International and London Stansted October 25 last year and now offers a twice-daily service between the two cities.

The same route is flown in direct competition by another private airline, MAXjet Airways, which started its flights last November 1, and has since added a link to London from Washington, D.C. MAXjet differentiates itself as a low-fare airline, with a cabin environment that is not quite up to the high levels offered by the competition. Its two Boeing 767-200s are configured with 102 leather seats with a “deep” recline and 60-inch seat pitch. But with a fully flexible and unrestricted roundtrip fare of $3,500, compared to the $6,500 for a ticket bought in the U.S. offered by Eos, price may be a deciding factor. MAXjet claims seat load factors in the high 80-percent range.

The all-business-class concept initiated and successfully operated by Lufthansa since 2002 has created its own momentum. Apart from those airlines that have already taken up the challenge, several more–like France’s Elysair and Premiumair, intending to link Paris Orly to Newark and JFK, respectively–are waiting in the wings. With the availability of long-range private business jets and a growing number of dedicated all-business-class airline services across the North Atlantic, the affluent and discerning traveler now has more choice than ever before.