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Thu 9 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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All eyes on OpenSkies

The MD of start-up BA subsidiary Open Skies, Dale Moss, tells Gemma Greenwood why the premium airline has a “heck of a chance” of surviving.

The MD of start-up BA subsidiary Open Skies, Dale Moss, tells Gemma Greenwood why the premium airline has a “heck of a chance” of surviving.

At a time when the world's aviation industry is undergoing a battering, no thanks to high fuel prices and a global economic downturn, one might call you crazy for initiating a new airline venture.

But UK flag carrier British Airways (BA) has done just that, launching premium airline OpenSkies on June 19, operating direct non-stop services between Paris-Orly and New York JFK.

We have a long way to go but we think we have a heck of a chance.

A wholly-owned subsidiary of BA, OpenSkies is the first airline created as a result of the Open Skies agreement that came into effect on March 30, 2008, permitting airlines to fly between any US and EU destination.

Many have questioned how this venture can survive given the string of premium airline failures in the last 12 months, starting with MaxJet, followed by Eos Airlines and culminating with Silverjet.

But OpenSkies managing director Dale Moss is confident that unlike these UK-based carriers, his baby boasts a recipe for success.

"MaxJet and Silverjet both used a very heavy and a very expensive platform and Eos used a Boeing 757 [like us] but in a rich configuration - just 45 seats - and all three could only fly from the UK," he explains.

"We won't ever fly to the UK and we are not a competitor to BA, which makes things easier. Not only that but we have the airline's backing and the benefits of a codeshare agreement, the BA frequent flyer programme, BA's fuel hedging as well as its customer service facilities."

Moss is also quick to point out that OpenSkies was born 15 months ago when economic conditions were somewhat more buoyant than they are today. He stresses that BA is committed to the initiative with the board giving the green light to a five-year business plan for the venture.

"This is not a short-term play for BA - it's a strategic play," he says.

"Plus customer response to the airline has been great. Some customers have returned and said to me ‘Dale, don't change a thing'. "We have a long way to go but we think we have a heck of a chance. I cannot guarantee the future. What I can guarantee is that we (the OpenSkies team) will work our butts off. We can't control oil prices or the economy, but we can control our product."

Moss also stresses that people still need to "travel for commerce" and that OpenSkies provides a "great product at a great price".In fact, a return trip from Paris to New York is priced around US $3200 for OpenSkies' business class product, ‘BIZ' and around half that for its premium economy product, PREM+.

"These prices will give us a little bit of traction in the marketplace," claims Moss.

The model

Although OpenSkies is a BA brainchild, its DNA is quite different to its parent, a stalwart of the skies.

"There are a couple of things that have gone into making OpenSkies what it is. It's first and foremost a point-to-point premium airline that over time can be a pan-European brand," Moss explains. "It is also intended to be a hotbed for innovation and trying new things - that is much easier for a new airline like OpenSkies than it is for an established one such as British Airways."

He notes that with OpenSkies employing just 300 people compared to BA's gargantuan workforce of 45,000-plus, the airline has a chance to "move quickly".

"Part of what we are is the ability to be agile and very quick - and then be decisive. Some things we might get wrong, but then we will fix it very quickly."

An example of this is the carrier switching from a three-class to a two-class cabin.

"We experimented with a three-class cabin but it was clear from a combination of things we were planning - including acquiring [French airline] L'Avion - that we were a point-to-point long-haul premium airline," says Moss. "When you get on board and you turn right, it's so different. You feel like you are on a corporate jet."

That's not to say it's a lavish affair, adds Moss, which would be inappropriate given the current economic conditions.

It's more about a cabin that "looks and feels different", with "intelligent food" and importantly, "the right attitude" - a formula he hopes will see OpenSkies establish itself as a niche brand.

The concept is simple - a two-by-two configuration with one aisle - and there are two products;  BIZ and PREM+.

The BIZ cabin has 24 seats that convert to a 180-degree flatbed, while PREM+ has 40 seats, each with a "sensible pitch" (52 inches).OpenSkies currently flies up to three times daily from Paris Orly to New York JFK and will launch a daily service from Amsterdam to New York this month (October 15).

Moss says other East Coast US cities such as Washington, Boston and Philadelphia are on the agenda, as are routes from Milan, Brussels, Frankfurt and Madrid to New York, with more launch announcements expected early next year.

"We are looking for opportunities to grow - both East and West of Europe," he reveals, hinting that a Europe to Dubai service has not been ruled out.

"We are driven by the range of our Boeing 757 aircraft and driven by point-to-point long-haul premium. The Middle East would be somewhere to consider."

Moss, like BA, is keen to drive sales through the airline's website but says "it's never been a better time for good travel agents".

 "It's never been about trying to distribute products without travel agents," he says. "We need them and want them."

About OpenSkies

• Ownership:A wholly-owned subsidiary of British Airways.

• Aircraft type:two Boeing 757s.

• Routes:Paris Orly to New York JFK up to three times daily and from October 15, Amsterdam's Schiphol International Airport to New York JFK, daily.

• BIZ cabin:24 seats that recline to lie-flat beds.

• PREM+ cabin:40 seats with a 52-inch seat pitch.

• Extras:Amenity kits with Elemis spa products; touch-screen portable media players; access to the BA lounge at T7 at JFK and the shared lounge at ORY-SUD terminal; and OpenSkies concierge services to assist with hotel reservations and sightseeing tours.


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