No-frills airline has seats as low as $10
CHARLOTTE -- A new airline's promise of super-low fares and plans for more flights in Greensboro, N.C., could once again have Charlotte-area travelers heading up Interstate 85 in search of cheap flights.
Less than a year after starting a flight from Greensboro to its home in Columbus, Ohio, Skybus -- an ultra-low-cost carrier -- will add routes from the N.C. Triad to eight cities over the next two months. And the airline says even more flights are likely this summer as it continues to grow from its second base.
Even with fares that are on average half the price of other airlines, Skybus may not be big enough to single-handedly draw hordes of discount-hungry travelers from the Charlotte region.
As a bare-bones airline that flies to small airports and charges passengers for services that other carriers provide for free, Skybus may not appeal to everyone.
But the airline already is leading other carriers to cut fares in Greensboro, said Ted Johnson, the airport's executive director. For instance, he said, flights to New York City that were $300 to $400 are now going for $139.
If that becomes a trend, it could help the Triad capture some travelers who fly on low-cost airlines such as JetBlue and AirTran in Charlotte and Southwest in Raleigh, N.C.
The airport and Triad-area governments are betting big that Skybus will succeed. State and local officials last year approved nearly $57 million in incentives, including cash grants and new construction.
Trading perks for low fares
Modeled after European airline Ryanair, Skybus offers seats as low as $10 -- not including taxes and fees -- and recently started selling tickets for $20.08 to mark the new year. "People love flying," said Bill Diffenderffer, the airline's CEO, "but they don't love paying a lot of money to fly anymore."
The low fares, however, require passengers to pay for services such as baggage check, early boarding, and food and drinks on the plane. Flight attendants get a percentage of in-flight sales, and Skybus aggressively sells ads inside and outside its planes.
Another cost savings: no connecting flights. In fact, Skybus discourages people from trying to connect through its base cities of Columbus and Greensboro. Those who try to do so must book separate tickets, collect their bags between flights, check in for the second flight and pass through security again.
Then there are the destinations. While advertisements say customers can fly to Boston, Jacksonville, Fla., and New Orleans, the flights actually land at smaller airports 40 to 60 miles away -- Portsmouth, N.H.; St. Augustine, Fla.; and Gulfport, Miss., respectively.
Flying to less-crowded airports, Diffenderffer said, allows Skybus planes to spend less time on the ground and passengers to get their bags and leave the terminal more quickly. Still, he acknowledged, "people don't know where some of these places are."
Running a lean airline has its pitfalls. Skybus canceled 18 flights Christmas Day and Dec. 26 -- affecting more than 1,000 passengers -- after two of its seven planes were damaged.
"In neither case was that a mechanical problem," Diffenderffer said.
Passengers were left without a customer service number -- per the Skybus model, which refers customers to its Web site -- and limited service at airports. Since Skybus doesn't have agreements with other airlines to accept each other's tickets in such situations, the options were to wait for the next flight or take a refund.
"Until we're bigger, there isn't a lot we can do," Diffenderffer said. "When you have a model like ours, there's really no fat in it.
"It really is all about the fare."
Smaller is better for some
Some potential passengers agree.
Ramsey, the Rowan County resident, said he likes flying into smaller airports.
"Those little airports, you're in and out in minutes," he said, and "it actually puts me closer to where I'm going."
Having to pay extra to check bags or buy a beverage doesn't bother Ramsey, either. "I could care less," he said. "I just want to get on a flight, avoid congestion and have a reasonably good fare."
At Charlotte/Douglas International, director Jerry Orr said Skybus could take some business from his airport, but not much because many people won't want to fly to the smaller airports.
"It is a limited palette of options," Orr said. "You can't just walk from New Hampshire to downtown Boston."
How high Skybus flies and how much it lowers fares in Greensboro depends on how long it lasts and how many routes are added, Johnson said. The Triad has had other low-cost carriers come and go, he said, but Skybus brings a unique model and plenty of money.
"It is a concept that's working in another part of the world," Johnson said. "We'll just see how it plays out."