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Business-class prices are making a descent

August 26, 2007|James Gilden | Special to The Times

The lights dimmed and the audience grew quiet. With great fanfare, the curtains inched up as applause from the invitation-only guests began to swell.

This was a high-powered premiere, but not of the cinematic variety. The folks gathered at an American Airlines hangar at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this summer were regular fliers and corporate customers of Singapore Airlines. The event was the unveiling of Singapore's new business- and first-class seats.

"Sweet," said Mark Wille of Hermosa Beach, while his friend Christopher Ludwig of Laguna Niguel sat in one of the new seats, which can fold flat. Ludwig tried out the seat-as-bed and the entertainment system with a hand-held control that provides hundreds of on-demand amusement options as well as a full set of office applications that can be operated using a qwerty keypad. Ludwig, a regular business-class flier on Singapore Airlines, pronounced it "a big improvement on the existing seat."

Airlines such as Singapore, United, American, British Airways and others are pouring millions into their international first- and business-class seat offerings, making them ever more luxurious. So naturally the cost of those seats is going up, right? Not necessarily.

Though it is little publicized, leisure and business travelers who purchase a ticket at least 60 days in advance can buy business-class seats on many airlines at a substantial discount.

Using Orbitz, I sampled business-class fares (for comparison only; they may no longer be available) from LAX to London for a trip in September. The lowest fare I found was a one-stop by way of Dublin on Aer Lingus for $4,715. Air New Zealand had the lowest nonstop at $4,896. Fares on most of the other airlines were a bit more than $5,000.

But by choosing a flight more than 60 days in advance, I found reduced-price restricted fares. Again using Orbitz, I found that Air France, United, Delta, Swiss and Lufthansa had one-stop or nonstop flights to London for as little as $3,308, about 30% off the lowest fare I found when I looked at flights leaving in fewer than 60 days.

These restricted fares are still more than three or four times the cost of an average economy-class ticket, but travelers who can afford to splurge can enjoy the comforts once reserved for the well-to-do and frequent-flier elite.

Even greater bargains can be had on the growing number of low-fare all-business-class carriers such as Eos and MAXjet, each flying for about two years. Their planes are exclusively business class. Until recently they flew only from the East Coast, but MAXjet last year launched service from Las Vegas, and starting Thursday, will fly between LAX and the London area's Stansted Airport. "We think L.A. is a great opportunity," said Joshua Marks, senior vice president of planning and development for MAXjet.

Many passengers flying through Las Vegas on MAXjet have been from Southern California, he said. Denise Fourie of San Luis Obispo is one of them. The Cuesta College librarian and her husband, Mike Multari, and another couple flew from San Luis Obispo to Las Vegas on US Airways and then to London on MAXjet for a two-week vacation to London and Paris in April.

"When we started planning this trip I said, 'I don't want to go if we [can't] fly in business,' " she said. "We did not want to be a sardine in a can.

"The price was just about the same as a typical economy flight . . . but you got so much more."

The cost? About $1,100 per ticket from Las Vegas, she said.

Flights from LAX will be as much as half off the lowest business-class fares I found. I found a flight on MAXjet in September for $1,500, including taxes -- or 55% off the lowest fare I found with advance purchase and less than a third of the cost of anything I found that month.

There are caveats when flying on MAXjet. It doesn't fly every day from every U.S. gateway. It flies into Stansted, home to many of Europe's low-cost carriers, making connections to other places in Europe easy. But if you have a connecting flight out of one of the larger airports -- Heathrow or Gatwick -- allow plenty of time to get from one airport to the other. (Regular bus service operates between the airports; information is at

Caveats aside, Fourie, the college librarian, said the experience was worth repeating.

"I would definitely fly them again if heading to U.K. or Europe," Fourie said. "And now they are at LAX -- even better for me."

Contact James Gilden at

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