New Airlines Vie for Their Place in the Sky

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The airline business is profitable again -- at least for most domestic lines -- and plenty of good flyable airplanes are available at bargain prices. This combination is likely to lure some of the wannabe companies that seem to be attracted to the airline business like moths to a lamp.

One reader asked me:

"Now that the airline business looks good again, what are the prospects for some interesting new startups?"

The short answer is: "Only two recent startups are operating, but three more claim to be close."

Three of the five basically follow the Allegiant model – emphasizing smaller cities and avoiding direct competition with the biggies. The other two focus on Las Vegas.

Typically, today's startups either already have crews and planes as charter operators or plan to contract their flying out to charter operators. This strategy minimizes the upfront capital requirements and bypasses most of the government red tape.

Vision Airlines

Although Vision has been around as a charter operator for a while, its extended scheduled network is new. It generally follows Allegiant's extremely successful business model: Most of its flights link small and mid-sized cities to and from Destin/Fort Walton Beach, in the heart of the Florida panhandle's "Redneck Riviera." Among the underserved cities it's currently flying to are Asheville, N.C., Baton Rouge, La., Greenville, S.C., Huntsville, Ala., Knoxville, Tenn., Niagara Falls (not Buffalo), N.Y., and Shreveport, La. Only a few flights bypass that hub.

As with Allegiant, most flights operate only once to three times weekly. The only daily flights are those that link Louisville, Ky., with Atlanta, a route that predates the current network.

Most flights are in 737s or small 30-seat turboprop Dornier 328s. The airline also has some larger planes in its fleet -- 737-800s and 767s -- though it apparently uses them only for charter services. The booking site has a provision for selecting a class of service, but no separate classes are currently offered.

Typically for these days, Vision charges for checked baggage: The first bag costs $15 in advance or $20 at the airport; the second costs $20 or $30. Sodas and snacks are "free," with no alcoholic beverages available. Advance seat assignment is also "free."

I didn't see any other "hidden" or "gotcha" fees, but you may encounter some. Although Vision offers hotel accommodations, it doesn't seem to push them the way Allegiant does.

Direct Air

Direct Air is another Allegiant look-alike, flying to golf mecca Myrtle Beach, S.C., and several Florida destinations, including Melbourne, Orlando/Sanford, Punta Gorda and West Palm Beach from such smaller regional cities as Allentown, Pa., Kalamazoo, Mich., Niagara Falls, Rockford, Ill., Toledo, Ohio, and Worcester, Mass., as well as a few bigger cities. Flight frequency this spring ranges from two to five flights a week. Some routes are seasonal; some flights make intermediate stops. Flights are in a mix of MD88 and 737 models, all coach. Checked baggage fees are $25 for the first and $30 for the second, in advance; $5 more at the airport. As with Vision, the airline promotes hotel packages, although not so aggressively as Allegiant.

The schedule posted effective May 1 shows considerably more flights than the current posting. Whether the line actually expands this much is still to be seen.

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