For just over a year, the major airlines have been fighting it out with all-business class upstarts like Maxjet, Eos, and L’Avion for trans-Atlantic premium traffic. Most of those seats are going from New York to London. But the Pacific has been conspicuously absent, with the skies still dominated by the big network carriers and their traditional economy/business/first configurations. Now Maxjet wants to fly to China.
Much like their bigger competitors, they filed paperwork with the Department of Transportation in an effort to get one of the very few available slots (see here for some background). Maxjet proposes a route that takes passengers from Los Angeles to Seattle, and then on to Shanghai.
Given that Maxjet is up against every other major US airline for a single flight slot that’s up for grabs, there is no way on earth that the Department of Transportation would give Maxjet the rights to the route. Maxjet’s Boeing 767s can’t carry nearly as many passengers or as much cargo as would be in the “national interest.” But the proposal signals that the company is looking beyond London.
So why hasn’t there been an entrepreneurial company that sells all-business flights to somewhere in Asia? The demand for premium cabins is high on those long trips — and frankly, that’s where you WANT to be in business class. A flight from New York to London isn’t really that long, and most people can manage that in coach. But a long-haul flight from North America to Asia or Australia in coach? Brutal.
I’m no airline economist nor an aerospace engineer, so I don’t have the answer. Perhaps the problem is filling planes that can actually reach Asia from the U.S. without a refueling stop in Alaska. Filling a 747, 777, or A340 with nothing but business class passengers might be tough for a new company, and most smaller planes don’t have the range to make it across the ocean. (Note that Maxjet’s proposed flight leaves from Seattle, not LAX or SFO, which cuts a bit of mileage from the flight.) And some of the Asian carriers (e.g., Singapore and Cathay Pacific in particular) offer a really top-tier business class product, raising the bar for potential competitors.
One alternative might be Oasis Hong Kong Airlines. They aren’t all-business class, but they are selling premium seats at a major discount to their competitors. Oasis promises service from Hong Kong to Oakland, California soon (though their promise of starting service by June went unfulfilled). They are currently flying from Hong Kong to Vancouver and London. A roundtrip business class ticket to fly between Hong Kong and Vancouver runs around US$2800 without any special sales or promotion.
Perhaps China isn’t the right route for Maxjet. But Korea or Japan might make sense. Bring on the trans-Pacific competition.