Silverjet Offers Frequent Fliers What They Want -- Humanity

Proving Even the Most Obviously Messed-up Businesses Can Be (Profitably) Reinvented

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If, like me, you spend an unhealthy amount of time looking for big business ideas, boozing and bemoaning the indignities of airline travel, I've found your perfect after-work-drinks partner. Ladies and gents: Lawrence Hunt.
Lawrence Hunt's Silverjet airline proves that even the most obviously messed-up businesses can be profitably reinvented if you focus on what customers actually want.
Lawrence Hunt's Silverjet airline proves that even the most obviously messed-up businesses can be profitably reinvented if you focus on what customers actually want.

Hunt is the CEO of Silverjet, the latest upstart airline to bump down in New York. He's a serial entrepreneur -- serial in the successful sense, not the return-ticket-to-bankruptcy-court sense -- whose credits include being one of the five founding partners of Novell. But he's modest to a fault: "I'm unemployable -- the only time headhunters call is when they want a reference"; funny: "I left Novell at the point I realized the place was staffed by HR directors"; and, mercifully, shuns the disingenuous PR practice of pretending to respect his competitors: "We can teach someone who used to work in a restaurant to put on a life jacket, but can we teach a British Airways attendant to smile?"

Hunt is creating the transatlantic airline frequent pondhoppers have dreamed of. At the core of the Silverjet concept is its business model. By having no coach fares, which are effectively subsidized on almost all traditional airlines by the business and first-class fares, Hunt's airline can offer all business class all the time for $999 and upward (more often about $2,000, which is still less than half what it costs on most traditional airlines). In itself that's not unique. There are two other carriers -- Maxjet (a little cheaper) and Eos (pricier) -- that employ a similar model. But Hunt is trying to add a range of other features.

Perhaps most appealingly, he's flying out of Luton (the town itself is arguably the most depressing place in the world, but the airport's surprisingly convenient for London) and into Newark (an increasingly wise choice for New York given the horrors of customs at Kennedy and the near certainty of getting stuck in traffic). At both airports there is an exclusive "Silver" lounge. Check-in involves sitting down in the lounge, eating your pick of fresh foodstuffs, and handing over your passport and luggage to an attendant who comes back minutes later with your ticket. At Luton there's even a separate security channel, allowing you to check in just 20 minutes before your flight -- just like the good old days.

The in-flight experience is geared to sleep. There are no annoying announcements from the cockpit, no clanking, elbow-whacking trolleys. And the idiot in front of you can't blind you with his overhead spotlight -- because there aren't any. The seats turn into more-or-less-flat beds, the entertainment systems store more than 200 hours of entertainment and the blankets have built-in foot pockets.

The cabin crew are from service backgrounds but not necessarily other airlines. There are also women-only toilets, a fact being touted in a rather sophomoric viral ad. Most of the rest of the advertising has been much better than that -- I particularly liked the billboard on the way to Heathrow that told travelers, "You're going to the wrong airport."

Of course, as with most of the best businesses today, the concept and the service are the advertising, and a quick web trawl will reveal that a raft of bloggers, many of them the very entrepreneurs Hunt is aiming for, are already vocal advocates of the airline, despite the fact that it's less than six months old.

Hunt's offering proves -- as JetBlue did before it -- that even the most obviously messed-up businesses can be profitably reinvented if you focus on what customers actually want. In the airline business, the answer to almost every problem has been to add capacity, yet the truth is those of us who travel regularly don't want more capacity -- we want to be treated like human beings again. For those with that lofty goal, the good news is that Hunt is eyeing new routes right now. My suggestion: Newark to L.A.
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