Skybus says it delivers as promised

GREENSBORO - Skybus Airlines is booming because passengers want bare-bones air travel at cheap prices, the company says.

But a handful of critics say that leaves no room for customer service. As a result, a few passengers are fighting for refunds or finding themselves stranded.

The airline, which will open a major hub at Piedmont Triad International Airport in January, says it cancels only three out of 1,000 flights, which places it among the industry's best.

Skybus, which began flying in May, uses www.skybus.com for all of its customer contact, including making reservations and flight changes and taking complaints.

It is one way the airline has built its operations around radically stripped-down costs to offer low fares, says Bill Diffenderffer, the chief executive officer of the Columbus, Ohio, airline.

McDonald's has a similar philosophy: Don't expect a filet mignon hamburger, because you won't get it.

"We have not promised one thing and delivered another," said Mike Hodge, the company's chief financial officer, who spoke to the News & Record while in Greensboro with Diffenderffer on Monday.

Christopher Elliott, a columnist for MSNBC, is stirring turbulence for the airline at his independent blog by taking on Skybus over some complaints.

In an e-mail interview, Elliott said that the airline says, " 'Don't call us, we don't have a number.' But that's untrue - obviously it does have a number."

Last week, Elliott published five numbers for Skybus executives on his blog, as well as their e-mail addresses.

Hours after he published the numbers, Elliott said, they were changed.

"That's not true," said Bob Tenenbaum, a spokesman for Skybus. The e-mail addresses were wrong too, he said.

"My office phone number is still the same," Diffenderffer said.

Now, Elliott has posted cell phone numbers for the executives.

"Bad Skybus! Let's see if you can change your cell phone numbers as quickly," Elliott wrote.

Elliott has published complaints from such customers as a man who said he was stranded in Burbank for three days when the airline canceled a flight.

Another person said his credit card company had to intervene to get a refund for his canceled flight.

But Diffenderffer said such mistakes are rare. And Skybus is organized to reduce mistakes and eliminate the need for a telephone service center.

Besides, "When was the last time you called a help desk and really did get any help?" he said.

Skybus doesn't offer flight connections, he said, and baggage doesn't go through hubs, so it gets lost less often.

The airline doesn't offer anything more than a refund for a canceled flight, but it doesn't promise any more, and passengers should be aware of that, Diffenderffer said.

And text on its Web site reads: "If you're concerned about the cost of staying over unexpectedly while on your trip, we recommend that you consider Trip Insurance."

Some customers will never be comfortable booking a flight online, Hodge said. But it is not worth driving up costs to serve that relatively small number of customers, he said.

And Diffenderffer is not worried about Elliott and other blog chatter.

"There's a certain amount of bad stuff out there," Diffenderffer said. "The fact is we deal with the public. Sometimes we make a mistake."

Contact Richard M. Barron at 373-7371 or dbarron@news-record.com

nThe company brushes aside reports of poor customer service.

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