La Compagnie: Can business-class-only work?

The man who pays his way

As get-rich-quick schemes go, investing in a premium-class-only airline flying between London and New York seems to constitute an effective and brisk way to get poor. A decade or so ago there were several to choose from on the world's premier intercontinental route. I seemed to spend much of 2005 going from one start-up to the next, listening attentively as one chief executive after another explained why their business plan was different, and why it would leave the competition standing.

Eos, MAXjet and Silverjet had much in common. They deployed safe but elderly Boeing jets to fly the Atlantic – though not from Heathrow, Europe's leading hub for US flights, nor Gatwick, the capital's other traditional transatlantic airport. Eos and MAXjet chose Stansted, Silverjet was based in Luton.

All promised – and, for a time, delivered – premium flights for a fraction of the fares charged by traditional airlines. Eos was the most luxurious, with fully flat beds; Silverjet delivered business-class standards; and MAXjet offered an all-premium economy product.

They tried some exotic marketing. Eos employed a "chief lifestyle officer" who, in March 2008, unveiled a slogan, or perhaps an unslogan: "Uncrowded. Uncompromising. Unairline".

How effective did this message prove? Well, the following month, Eos became an unairline by going unceremoniously bust. Silverjet was grounded in May. To round off a dismal year, MAXjet collapsed on Christmas Eve 2008, minutes after the last flight had taken off from Stansted to avoid being impounded.

From a passenger perspective, the months leading up to the collapses proved fruitful. Before MAXjet minimised, it had been selling tickets between London and Las Vegas for around £450 return, one-third of the current £1,350 fare in premium economy on British Airways or Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick.

While on the flight path to oblivion, each of these airlines burned its way through tens of millions of pounds of investors' cash. So, when a French airline this week unveiled plans to fly an elderly Boeing in a business-class-only configuration between Luton and Newark, I was keen to find out what was different. And Frantz Yvelin, chief executive of the self-styled boutique airline, La Compagnie, was keen to tell me.

For proof that he can succeed while others fail, he says you should look at the evidence that he has already succeeded while others failed. In the summer of 2008, M Yvelin was chief executive of a French start-up airline, L'Avion. While his British counterparts were watching their business dreams turn into financial nightmares, he was in negotiations with Willie Walsh, then chief executive of British Airways. Mr Walsh had his own subsidiary, OpenSkies, flying between Paris and New York. And the BA boss bought up the opposition.

"I sold L'Avion to British Airways for €78m," says M Yvelin. Since then he has been unimpressed with the way his airline was merged with OpenSkies. "I cannot comment on what British Airways has done. But today I'm quite happy they have discontinued the original model."

The entrepreneur found himself in the unusual position of having a pocketful of cash courtesy of investors in a different airline. Last July, he launched another version of his original plan: La Compagnie took off from Paris to New York. And now it's Britain's turn. From April, a former Thomson Airways 757 will fly business passengers from Luton to Newark. It will be fitted with 74 spacious seats in a plane previously kitted out for three times as many people.

The chief executive robustly explains where previous start-ups got it wrong. I believe the French idiom is il a passé un bon savon à ses rivaux – roughly, "he gave them a good soaping" – starting with their choice of airport.

"Why the hell did [Eos] fly out of Stansted?", he asks. "We didn't like Stansted – it was way too low-cost for us in terms of image." In contrast, he says, Luton is a "boutique airport" – possibly the first time it has been described thus.

Didn't Silverjet fail on exactly the same route as he proposes, from Luton to New York's Newark?

"Silverjet was not properly run," M Yvelin insists. He calls the airline's expansion to Dubai shortly before it folded "probably the stupidest act I have ever seen in the airline industry".

Beds from Beds

The full La Compagnie schedule starts in June. You will be able to fly in a bed from Bedfordshire to New York any evening you like except Tuesday. Coming back, the single departure is at 10.30pm. Other airlines offer business travellers rather more choice. United alone has four evening departures from Newark to Heathrow.

Business travellers value frequency and choice, which is one reason why the Airbus A380 "SuperJumbo" has never flown between London and New York and probably never will: two smaller jets departing an hour apart are more attractive than one giant plane. So, what will lure passengers to an airline with fewer flights from New York in a week than British Airways offers in an evening? The "insane, ridiculous" prices rivals demand. "Business-class fares are more than the price of car," says Yvelin. "We're providing the cheapest business-class service in the world."

Compagnie secrets

For La Compagnie, cost-cutting starts at the top. M Yvelin confides "My salary is smaller than any of my pilots' salaries." He adds: "A wonderful source of inspiration is Michael O'Leary of Ryanair." Time will tell if passengers are inspired; meanwhile, lots of seats are on sale at £649 return if you fancy a transatlantic treat.

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