New kids in class
With the launch of two brand-new all-business-class airlines, a change is in the air. Will upstarts Eos and MAXjet really fly? A peek inside the cabin.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – DAVID SPURLOCK, THE FOUNDER OF EOS Airlines, is beaming as he scans the cabin of his pride-and-joy Boeing 757. "All babies are beautiful, right?" he says, opening his arms to show off Eos, his all-premium business-class airline, which was set to begin daily flights between New York and London on Oct. 18. It's just one of two new airlines launching this fall that want a piece of the lucrative transatlantic business travel market.
"Southwest Airlines freed short-haul economy-based travel from the grip of the traditional airlines," Spurlock says. "We're going to do the same thing for the long-haul business traveler." He grabs a blanket lying on the seat beside him. "Just look at this. It's cashmere wool on the outside and lined with a soft cotton sheet that is actually long enough to cover your whole body after you recline your seat to fully flat. Virgin doesn't have that. British doesn't have that. And American doesn't even come close."
Eos is offering more than a nice blanket. Named for the winged Greek goddess of the dawn, the airline promises something akin to a corporate jet experience (albeit a jet outfitted by someone with rather spartan taste). Each of its three planes has just 48 seats (most 757s hold at least 180), with an unprecedented 21 square feet of personal space. The seats, which fold down into six-foot six-inch flat beds, are staggered, so you can't see your neighbor. Instead of tray tables, compartments have large credenza-like surfaces and "companion seats" for in-flight meetings. With just a few dozen passengers, escorts to speed you from curbside to gate, and flights that land at London's small Stansted airport (avoiding congested Heathrow but requiring a long cab ride into town), boarding, Spurlock crows, will be a cinch.
True, the Eos cabins lack the sex appeal of Virgin's and the flat-out poshness of those of British Airways, but Spurlock points out that on Sir Richard's planes business-class seats are angled so you can see your neighbor, and on British the seats are smaller and some face backward. (He should know; he was director of strategy at British before leaving to found Eos.) The main downside? With just three planes, Eos will operate only one flight a day to start. But companies on tight budgets may be willing to compromise: Excluding discounts, British charges $8,572 for a business-class seat; Eos costs $6,500. Spurlock says he has already signed up three blue-chip Wall Street firms.
The other all-business-class entrant is MAXjet, which is scheduled to start flying the same route Nov. 1. Though MAXjet hasn't made many details public, its 102-seat 767 will resemble a standard business-class offering, with roughly the same legroom as American or Continental's business class, and a seat that doesn't quite lie flat. So what's the hook? With the low-cost advantage of a new airline, it will undercut the major carriers by up to 80%, with a fare of $1,558 roundtrip.
Both Eos and MAXjet zeroed in on the New York--London route because it's flush with money-is-no-object business travelers, and fares haven't been crushed by cutthroat competition. At American Airlines, which is coincidentally in the midst of revamping its business-class cabins, the transatlantic market generates more money per seat-mile than any other region, 10% more than domestic. But analysts aren't quite sure what to make of the upstarts, since the only comparison is with Kirk Kerkorian's ill-fated über-luxury MGM Grand Air (it flew primarily from New York to L.A. in the 1980s and barely made a profit in its eight years). "The only way Eos is going to get around the other airlines' frequent-flier programs and Heathrow service is by getting tons of corporate accounts," says Steven Casley, managing director of industry consulting firm BACK Aviation Solutions.
Despite the old saying that the quickest way to make a million bucks is to start with a billion and launch an airline, some prominent investors are excited about both companies. The $87 million that Eos raised from veterans like Golden Gate Capital, Sutter Hill Ventures, and Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz's Maveron fund was the second-highest amount ever raised for an airline, behind JetBlue. MAXjet meanwhile has raised $40 million from wealthy individuals, including Kenneth Woolley. He made his fortune founding Extra Space Storage in Salt Lake City--and has some extra cash to kick around, thanks to his own early investment in a little company called JetBlue.
*Distance from back of one seat to back of the next.