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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
Sitting and Sleeping
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 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
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.
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
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
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
OpenSkies Biz review
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24 Oct 2008, last update
28 May 2011
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.