Ever heard of OpenSkies? They’re the all business class airline formerly known as L’Avion, renamed after being acquired by British Airways. For a little more than the cost of an economy ticket – or sometimes a little less, depending on when you book, OpenSkies offers travelers between New York or Washington, DC and Paris an all business class flight. When you spot a fare on OpenSkies that’s the same as the cost of an economy seat on a major airline, it’s certainly tempting. Throw in the 3 free checked bags you get (compared to the paltry one that’s allowed on most international flights now), and for those who just can’t seem to get everything a trip out of the country requires into one bag, it seems like a no-brainer.
At 6’1″, most flights consist of twisting my legs into uncomfortable, slanted positions so that I don’t end up with the seatback bar digging into my knees and a tray table in my chest. The allure of legroom would have been enough, but combined with the fact that the fare was $40 less than the lowest, non-stop economy fare at the time, I decided to forgo more miles on my normal carrier (hello, Continental!) for an airline I hadn’t heard much about before.
Now, I’m rethinking that.
Keeping the cost of airfare down means something is sacrificed. Baggage allowances, food and plenty of other things have already disappeared from domestic flights. If you’re flying RyanAir, you may sacrifice the convenience of flying into a major airport, and things like free toilet privileges. When tickets are $20 though, you chalk it up to the price of saving. Despite the marketing, with OpenSkies you also make sacrifices which can cost thousands of dollars, or even leave you stranded.
Perhaps the most frustrating experience is checking in at Paris Orly. There are 2 daily flights to Newark, which means that costs are reduced by only renting gates on a part time basis. While airlines like Air Algerie, Aigle Azur and EasyJet have permanent, clearly marked signs, the OpenSkies check-in counters are obscured behind a magazine shop with no signs that would indicate to people passing by that the check-in desk is located behind the more prominently labeled store and other airlines. While the red and white of Air Algerie and the blue and white of Aigle Azur are clearly and prominently visible from a distance, there’s nothing but a blank wall behind the Open Skies counter. The sole signage is a small logo on the screen at the gate – a screen which is not visible from the airport entrance (it’s blocked by the magazine store). Add to that, to save on costs, OpenSkies contracts a 3rd party company to handle the check-in process, rather than actual employees of the company. The company who handles the check-in doesn’t wear uniforms with the airline name on them, or anything with the airline’s purple and gray color scheme, which makes it even more difficult to identify them as OpenSkies agents. Not surprisingly, even people who work at the airport aren’t always aware of the location of the check-in counter.
Why is it a problem? If for any reason you’re tight on time, 15 minutes spent going back and forth through the terminal or taking a train to the other airport building after someone mistakenly suggests that the airline is in a different terminal adds up. In my case, the search added up to finding the counter approximately 20 minutes after check-in closed, but before the flight left.
If Problems Arise…
Normally, if you miss a flight by a matter of minutes, an airline will place you on standby for the next available flight once you speak with an agent at the gate. Remember the money saving outsourcing of the check-in process? It also means, that if problems arise at the airport, the contracted agents don’t have the authority to reschedule or rebook flights. Instead, all requests have to go through a call center, which doesn’t have a direct connection to the gate, and is often only one person. A manager, supervisor or anyone who would be able to rebook a flight is conveniently never available. A request for the name of someone to address a letter to is met with refusal.
The end result? In my case, €1200, or approximately $1600 at the current exchange rate for a new ticket – no credit for the existing ticket, no discount, no standby. $1600 reserved for accommodations in New York – gone if I wanted to leave Paris. Friends of friends came through to ensure that it didn’t mean an extended stay in the airport lounge/recreating The Terminal. But what happens to the misguided traveler who doesn’t have money for a new ticket on OpenSkies or another airline? From every conversation, they would be completely and totally stranded.
If Nothing Goes Wrong…
Then you make it onto the flight. There’s nothing above and beyond the business class service you’d find on a major airline, but it does deliver. Seats recline 140 degrees and have the expanded legroom that’s typical of a business class service. Hot towels, socks that allow you to kick up your feet and rest them on the padded footrest, enough quality food to ensure that you don’t leave hungry – the amenities are all there, and in-flight service is an area where it doesn’t seem any sacrifices have been made.
Flight attendants and cabin crew are pleasant and responsive, and though seats and the cabin interior show small signs of wear and tear, it’s nothing that takes away from the service. The difference of flying cramped in an economy seat compared to being able to stretch out, lean far back without bumping into someone else somehow makes the flight go by faster.
While the offer of a business class flight at a price close to economy is tempting, and the flight delivers, the lack of options available to passengers at the airport is something of a dealbreaker. You may be an experienced traveler who plans everything perfectly, but an unplanned problem can hit anyone and cause delays. Perhaps it’s the taxi or shuttle that doesn’t arrive when scheduled, or an unexpected illness. Maybe it’s an accident on the way to the airport that holds traffic up. Or, it could be as simple as a first time passenger not finding the (obscured, poorly marked) check-in gate on time.
On the other hand, everything could go as planned, you could enjoy a business class flight that’s generally comparable to that of major airlines. That chance of something going wrong may be small, but it’s there. The fact is that the cost saving staffing decisions can easily cost even the experienced traveler thousands of dollars – or leave them stranded without recourse if anything goes awry and they don’t have the money to pay for a last minute, international flight.
Perhaps it’s the price you pay for a reasonably priced airline ticket that doesn’t make you feel like you’re a level above being seated in the cargo hold, but it’s a high price to pay for trying to save.