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Is air travel becoming a class war?

Competition for profit-making business-class customers is hotting up. Max Flint puts Silverjet and British Airways to the test

It's in the smile. In economy class it's a fixed grimace forced through reluctant jaw muscles during the safety demo. In business class a stewardess can smile with such sincerity that you start to believe in your own jokes. Don't get carried away though. They may be laughing at you, not with you. Business-class travellers pay on average five times more than economy passengers for the same jet, flight time and airport. In departures they get a lounge, in the air the seat is bigger, in arrivals they get to the luggage first – but is that it?

For the passengers maybe, but business class is what keeps traditional airlines flying. In the twisted economics of air travel, economy tickets are usually losing the airline money. All the profits come from the passengers in business and first. Look at the one-way fares on a British Airways flight from Heathrow to New York JFK in March (pilots' strike permitting). Economy costs £518, business is £2,713. No wonder the stewardess is smiling: BA is making nearly £2,200 more from business-class travellers.

That's why airlines such as MAXjet, Eos and Silverjet have started business-only services in the past couple of years. Yet the business case for business class is elusive: MAXjet has already gone bust and the other two are having a bumpy ride.

Silverjet's most recent performance figures are not encouraging; a "load factor" of 54 per cent on its flights from Luton to New York (Newark) and Dubai means that nearly half the 100 seats on its Boeing 767 are going empty. The airlinehas an exclusive terminal at Luton and you can check in just half-an-hour before departure. In addition, the aircraft is parked near the lounge – a refreshing change if you're used to the long commute from check-in to boarding at Heathrow.

There are no retail outlets in the Silverjet lounge, so it's worth bringing something to read. I turned up for my flight to New York bookless, to make the most of the free tea and snacks, but after an hour was reading a complimentary copy of Men's Health.

On the 767 Silverjet boasts flat beds and in-flight meals from London restaurant, Le Caprice. The tickets normally cost around £1,000 return, although some on board had paid just over £700. It does feel a bit like budget business class. The beds are indeed flat, but they're at an angle. I just couldn't get comfortable, finally dozing with the bed at an angle of 30 degrees to the floor. It's like sleeping on a hill.

The food was good, and kept on coming, crowding a small table already packed with Silverjet's eccentric in-flight entertainment system. It's a self-contained portable screen powered by a plug-in cable from the seat. Imagine a huge 1970s-style remote control cluttering up your space: it's just not stylish. A minor thing maybe, but trying to organise the seat, the TV, the power cable, the headphone cable, food and a drink felt plain wrong for a premium service. There's no shortage of space around you, just a lack of thought behind the design.

Silverjet feels like a small airline operating on a wing and a budget, which is what it is. The tickets are cheap compared with BA's business-class fares, but the operation feels a bit unloved: the tables on the plane needed a wipe, and the carpets would benefit from a good vacuum. It's details such as these that business-class passengers notice and which Silverjet needs to get right if it is to survive.

Next year, British Airways is launching a business-only service from London City airport. The small Airbus has an enforced refuelling stop on the westbound journey. But it will carry 32 passengers instead of Silverjet's 100.

I flew from New York JFK to Heathrow using BA's existing business class and the difference between it and Silverjet was telling. BA's restricted return fare is around £3,150, so it should be brilliant; many people have their tickets paid for and care about level of service rather than price.

BA says it can offer flexibility; with so many departures, passengers can change to a later or earlier flight at the last minute. There is also space in the dedicated lounge in BA's own JFK terminal for a restaurant, and a spa offers massages. The lounge itself is large and quite noisy – but wander outside and you're amongst the shops.

On 747 flights, some Club World seats are on the upper deck. That means you may get the privilege of climbing the stairs to an exclusive cabin. I've walked past those stairs so many times this was a real kick. Apparently economy was full, but the whole Club World experience is so carefully choreographed you remain oblivious to the crowds. The stewardess smiled, laughed and had a good chat while she hung up my jacket and brought me some champagne.

The seats have dividers so that you never need speak to your neighbour, and my window seat had a choice of four windows to look out of. I needed them to see if we were taxiing because upstairs the whole flying process is eerily quiet. Unlike Silverjet it feels as if your seat was designed by Nasa as everything neatly pops out, folds in or packs away. It also goes flat – truly horizontal. After 90 minutes I was lying flat tucked underneath a blanket and fast asleep. I've never before enjoyed a good kip on a plane without waking up with a sore neck or a duty-free trolley in my ribs. I was woken with breakfast and about 90 minutes later I was on the ground waiting for my luggage.

It's an expensive sleep, though. I felt almost cheated; I should have exploited the time to order cocktails or watch every film, but it was just too comfortable. And this is exactly why businesses foot the bill, so their staff can get off the plane and go straight to work.

As good as it is though, next time I'll go economy and sulk for the whole flight. I would consider Silverjet but it wasn't luxurious or stylish enough to make me a regular. If I'm going to be uncomfortable, I might as well do it as cheaply as possible. And as for BA – it's just too much money for seven hours. Could I really sleep soundly knowing that I'm subsidising all those passengers in economy? Sadly, yes.

Max Flint is presenter of 'The Money Programme', available on BBC iPlayer

By Simon Calder

On shorter flights from Britain, the frills are gradually being trimmed. At the end of next month easyJet's subsidiary, GB Airways, stops flying on behalf of British Airways. Thereafter business class (as well as pre-assigned seats, plus complimentary meals and drinks in economy) will be axed on routes such as Gatwick to Tenerife, Cyprus and Egypt. Yet for longer flights, the temptation to trade up is increasing as the range of options above the "vanilla" experience of basic economy expands.

The reasons are intriguing. A leading factor is the flourishing business-class only sector (thriving in terms of route expansion, if not financial performance so far). Gordon Brown offered Silverjet and its American rival, Eos, a tax break when he last raised Air Passenger Duty. Passengers on purely business-class airlines pay only £40 for a one-way flight from Britain; those in BA's World Traveller Plus or Virgin Atlantic's Premium Economy get clobbered for £80. This has helped Silverjet, for example, to come in with some seductively low fares. The airline is working with discount agents such as Trailfinders and upmarket cruise specialists including Bath Travel. As a result, flights to Dubai and New York for short breaks or in conjunction with Atlantic crossings work out at less than £500 each way.

Among the traditional carriers, leisure travellers are being tempted more than ever with premium economy. Qantas has just launched its version on flights to Sydney, while BMI has hit on the solution of recycling its old business-class seats into the premium economy cabin. Virgin Atlantic, which pioneered the idea among UK airlines, reports strong demand on routes both from business travellers flying frugally and holidaymakers wanting a more relaxing start, and end, to their vacation.

The charter airlines have made much of their improved long-haul service, often offering more legroom than the scheduled carriers. While they carry few business travellers, their premium cabins are accruing frills. When the Boeing 787 starts flying for First Choice, Monarch and Thomsonfly, the airlines are promising to transform expectations about long-haul charter flights – though the soaring cost of fuel makes talk of non-stop flights to Hawaii or Bali look questionable. Even in "true" business class, lower fares are on the horizon – at least in UK to US flights. From the end of next month, "open skies" will see airlines crowding in to Heathrow.

This will disrupt the cosy quartet of American Airlines, British Airways, United and Virgin Atlantic – currently the only American and British carriers allowed to serve the US from Heathrow. Continental, Delta and Northwest are starting flights – as is Air France. The airline launches daily services from Heathrow to LA on 1 April. Only a fool would bet against lower business-class fares to southern California. So, a question that has seemed irrelevant to most of us, could soon start to have meaning for a wider audience: just how flat is that flat bed?