New Breed of Airlines Offer Luxury at Bargain Prices
By Sascha Brodsky
I decided Silverjet was the better way to fly when they started wheeling the chocolate cake down the aisle. I’m usually the economy class type and in my experience snack time means little dehydrated packs of cookies. The cake was whole as if it had been baked by a team of Silverjet grandmothers and was served on china with a generous dollop of double cream.
I settled down in my seat with a happy sigh but then realized it wasn’t the cake that made the whole experience different; it was the silence. Half the stress of travel comes from being packed in with the hordes of passengers boarding and banging around. Only 100 passengers ride on each Silverjet flight and it’s all business class.
Best of all, all of these amenities come at a fraction of the price of other airlines’ business class fares. Silverjet’s airfares vary by date but a recent online search found a roundtrip fare for about $2,000. A British Airways business class ticket for the same dates I priced at nearly $8,000. Silverjet is competing head to head for business class passengers but in actual fact I would rate the Silverjet experience more akin to a first class flight.
Silverjet is among several new airlines offering this first class experience at less than business class prices. Competitors include EOS and L’Avion, a French carrier with all business class service.
Boutique airlines like Silverjet using the “more for less” model are a small but fast-growing segment of the airline industry, said travel industry consultant Roger Marin.
“Customers are growing weary of the degradation of economy class service but at the same time they aren’t going to pony up for full fare first class,” he said.
While Silverjet’s price tag may be low, the start of the trip certainly feels first class. At Newark airport, Silverjet has its own plush lounge. Passengers can check in as late as 30 minutes before departure instead of the usual two hours at competing airlines. Standing in line is for plebeians, it seems. A smiling agent took my passport and ushered me toward a buffet table laden with fine teas and tasty sandwiches. Meanwhile, the agent checked me in and brought me back our passports.
The pampering continued once onboard and ensconced in comfy leather seats. The seats are wrap-around cocoon-like affairs that give some semblance of privacy and turn into fully flat beds once you figure out how to use the cryptic control panel.
There are only 100 seats onboard and they turn into fully flat beds. The inside of the plane looked clean and just after takeoff a flight attendant delivered a personal audio/video console to the seat, along with champagne.
Like some of the new boutique hotels, Silverjet goes to great efforts to give the airline a sleek and efficient but luxurious feeling. The experience starts with the company’s slickly designed Web site (flysilverjet.com). Another cutting edge feature is its ecologically friendly initiative that makes it what company reps refer to as the world’s first carbon neutral airline. Travelers can choose when they buy their tickets to make the flight carbon neutral by contributing money toward carbon-reducing schemes that offset the emissions of the flight.
The pampering continues inside the plane’s cabin. Each passenger’s reading light, a stalk like affair that twists around for convenience, is covered with hand-stitched leather.
At times, the flight felt more like a private jet than a commercial airliner. Instead of the drone of announcements, only attendants serving a tasty breakfast before we landed interrupted the five-hour flight. Silverjet’s London airport is perhaps the only drawback to the experience. Silverjet, like some other newer airlines, flies into Luton Airport, about 35 miles north of London — somewhat less convenient than the more centrally located Heathrow.
Departing from Silverjet’s Luton terminal is a much smoother experience than air travelers are used to in these security-obsessed days. Inside the private Silverjet terminal, passengers use a special security lane to minimize crowds or lines. Once past security, a Silverjet bus whisks out to the waiting aircraft.
While it does take about 25 minutes longer to get to downtown London I actually preferred flying into Luton rather than Heathrow. It’s a smaller, less frenetic airport and for a jet-lagged traveler not having to wade through crowds can make a huge difference.
And the amenities at the terminal at Luton may make up for the inconvenient location. Silverjet has a private terminal separate from the main passenger terminal. Upon arrival, passengers can partake of a buffet breakfast, take a shower or use a free Wi-Fi service. It’s like landing in a nice hotel.
As I emerged into the London morning feeling refreshed I passed a bleary-eyed group of economy class passengers from another airline struggling with their suitcases. I decided I’d had my cake and eaten it too.