Brancatelli on Business Travel — The Good News (Up Front)

Brancatelli on Business Travel — The Good News (Up Front)

Not mindless drivel, but honest-to-goodness good news about business travel. It might surprise you to know that there is some. Admittedly, it’s almost always in the pricier upper classes and usually on the pricier upper classes of international flights, but good news is out there. I know. I recently stumbled across it on flights operated by America West, bmi and Aer Lingus.

First Class on America West

Bad planning last month left me with back-to-back long-haul roundtrips, and then I forgot to buy in advance for a 48-hour weekend business trip to Phoenix. Appalled by the thought of a weekend in coach after a clutch of long hauls, I gave America West about $1,100 for first-class seats from Newark to Sky Harbor International.

The first thing you should notice is the price: $1,100 roundtrip walk-up to sit up front. America West reduced prices and simplified its fare structure in the spring of 2002. You’ll now find terrific walk-up deals in both classes on America West. The change has been good for America West, too. Once near extinction, the airline generated five consecutive profitable quarters until skyrocketing fuel prices slammed its earnings in the third quarter.

But America West has done more than clean up its fares and balance sheet. It’s transformed itself into a well-run and reliable airline, two adjectives that would have never been applied to the pre-9/11 America West. My two flights were on time — one was so early we had to wait for a gate — and staffed by pleasant, professional crews.

On the outbound leg, all 12 first-class passengers on the Airbus A320 were repeatedly schmoozed and cosseted by Randy, a 17-year America West veteran. “I still love my job,” he told me when I asked about his seemingly endless energy for tending to his first-class flock. On the return, the crew was a bit less engaging, but they were unfailingly polite, friendly and attentive throughout the flight.

America West doesn’t offer the most lavish first-class cabin in the sky — the legroom is 36 inches, the recline on the 20-inch wide seats is a bit shallow and the in-flight entertainment is a single movie and a lame televised trivia game — but the meal service was unexpectedly bounteous and surprisingly tasty. The wines were recognizable labels and a cut above what you’d expect on domestic first class.

One other note: A full-fare first-class seat entitles you to free entry into the America West lounges in Phoenix, a nice perk if you’re not a regular America West customer.

Getting the Business on bmi

You’re forgiven if you don’t recognize the moniker bmi and didn’t know that it is the third British-based airline offering transatlantic service. Bmi used to be called British Midland before changing to the diminutive (and lower case) bmi in February, 2001. That’s the same month it launched transatlantic service from Manchester in Northern England to Washington/Dulles and Chicago/O’Hare. It added flights from a third U.S. gateway, Las Vegas, on October 31.

It took me more than three years to catch up with bmi’s front cabin, a business class awkwardly named “the business,” and I now regret the delay. My roundtrip between Dulles and Manchester Airport — a blissfully calm alternative to Heathrow if you’re headed to the north of England, Wales or Edinburgh, Scotland — was extremely comfortable and lots of fun.

Fun? Yup. Fun. Why? An onboard chef does lovely in-flight cuisine and will customize meals for you during the journey. (It works. I deliberately threw the chef a few curves on one of my flights and he didn’t flinch.) He even prepares fresh eggs — eggs right from the shell, I mean — for the morning arrival meal on the eastbound flights. Westbound, there’s a lavish afternoon tea service: Passengers are presented with a personal lazy susan brimming with sandwiches, scones, tarts and cakes.

Unlike its better-known British competitors, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, bmi does not offer lie-flat beds in business. Instead, business class on the airline’s Airbus A330s is outfitted with wide, comfy armchairs that recline 160 degrees and have 60 inches of seat pitch. They are great as chairs and extremely comfortable perches on which to sleep. There are laptop power ports at every chair as well as 9-inch personal video monitors offering 16 audio and 20 video channels and a raft of popular video games. Passengers can also access video feeds of cameras mounted on the nose and belly of the aircraft. And if you’re a fan of classically attired flight crews, you’ll love bmi’s uniforms for its female flight attendants. The retro outfits are complete with pillbox hats.

If bmi has a problem, it’s the Star Alliance tie-up with United Airlines, which guarantees that bmi’s check-in facilities at Dulles are all but invisible. (I’m told bmi is better served at O’Hare.) But the United deal also has its benefits for bmi, which is partially owned by Lufthansa, another Star Alliance carrier.

“We’re still a small international player, and we need United’s presence in the U.S. market,” insists Austin Reed, who retired as bmi chief executive a few days after I spoke with him in late October. “It’s been a love-hate relationship with United, and it’s taken longer than we thought to get to profitability with these flights, but people who find us are very pleasantly surprised with what we offer.”

After the Price Cuts on Aer Lingus

When Aer Lingus dramatically slashed its transatlantic business-class fares in late September, it was logical to assume that its standards would decline, too. After all, when other carriers are asking upward of $8,000 roundtrip walk-up in business class across the Atlantic, what can you expect from Aer Lingus, which now charges just $2,200 (from Boston), $2,600 (from New York) or $3,000 (from Los Angeles or Chicago) for a Premier Class roundtrip?

So it was with some trepidation that I flew a Premier roundtrip from New York/Kennedy to Dublin last month. I needn’t have worried. Especially for the price, Aer Lingus in Premier is an excellent way to fly across the Atlantic.

For starters, Aer Lingus’ departure lounge at Kennedy’s Terminal 4 is gorgeous and comfortable. There are movie-style seats facing a bank of televisions, deck chairs with market umbrellas looking out over the runways, a library with a huge conference table and lots of free beverages and snacks. The flight crews are remarkably solicitous and polished — and that charming Irish lilt in their voices really doesn’t hurt. The airline’s Airbus A330s are each outfitted with 24 Premier seats, which have generous legroom, lots of recline, individual reading lights, laptop power outlets and more than enough entertainment options for the smallish at-seat video screens. I slept well on both flights.

The meal service is excellent, augmented with quality wines and champagne. The eastbound leg from New York or Boston — a quick ride of less than six hours — offers four entrees, including a vegetarian option. The service is split: Appetizer and entrees come on a tray for quick service so you can maximize your sleep time. If you want more, desserts, cheeses, liqueurs and coffees are served from a cart in a more leisurely fashion. And, wisely, the menu even goes to great lengths to explain this approach so you know what’s coming your way. On the longer westbound flights, there is a lunch service and a tea service. And an evening meal is served on the Los Angeles leg.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Dublin is a great, single-terminal airport to use as a hub if you want to go beyond Ireland to one of Aer Lingus’ 36 European destinations. Customs and Immigration is rapid and friendly, baggage service is quick, and you can easily make a connecting flight in 90 minutes or less. Aer Lingus’ European flights are all coach, but they are surprisingly good with fresh, new Airbus A320s on many routes and lots of tasty buy-on-board meal options. One note, however: The baggage allowances differ between Premier Class on transatlantic segments and the all-coach European flights, so pack accordingly.

On return flights to the United States, Premier Class passengers have access to the Aer Lingus lounge in Dublin. It’s fine, but often crowded and nowhere near as attractive as the JFK branch. A notable, unexpected perk: Travelers clear U.S. Customs and Immigration before departing from Dublin, which is an amazing time-saver and much less stressful than dealing with the Customs and Immigration areas at Kennedy, Boston, O’Hare or LAX.

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