The Travel Adviser: The costs of flying in style, and what the various airlines offer

The Travel Adviser The

Successful executives do it. Wealthy people do it - and they deserve it. Elderly people do it - often to the relief of other family members. Politicians do it - and you, dear taxpayer, foot the bill. We're talking, of course, about flying business class. Making up the bulk of airline profits and the main contributing factor to the losses of so many airlines over the last two years two years, business class sections on airplanes are now filling up again to pre-recession levels. British Airways, for example, got almost half its entire revenue from Premium travel seats last year even though Premium only makes up three percent of its available seats. Call it business class without a budget; airlines on both sides of the Atlantic have discounted business class fares to levels unseen for several years. The result is that airlines are filling empty seats with price cuts, meaning that flying business class is no longer a luxury. To fill these business class seats, airlines are trying to compete on several levels: Upgrades as well as prices and products. Upgrades: Running the gamut from paying up cash dollars or flashing some plastic (a credit card), to the preferred method of utilizing frequent flier miles or points, this method is the fantasy of most fliers who often ask their beleaguered travel consultant, "How can I get an upgrade?" The reality is quite simple. First fly frequently; it's not called a frequent flier program for those once-a-year passengers. Yes. airlines want your loyalty; they would like to see you on their planes every time you fly, but when it comes to big rewards all the programs are designed for frequent fliers. Secondly, you need to pay more for your ticket. Too often, I'm contacted asking why someone isn't eligible for an upgrade after buying a $400 ticket to London. Rare is the airline that will even consider upgrading a passenger to business class unless he or she has purchased a full-fare economy class ticket. Pay more and you will get more. In fact, one of the few competitive advantages to El Al's frequent flier program is that its top-tier members can be upgraded to business class not only 24 hours in advance of their flight but even at the gate as they are about to board. Please note that El Al offers this perk to its top-tier members only, classified as Gold Level, Platinum Level or their newest moniker, Top Platinum Level. Normal frequent fliers need not queue up; the only chance they will ever be upgraded will be due to an overbooking of economy class passengers. And then only if the more elite frequent flier members are not onboard. Continental Airlines follows the more routine path of airlines of combining both a dangling of the carrot alongside the whack of the stick. Its carrot is simple: donate 30,000 miles from your frequent flier account and you will be eligible for an upgrade to or from Newark on flights to or from Tel Aviv. The stick leaves a bit of a sting. Unless you have purchased a full-fare economy class ticket, or are in the top tier of their frequent flier program, you have the privilege of paying between $100-$500 to have a chance at being upgraded. I stress chance. Continental, like most airlines, first makes you purchase your ticket and then try for the upgrade. Paid for a full-fare economy class ticket in the hope that you'll get an upgrade? Wonderful... but if you don't get the upgrade you cannot exchange your ticket for a cheaper economy class ticket. This is where a travel consultant has a strong advantage over an internet site. He or she can give an honest assessment of how much space there is in business class and determine how high your risk is before you lay out the money. The second path chosen by airlines to entice you to fly business class is the one that appeals to most consumers: the price. There are only five airlines that fly nonstop from Israel to North America. Air Canada flies to Toronto. US Airways makes the trip to Philadelphia. Continental lands in Newark. Delta flies to both JFK and Atlanta. El Al flies to JFK, Newark, Los Angeles and Toronto. US Airways flies daily to Philadelphia with a business class fare of $2,739, including taxes. It appears to be a limited option, with very few passengers electing to fly only to Philly. Its fares beyond Philly, however, make it very competitive in the business class market to North America. Air Canada asks $3,092 to take you to Toronto, and pricewise is comparable to El Al's fare of $3,048. Nevertheless, you will not be surprised to learn why many passengers elect to fly Air Canada. Read on. To Newark and JFK, El Al, Continental and Delta all weigh in at around $2,700 for their least expensive business class ticket. Keep in mind that while you'll be sipping champagne and given warm towels to ease your tension, these fares are highly restrictive, encompassing huge penalties to change your ticket or to cancel your trip outright. Privilege also has its downside. Product: So you've decided to take the plunge, use some of your hard-earned money or have an enlightened company that permits you to fly business class. Your next choice should take into consideration the product you receive. Air Canada, for example, uses a lie-flat bed on its flights to Toronto. With the ability to stretch out 180 degrees, you can lie horizontal on its night flights and even turn over. Designed so you never see your seat mate, it's a great option when flying solo, but less desirable if you wanted to have a business conference or simply engage in conversation with your seat mate as the configuration doesn't allow it. Compared with the older Boeing 767 that El Al uses on its Toronto route, Air Canada's business class is considered by travel professionals to be the best aircraft flying from Tel Aviv. US Airways to Philadelphia is flying an Airbus 330 and has begun dropping hints that very soon it too will offer a lie-flat bed. Having only commenced flights here in July, early reviews have been positive but not overwhelmingly glowing. Delta flights to JFK also use an older plane, the Boeing 767 which, like El Al's aircraft to Toronto, offers old-fashioned seats, without personal video monitors, and is rarely the choice taken by business-class passengers. Delta has announced that in June it'll be flying a spanking new Boeing 747 and one can only hope it will be equipped with a first-class seat. Surprisingly, on the less traveled route, to Atlanta, Delta flies a Boeing 777, which has gotten very positive reviews. But still no lie-flat bed. When it comes to New York, the battle for the business class passenger remains a duel between El Al and Continental. Both don't offer a lie-flat bed, but both send out tantalizing teasers that "soon" they will upgrade their seats. Check-in facilities for both are highly acclaimed. El Al's King David Lounge and Continental's President Lounges offer a myriad of amenities. On the plane though, Continental's business class seats are higher rated than El Al's. It could be they are a bit more comfortable; it could be their cabins are a bit quieter. It could simply be that when you fly El Al, for better or worse, you're not really out of the country until you land. With Continental, the moment you step on board, you feel that your trip abroad has commenced. All these airlines, along with the European airlines such as Lufthansa and British Airways, which make great strides in promoting their business class product when not flying nonstop to North America, will not sit idly by. Tweaking their service, adding more value to the flying experience, is the only way they can stay in business. And that's not hot air! Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions and comments on all travel related topics, email him at