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Airline Mismanagement

The new airline, OpenSkies, offers business and premium economy seating in its flights across the Atlantic.

But while the airline is new, its business class is not, with old recycled business class seats and an ordinary standard of service - not perceptibly worse than other airlines, but also not perceptibly better.

 
 
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OpenSkies Biz Class review

Sometimes better, sometimes worse than BA's Club World business class
 

I'm in the 'Biz' class of an OpenSkies flight, and if you count carefully, you'll see I have five different sets of noise reducing headsets that I was comparing while on the flight.

There's also both a glass of beer and champagne, plus an Amazon Kindle ebook reader and an iPod in the picture.  Does this make me a drunken gadget freak?

Part 3 of a three part series on OpenSkies - please also visit

1.  About OpenSkies

2.  OpenSkies Prem+ review

3.  OpenSkies Biz review

 

 

OpenSkies represents BA's response to the perceived threat of new airlines offering discounted premium cabin trans-Atlantic service, and the perceived new opportunity of being able to operate flights between any city in Europe and any city in the US.

While the airline generally does a reasonably good job of the business class service it provides, BA overlooks one important feature previously offered by other discounted premium cabin airlines - the discount.  The advance purchase fares for OpenSkies business class (or 'Biz' class as it wishes to call itself) are essentially the same as those asked by the other major carriers, and more than twice that of the discount airline L'Avion that it formerly competed with (before BA bought L'Avion and folded it into its OpenSkies operation).

However, if you're booking closer to your travel dates, the OpenSkies fares become comparably better value than their competitors.

In general, OpenSkies offers nothing unique compared to other airlines (other than smaller planes with fewer seats), other than potentially lower fares - but that, for sure, is nothing to sneer at.

This review is based on a flight between JFK and AMS on 15 Oct, 2008.

Before the OpenSkies Biz Class Flight

My first encounter with OpenSkies was unfortunately a negative one.  When flying first from Seattle to JFK to connect with the OpenSkies flight from JFK on to Amsterdam, I tried to get American Airlines to check my bag all the way from Seattle to Amsterdam, and to perhaps even issue me a boarding pass for the OpenSkies flight too.

Unfortunately, and even though AA and BA have about the closest possible relationship between two airlines, OpenSkies - a wholly owned BA subsidiary (airline code EC) - refuses to interline bags (ie to allow bags to be checked through onto one of their flights, and/or to check bags on from their flight to someone else's flight) with any other airline, in the interests of saving money.

Well, if it was a discounted low cost fare, maybe that would be acceptable.  But EC charge as much as any other airline (see section on OpenSkies fare costings, below) for their business class (which they call 'Biz' class in an affected way of implying themselves to be a 'chic brand') so it would be reasonable to expect them to provide the same array of services and benefits.

The need to go to baggage claim at JFK, wait 40 minutes for my bag, then schlep it over to BA's Terminal 7 where OpenSkies operates from was definitely an added hassle, and needing to build extra connecting time into my itinerary was an unwelcome 'bonus' part of the deal.

If you're traveling with only carry-on, this is not an issue, of course.

OpenSkies variously say they are not interested in getting business from people who fly extra flights to or from the cities they service, and/or they say that people will willingly accept this inconvenience in return for saving money on their fare.  But - where's the saving if their fares are closely comparable to their competitors?

Checking In and Airport Lounge

Checking in for the OpenSkies flight was easy and quick, and is done from a special part of the BA terminal at JFK, reserved for EC customers and BA's premium cabin passengers.

In theory their checkin counters open three hours prior to a flight, but because their Amsterdam flight leaves an hour or so later than their Paris flight, they already had counters open when I arrived more than three hours in advance.  Although I had to wait a totally unacceptable 27 minutes to check in for my return flight (in their premium economy cabin) from Amsterdam, there was almost no wait to check in for the flight from New York.

A priority lane quickly got me through security, and from there it was a short walk to the BA Terraces Lounge, which EC Biz class passengers can access.

The Terraces Lounge at JFK is far from the best lounge one would encounter, but BA have committed $30 million for an ambitious project currently underway to redevelop their entire terminal facilities at JFK, including upgrading their lounges to the latest and greatest, along the lines of what can be seen at Terminal 5 at Heathrow.

One recent enhancement to the lounge is the addition of an Elemis Spa Center that offers a range of complimentary treatments to passengers waiting for their flight.  There is also free Wi-fi, but curiously BA have chosen to censor the range of websites you can visit through their Wi-fi service.  The lounge did have a good provision of work stations for people wishing to work on their computers, and sufficient seating in general for the people in the lounge.

Complimentary snack foods and drinks were available, plus there is the opportunity to eat dinner in the lounge prior to boarding one's flight.  This can be a good convenience, especially if you can then quickly go to sleep on the flight over to Europe.

Boarding and getting Settled

One of the nice things about the OpenSkies flights is their planes currently have only 64 seats (24 Biz and 40 Prem+ seats), although there is a suggestion that in the future they'll change this to 72 seats - 12 Biz and 60-64 Prem+.  But even with 72 seats, this is a small number of people compared to most other international flights, and so things like checking in, boarding, deplaning and waiting for luggage should all be much quicker and simpler than for a typical flight where you might be one of 250 - 350 other people all on the same plane.

This was certainly the case at JFK (although, regrettably, absolutely not the case in Amsterdam - see my review of OpenSkies' Prem+ class service for details).

We quickly boarded the plane with no lines to wait in.  Inside, the 757 has four cabins - the front two being for Biz, and the rear two being for Prem+.

The two business class cabins each seat 12 people, in three rows of two seats on either side of the aisle.  The seats are recycled BA business class seats (see my review of BA's business class for more details and illustrations) in an alternating front facing/rear facing pattern.  The seats have been nicely refurbished, however, and are finished in fabric rather than leather.

There are four flight attendants on board the plane, presumably split nominally two to the business class section and two to the premium economy section, but even with two flight attendants for a maximum of 24 business class passengers (and not all seats full), there was no-one available to help passengers as they found their seats and stowed their gear, and in particular, no-one to take coats and jackets and hang them up.  After I (and others) had squashed our jackets into the overheads, a flight attendant appeared and half heartedly offered to hang jackets.

The overhead bins were not very large, but with two seats per 73" of length, that means on average each passenger has 36" of overhead bin length to put their carry-on items in, which is almost certainly more than enough, and if there is any overflow, there are the other suit carrier/jacket type lockers on board too.  Indeed, OpenSkies' Managing Director Dale Moss is so confident about there being adequate overhead space for all passengers that he offered to give any passenger a free ticket if there wasn't enough overhead space to stow their carry-on items (assuming, of course, you bring the legal amount of carry-on items with you).

We were given a welcome drink (water, orange juice or champagne) once everyone was seated, and the plane pushed back from the gate 12 minutes ahead of its scheduled departure.

The flight attendants were particularly anal about clearing the cabin for take-off.  Not only did they not allow anyone to leave their shoes lying on the floor, but they also insisted that one woman take off the blanket she was keeping warm under and put that away, leaving her cold until after takeoff.  The 'danger' of wearing a blanket during take-off is not immediately obvious, but that's probably a part of their training that we lesser mortals are not privy to.

And, something that is not done in the BA backwards/forwards business class cabin, the flight attendants did the safety briefing - you know, the thing that none of us ever watch or listen to that shows us in painful detail how to fasten and open the seat belt, etc - twice, once for the benefit of people facing in one direction and once for the benefit of the people facing the other direction.  But, blessedly, although they did this twice in English, they didn't do it even once in any other language (such as, eg, Dutch - something that wouldn't be altogether unexpected on a flight heading to Amsterdam).

The take-off was interesting.  Many airlines these days take-off at a lower power setting, using more of the runway to get airborne (for an extreme example, see this fascinating picture).  This saves them some fuel, just like gentle acceleration in a car is more economical.  Note also that twin engined planes can be somewhat more powerful than four engined planes - a twin engined plane needs more power in reserve to be able to complete a take-off on only one engine, compared to the reserve power in a four engined plane if it goes from four down to three engines.  Depending also on variables such as total aircraft weight (ie the empty plane, its fuel load, the passengers and baggage/freight - something which can vary tremendously from flight to flight), runway altitude and outside temperature, a pilot on a twin engined plane, like our 757, can sometimes find themselves with considerable power in reserve.

Our pilot is apparently a gentleman who prides himself on arriving early on his flights (and our arrival into Amsterdam was indeed early, getting to the gate 20 minutes before scheduled arrival time), but whether that was the motivation or not, it seemed like we did a max power take-off, and with a very lightly loaded plane, that was quite an exhilarating experience, pushing us most convincingly back in our seats with the surge of acceleration, and getting us airborne earlier than normal and with what seemed to be a steeper rate of climb, too.

Sitting and Sleeping

This picture shows one of the Biz seats fully extended, and behind the privacy fan (you fold this out so you don't find yourself staring into the eyes of a stranger all flight long) you can see an inboard/window seat facing in the opposite direction.

The seats are narrow and too short to comfortably sleep in if you're perhaps 5'9" or taller, and have very little space around them to put things, and only a small tray table that is difficult to work on with a computer (mine was already somewhat broken and wouldn't stay level with the weight of a computer on it).

On the positive side of things, if you do choose to use a computer, or any other powered device, there is 110V power provided at each seat, in the form of a multi-standard socket that fits most types of power cords from most countries.

I've given up on trying to sleep on these seats in the lie-flat position (although some people are able to do so readily), and now will just recline them somewhat and try and sleep that way.  Unfortunately, the seats aren't designed to be comfortable at medium/large degrees of recline - they are designed to be comfortable either when fairly upright, or when flat, but not when mostly reclined, so it is a bit of a 'no win' situation.

In general, I found the Prem+ seating to be as comfortable as the Biz seating, although neither was as good as it could be.

OpenSkies' Managing Director, Dale Moss, concedes that the seating is a compromise and not the best that they could have got, but says it was an effective solution as part of getting the airline quickly operational.  He also points out that being lie-flat capable makes them better than the seats offered by other airlines with nonstop service on his two routes, and says it is possible they may replace the seating in perhaps two years.

The cabin does not have individual air vents.

Food and Drink

Food was well served, but unfortunately totally dreadful to eat.  We had a dinner shortly after take-off (an option to eat a meal in the BA Terraces Lounge prior to departure is also offered) with a salad appetizer, a choice of two entrees, and a desert or cheese platter.

I asked for both entrees - the lamb, and specifically asked for it to be as well done as possible rather than rare, and also the fish entree too.  So I was first given a bleedingly rare piece of lamb, and that was followed by a tough dry massively overcooked piece of white rubbery substance which I gather was supposed to be fish.  Suffice it to say that whenever fish is presented to you with the skin side rather than the flesh side upwards, you can usually guess that what is hiding underneath the ugly skin is not going to be very good, and this experience was no exception to the rule.

On the positive side, it was nice to see individual salt and pepper grinders provided as part of each place setting.  Meals were plated rather than offered in trays.  And the salad was nice and fresh.

As for the dessert and cheese, I can't comment.  The staff never offered me any.  Perhaps they thought that by giving me two entrees, I'd sacrificed any entitlement to dessert?

A breakfast was also served just over an hour prior to landing.  This was a choice of a ham and cheese roll and/or a fruit and muesli type mixture.  The rolls were cold and stale, and the cheese had dried out in the many hours between when the food was first prepared and then boarded back in New York and when it was offered at the end of the flight.

One of the other passengers was given a ham and cheese roll but which apparently had no ham in it.  Ooops.

With a maximum of 24 people in Biz class, and four flight attendants on board with nothing to do for most of the flight, one wonders why the airline couldn't ask its flight attendants to slice cheese freshly, to heat up fresh/frozen rolls, and to hand make a much superior food item on board.  It wouldn't cost any more and would give a much better eating experience to passengers.

OpenSkies proudly talks about 'bottle poured' wines being served.  I've yet to encounter an airline that doesn't pour wine from bottles - is this an indicator that boxed wine is just around the corner?

They offered two red and two white wines, plus a champagne.  The wine choices were uninspiring and not described at all - one even had to guess as to country of origin; and the cabin crew knew nothing about them so couldn't help me choose an appropriate wine.  A typical range of spirits were also available.

Some airlines, when offering tea or coffee after dinner, also offer a choice of liqueurs to complete the meal.  This was not the case with OpenSkies.

I noted one of the flight attendants gifting a box of chocolates and a bottle of champagne to one of the other passengers, and murmuring something about 'I'm sorry for the problems with your meal'.  I don't know what the problem was, but plainly I wasn't the only person with a disappointing dining experience.

In Flight Entertainment

This is a disappointing weakness of the OpenSkies product, and is reminiscent of what the 'state of the art' was ten years ago, rather than what the state of the art is today.

At a time when quality airlines such as Emirates and Singapore Airlines are offering audio and video on demand systems with over 1,000 channels of movies, tv shows, and audio programming, plus games, flight information and moving map, outside cameras showing you the plane and where it is flying, seat to seat phones and seat to ground phones, USB connectivity, SMS capabilities, and just about every other conceivable type of entertainment and communication feature, what does OpenSkies do?

Oh, it hands you a freestanding Archos 705 audio/video player that has a small collection of 24 movies (some in French, some in English), 38 television episodes (again in a mix of languages) and 104 CDs of music loaded onto it.  Because it is a standalone unit, there is no flight information or moving map, and no other internet or phone connectivity.

While 24 movies might sound like a lot, when you subtract the foreign language movies, the movies you've already seen, and the movies you don't want to see, and then consider you have about 16 hours of flying time on a roundtrip flight, you'll quickly run out of video entertainment.

I decided to watch the movie 'Get Smart'.  The Archos player has a wide screen on it, conducive to watching letter boxed movies, but in an act of idiocy, the movie had been panned and scanned, so there were blank bars on either side of the narrow movie image that were totally unnecessary.

I was surprised how much I missed the moving map display.  It is nice to know how much time remains on a long flight and whether our arrival will be early, on time or late.  Apart from an initial announcement by the captain, with a very poor quality audio over the public address system, we had no idea of our flight progress until another brief announcement shortly before landing.

OpenSkies provides Sennheiser PXC350 noise cancelling headsets in its Biz class.  These are massive bulky around the ear type devices, and are in theory a high end headset (and certainly have a high price tag, listing for $300).  But they performed appreciably worse than any of the other four noise cancelling headsets I had with me on the flight, and so you'd be well advised to bring your own headset with you.

Cabin noise measured 78-82dB with C weighting in the Biz cabin, and was louder, up to 85dB on a C weighted scale in the rear Prem+ cabins.  The A weighted levels were only slightly lower than the C weighted levels, indicating that much of the sound energy was in middle and higher frequency bands.

One very unnecessary part of the in flight entertainment was the cabin crew taking back the video players 55 minutes prior to landing.  There was no reason at all why they couldn't have let us keep watching video until much closer to landing - this is a classic example of the very regrettable tendency for flights to be planned for the convenience of the crew rather than for the convenience of the passengers.

Service in General

It is hard to dispassionately comment on typical levels of service such as you might receive if you were to fly OpenSkies, because I was with a small group of half a dozen travel writers and we were traveling with a senior OpenSkies executive who pointed us out to the cabin crew to ensure we got 110% perfect service all the way through the flight.

Add to that other positive factors such as a very lightly loaded plane with very few passengers, and it being the inaugural flight for the airline's new route, and, surprisingly, the Managing Director's son being one of the flight attendants on board, and so one has to consider that my experience is the absolute best that one would ever encounter.

So, what of my experience?  No-one to take my jacket.  Awful food (this is partially a service issue and partially beyond the flight attendants' control).  Not being served dessert at all (did they forget or did they run out?).  The idiocy of not being allowed to wrap a blanket around one's legs for 'safety reasons' at takeoff.  Video players being collected 55 minutes prior to landing.  Hmmm......

On the other hand, the flight attendants were generally friendly and personable.  But overall, the service experience was a sadly typical example of being designed for the convenience of the crew rather than for the convenience of the passengers.  This is unacceptable when you're paying $3600 for the journey - you should have every right to expect a customer-focused highest quality service experience all the way through your flight.

There were also some surprising omissions in terms of services.  For example, there are no amenity kits offered to passengers.  While it is true that amenity kits these days are increasingly a throwaway item with nothing of interest or value inside them, unlike the 'good old days' when they were greatly prized, it is still disappointing that EC doesn't go through the motions of providing some basic type of amenity kit, at least with eyeshade and socks.

And we were not given a hot towel upon boarding or prior to dinner.  We only received a hot towel once, shortly prior to landing.

These cost cutting moves would be acceptable if the airline was offering its Biz service for appreciably less than market prices, but that is not the case.

How Much Does it Cost

If you're booking your travel more than 50 days in advance, OpenSkies offers the same fares as its competitors.  But if you're looking at making your travel plans with less advance notice, the EC fares are generally lower than those of its competitors.

If the fares are comparable, perhaps the kindest thing to say is that there's no major reason to avoid OpenSkies if your travels are strictly between the two cities the airline flies with no extra flights before or after the EC flight, but neither is there any reason to go out of your way to change your travel schedule to allow you to choose this airline either.

And, of course, if the fares are lower on EC, then that has to influence your choice.  It is possible that EC may occasionally discount its Biz fares lower than other carriers, and if you can find deals at below market prices, that changes the equation appreciably.  Strangely, and contrary to their claims, their flights and fares don't readily appear in many online booking services.

A definitely positive feature that OpenSkies does offer is being on a plane with only a small number of other passengers, making it easier to get on and off.

But, in general, it is another 'me too' airline.

Conclusion

The most positive and distinctive feature of OpenSkies is its small planes with only 64 passengers on board.  This is definitely a plus in their favor.

A negative is not interlining bags, which makes it much less convenient for anyone with checked bags and traveling to or from a further away point and taking extra flights before or after the OpenSkies flight itself.

The Biz class on an OpenSkies plane is no better than other business classes on other airlines, and massively inferior to some airlines (albeit airlines that don't operate non-stop services on the two routes served by EC).

The cost of business class travel is closely comparable to the cost on other airlines if you're booking well in advance, but appreciably lower if you're booking closer to your planned travel dates.

Accordingly, there are few reasons to choose OpenSkies if you are flying business class - we give OpenSkies and its business class service a neutral rating.  But note also our review of OpenSkies premium economy cabin - what the call their Prem+ cabin.  This truly is a vastly superior product to that offered by other airlines, and at a high value price point.

Part 3 of a three part series on OpenSkies - please also visit

1.  About OpenSkies

2.  OpenSkies Prem+ review

3.  OpenSkies Biz review

 

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Originally published 24 Oct 2008, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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