Sign up for Unlocking the World, CNN Travel’s weekly newsletter. Get the latest news in aviation, food and drink, where to stay and other travel developments.
Traveling to the Maldives – the 1,000-island archipelago off the western coast of India that’s one of the world’s most glamorous beach destinations – is always a special occasion. Now, a new airline aims to make it even more so.
Beond – pronounced “beyond” – aims to create a “private jet” experience by using narrow-body aircraft (rather than the wide-body often used on routes to the Maldives), and offering an all-premium cabin with lie-flat seats which share components with Ferrari cars.
“We want to do something completely new,” Beond’s chief commercial officer Sascha Feuerherd tells CNN. “We deliberately chose to go for a luxury destination, which is a little paradise by itself, where people travel to relax and spend quality time. We want to ensure that they can travel there also in comfort, so that they are arriving fully relaxed.”
Based in Malé and set to start flying in fall 2023, Beond will initially operate a small fleet of Airbus A319 aircraft, before switching to the larger Airbus A321. Dubai and Delhi are the first two confirmed destinations.
Chasing the competition
About three dozen airlines currently offer service to Velana International Airport, the Maldives’ main airport near the capital island Malé. To compete against them, Beond plans to choose its destinations carefully and fly customers directly to the island, rather than going through a connection in a hub, as the likes of Emirates, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines do.
“We’re going for the airports with big catchment areas, with a certain wealth behind it, and then fly people directly,” says Feuerherd. So in Germany, for example, Beond wouldn’t target Frankfurt – a business hub with plenty of competition. Instead, they’d go for Munich, which has less competition and a higher incidence of leisure travelers.
In other markets, like Asia, Beond plans to enter into direct competition with other carriers and differentiate itself with a higher-quality service instead. “The Maldives is one of those markets that can fill an aircraft, even a mostly economy class cabin,” says Feuerherd. “But that is making the Maldives lose some high-end passengers, because if they don’t find adequate transportation, they’d rather go somewhere else. That’s where we really come into the game.”
Beond will offer a total of just 44 seats on its Airbus A319s, even though the plane can carry up to 156 passengers in an all-economy layout. On the larger A321s, which will enter service in 2024, they plan to have 68 seats on a plane that normally has room for up to 220 economy passengers.
This means there will be no dreaded middle seats – the two-abreast configuration aims to provide a sense of luxury and comfort. Designed by Italian manufacturer Optimares, which supplied similar interiors for a custom-designed Four Seasons A321 private jet, the seats share components with LaFerrari, a luxury sports car that was priced at about $1.5 million upon its release in 2013, and now sells for much more at auction.
“I’m about six feet tall and so is our CEO, and that was pretty much the size reference we worked with, to avoid getting the feeling that we were slipping out of the bed,” says Feuerherd. “We also very quickly decided that we wanted to have two abreast, because of the nature of our passengers, which is a lot of couples.”
Competing on price
Jointly owned by UAE-based firm Arabesque and Maldivian hospitality company SIMDI, Beond’s operating certificate is from the Maldives as a designated carrier. It has a 50-year agreement with the Maldivian government.
Although it plans to start flying as early as September, the airline is still coy on its launch destinations beyond Delhi and Dubai, but Feuerherd says that, once at capacity (by the end of 2024), roughly 60% of the airline’s traffic will come from Europe, with around 20 destinations.
Asian routes will include Japan, South Korea and China, and Beond will also offer direct connections to Australia, starting with Perth, and South Africa, initially to Cape Town.
By the end of 2024, the airline plans to operate about a dozen aircraft, all on lease, including some brand new A321LR airplanes – long-range versions of the popular A321.
Using narrowbody aircraft will be unusual on some of Beond’s longer routes, which are normally served by larger, wide-body planes such as the Airbus A350 or the Boeing 787.
However all-business class airlines have used narrow-bodies before. La Compagnie, a French boutique airline connecting Paris to New York, has two A321LRs in its fleet of four (the others are A321neos). The Four Seasons private jet is also an A321LR. British Airways, meanwhile, used an A318 – the smallest aircraft in the Airbus A320 family – for its erstwhile all-business class flight from London to New York.
And perhaps the small plane is the key. EOS, Maxjet and Silverjet, which all offered all-business class transatlantic flights before going bust in 2007 and 2008, all used wide-body aircraft.
According to Feuerherd, the smaller plane won’t be a problem for most passengers, because although the cabin will lack the “airiness” of larger aircraft, it’ll increase the private jet feel.
“I do believe the advantages and disadvantages are really equalizing each other there,” he says. “We wouldn’t be able to fill a wide-body with this concept – it would be slightly too big. But we have significant cost savings with a narrow-body, in terms of cost of ownership, fuel burn, staff involved, landing and handling charges, which is something that really gives us a competitive advantage over the big birds.”
As a result, Beond will be priced “attractively,” with fares from Europe starting at around $3,000 return, but increasing during peak season – which, for the Maldives, is December to April.
For comparison, the cheapest business class flight CNN could find from London to Malé in peak season was $3,133 with Etihad in January 2024. From Frankfurt, Oman Air has flights from $2,762 – a cheaper peak season fare than Beond is suggesting for its off season fares. However, neither flight is direct.
Meanwhile, Emirates is currently selling Dubai-Malé tickets from December to April next year from around $3100 in business class. There are no direct flights from Delhi, but carriers including Air India have business class seats from around $750 with a single connection.
“My personal target on the commercial side is that if we become too greedy, it’s not going to be helpful,” says Feuerherd. “We will not want to be the leader in terms of price.” He adds that most bookings are projected to come from tour operators rather than directly from customers.
A niche market
According to Rob Morris, global head of consultancy at Cirium, an aviation consultancy, the initial routes that Beond is targeting – Dubai and Delhi – have differing potential.
“Dubai is presently well served from Malé, with an average of seven daily rotations in August 2023 and more than 60,000 seats each way in the month,” he says, citing schedule data that Cirium has pulled.
“This includes around 12% of those seats in premium class. Competition on that route will be challenging.
“In contrast, Delhi-Malé is presently unserved, at least directly, hence there may be more opportunity.”
Mike Stengel, a principal at Aerodynamic Advisory, another aviation consultancy, says that in the history of aviation, the fortunes of all-business class airlines have not been great: “One reason is that their destiny is tied to these concentrated niche markets; they simply don’t offer the same type of connectivity options that network airlines do.”
By being tied to only premium class travelers, he adds, they’re susceptible to downturns or softening in business travel demand: “In the long term, I think they’re going to face some pretty stiff competition, especially from the large Middle East airlines. It’s hard for anyone to beat out first or business class from Emirates or Qatar or Etihad.”
However, he believes that the Maldives are certainly the right market for a new luxury option. “I think there are some legs to this, especially if they can channel demand from luxury travel agencies that are selling it as part of a package,” he says.
“There probably is a niche to carve out of premium travelers who want more of a private jet experience, but maybe don’t have the private jet budget.”