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Class conscious: join the herd

Business class is big — so big, it's taking over the plane.
/ Source: Forbes

Business class is big — so big, it's taking over the plane.

In late 2005, two new air carriers, MAXjet and Eos Airlines, launched all-business-class service from New York to London, one of the busiest and most profitable routes in commercial aviation.

MAXjet and Eos offer very different products — the former, more modest; the latter, pricey and accordingly pampering. But besides their business class billing, they have one big thing in common: They aren't really business class, because they don't have coach class.

Let's be honest. Part of the point of premium travel is that you are a step up from your fellow passengers. Sure, you're eating airplane food, but you're eating several restaurant-quality courses served with china and silver on a linen tablecloth, while everyone else is struggling with their sporks. And yes, you may be sleeping in a glorified chair, but at least your seat reclines and your footrest extends so your body is horizontal. At the gate, while other customers swill vending-machine Coke and sit on polyester chairs, you sip Champagne in the airport lounge. Best of all, you board and disembark well before your coach-class counterparts.

Not so when business class takes up the whole bird.

You may get many business class perks, but priority boarding isn't one of them. Neither is better service than the rest of the plane.

MAXjet is targeted at a coach customer looking to upgrade for a discount. Its planes, second-hand Boeing 767s, are configured to seat 102 passengers but carry only eight to ten crew members, a service ratio that isn't much better than what you'd get in coach.

Seats enjoy lots of legroom but recline only 160 degrees, as opposed to the flat 180 of premium business class services. MAXjet's personal digEplayers, in-flight entertainment devices with on-demand programming, are not distributed until well after take-off. The dining options are certainly competitive with other commercial business class products, though, and so is the price: Round-trip fares start at just $1,500.

Eos takes a snobbier approach. The company likens its product to a corporate jet, and the motto is: "First class service. Business class prices." The planes are 757s and configured with only 48 seats, called "suites," each totaling 21 square feet, with 78-inch-long lie-flat beds. Amenities include cashmere blankets (to MAXjets' fleece), electrical outlets in each suite (a feature MAXjet doesn't have but says is coming), and an on-demand entertainment player similar to MAXjet's. There are six flight attendants on each Eos flight — a typical business class service ratio — and round-trip tickets start at $2,950.

Sounds good so far. But an example from a recent MAXjet flight illustrates the problem. Over an hour into the flight, we'd heard the safety instructions and stretched back in our seats, taken advantage of the leg room and received our digEplayers. But we hadn't eaten dinner. The harried flight attendant pushing the drinks cart promised it was on the way, but we were starving — and beginning to feel like undifferentiated passengers traveling the airline's standard class. Then it occurred to us ... we were.

On normal business class service from New York to London, the cabin crew serves dinner immediately so passengers can sleep for as long as possible. MAXjet's menu contains this asterisked note: "If you would like to maximize rest or work time while on board, MAXjet is pleased to offer our Express Meal service ... Should you wish for an Express Meal, please advise your flight attendant." Eos' Web site says a similar service is available: Guests can "choose our express dinner, with everything served together so you can get to sleep more quickly."

But if you're really flying business class, should you have to wait around for service that would otherwise be standard? Maybe it's because everyone else on board, like us, is flying "business class" too.

When contacted for comment, Gary Rogliano, chief executive of MAXjet, said our late dinner time was "a delay."

"Drinks are supposed to get there within the first 15 minutes after reaching 10,000 feet, and everyone should have their meal in front of them within an hour," he says. And the Express Meal service, a cold plate that allows you to eat and fall asleep within 15 minutes, is an additional convenience for passengers, he said.

David Spurlock, founder and chief of strategy of Eos Airlines, pointed out that his passengers have the benefit of multi-course hot meal service in the airport lounge. On the plane, Spurlock says, the Express Meal — a salad-based dish served with hot shrimp or meat — comes at the same time that the full meal service, with individual courses, begins. It just takes less time to eat.

For the sake of comparison, British Airways' Club World (business class) service for the early-evening New York-to-London route also offers the option of a pre-flight lounge supper. Once on board, the express meal option is served 30 minutes after takeoff, while a full-menu dinner is available about 60 minutes after takeoff.

Meal-time semantics aside, the all-business-class sector seems to be getting first class treatment from passengers. Both MAXjet and Eos report growing load factors. MAXjet has announced it will launch a third route, departing from Las Vegas (in addition to its New York and Washington, D.C., departures) this November, and Eos said in July it would respond to demand by introducing a second daily flight between New York and London. Meanwhile, plans have been announced for a third all-business-class carrier, Silverjet, which will begin service within the next several months between Newark Airport (in Newark, N.J.) and Luton Airport (north of London), with round-trip fares averaging $1,900.

We're just not sure we want to fly it — unless, that is, they decide to add coach.