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Mon 19 Nov 2007 05:42 PM

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Silverjet takes off

The all business London to Dubai Silverjet flight took off on Sunday - with ArabianBusiness. com on board.

I suppose the truest test of customer service comes when something goes wrong, and things certainly started badly with my first contact with all-business class airline, Silverjet.

Silverjet has been flying from Luton Airport, just north of London, to New York since January this year. It has a small fleet of Boeing 767s configured to fly 100 passengers at a time in flatbed seats.

The passenger experience is enhanced by using private terminals that allow the airline to provide personal service such as check-in from within the lounge.

But first, I had to get to the private terminal, a job made more difficult when my chauffeur drive service failed to phone to arrange a pickup.

I'd paid an extra £150 on top of my standard £1200 fare for the privilege of being picked up from home, only 25 miles from Luton Airport. But the driver never called to arrange a time to meet me, and with less than three hours to go before the flight took off, and with heavy snow falling outside, I decided to jump in my own car and drive myself.

My booking confirmation said I would get a phone call to arrange a pick-up time from my driver, and I had even called the airline on the morning of the flight to see what was happening with my ride. But after four minutes on hold, all I could do was leave an answer phone message. They still didn't call me back.

Their recovery, however, was admirable. Without prompting, they offered to refund the price of the chauffeur service, and even took me to a computer terminal to double-check the credit card to which the refund would be paid.

It remains to be seen how the airline will respond when I send them the additional £150 bill for the short stay car park I used for my five-day trip.

Arriving at the Silverjet terminal from the short stay car park, in a snowstorm, is far from glamorous, positioned as it is just across from the busy bus terminal of Luton airport. But, once inside, the atmosphere changes instantly to relaxed sophistication.

Your bags are immediately taken from you at the door, but there is no check-in procedure beyond the obligatory questions about who packed the bags and whether you are carrying any aftershave or explosives. Has anybody ever answered yes to any of these questions?

The check-in happens once you are in the lounge. Spiffy attendants first pour you refreshments - bottles of Krug champagne were on offer for the first flight to Dubai, but I suspect they'll be back to cheaper fizz once the fuss dies down - and only when you are settled into your first drink will they bother you with the task of handing over your travel documents.

Your passport and details are checked at little kiosks dotted around the lounge and then returned to you along with a boarding pass. You never even need to get up from your sofa.

This is how checking-in should be done.

The lounge is a triumph of function and fashion. There is a handful of ancient-looking leather wing-backed armchairs in the entrance to the lounge to give it a bit of old British charm. The rest of the furniture is modern, practical and comfortable.

The food is better than you get in some business class lounges, but worse than you get in others. It pales in comparison to the fare on offer in the brand new Emirates lounge at Heathrow, but so does the food in almost all other airline lounges.

Security is another massive victory for Silverjet. Because you are departing from a private terminal, there are only your fellow passengers - a maximum of 100 - jostling to use the single X-ray machine.

This might sound like a potential scrum, but because the security check is situated right by the lounge, you can watch it while tucking into some canapés and go through when there isn't a queue.

Anybody who thinks that travelling for 45 minutes by train up to Luton from central London is a burden should note that you save this amount of time and more as you float stress-free through security.

Heathrow on a typical day takes up to an hour to get through check in and security, even in the business class fast track. And you are treated like cattle in a farmer's auction.

Luton Airport and Silverjet have reduced the stress of this process to nil.

The spell is slightly broken with a short bus ride to the plane. Again, Emirates have the edge here when you are able to board a flight directly from their Heathrow lounge. But the bus is small, and everybody has a seat. A family with two small children in pushchairs did find the bus a bit of a squeeze, but they remained good-humoured for the short run to the plane.

Once on board, you are struck by the unique interior. Seats are configured in a 2-2-2 configuration across the cabin, with all seats facing the front.

The colour scheme is chocolate and coffee with accents of silver and blue. It's a combination that you will have seen in a dozen Dubai restaurants, and might have jumped straight off the pages of furniture retailer The One's catalogue. It was all the rage a couple of years ago when Silverjet was planning its first service from London to New York, but I fear it will seem dated sooner than the airline would like.

Boarding all-business class flights is a pleasure tinged with a hint of disappointment. The aisles are wide, the overhead lockers spacious, your fellow passengers are all experts at executing the job of finding their seats. It all runs like clockwork.

The only problem is it robs you of that moment of smug satisfaction you feel as you sit down in the front cabin of a normal flight. I get a Machiavellian thrill out of knowing how much everybody is suffering in cattle class - I'm there often enough to know their pain.

Silverjet's seats are wide and comfortable. But there is a peculiar lack of storage space around you because areas where you might stow a hefty novel have given way to make room for as many flatbed seats as can be humanly crammed into a Boeing 767. There isn't even anywhere to put the bottle of water that is provided to every passenger.

The Inaugural London-Dubai Silverjet flight pictures
There is also no screen in the seat in front - again, I expect, a compromise made in order to get in more seats/beds. Instead, you get a portable entertainment system that looks like the new fangled DVD players that you strap to the back of car seat headrests.

It works well enough, but is tricky when dinner arrives and the screen has to compete for space on your table with your meal. It certainly isn't a patch on the in flight entertainment you get on a business class flight with Etihad - the leader in this category in my opinion.

Service onboard is excellent. The ratio of staff to passengers feels slightly lower than in some business class cabins, but this seems to make them more efficient, not less. Cabin crew in business class too often over travellers like over-attentive waiters. Silverjet doesn't suffer from this.

The snow that hit Southern England on the evening of the flight caused Luton's runway to close briefly. This caused over an hour's delay; a drag in any frequent flyer's life. I passed the time writing some of this review, before taking a quick tour up and down the cabin to see if there was anybody I recognised.

I thought I might see a few captains of Dubai industry, but instead my eye was drawn to a particularly striking blond. I thought from a distance it might be a film star or pop singer, but it was only potty-mouthed Danielle Lloyd - star of Big Brother and ex-WAG of Premiership footballer Teddy Sheringham - doubtless on her way to do a beach-front bikini photo shoot at one of the UAE's glamorous hotels.

Ms Lloyd is capable of lowering the tone of entire cities, but she seemed to cause a frisson of excitement on our flight. Perhaps flying out of Luton, a bleak industrial city built around a Vauxhall car factory (now closed), sapped the glamour out of taking off from a private terminal.

The evening meal was served quickly with no unwieldy trolleys clogging up the aisles. Plates and drinks were bought individually to each passenger.

I ate only a main course of lamb cutlets, a meal planned if not cooked at La Caprice, a famous London restaurant. I opted out of desert and cheese in favour of getting as much sleep as possible on the 6 hour, 45 minute flight.

Setting the seat into full recline, it was immediately apparent that this was not a fully flat bed. By my mathematics, it reached an angle around 10 degrees off flat.

Silverjet is not the only airline in the air to claim that this slightly sloping bed is flat; I've heard it said that the plane flies with its nose up so that the bed is actually parallel to the ground. Even if this is true, it did not stop me sliding down the bed while asleep and ending up with slightly cramped feet.

However, I did have a sound night's sleep, and woke only as the seatbelt sign went on to signify our descent into Dubai. I had missed breakfast, but was offered a breakfast in a bag to take with me.

Silverjet uses Dubai's private terminal, which is located beyond the Airport Expo Centre on the road towards Mirdiff and Sharjah. I was intrigued to see how this small terminal, designed to receive half a dozen people at a time from their Learjets, would cope with 100 people from a 767.

Not well, was the answer.

Everybody handed over their passport before going through a quick security check and being shown to several small lounges designed to accommodate the aforementioned Learjet-size clutch of passengers.

It then took up to an hour for passports to be returned by two hard-working by flustered attendants. Tempers were rising as this torturous process unfolded.

Having received my passport, I was directed to find my luggage, which had been placed by the side of the road where the taxis pull up. Not what a business passenger would expect.

I was relieved to find that taxis were available, and was away towards my hotel two hours after touching down in Dubai.

Overall, the concept of an all-business class service between London and Dubai is excellent, and Silverjet got enough right to justify optimism that the flights will become popular.

But the fact that the airline has been in business for only seven months showed in the lack of attention to detail. It is inconceivable that a Virgin, BA or Emirates would have left so much to chance on an inaugural flight.

I will be using Silverjet again, and hope to see service become more slick as the airline beds in. Whether they can control the Dubai airport terminal end of the operation is a key challenge. It really was a weak part of the overall package.

The Inaugural London-Dubai Silverjet flight pictures

Arabian Business travelled anonymously and paid for its own flight.

Flight cost £1204 for a semi-flexible ‘saver' fare.

Tax of £54.60 was added.

We chose to add the optional carbon offset fee of £23.06

Chauffeur drive cost £154

Making the total for the flight £1453.66.

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