The Greyhound Bus of the Skies

On Skybus Airlines, a sandwich and soda cost more than the plane ticket.

May 23, 2007— -- For the cost of a burger and beer, I bought an airline ticket.

That's right. I flew 667 miles, and it cost me only $10.

I am always looking for a good travel deal, and when I heard about Skybus Airlines, which offers at least 10 seats on each of its flights for $10, I went online and booked a ticket.

And that's the only way to buy a ticket. Skybus takes no-frills flying to a new level. Self-service is the theme here. The airline has no phone number. Passengers are encouraged to check themselves in online or at airport kiosks. About the only thing I didn't have to do was pilot the plane.

First Day of Flights

I decided to fly on the airline's first day of service. The airline is based in Columbus, Ohio, and all flights go through Columbus. I bought a ticket from Portsmouth, N.H., to Columbus, and then back again the next morning.

Both flights were comfortable, but unfortunately, the first one was not on time. The plane left 71 minutes late. Not a great start for a new airline.

Skybus' inaugural flight was a big event. Most of the airport staff came out onto the tarmac to watch the flight. Even some Transportation Security Administration screeners came up to the windows to watch.

The plane — one of two new Airbus A319 jets leased from Virgin America — was roomy and quiet.

Skybus plans to lease 15 planes by the end of the year as it adds capacity. The planes have 144 seats, a few more seats than the typical Airbus A319. Skybus has a contract to buy 65 new jets from Airbus. Those planes will seat 156 passengers, making for an even tighter ride.

Before the plane even took off, Skybus was tempting me to open my wallet. Flight attendants passed out catalogs, offering watches, necklaces, pens, sunglasses, makeup, perfume.

Flight attendants told us about the merchandise long before anybody gave a safety lecture. It was like the Home Shopping Network at 35,000 feet.

Visiting Family

Both flights were a little more than half full. Madeline Moreau, from Lewiston, Maine, was flying to Columbus to see her granddaughter and great-granddaughters. "With the price they were giving us, I couldn't refuse," she said. With taxes and fees, she paid $37, roundtrip.

Leslie Dillon, grew up in the Indianapolis. area, and is now a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire.

"It was only $10 to fly home, and I thought that was a great deal," Dillon said. "As a student, I definitely understand the cutting the corners deal."

A few of the passengers were just along for the novelty of a new airline. Boston-area student Scott Feinberg, an aviation enthusiast, flew on both of my flights. He got $10 tickets each way. "I love to fly," he explained.

Do Tickets Really Cost $10?

Skybus said that every flight has at least 10 seats for the $10 fare. Other airlines have offered super low fares, but only temporarily. Skybus, however, said the $10 fare is here to stay. "On every flight, there will be at least 10 seats for $10, said Skybus CEO Bill Diffenderffer. "That fare won't go away."

Diffenderffer said that with tickets at that low price, Skybus hopes to create a new market for flying by drawing in "people who previously weren't flying, or would only take one trip a year."

But that still leaves about 140 seats on each plane that the airline sells for more.

Some seats might be $50. Others could be $80. The top last-minute walk-up fare is $330.

For my return trip, there were no $10 seats left, but I snagged one for $30. After $16.30 in taxes and fees, I was on my way -- just $56.30 for my roundtrip ticket.

To date, more than 200,000 tickets have been sold. A quick check of the Skybus Web site found plenty of flights with $10 seats left.

The Low Cost Formula

Skybus started the way Southwest did: It flies into smaller, less-congested airports with lower landing fees. So instead of flying to Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, Skybus flies to Bellingham, Wash., about 90 miles north of Seattle and 50 miles south of Vancouver.

The airline is betting that passengers will flock to these out-of-the-way airports because the journey to the gate is less stressful than at a major airport.

Diffenderffer said you will never see Skybus fly into New York's JFK or LaGuardia airports.

"At those airports, the airplanes sit on the ground more than they fly," he said. "If an airplane is sitting on the ground … it's not making any money. We're going to fly in and out of airports that are going to make travel easy again."

That was my experience in Portsmouth, which is about 55 miles north of Boston. There was no traffic, and security lines were practically nonexistent.

As an added bonus, I was able to park my car seconds away from the terminal for free.

There is no first-class on Skybus, and to speed up boarding, seats are not assigned. However, for an extra $10, the airline offers some passengers the privilege of boarding first. But you still have to climb the stairs. To save time and money, the airline boards passengers directly off the tarmac, avoiding costly airport gate charges.

Carry-On Food Prohibited

Skybus hopes to make money by charging passengers for extra services.

The airline sells soft drinks, juice and water for $2, alcoholic beverages for $5 and, if you really want to splurge, a small bottle of champagne for $10. Candy bars and potato chips go for $2. If you are looking for a little more to eat, a sandwich will run you $10.

Diffenderffer explained that on other airlines passengers are always charged for that soda whether they drink it or not. It is just built into the fare.

"So what we're really saying is, let's make it more cafeteria style where the passenger makes the decision if they do or don't want it," he said.

And like in movie theaters -- which also count on food sales to help their bottom line -- don't plan on brining your own food.

The airline's witty "rules of flying" state: "Oh, and don't sneak food onboard unless you brought enough for the whole plane."

"We're discouraging that because that's part of our profit model," Diffenderffer said. "But we're not food Nazis. Nobody's going to take away their sandwich."

To test the rule, I brought along a chicken caesar salad wrap. The airline did ask everybody to dispose of all food and beverages before boarding, but once on the plane, nobody hassled me about my carry-on meal.

A Pillow for $8

Extra charges start long before you get on the plane.

The airline bills you for checked baggage. The first two bags are $5 each. Each additional bag is $50.

The airline does offer pillows — for a whopping $8 — but you get to keep the pillow!

Diffenderffer said that even with the add-ons, a flight on Skybus is generally cheaper than one on the competition.

"Keep in mind that most of America shops at Wal-Mart. Most of America can do basic addition," he said.

The airline looks for revenue in all sorts of places, including selling the branding rights to its planes.

So far, the rights to one of its two planes have been sold. The plane is painted white with the Nationwide insurance company's logo all over it. Think of it as a flying billboard.

Connections Aren't Easy

As previously mentioned, every Skybus flight goes through Columbus.

The airline does not ticket passengers on connecting flights.

So if a passenger wants to travel across the country, the passenger would have to buy one ticket to Columbus and then a separate ticket from Columbus to the final destination. If passengers check bags, they would have to claim them in Columbus and then recheck them for the connecting flight.

"We're really not offering connections … over time it will be easier as we get bigger," Diffenderffer said. "But for the most part, the people in Seattle or San Francisco want to come to central Ohio because they have family or friends here," Diffenderffer said. "It's not a vacation destination."

A Vacation in Columbus?

Skybus' lack of easy connections is a concern for Ray Neidl, an airline analyst with Calyon Securities.

"Columbus isn't a resort area. It isn't a big destination area. I'm not sure it works," Neidl said.

Additionally, Columbus is in between Cincinnati and Cleveland, two existing large airline hubs, and is already served by Southwest and JetBlue.

Diffenderffer said Skybus is going after a different market.

"We don't want to compete against Southwest or JetBlue. Southwest nonstop flies out of Columbus to a number of markets. We don't fly to any of those markets," he said

Not surprisingly, the mayor of Columbus is thrilled with Skybus.

"Every chance I get, I'm flying Skybus. It's the airline of preference in the city of Columbus," said Mayor Michael B. Coleman.

Airbus raised $180 million in startup capital, and Nationwide insurance is one of its biggest backers.

As of last week, the company had 188 employees, mostly pilots and flight attendants. It hopes to have 886 by the end of 2009. Another 241 jobs, ranging from maintenance to baggage handling to cleaning, are outsourced. Even the airline's spokesman, is outsourced. He works for a public relations firm in Columbus.