May 24, 2007

With fares as low as $10, no-frills airline lifts off

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Richard Sutter was pleasantly astonished when he learned last month that the country's newest and cheapest airline, Skybus Airlines, would charge him just $10 to fly him here from Ohio so he could attend his grandmother's 90th birthday this weekend.

And after landing at Portsmouth International Airport yesterday morning, Sutter was even more astonished by how pleasant the flight from Columbus was.

"It was more than I thought it would be, a lot more. For 10 bucks, I was expecting chickens on the plane," said Sutter, a Dayton native, who wound up paying just $146 total -- counting taxes and security fees -- for round-trip tickets for himself, his wife Mandy, son Tyler, 9, and daughter Emma, 4. The Airbus A319 plane was clean and new, and with the ticket price so cheap, the Sutters had no complaint about paying the $20 Skybus fee to check their four bags and $2 apiece for some cans of soda.

Yesterday was the first full day of operations at Portsmouth for Skybus, a start-up airline based in the Ohio capital. It's bringing to the United States the ultra cheap discount service once offered by PeopleExpress on the East Coast in the 1980s and today offered in Europe by carriers such as RyanAir and EasyJet, which feature one-way promotional fares as low as one British penny.

While other US airlines have been trimming frills and edging into a-la-carte pricing for once-free services like checked baggage and extra legroom seats, Skybus takes frugality to new levels. The airline promises at least 10 $10 fares on every flight -- although by yesterday afternoon those were all gone for June and July on the Portsmouth-Columbus route. Skybus's website offered only $30 to $150 one-way tickets, which were still significantly less expensive than other airlines.

All any of the Skybus tickets buy, though, is a seat on the plane. Passengers have to pay $5 to check a bag, $8 for a blanket, $15 for a pillow, and $10 to wait at the front of the line, since there are no assigned seats. Except for babies and people with medical needs, passengers are forbidden to bring food or drink on board so Skybus squelches any free competition for its $5 Budweisers and $10 meat loaf plates.

There are no movies. And by eliminating first-class seating, it squeezes 144 coach seats on a model of plane that has 124 or 126 seats in two classes on most other carriers -- although Skybus's 30-inch coach "seat pitch," or spacing between seats, is the same as Northwest Airlines and US Airways in coach.

Also holding down costs: There is no phone number customers can call. All tickets are sold online, and the only access to Skybus customer service is the gate agent at the airport. One big revenue stream for the airline is making its jets flying billboards for Nationwide Insurance, which pays an undisclosed fee to get its name and website on the fuselage and inside the cabin.

By Peter J. Howe, Globe Staff


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