Friday, April 27, 2007

A new low-fare playa' may be just your ticket.

I am a big advocate for low fare airlines like Jetblue, Southwest and Airtran. These bargain carriers have a way of slashing prices below those of the legacy carriers, but if you live in certain cities (like Eugene, Oregon), cashing in on a fare that the price chopper has trimmed is impossible. Having said that, I love the whole business model of the low fare guys, it really keeps everyone on the commercial air travel playing field honest.

But about the time you think Jetblue is the lowest fare thing going, along comes Skybus Airlines, set to fly under an “extreme low-fare” model beginning May 22 with four leased 144-pax Airbus 319s. The wire services are reporting they have “an agreement” with Airbus to acquire as many as 65 planes starting in late 2008 for deliveries through about 2012.

And when they say “low-fare”, they mean it:
Skybus’s top walk-up fare will be $330 one way, before taxes. But it has many very low fares — $40, $50, $75 — one way, before taxes. Initially, Skybus will connect Columbus (Ohio) to Burbank, Portsmouth, Bellingham, Kansas City, Richmond, VA, Fort Lauderdale, Greensboro, NC. In June, flights are planned to Oakland. But they are also promising at least 10 seats on every flight priced at $10 one-way, before taxes. TEN BUCKS.
They are not going to gig you as you buy your tickets online, because that is the ONLY way to get onboard a Skybus:
The airline will sell tickets only through its web site, avoiding the expense of maintaining a reservations call center or paying a sales commission to travel agents. Skybus is also outsourcing its maintenance, the staffing of ticket counters at airports and its baggage handling, all to keep costs low. “Don’t call us,” the Web site explains. “We don’t have a phone number.”
So if they aren't going to get their revenue at the ticket counter through fares, just how are they going to keep the lights on and the Jet A bill paid? The answers are hiding in their “Skybus Rules of Flying” on their website:
1. On Skybus, you pay only for what you check. The first two bags are 5 bucks apiece. After that, it’s $50 a bag.

2. Hungry? Thirsty? Bring cash.

3. We’re not big fans of fancy in-flight entertainment systems, so bring a book.

4. Don’t call us, we don’t have a phone number. Seriously.

5. Please arrive no later than 30 minutes before takeoff, or we’ll leave without you. Really.

6. Don’t expect an army of gate agents.

7. Yeah, we’ve got preferred seats. Sort of. You can pay $10 bucks extra to board our airplanes before anyone else.

8. Refunding a ticket costs everyone, so we don’t allow it.

9. Big airports can be a big pain, so we choose less crowded and more convenient secondary airports for better punctuality and, of course, lower prices.

10. No spontaneous dancing in the aisle. We realize you might be excited about paying a ridiculously low fare, but please refrain from any unbridled dancing onboard. This includes jumping for joy, disruptive cheering, and celebratory break dancing.
You have to hand it to this startup, they sure have a sense of humor. But when checking out their new site, you can select a number of cities to fly FROM, but they all go through Columbus. Nothing against Columbus, mind you, lots of great aviators like Jerrie Mock have called it home. But if you wish to save a bundle and fly Skybus SEA to LAX, do you REALLY want to first go east to Ohio and then back west again to L.A?

It seems to me that this ELF (extreme low fare) model may work, but using Port Columbus International Airport (CMH) as a hub may turn out to be a big miscalculation. I sincerely wish Skybus the very best, and think the ELF idea is a solid marketing concept. Will the public buy what they are selling? Check back next fall and we'll take another look at Skybus. If they can fill the seats and charge for everything except the lavatory, then maybe they can make it and throw out their silly CMH hub idea to go head to head with JetBlue and SWA.