Thursday, October 23, 2008

Open thinking = OpenSkies


Before I get into specifics about my OpenSkies’ inaugural travel experience from JFK to AMS, let me preface with the following framework for my review: I am a notorious coach class flyer.

There. I’ve said it. But stay with me, business class travelers, for at the very least, I should help you truly appreciate that to which you've become accustomed.

Since I opened the door to my coach-class status, for the record, let me also say that while I always request an aisle seat, and book early enough to get one, I prefer the dreaded middle seat to the window. (From what I hear, business fare travelers would rather hitch hike to their destination than get stuck in the middle.) To me, window seats feel The Most crowded since the fuselage folds around under my feet, and the space on the floor under the seat in front of me is less than with the middle. Not good. I always have “stuff” I want to handily stuff there. Also, since everyone feels so sorry for me in the middle, I usually get both arm rests. I realize this might sound like no compensation for you serious (as in there is no other way for you to look at it) business travelers, but it is my truth.

Due to budget constraints (both personal, as well as for those who pay my travel expenses to come speak—and by the way, I’m fascinating!), I’m careful with travel dollars. I watch and wait for the best coach fares. But even I have my limits: in order to survive, I pay close attention (and extra dollars) to and for nonstop and sensible flight times. In other words, I will not get “the cheapest flight” if it makes even one extra stop, or if I have to be on it at 6 AM., which means a middle-of-the-night wake-up call in order to save money, but which also leaves no coherency with which to speak. Although I cannot be sure, I herewith surmise that I’m less “fascinating” when I am incoherent.

I’ve never flown business class. To the best of my recollection, I’ve flown first class less than a half-dozen times, including twice for vacation purposes. Once I used my AA miles to get us (my husband and me) to Alaska; the other time we were bumped due to an over sell. Other than one intentional first-class booking by a publishing house, the rest of my handful of first-class experiences also arrived via the fate of the bump. I was just in the right place at the right time to be the right one to get to fly in what I refer to as luxury, while most business class travelers would simply call it “the necessary.”


(OpenSkies = a wholly owned subsidiary of British Airways currently flying only two routes, between JFK and Amsterdam or Paris.]

From the OpenSkies website: “The goal of our new airline is to go beyond the status quo and bring you something unique - something that redefines personalised service. We aspire to be different in everything we do, from our swift check-in to our thoughtfully designed cabins to our a la carte meal selections and award-winning wine selection. Plus, our proven, fuel-efficient Boeing 757 aircraft never have more than 64 passengers per flight. We hope to make comfort standard for every flight.”


So, come with me now as I bring my well-traveled yet coach-classed self to Wednesday, October 15, after I accepted the opportunity (NOT paid for by OpenSkies so that I was free to tell it like I really lived it) to board OpenSkies’ inaugural flight from JFK to AMS. (They’ve been flying JFK to Paris for a couple months.) I traveled my outbound trip in their officially titled BIZ Class. Even though their website boasts, “This is not typical business class,” the only thing I actually know about typical business class is that I cannot afford it, and that I am incredibly happy for those who can. Life on the road is difficult; any and all extra affordable (and isn’t that relative?!) comforts are golden.

My return trip was booked in their PREM+ (more later); these are the only two class tickets OpenSkies sells—coach travel be GONE!). But, because of my outbound BIZ class ticket, for the first time in my life, I was able to enjoy an airline lounge experience. (British Airways lounges are not open to OpenSkies PREM+ flyers. Just the BIZ whizzes.) Since I have no point of comparison, I’m sure you seasoned lounge folks will file this where you will, especially if you’re a gold+max+platinum+million-bazillion mile lounge lizard—well, you know what I mean. But I’d like to go on the record as saying that my virgin experience with the BA lounge at JFK was awesome.

True to their motto and intent, OpenSkies folks were front and center to meet and greet us, and to proudly celebrate their inaugural flight to AMS. They offered a special welcome table set up with cheeses and beers, Amsterdam maps and chocolates. They were friendly and clearly excited about their big day. I, of course, was front and center at the table with them, chatting, gathering info, pounding down a plate of cheese (wonderful cheese!) and crackers, every bite for which I never once had to retrieve my wallet. (Coach traveler, remember.)

Since the BA lounge is large and rambling--including a separate restaurant for pre-flight meals, should you decide to board your flight and go straight to sleep; an Elemis Travel Spa; a well-stocked bar; computer stations; separate “living room” settings; a generous and diverse light fair food offering -- I was in awe, sort of like a kid in fairyland. I sat in a few cushy-chair locations, just because I could. This is quite the switch-up from wandering around looking for crowded and uncomfortable terminal and/or gate seating, or standing in line for a hot dog, or schlepping my bags from here to there realizing that “available” Wi-Fi does not usually mean “free” Wi-Fi.. Since I knew my PREM+ return wouldn’t get me in the BA lounge in AMS, I decided to truly kick back and enjoy the opportunity. After all, I was traveling to Amsterdam (also a first), AND IN BIZ CLASS!

As we boarded, I’m sure I was bug-eyed. What I saw was nothing like I’d ever seen before—although I’m told these types of seats were the older version of British Airways business class (not first class) seats. Even though I’d seen picture of the sleeping man (click on Biz) on the OpenSkies website, it was still, to be honest, kind of surreal. Passengers traveling together could face each other and chat, rather than talking side-by-side. Passengers not wanting to dialogue with (or see) their neighbor (or spouse) only needed to unfold the fan-like divider between them.

When I finally stopped gawking and settled in to build my nest, the next thing I noticed was that there was no place under the seat in front of me for my stuff. (We are what we are.) I quickly learned that one needs to plan ahead in OpenSkies BIZ class. A gypsy needs to think through what she wants out of her stuff bag and remove it before stowing it overhead, or she (a very short she) needs to stand up and drag her overhead bag down to retrieve every this-and-that. So, I prowled through my red bag, pulled out my noise reduction headset, my book, my MP3 player, my lip gloss and . . . then tried to figure out where they were supposed to go once/while I sat down. Where was my in-front-of-me pocket? I felt like I was tucking myself in for the night, real tight like; it took me about thirty seconds to spill the glass of water they gave me (a real glass and not the screw-on lid plastic bottle), which needed to rest on this teensy pull-down shelf which is the triangle-shaped item, upper right, to the right of the black space.

Nonetheless, the seat was extremely comfortable. I enjoyed playing with all the electronic buttons that adjusted every part of it. However, the foot rest to help give you to the full 180 recline needed to be manually unbuckled and lowered. (left) I do not advise reclining and raising your legs before you try this. Don’t ask me how I pulled this off, unless you’d like to hear a description of a beached whale in a telephone booth.

Beverages of all types were offered (no reaching for my wallet); they served the best packet of nuts I’ve ever tasted; and the flight attendants seemed truly glad to have us on board. They even served champagne (again, no wallet) and presented a toast for their inaugural flight. Very festive! They set each of us up with our personal entertainment centers (excellent selection of options!), pointed out universal plugs for computer use, served us a delicious dinner (choice of 3 courses), and gave us comfy blankets and pillows. In all the inaugural excitement, our cabin’s flight attendant forgot to offer us eye masks and fluffy socks (I learned about this later) in case we desired to shut out the world and waggle our toes. However, I didn’t miss them.

I was asked if I’d like to be awakened for a light breakfast. Hel-LO? FOOD—for which I’m not getting out my wallet?! Of course! Breakfast was preceded by a hot towel with which to refresh my hands and face. This sure beats the cold Huggies Baby Wipes I usually travel with for this same purpose!

Now, it’s possible the majority of these amenities and niceties, at least in some form, are always available to business and first class travelers flying the front of the plane, even when they’re not heading over seas. I wouldn’t know; they close those curtains, you know, and besides, I’m too busy peeling the plastic wrap off a terminal sandwich (take that any way you like) to notice. But I have to admit, because of these swell things, it was the fastest 8+ hours of travel I’ve encountered, and this had all to do with the comfy and constant repositioning of my seat, the entertainment center, the courtesies, the enthusiasm of the flight attendants, the work station options, but mostly, the space.


Imagine a 757 configured with only 64 seats! Wide aisles. Plenty of leg room, for even the longest legs (not mine), and plenty of wide, for even we fluffy-bodied travelers (name it and claim it, Charlene). Check out the stats.

Although I didn’t take advantage of it, OpenSkies offers their passengers a personal concierge service; the phone number is listed on your confirmation. Check out their website; you can even book rental cars, motels and excursions right along with your airline tickets using their partners.

On their website, OpenSkies says, “You are our guest. We want to provide you a stress free, memorable experience - we're out to get the little things right.” They want to “go beyond the status quo.” I had the privilege to personally meet OpenSkies Managing Director Dale Moss, and Chris Vukelich,Vice President, Distribution and eCommerce man. Their utter passion and dedication to getting it right for their passengers and not just their airline was inspiring. The intentions at the top are trickling down to the cabins, and in the best of ways. One of the things Moss said that stuck with me was how much faster a small airline can make changes, and how intent they are on staying on top of their best game.


AMS to JFK, I traveled PREM+. Here’s the deal: my coach-class budget and personal preferences about things like storing my stuff in front of me endeared me to PREM+ over BIZ class, even though I had a window seat. And guess what? I STILL had tons of room! No, I didn’t get the 180 recline, but I had space galore (I felt way less confined) and an adjustable foot rest I didn’t have to struggle with. I had a small table area between the seats (traditional side-by-side seating) on which to set my drink without spilling it. I still got the entertainment center, the hot towel treatment, chocolates (just not as many), nuts, choice of beverages, a hot meal and a pre-JFK-arrival snack, universal plugs for my work stuff, a face mask, booties, and smiling service.

Caveat: oddly, even though PREM+ only housed seven passengers this particular leg, and I was only the fifth person to be served, still, by the time they got to me, they were out of the chicken entrée (PREM+ gets two choices while BIZ gets three). Now, I was going to opt for the pasta anyway, but this was out of sync with their mottos.

In spite of that, truly, I can’t think what I truly missed in my BIZ class experience, aside from the 180 recline, which, to be honest, I didn’t really utilize to its fullest anyway. I found my back most comfortable when I was only partially reclined. Oh, and of course the BA lounge experience, which, although it was wonderful, was something I can easily live without, especially for the price difference in BIZ to PREM+ – and especially since I’m used to living without it anyway.


Today, October 23rd, I’m looking at website and here’s what I’ve found. Let’s say I want to fly round-trip from JFK to AMS departing December 10.


Fully Flexible BIZ: $3191 (that is ONE WAY—gulp, says I, Ms. Coach Traveler)

Semi-Flexible BIZ: $2442 (gulp)

Restricted (which I always buy for the price point): $499 and YOU HAVE MY ATTENTION!

Returning December 16th

During the one hour that I was checking fares, this return Restricted Fare went from $499 to $738.50, so, if you find what appears to be the best fare, book it! Still, for a total of $1237.50 for round trip, compared to a one-way BIZ ride for $3191 – and barring you can do without one meal choice and a 180 recline . . . .

BTW, prices change dependent strictly upon demand, so, if possible and you care about price, check a few dates. For the moment, there is only one flight per day between JFK and AMS, and visa versa. However, $499 is a steal of a deal and the bottom line.

For the heck of it, I went to Travelocity to check these same dates on a few other airlines. For round trip, first class prices started at $1195 (IcelandicAir) and involved a plane change in Iceland. From there, prices jumped to $3402 (BA) and hugely escalated. For business class, it was the same. For coach? Prices started at $683 (Delta) and zoomed to the high $700s+.

So, compare this to $1000-$1237.50 round trip flying comfy PREM+ with tons of room, only 64 passengers on a 757, courteous, kind, enthusiastic service from employees working for management that wants to treat you right, and yes, you have this coach travelers attention! As for you typical business class travelers, for you, this is a STEAL!

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