OpenSkies Puts Business Class Under T&E Radar for Planners

As business class becomes more a distant memory for travelers who can no longer justify the expense on tightened meetings budgets, airlines are looking for ways around the conundrum with products designed to get corporations to put their employees back in 52-inch-seat pitch.

The latest is the new British Airways spinoff airline OpenSkies. The subsidiary started flying earlier this year after the Open Skies agreement, which allows airlines to fly routes outside their countries of origin, went into effect. The airline launched in July with flights to Paris from JFK. A JFK-to-Amsterdam route kicked off this month.

Using two-cabin aircraft, OpenSkies said it offers a comparable seat recline to many major carriers' business-class service, along with perks like meals and bigger entertainment packages.

"The product is really custom-tailored for corporate travel [handlers] who have a policy against booking business class," said OpenSkies marketing VP Tracy Sanford.

Is the product designed to take the place of business-class-only airlines (Silverjet, Eos, Maxjet) that went out of business this year?

"Those were airlines that flew from New York direct to their countries of origin," said Sanford. "What OpenSkies does is offer direct flights from the U.S. to destinations other than London. For direct New York-to-London, there's still [British Airways]."

Next up for OpenSkies is the purchase of L'Avion and integration of the French airline's jets into OpenSkies' fleet. It is looking at routes to Milan, Brussels, and Frankfurt, as well.

Still, OpenSkies may have come too late to woo business travelers who have been left to their own devices for too long. Events specialists Greg Poulos, president of Boston-based Bluefin Productions Inc., and Ken Deans, principal of Los Angeles-based LGI Worldwide, hew to a policy of flying coach but let employees keep their frequent flyer miles. "I have no problems with them using their mileage status for upgrades," said Deans.

At the other end of the spectrum, Michael Roth, owner of Horizons Aloft, a Dallas-based private-air advocacy company, said, "I stopped flying the airlines because I realized that I can travel by private aircraft instead. It's cheaper than the unrestricted coach fare, faster on trips less than 900 miles, and way less hassle to boot."

Originally published Nov. 10, 2008