Open Skies airline lays on the luxury, affordably

Written by admin on October 29, 2008 – 1:15 pm -

British Airways has just introduced Open Skies that originates from JFK airport in the US and doesn’t treat its passengers as cargo. Currently, the price of a prems+ ticket (business class) costs the same as coach on most competing airlines. My Open Skies experience was eye-opening.

Coach travel to Europe lacks any hint of romance these days. There’s the opportunity to be stuck in the the middle of a five seat configuration. Even with an aisle seat there is little comfort. Most meals served in coach have little resemblance to real food — akin to what military music is to music. To add insult to injury for a trip to France, if you’re on a US carrier, be prepared to fork over $5 or $6 dollars for a tiny bottle of not very good wine.

When I was asked to fly Open Skies, I wanted to experience what I had been reading about in the travel business press. These flights between JFK in New York and Paris began on June 19th. On October 15th Open Skies launched their New York-to-Amsterdam route. Additional routes are planned for 2009.

To begin with, the 64-seat flight from Kennedy lands at Orly airport outside of Paris, not Charles De Gaulle. That makes it much closer to where I live in Paris, only a quick local rail ride away. From the moment I entered the Open Skies lounge, I felt like a princess. It was the same sensation I had when I was young and had to dress up — that meant wearing white cotton gloves and black patent Mary Janes — to fly between Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.

Everything in those days was so glamorous, including the stewardesses. The food was wonderful and I stayed up the entire night fantasizing about joining their ranks or becoming a ballerina. I guess I’m dating myself, but I was dazzled and remembered the excitement and glamor of travel the way it used to be.

Upon arriving at JFK and checking in, I went to the BA/Open Skies lounge. This is where the Open Skies enchantment began. Unfortunately, unless passengers have a BA frequent flier gold or silver card, they won’t have access to the lounge at Kennedy. Nor can they buy their way in with a day pass.

Spending time in lounges is nothing new to me. But being greeted by smiling personnel who don’t act as if they are doing me a favor is rare in US airports. I found a place in the enormous sun-filled lounge and immediately morphed into a vacation mode. Instead of letting myself get stressed, I passed on the free WiFi and headed for the Elemis Travel Spa for a 15-minute treatment.

Feeling supremely relaxed, I ordered a glass of champagne. The waiter presented me with a flute of Charles Heidseick Brut Réserve and tea sandwiches.

They offer a complimentary first-rate buffet for passengers who like to eat before boarding flights so they can immediately go to sleep. When I asked the man at the serving station if he had actually cooked this, he told me he had. I believe him because it tasted homemade. I was planning to eat on the flight, but went ahead and sampled the mushroom soup; I figure Michelin would give it at least a star.

I was able to steal a few minutes with Chris Vukelich, an executive with Open Skies, for few minutes of insider talk. Chris explained the business model was to diminish the complexity in flying. “We’re a point-to-point airline. If you change airlines, it’s up to you to transport your suitcases.” What I understand from that is Open Skies wants to put its energy and resources into the passengers’ comfort on the flight, not into logistics.

The Open Skies plan is to make travelers feel the trip itself is part of the experience and not a means of getting from here to there. Its business class has only 24 seats and all recline 180 degrees. The head-to-toe beds, separated by collapsible fabric fans, enable people to have privacy or, if they prefer, share a bottle of wine. There’s a sense of tranquility throughout the flight that’s echoed in the plane’s interior design from the navy uniforms the flight crew wears, to the presentation of the food.

In both Biz Class and prem+ (business class comfort without the business class cost, but including taupe leather seats with a 52” pitch) all seats have multi-standard electrical plugs. The menu selections in both are very good and there are nice touches one wouldn’t expect. For example, there is never a plastic cup or anything less than bottles of wine or champagne.

Business class is heaven for people who want to sleep on their way across the Atlantic, but there are a couple of glitches. Not being mechanically minded, I couldn’t figure out how to make my seat fully recline and wished there had been more comprehensive instructions. But not to worry, since there’s always help on the way. Christophe, who’d been a head purser with Air France before coming to Open Skies, was in charge of me. He made the seat into a bed within seconds and then wrapped me in a duvet cover with white, high-count cotton thread. I also had a choice of about 150 movies and other channels.

The best thing about the flight was the personnel. They were gracious and accommodating. All of them had been employees of MaxJet or Eos Airlines — the all business-class airlines that would frequently be chartered by the rich and famous and, perhaps, the spoiled.

I look forward to my next Open Skies flight. There’s only one time when I won’t fly with them and that’s when I’m traveling with Kitty, the jet-setting pussycat. Even though she has an EU passport and thinks nothing of flying, Open Skies won’t allow her to become a frequent flier. They’re owned by BA, and it’s against their rules and regulations. When Kitty accompanies me, we’re going to be forced to find another airline.

Even an airline as good as this has a little room for improvement, and I hope they figure out a way to make their lounge open to all their passengers. Even for a fee for a day pass, it would be a terrific deal—and an incredible service for travelers who want to begin their trips feeling relaxed.

At Orly airport in Paris, there’s a shared departure lounge, courtesy of Icare, accessible to all Open Skies passengers. You can’t compare it to the Open Skies Biz class lounge in New York, but you can get a coffee, tea or a drink and enough to eat to hold you over until the departure hour.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis

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