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 aboutSkybus Airlines, which offers at least 10 seats on each of its flightsfor $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 airportkiosks. About the only thing I didn't have to do waspilot the plane.

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

Both flights were comfortable, but unfortunately, the first onewas 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 addscapacity. The planes have 144 seats, a few more seats than the typicalAirbus 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 asafety lecture. It was like the Home Shopping Network at 35,000 feet.

Both flights were a little more than half full.Madeline Moreau, from Lewiston, Maine, was flying to Columbus to seeher 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 agraduate student at the University of New Hampshire.

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

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 myflights. He got $10 tickets each way. "I love to fly," he explained.

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 CEOBill Diffenderffer. "That fare won't go away."

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

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

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

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

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

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

The airline is betting that passengers will flock to theseout-of-the-way airports because the journey to the gate is lessstressful than at a major airport.

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

"At those airports, the airplanes sit on the ground more than theyfly," he said. "If an airplane is sitting on the ground … it'snot making any money. We're going to fly in and out of airports that are going to maketravel 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 theterminal for free.

There is no first-class on Skybus, and to speed up boarding, seats arenot assigned. However, for an extra $10, the airline offers somepassengers 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.

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

The airline sells soft drinks, juice and water for $2, alcoholicbeverages for $5 and, if you really want to splurge, a small bottle ofchampagne 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 arealways charged for that soda whether they drink it or not. It is justbuilt into the fare.

"So what we're really saying is, let's make it more cafeteria stylewhere 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 helptheir bottom line -- don't plan on brining your own food.

The airline's witty "rules of flying" state: "Oh, and don't sneak food onboardunless 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 takeaway their sandwich."

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

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 isgenerally cheaper than one on the competition.

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

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

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

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 haveto buy one ticket to Columbus and then a separate ticket from Columbusto the final destination. If passengers check bags, they would have toclaim them in Columbus and then recheck them for the connectingflight.

"We're really not offering connections … over time it will beeasier 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 orfriends here," Diffenderffer said. "It's not a vacation destination."

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

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

Additionally, Columbus is in between Cincinnati and Cleveland, twoexisting large airline hubs, and is already served by Southwest andJetBlue.

Diffenderffer said Skybus is going after a different market.

"We don't want to compete against Southwest or JetBlue. Southwestnonstop flies out of Columbus to a number of markets. We don't fly toany 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 preferencein 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 andflight attendants. It hopes to have 886 by the end of 2009. Another241 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.