Come Fly With Us - Crossing the Atlantic with Silverjet

Low fares and lots of frills - Silverjet is the latest airline to offer a transatlantic business-only service. Kate Simon tries it

It's four o'clock, so it must be time for tea, even in mid-air above the Atlantic Ocean. And what's nicer with a cuppa than a slice of cake? The giant chocolate confection before me has yet to be cut - I'm not being offered a stingy pre-packed portion. Unfortunately, I don't much like cake. "Have you got any fruit?" I ask. No, the stewardess hasn't, but she thinks it would be a good idea to have some on board and makes a mental note to pass on the suggestion.

I'm travelling on Silverjet, the third business-only airline to launch in the UK in the past 16 months. The service had been airborne for just a week when I boarded its refurbished Boeing 767 earlier this month. It's no surprise that the team is still open to ideas.

In fact, listening to customers is what Silverjet's chief executive officer, Laurence Hunt, hopes will set his service apart from its two rivals, Eos and MaxJet, both of which launched at the end of 2005. He draws a comparison with the no-frills sector. "Lots of low-cost airlines have come and gone. The ones that responded to consumer demand have survived," he says.

The new airline, like its rivals, is certainly striving to offer customers what they want, beginning with attractive fares. Compared with business-class prices on the major carriers these services offer a seriously low-cost option. You'll be lucky to get a Club fare to New York on British Airways for under £2,000, yet Silverjet offers 100 "flat-beds" from £999, with some tickets available at £799. Maxjet, Silverjet's closest rival, also starts at £999 on its New York route, with discounted tickets at £854, though it is possible to pick up fares as low as £288 one way at the moment. With just 46 seats and tickets from £1,765 to £3,559 return, Eos has set its sights firmly on a first-class clientele.

While the prime route for all three services is London to New York (into Newark for Silverjet, JFK for Eos and MaxJet), MaxJet has already branched out to Washington DC, currently suspended, and Las Vegas. Silverjet aims to increase its New York flights to three a day by the end of 2007, with China, India, South Africa and other US routes under consideration.

Yet the trio will only take a tiny slice of the coveted London-New York pie. And environmentalists might justifiably question the wisdom of filling the air with extra planes carrying so few passengers. Some 4.2m passengers cross the pond each year; the low seat count on the new services will barely dent that figure. Hunt has sought to bat away criticism by making his airline carbon neutral, with a mandatory payment in every ticket to Verified Emission Reduction (VER) projects.

Still, competition is fierce and all three airlines go to great pains to make the customer feel they're receiving a premium service. For Silverjet, that experience starts at its exclusive terminal at Luton Airport where all pre-board procedures are conducted. This is a private-jet-style welcome. Step through the terminal doors and a receptionist will ask you a few security questions before parking your bags behind her desk and ushering you into an inner sanctum where Pol Roger champagne is available on demand and Sinatra croons in the background.

The rest of the check-in process is done seat-side in the lounge - your passport will be whisked away and returned with a boarding card within minutes. And an exclusive security channel speeds you through to the plane. Check in with luggage up to 45 minutes before the flight, take only hand luggage and you can arrive with just 30 minutes to spare.

A speedy pre-board procedure is one of the main draws for these new services. Post 11/7, airports have become synonymous with hassle and customers with more available cash are prepared to pay to avoid the queues. All three services have chosen secondary London airports with minimal long-haul traffic - while Silverjet goes out of Luton, MaxJet and Eos leave from Stansted.

But Eos and MaxJet don't have terminals, instead escorting customers through security to their lounges. Hunt maintains his new service is swifter. "We can offer a 30-minute check-in, even at Newark. In fact, last week we got four customers on the flight, with their bags, 17 minutes before departure," he says. So far, such control can't be achieved on arrival at Newark, or on the return leg at Luton, where Silverjet customers pass through immigration at the same time as a Wizz Air service from Gdansk.

The other big deal for premium passengers is comfort on board. Eos is by far the winner offering 78in-long flat beds in 21sq ft "suites". But Silverjet's pod seats extend to 6ft 3in, tipped at an eight-degree incline, which can't help but score better than MaxJet's old-style seats, which offer a 60in pitch, only reclining to 160 degrees.

And Silverjet's seats offer a touch-button massage option. It's typical of the unusual ideas Hunt and his team have had to keep their product fresh. Others include making the flight a "quiet zone" by removing the overhead lighting and call buttons and restricting announcements. Hunt says: "We gave the crew line-dancing training, to teach them to tiptoe. So they prowl the aisles on tiptoe during the night flight to tend to customers' needs."

The recruitment of staff has also been given an unorthodox twist and points up the importance of style to this new airline. Don't expect your standard dollies or trollies: Silverjet's staff are sharply dressed with subtle make-up and hair has been glamorously styled by top hairdresser Nicky Clarke. They serve passengers individually.

More interestingly, many of them haven't worked as airline crew before. "Every time a member of the team was in a restaurant or a bar and got particularly well served, we'd give out a business card," says Hunt. "We've picked up quite a few of our crew that way. Though the in-flight managers and trainers are experienced crew."

So who is buying into this new style of flying? "On Silverjet, we've had senior bankers and we've had the Kaiser Chiefs," says Hunt. "But I think it will be your usual mix. We expect a lot of entrepreneurial types who can't afford to travel in business class and a lot of premium leisure travellers." Whether he can win them to his product for good remains to be seen.

HOW THE SERVICES COMPARE

Silverjet

Routes: Luton to Newark.

Fare: From £799 to £1,799 return.

Pre and post-flight services: Free transfers from Luton Airport Parkway to private terminal. Chauffeur service, valet parking and helicopter transfers. Online, mobile or lounge check-in. Arrive up to 30 minutes before departure with hand luggage; 45 minutes with baggage to check in. Private terminal and exclusive lounges.

In-flight services: 100 seats with 6ft 3in incline bed, seat-back massager and privacy screen. Pre-bookable three-course gourmet meals on demand, afternoon tea, breakfast at seat or to go. Blankets. Ladies' toilet. Personal digital entertainment system. Noise-reduction headsets. Laptop point.

Contact: 0871 700 8520; flysilverjet.com.

MaxJet

Routes: Stansted to JFK. Stansted to Las Vegas. Stansted to Washington DC (May to October).

Fare: From £854 to £2,017 return to New York. From £999 to £2,118 return to Las Vegas. From £999 to £2,131 return to Washington DC.

Pre and post-flight services: Exclusive check-in desk. Fast track through security. Lounge access with Wi-Fi and computer terminals. Arrive and refresh programme at the Stansted Radisson SAS Hotel.

In-flight services: 102 seats with 60in pitch and 160-degree recline. Four-course gourmet menu on demand. Breakfast at seat or to go. Personal digital entertainment system. Noise-reduction headphones.

Contact: 0800 023 4300; maxjet.com.

Eos Airlines

Routes: Stansted to JFK.

Fare: From £1,765 to £3,559.

Pre and post-flight services: Chauffeur service. Arrive up to 45 minutes before departure. Escort through security, immigration and customs. Lounges with Wi-Fi access and computer terminals. Notification of a designated contact if flight delayed. Day room at Stansted Radisson SAS. Concierge service. Loyalty points.

In-flight services: Forty-eight 21sq ft "suites" with 6ft 6in fully-flat beds. A four-course gourmet menu on demand. Breakfast available at seat or to go. Cashmere blankets, duvets, Tempur-Pedic pillows. Personal digital entertainment system. Noise-cancelling headsets. Electrical outlets.

Contact: 0808 234 8548; eosairlines.com.

Kate Simon and Tom Cebula

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