Skybus Airlines CEO sees Lovell as 2nd Atlanta airport

One on one interview with Bill Diffenderffer


EDITOR'S NOTE: Audio with this story is available at www.timesfreepress.com.

Bill Diffenderffer, chief executive of Skybus Airlines, says what he likes about Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport is that "it's not Hartsfield."

Mr. Diffenderffer, an industry veteran with stints at Continental Airlines and Eastern Airlines, heads up the Columbus, Ohio-based carrier that begins flights between that city and Chattanooga on Dec. 5.

He said the airline, which started flying nationally in May, depends a lot on airports that aren't megahubs as is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Mr. Diffenderffer said he sees Lovell Field as serving as a second Atlanta airport.

The airline's aim is to avoid congestion and delays and keep its planes flying rather than waiting at gates on the ground, he told Times Free Press Deputy Business Editor Mike Pare in a recent interview.

(This interview has been edited for space and clarity.)

Q: Tell me about Skybus Airlines?

A: Skybus has been flying since May 22. Like any start-up, we spent time raising capital. We raised $160 million. The model is very low cost. It's about being highly efficient and taking advantage of the Internet.

We're a 100 percent e-commerce company. We take advantage of every opportunity to keep the costs down. That allows us to have fares that open up the market.

Q: Who are the principal investors in Skybus?

A: Fidelity, a lot of the major hedge funds, Tiger Management, Morgan Stanley. Also, Nationwide Insurance and Huntington Bank, both major companies in the Columbus area. We've got national and local ownership.

Q: How is it that you decided Chattanooga-Columbus would be a good route?

A: We like areas where a lot of people are within 100 miles. Within 100 miles of Chattanooga you get North Atlanta, parts of the Knoxville area and Chattanooga itself. When we did the numbers, that's more than 5 million people. We think that's exciting.

Q: I'm not sure people understand why Columbus? Are you serving that whole region?

A. That's right. In the same way that there are more than 5 million people within 100 miles of Chattanooga, there are 6.7 million people within 100 miles of Columbus.

Our passengers come from the Cleveland area and the Cincinnati area. That pretty much runs the whole state. Our fares are low, and people drive the extra distance to take advantage of them.

Q: A second Atlanta airport has been discussed to take some of the pressure off of Hartsfield. For some people who live north of Atlanta, is that how you see Chattanooga's airport?

A: Absolutely. We do like to think of that as Chattlanta. When you look at Hartsfield, it is way down south and traffic can be miserable.

We're hoping the airport in Chattanooga and people of Georgia and Tennessee generally see this as a great opportunity to get affordable travel that actually is easier than what they were dealing with before.

Q: What do you like about Chattanooga's airport?

A: That it's not Hartsfield. What do you like about two hours in security lines? We like airports where you can move quickly in and out. We do 25-minute turns. By the time an airplane arrives and is pulling away from the gate is only 25 minutes. We need airports that don't get highly congested.

Q: How are advance bookings going between Chattanooga-Columbus?

A. Bookings are looking good. We think this is a great opportunity for us. We're a great believer in Chattanooga as an airport.

E-mail Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com

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