British Airways and Virgin Atlantic plan all-premium foray

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EU-US Open Skies is prompting major European carriers to look at establishing transatlantic all-business class operations.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways both say they are working on plans to establish all-business class operations connecting continental Europe with North America. "Open Skies has given us the opportunity," says Virgin Atlantic director of external affairs and route development Barry Humphreys. "We've looked at it in the past. The regulatory restrictions that have been in place have now been lifted."

Virgin Atlantic says it will launch all-business class flights in 12 to 18 months from Paris, Frankfurt, Milan and Zurich to New York. Humphreys says the new all-business class operation will, at least initially, not include the UK because Virgin Atlantic does not have enough slots at London Heathrow to run an all-premium operation at the airport alongside its existing mixed configuration operation. He adds that as part of the same post-Open Skies study Virgin Atlantic is looking at launching a separate two-class transatlantic operation from continental Europe.

BA chief executive Willie Walsh says it will launch services next summer from US cities including New York JFK, where it has its own terminal with spare capacity, to continental Europe. But Walsh insists he has not decided yet whether the operation will only offer business class or if it will have both an economy and business class product.

Walsh says BA will use some of the 13 Boeing 757s and 21 Boeing 767s in its existing fleet. Virgin Atlantic is talking to Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer about providing aircraft for its new all-business class operation.

The all-premium market has captured the attention of the industry over the last two years following the launch of four all-business class airlines in the transatlantic market. But Humphreys and Walsh say Open Skies is prompting Virgin and BA to enter the market, and the all-premium start-ups have had little to no impact on their existing two- or three-class transatlantic operations.

KLM, Lufthansa and Swiss also now offer all-business class transatlantic services. But these services are limited to a handful of niche routes and are operated with wet-leased aircraft. Lufthansa also offers a premium service with business jet operator NetJets for passengers connecting from cities outside its network. Austrian Airlines in May forged a similar deal with business jet operator Jetalliance to provide onward and feeder connections to premium passengers.