Chicago, New York on Skybus' radar

Having cut most of its West Coast flights, Skybus Airlines is now looking to add shorter, more-profitable flights.

Niagara Falls, N.Y., Gary, Ind., and several greater-New York City area airports are among those reportedly talking to Skybus. An airline spokesman declined to comment, reiterating that Skybus continues to talk to a number of airports about adding service.

In another industry, Skybus Airlines might be able to take a breather: It's carried more than 400,000 passengers in its first five months, is serving 12 cities with five planes and has attracted incentives valued at more than $100 million from Columbus and Greensboro, N.C., which is set to become the airline's next operations hub.

But as Southwest Airlines Chairman Herb Kelleher likes to say, at an airline, "Your capital assets travel at 500 miles an hour."

Skybus, which was well-funded with $160 million before its May launch, is moving its focus from startup to cost-conscious growth. In the past few weeks the airline has cut three Columbus-to-West Coast flights that officials said weren't turning enough profit, and it has let go a number of contract consultants who had helped Skybus through its early days.

Officials for the Niagara Falls International Airport told a local publication this week that Skybus could begin flying there as early as February. If history is a guide, Skybus would promote the destination as being close to Buffalo (21 miles) and also a gateway to Toronto (80 miles).

Chris Curry, director for the Gary-Chicago International Airport, said airport officials have expressed interest and would welcome Skybus. Gary has no commercial service, he said, but presents obvious benefits: It's 35 minutes to downtown Chicago and could save an airline half the cost of operating in Chicago itself.

"Eventually, (Skybus') focus will have to be bringing people to major urban centers," Curry said. "In that sense, we'd be a perfect fit."

Observers say a market like Gary would be a tough sell from Columbus, though.

According to Port Columbus data, Chicago's Midway airport -- served by several daily flights from Southwest -- already is the lowest direct fare from Columbus, with an average one-way fare of $73 for the 12 months that ended March 31. Although prices may go up with the January departure of JetBlue, average fares for the same period to New York-area airports also were low: $79 one-way for JFK (JetBlue's hub) and $93 to Islip on Long Island, where Southwest flies.

Secondary cities hold very limited appeal for business travelers, said Nawal Taneja, head of the Aviation Department at Ohio State University.

"There's no reason a business person would go to Gary if their actual business is in Chicago," Taneja said. He and others in Columbus say JetBlue was hampered by an aversion to JFK, with Columbus fliers preferring LaGuardia for New York trips.

"If people are not even willing to travel to JFK, then how many people would be willing to go to airports that are even further out?" Taneja asked.

Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, N.Y., and Trenton Mercer Airport in Trenton, N.J., are two possible New York-area destinations being looked at for Skybus. Both are at least 55 miles from the city.

"I don't think there's enough leisure travelers going to New York that would go for that," said travel agent Susan Schneider of Twin Horizons travel. "Although, if fares shoot up to twice what they are after JetBlue leaves, then Skybus might have a market there."