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Start-up airline stresses service

NEWARK - Silverjet, a three-month-old airline with one airplane, is creating pleasant dreams where Scottish businessman Raymond Eagleson once only had nightmares.

Silverjet's aircraft. It has one plane, but hopes to add twoby December. Round-trip fares range from $1,600 to $2,300.
Silverjet's aircraft. It has one plane, but hopes to add twoby December. Round-trip fares range from $1,600 to $2,300.Read more

NEWARK - Silverjet, a three-month-old airline with one airplane, is creating pleasant dreams where Scottish businessman Raymond Eagleson once only had nightmares.

Silverjet is the newest of three recent entries into the highly competitive market for business-class travel between New York and London, and the one most convenient for passengers from the Philadelphia region because it uses Newark Liberty International Airport. The other new business-class carriers, Eos Airlines and Maxjet, fly from Kennedy International Airport. A fourth recent all-business-class start-up, L'avion, flies between Newark and Paris.

Eagleson, director of a textile design and manufacturing firm in Langholm, Scotland, made his first trip on Silverjet, from Luton Airport near London to Newark, last week and was waiting to board his return flight last Friday afternoon. Not only was Silverjet's fare less than one-third of what major airlines charge for business class, he said, but the experience was hassle-free and the on-board service was superb, in contrast to many flights he has taken worldwide.

British Airways "once lost my bag on one flight, and then on the next flight lost the bag they bought for me as a replacement," said Eagleson, relaxing before the flight in the private Silverjet lounge at Newark's Terminal B. "This was great fun."

Fellow Scotsman Ronnie Lamb, who works with Eagleson, said the Silverjet "staff seems to want to serve you. With others, it's a duty, something you're paid to do. This is refreshing in this day and age."

Those are just the kind of endorsements Silverjet founder and chief executive officer Lawrence Hunt hoped for when he raised more than $50 million in a public offering on the London Stock Exchange last year, combined it with money from venture capitalists, and bought the operating license of an existing airline. The start-up has been costly, and Silverjet raised an additional $50 million in a second offering this week.

London-based Silverjet started flying Jan. 25, using one Boeing 767 jet with 100 business-class seats, one-third of what the wide-bodied airplane could hold if it had only coach seats. Like business-class seats on other airlines, those on Silverjet recline to a practically flat 170 degrees.

Silverjet expects to have another 767 in the air by July and a third one by December, enough to offer three Newark-to-London round-trips a day, said Hunt, 40, a serial entrepreneur who has launched and sold five other companies during the last two decades.

"The key thing to us was to be able to deliver an excellent flight experience and do it at a reasonable fare," he said in an interview in the Silverjet lounge.

During the next few years, the airline plans to add flights from Luton, a secondary airport 40 miles north of London, to other cities, including as many as nine in the United States, Hunt said. Philadelphia isn't on the list, because it doesn't have enough London traffic, he said.

Silverjet charges a round-trip fare of $1,600 to $2,300, plus taxes and fees, compared with business-class fares of $7,000 to almost $10,000 for nonstop flights on major airlines between Philadelphia or New York and London. The fare on the big carriers can drop to $4,000 to $5,000 for those willing to add three or four hours to the trip by changing planes en route. Coach seats for May and June flights to London cost between $700 and $1,000.

Of the other recent start-ups to London, Eos charges fares closer to those of Silverjet, while Maxjet fares are closer to those of the major carriers.

Tiny new airlines face huge hurdles to survive, much less make money. The frequent-flier programs and other perks offered by the major carriers make it hard to attract customers. While the big airlines have multiple flights a day on busy routes, the little ones can be less reliable because they do not have backup airplanes in case a flight has to be canceled.

Hunt is confident that his airline will thrive, not only by offering above-average service at a lower fare, but also because Silverjet is so small. He needs to attract only a handful of the 4 million travelers a year who fly between New York and London, the world's busiest international route, he said.

Silverjet tries to distinguish itself from competitors by allowing passengers with carry-on bags to check in just 30 minutes before a departure, rather than the typical hour or more, and having an employee escort each customer to the boarding gate. Flights have operated on-time 81 percent of the time since it started, Hunt said.

Hunt said Silverjet was not profitable, but filled 59 percent of its available seats in March, ahead of projections made in its business plan. The airline will start making money when it fills 65 percent, he said.

Silverjet also is billing itself as the world's first "carbon-neutral" airline, by contributing a small portion of each fare - $26 to $30 - to projects such as wind-power farms in Kenya. Hunt said he wanted to offset his airplane's carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming.

The carbon-neutral effort also has public-relations benefits. It is one of the reasons that Kiran Narsu, a sales executive with an Edison, N.J., software company, said he has flown four round-trips to London on Silverjet since it started, although low fares and comfortable seats are just as important.

"As a business traveler, I try to save my company as much money as possible, but I still need to rest on the flight," he said.

Travel-industry experts say Silverjet has a good chance of prospering, both because of its lower fares and the approach it has taken to personalized service.

"I think they'll do very, very well," said Terry Trippler, the airline authority for Vacation Passport, an online travel agency. "If they think nothing but service, service, service, they're going to blow the full-fare airlines out of the water."