First impressions This is the fourth business class-only airline to launch in the past 18 months. Eos and Maxjet fly from Stansted to New York JFK, French carrier L'Avion plies the Paris Orly to Newark route, while Silverjet flies from London Luton to Newark. The new service launched on January 25 and I flew with them some two weeks after this date.
First there's the matter of getting to Luton. A chauffeur-drive option is available via A1 Cars at the time of booking with Silverjet. You are picked up by a Mercedes E-Class with satellite navigation, but the costs are high (£94 from central London; otherwise 19 miles or less £64, 20-29 miles £77, 30-39 miles £90, 40-49 miles £103, 50-59 miles £116). Valet parking is also available.
Alternatives include arriving by rail (Midland Mainline or Capital First Connect) with a silver taxi taking care of the shuttle between Luton Airport Parkway, or using the existing shuttlebus. I used the chauffeur-drive option for the pick-up and then relied on rail to take me to work on my return, and both methods worked well.
Luton Airport is surrounded by building work at the moment, some of which is constructing a proper road connection to the M1, including a flyover. The work has become necessary due to the airport's rapid expansion – passenger numbers exceeded nine million in 2006, an increase of nearly 400 per cent over the last decade. Since Silverjet is looking to take some of the 1.2 million passengers flying premium from London to New York annually, travelling from Luton is a clever choice for those coming from the north of London, since it is second only to Heathrow in volume of business flights and has no slot constraints.
Silverjet has been quick to differentiate itself from the other all-business class airlines. As well as being the only British carrier in the sector, it has a 30-minute check-in time (or 45 minutes with luggage to check in the hold), online check-in available up to 24 hours before the flight (with seat selection) and the ability to print out your boarding pass and even mobile check-in so that your boarding card is ready for you on arrival.
The airline has also built its own terminal, in effect a lounge and gate rolled into one, with access to the plane via a back door and a branded Silverjet bus which takes you out past the private jet terminal to the waiting plane. The terminal is not open all day at the moment, so arriving very early is not a good idea, since the private terminal is exclusive to Silverjet, which at present only has one flight each day.
Flight times are: Luton to New York Newark daily at 1000, arriving Newark 1300; departing Newark 1930, arriving Luton 0710. From July 2, a second flight will be added, departing Luton at 1700, arriving Newark 2000; and departing Newark 2145, to arrive at Luton 0935 (except Saturdays). A third flight is planned by November.
The terminal is opposite the main building and next to the orange Easyjet base. On arrival you are met by a concierge, who takes your bags through to reception, where check-in is extremely quick. Then you walk through into the large lounge, which has a good selection of food and drinks (breakfast was set up for this Sunday morning flight) as well as magazines, free wifi internet, and showers for the use of both arriving and departing passengers.
The flight was around 70 per cent full, although this was partly because of New York Fashion Week, judging by the number of journalists on board. The introductory fare of £799 was also offering outstanding value for money. The flight was called around 0930 and we walked through a door at the back of the lounge, went through security, and a silver bus took us to the aircraft.
Boarding Silverjet is flying a reconfigured wide-bodied 767 in an all-business class formation of 100 seats (instead of the normal 250), in a configuration of 2-2-2. The colour scheme is a modern one of silver and brown. There are five toilets, including a women-only one, and a staff ratio of one to ten passengers. It is smart, easy on the eye, and spacious without being alarming to those unused to this form of travel. (And you can get used to it pretty quickly – I flew a B747 in a four-class configuration to Bangkok two days later and it felt very crowded in comparison.)
The seat was comfortable, and had a number of pre-set options as well as arrows for fine-tuning the exact position. For sleeping, the seat reclines into a 191cm lie-flat bed (angled at eight degrees from horizontal), with the footrest disappearing beneath the seat in front, and I found it was comfortable both for work and for sleeping, although it is not the fully-flat product of British Airways or Virgin Atlantic.
The seat power works well and keeps your laptop fully charged, though you will need a US adaptor for this. On my flight these were not available, but I had kept mine out of checked luggage and so had no problems. Apparently adaptors will be provided in the future.
As with Maxjet, the in-flight entertainment is delivered via a personal player with films pre-loaded. On this flight these consisted of 10 box-office options and five classic films, as well as a wide choice of television programmes including drama, comedy and documentary pieces. The player is powered using the same in-seat laptop power.
Food and drink A choice of orange juice, water and champagne was offered as soon as our coats and jackets had been taken. Take off was at 1015, and after an announcement from the captain as to our initial routing, we were left in peace. The service on both this flight and the return was enthusiastic and, with time, I'm sure will improve in execution and speed.
The menu was impressive, with a choice of meals. Starters were either a trio of king prawns with olive tapenade and crispy oregano croutons or red roasted pepper and tabbouleh salad. Main course choices were lamb cutlets with hash rosti and red wine jus, fillet of cod with parsley mash, crushed minted peas and lemon pepper sauce, or roasted courgette, mushroom and parmesan risotto.
Each seat comes with an amenity pack with socks, eyeshade and ear plugs, and a blanket with a pouch at the bottom to keep your feet warm. On night flights the plane is a designated Quiet Zone, with serving trolleys eliminated, as well as what Silverjet terms "frustrating and unnecessary announcements during the flight, glaring overhead reading lights and irritating call bells". This is true up to a point, although a serving trolley does speed up service, and one was in evidence by the time coffee and tea was brought round.
On the return flight I thought the lights were kept on for too long and the meal service was a little slow when I would have preferred to get straight to sleep, but it is still early days (and there is a response form for giving detailed criticism directly to Martyn Bridger, the customer experience director).
Arrival We arrived on time at Newark, an airport which is a welcome relief after JFK: clean, modern and without queues at this time. The Silverjet lounge is here at Door 12 of arrivals, and has free wifi, although showers and a full kitchen offering for departing passengers on the return journey are not yet installed.
Verdict Good value for money, and perfect for those coming from the northern Home Counties. Will it succeed? Well, Luton is an airport of great convenience for those coming from the Midlands or those who live around the M1 corridor, and if New York trips are a regular part of your schedule these are reasonably priced.
Price Standard return fares start from £999, with fully flexible fares from £1,699.
The green bit
Silverjet's ticket includes a mandatory carbon-offset contribution of about 90p per hour flown. This is based on the projected fuel consumption for Silverjet's aircraft, and will be reassessed on a quarterly basis – in the case of a shortfall in contributions because of light load factors (not many people on flights) Silverjet will make up the difference. The carrier says that once the scheme is fully operational, passengers will have the option to allocate their contributions to specific carbon-offsetting projects, or to allow the funds to be used for a portfolio of projects. The scheme has been set up with The CarbonNeutral Company, who in partnership with the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management will assess emissions for each of Silverjet's aircraft per mile, including any emissions from associated ground activity. Visit carbonneutral.com.