Discount airlines grow amid downturn

Nimble discount airlines here and around the world are growing and opening new routes even as the recession forces traditional carriers to cut flights and jobs.

Low-cost carriers, such as New York-based JetBlue jblu, Ireland-based Ryanair and Canada-based WestJet, are making inroads where higher-cost carriers are shrinking amid falling travel demand, especially among cost-conscious fliers.

"These airlines' common denominator is their agility and cost structures that are compatible with today's economic reality," says Mo Garfinkle, a Virginia-based consultant. "The good news is growth and opportunities in the industry aren't dead."

Discounter Ryanair, Europe's biggest passenger carrier, will take delivery of 40 new Boeing jets this year and is negotiating with Boeing and Airbus to buy at least 200 more. It hopes to carry 67 million passengers starting April 1, up from 58 million last year by pitching cheap fares.

Others are branching out, too:

•JetBlue Airways isn't growing overall, but it's launching new routes. Most notable: daily non-stop service starting in June between New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and giant Los Angeles International (LAX), as well as Boston-LAX. JetBlue now flies to Burbank and Long Beach, Calif., airports, but the move into Southern California's top business and vacation gateway is a major step.

•Discounter WestJet will expand flying 5% this year and take delivery of nine new jets. This summer, it starts service between Calgary and San Francisco, Calgary-San Diego and Montreal-Fort Lauderdale.

"This is a year for us to steal market share," says Executive Vice President Bob Cummings.

•Orlando-based AirTran Airways aai is cutting overall flying capacity but is moving aggressively into Milwaukee. AirTran has long wanted to diversify its East Coast-focused network.

"This is a place where we see opportunity," says AirTran CEO Bob Fornaro. AirTran will grow by at least 40% in Milwaukee this year, flying to Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis and St. Louis.

•Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air algt, a low-cost carrier that specializes in linking small and midsize U.S. cities with top leisure destinations, will start flying to LAX in May from 12 cities, including Des Moines, Wichita and Sioux Falls, S.D. Allegiant already flies to Orlando, Phoenix and Fort Lauderdale, as well as Las Vegas.

"We're growing because our business caters to price-sensitive leisure travelers," says managing director Ponder Harrison.