Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

My PREM+ seat 12F AMS/JFK.
PREM+ is the OpenSkies ECONOMY cabin!


The Future Of International Business Class Has Arrived

British Airways has launched a new 2-class airline called OpenSkies that flies from New York JFK Airport to Paris Orly Airport and, starting last week, from JFK to Amsterdam. Last week I flew as the guest of OpenSkies on their inaugural flight from JFK to Amsterdam and then back to New York the next day.

Regular readers know I don’t pull any punches when it comes to criticism, and I won’t here, despite getting a free ride. The OpenSkies service experience had some bumps and wrinkles that I will discuss, but overall I was extremely pleased and satisfied.

In brief, I think OpenSkies has broken the code on what international business travelers want and need between the USA and Europe, and they offer it at a price that will satisfy even the strictest and stingiest corporate travel departments. It is in fact an extraordinary value in the OpenSkies rear cabin, called PREM+, which I describe and laud below.

I intend to write about the experience in detail over several blog entries, but I wanted to get on record quickly here with highlights of my two OpenSkies flights Wednesday, 15-Oct-08, JFK/AMS, and Thursday, 16-Oct-08 AMS/JFK.

OpenSkies is wholly-owned by BA, but it flies on its own certificated authority and operates as its own profit center. It flies 757 aircraft with just 64 seats on board configured in two classes of service. One class of service, the one up front (BIZ), is a familiar business class offering, but the back cabin (PREM+) defies conventional description and is, in my opinion, a revolution that could lure business class passengers away from other carriers’ economy AND business classes.

I arrived JFK Terminal 7 (British Airways terminal) very early at 1:45 PM for my 8:05 PM departure after driving in from Pennsylvania. I was happily surprised to be directed to the old Concorde/First Class check-in area (nice digs) to wait, but I was told that no OpenSkies staff would be on hand until 2:30-3:00 PM.

OpenSkies staff opened up early, and I checked in quickly and was given an invitation to the BA Terraces Business Class Lounge.

I was through security and in the Terraces Lounge by 3:00 PM. There I familiarized myself with the myriad of services, including pre-flight full meals (a good option), a very well-supplied, self-service bar, and even an in-lounge spa. Free wireless made my wait pass quickly as I worked at my laptop for several hours.

Boarding began about 7:30 PM, and the door was closed and the plane ready for pushback well before our 8:05 PM departure time. I was walking around the cabin when we began to move from the gate, and I was glad not to have anyone scolding me for it. I returned to my bulkhead seat in the very first row.

BIZ Means Business!

The front cabin, called BIZ, consists of 24 standard British Airways business class lie-flat seats in a 2-2 configuration. You know, the ones that are staggered like sardines in a can, so that the window seats face backward while the aisle seats face forward.

BIZ is quite comfortable, and the service is highly attentive and personalized—and in the opinion of at least one BA regular, far more personalized than in BA 747 and 777 Business. Here’s how the OpenSkies website describes the BIZ cabin:

- 24 seats that convert into 6-foot long, 180° flatbeds
- 73" of legroom
- A seat width of 20"
- One attendant per twelve customers ensures individualised service
- A universal power plug-in for your computer and personal electronics
- Personal entertainment system with over 50 hours of audio and video
- A la carte meals and wine service inspired by top chefs

All true, and all good on my flight, except the meal’s main course. “Inspired by top chefs” I don’t doubt, but by the time my rack of lamb and my seatmate’s wild mushroom risotto landed on our tray tables, both were dry and tasteless. Execution squelched inspiration somewhere along the value chain from the top chefs' kitchens to the 757 galley.

(In fairness to the OpenSkies offering, the main meals were as well done as any other airline’s in business class or even in first class. Let’s face it: Cooked, hot meals at 37,000 feet are nigh impossible to get right. Even on Singapore Airlines I usually fill up on cold appetizers like caviar and smoked salmon, and then I order a non-cooked entrée or skip it altogether.)

Wines on our OpenSkies flight, on the other hand, were delicious. I especially liked the Charles Heidsieck non-vintage brut Champagne. Unlike now-defunct EOS, OpenSkies served all wines in proper glasses (real glass, not EOS’s déclassé plastic), a civilized touch that did not go unnoticed (identical glassware was also used in the back cabin).

BIZ bed-seats were indeed lie-flat, as anyone exposed to the now familiar BA business class seat will appreciate. The seat design is well-known to have compromised storage space and width for length and lie-flatness, and it’s not for everyone. I asked for a window seat, which is difficult to get in to and out of on any airplane utilizing these seats, in order to test the comfort.

An aisle seat would have been far preferable, as getting up and down from the aisle doesn’t disturb one’s neighbor. Unless one has been trained as a ballet dancer in nimble leaps and graceful prances, the BIZ window seats are impossible to access and exit from without considerable cooperation from one’s next-row-back aisle neighbor.

This has nothing whatever to do with OpenSkies, of course. It is just the nature of the BA business class seat design, which I have never myself liked. Nonetheless, I slept well for a short spell over the Atlantic in seat 1F, and the BA seats on OpenSkies’ 757 were less uncomfortable than those I’ve encountered on BA widebody airplanes.

OpenSkies management has hinted that it might replace the BA seats in the BIZ cabin at some future date with a next generation design, and I would personally welcome that change if and when it comes to pass. Until then I will specify aisle seats on future BIZ class OpenSkies flights.

I enjoyed the self-contained entertainment unit, distributed by on-board staff after takeoff and collected prior to landing, and I successfully tried out the universal powerplug for my laptop, too.

The real difference, and benefit, in OpenSkies BIZ class, compared to most legacy airlines business class, is its small, intimate cabin (just 20 seats) and the highly attentive service. Harkening back to the more refined and almost forgotten era of trans-Atlantic flying in the 1960s and 1970s, OpenSkies BIZ service has the warm feel of the original British Airways first class cabins aboard its first jet generation 707s.

And all this for as little as $3532 round trip (plus tax) JFK/AMS—a bargain compared to legacy carrier business fares.

Another important OpenSkies BIZ class benefit is complimentary access to BA lounges at both ends.

I’ll say more about the BIZ cabin and service on board in a future post, but for now I want to cover the most exciting new concept in international air service I’ve encountered in decades:

OpenSkies Back Cabin – Business Class Masquerading As Economy

“Sensational” is not a word I use often to describe anything, let alone any airline‘s products and services. I didn’t even use it in my post about flying four First Class segments on Emirates, which might be the best airline flying these days. But I think OpenSkies’ new PREM+ Class is sensational, and I’m telling everyone I know about it.

My first thought on walking back to the PREM+ cabin was: This can’t be economy! There are just 40 seats back there, and they are in a 2-2 configuration just like in the BIZ class front cabin. The PREM+ class of service makes OpenSkies my top choice to Europe now that I’ve experienced it and know what it costs.

It’s all about the seat and the space. There is simply no antecedent to the OpenSkies PREM+ cabin, nothing to compare it to within the familiar international economy range of service. It’s best described like this:

PREM+ is a last generation international business class seat—which basically means it is not a new generation lie-flat seat—with lots of privacy and comfort. The seat and foot rest recline and stretch out so you can easily rest and sleep in comfort. In fact the seats are an inch wider than the BIZ class seats, though they seem even wider than that. Here’s how the OpenSkies website describes the PREM+ cabin and seats:

- More legroom for your comfort
- A seat width of 20.6"
- 40 seats
- A universal power plug-in for computer and personal electronics
- Personal entertainment system with over 50 hours of audio and video

In my opinion there is very little difference in comfort between the front (BIZ) and back (PREM+) cabins. Importantly, however, there is a VAST difference in privacy: The 40 PREM+ seats provide a greater sense of space and privacy than the pricier BIZ cabin seats.

That’s because PREM+ seats are spaced out front-to-back with lots of pitch to enable the seats to recline to their full extent (not lie-flat, but at a steep, comfortable angle for resting and sleeping nonetheless), whereas the BIZ seats are laid out in the sardines-in-a-can alternating head-to-toe configuration which can't help but give customers seated therein a cramped, claustrophobic feeling. Thus the PREM+ seats, requiring as they do a lot of room between each row to recline, and being laid out side-by-side in the traditional forward-facing configuration, feel very spacious and private.

It’s ironic that the cheaper PREM+ back cabin would be my hands-down preference even if the fares of both classes were equal. The overall PREM+ seat space, privacy, and comfort give PREM+ the edge.

Even better, PREM+ is priced at about the same level as most airlines’ full fare economy, or even a little less if you watch for sales: JFK/AMS in PREM+ is currently selling for US$998–US$3700 round trip (plus tax). That’s why I contend that PREM+ will attract a lot of custom once the word gets around of its comfort and value-for-money. I would not be surprised to see the PREM+ cabin selling out on every flight.

See for yourself what the PREM+ cabin looks like in the two pictures I took last week which appear at the top of this post. I'll bet you thought that was the BIZ cabin when you first saw the photos. Nope, it's PREM+, the so-called economy class on OpenSkies.

Keep in mind that my seat as pictured is NOT fully reclined. I slept better and longer on the AMS/JFK flight in this PREM+ seat than I did in the fancier, more expensive BIZ seat going eastbound over the pond.

A bit more about my PREM+ observations en route home:

The wine selections were identical to the BIZ cabin, and all the ones I tried were good to very good. The PREM+ meals did not reach for the same heights as in BIZ and thus did not have as far to fall. They were forgettable, though the smoked salmon appetizer was scrumptious, and the mid-flight tiny ham-and-cheese sandwiches were very tasty (I had two). The PREM+ cabin crew was every bit as attentive and friendly as the one in BIZ, and I wanted for nothing the entire flight.

I eschewed the self-contained entertainment unit proffered to me after takeoff in favor of working at my laptop and napping. I was pleased to find the individual powerplug at my seat worked perfectly.

Unhappily, the BIZ class benefit of complimentary BA Lounge access is not at present extended to PREM+ passengers. However, I was told lounge privileges for PREM+ are under consideration, so this might become an option or simply be embedded into the PREM+ fare structures. I hope so. International lounge access is part of the seamless business class travel experience and a necessity these days for business travelers going overseas.

Both classes of OpenSkies fliers can earn BA Executive Club points if they are enrolled, a considerable perk given the value of the BA program. Oneworld partners cannot earn miles in their own programs such as AAdvantage.

There’s a lot more I could write about the OpenSkies experience, and I will in future posts. For now, though, I wanted readers to know that I highly recommend OpenSkies in both classes, but I am especially enthusiastic about the PREM+ class of seats in the back cabin. Try it, and you’ll be hooked, like I now am.


Blogger hulananni said...

Test of blogger....hulananni

10/23/2008 7:22 PM  
Blogger hulananni said...

Test of blogger for Will Allen

10/23/2008 7:23 PM  
Blogger hulananni said...

If I could only dream up a reason to go to Europe...I'd be there tomorrow on this aircraft. Looks and sounds like a wonderful way to when will it take off from Hawaii?

10/23/2008 9:07 PM  

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