Airline's glitches not seen as serious; Skybus resolving early problems with delays, food supply, experts say

Skybus Airlines said it is working on a range of problems that have spurred customer complaints, including flight delays and a shortage of food for sale.

Airline officials admit the company has suffered some "growing pains" since beginning service May 22, spokesman Bob Tenenbaum said.

"They're aware of the issues and have been working on all of them," he said. "On-time performance is already getting better, and they're making some plane-scheduling changes to keep the longer-haul flights from running out of food."

Tenenbaum said that two of Skybus' four leased planes have small galleys that don't always accommodate enough meals and snacks for long flights. Return trips also have been a problem because food is loaded only in Columbus.

With the addition of a fifth plane next week, Skybus should be able to ensure that longer flights are served by the planes with larger galleys, Tenenbaum said.

The airline, which offers at least 10 tickets on each flight for as little as $10 before taxes and fees, is eager to correct the issue because it counts on revenue from sources such as food to bolster its bottom line.

Several out-of-town journalists covering the new airline have commented on flights running an hour or more late.

Worthington resident Sandy Ferris was happy to be able to have her daughter, Kelly, visit from San Francisco last month on Skybus. But her daughter arrived hungry because of a shortage of food during her flight, and on the way back, her flight was delayed nearly three hours because of a maintenance problem. Ferris said the airline kept the passengers updated while they were delayed, but they had to wait while a new plane and crew were brought in.

Unlike most major carriers, Skybus will not put passengers on other airlines if their flight is canceled or significantly delayed. The most a passenger is eligible to receive from Skybus is a refund or a seat on the next available Skybus flight, which could be the next day. Skybus is advising fliers unwilling to take those risks to buy trip insurance when booking flights.

Ferris said she hasn't been dissuaded from flying Skybus.

"I'd still fly them for the low fares," she said. "In fact, several of us are going to New York -- flying into Chicopee, Mass. -- for the U.S. Open next month. We even have a friend who is flying from Fort Lauderdale to Columbus on Skybus, then flying from here to Chicopee, because it was a lot cheaper than flying direct from Florida."

Another problem is that the Skybus Web site does not provide flight-status information. That had to be taken down because the software being used was not relaying the correct information. The company said it has been working to restore the information.

Industry experts say Skybus' challenges aren't unusual or, at this point, alarming. They warn, though, that fewer people will put up with such uncertainties if Skybus doesn't get a handle on the problems.

"There's a small segment of the population that will put up with anything," said Nawal K. Taneja, who leads the Aviation Department at Ohio State University. "The question is, how big is that segment? There are always issues when small airlines begin. But if these kinds of issues persist, you'll lose the business travelers first, then you'll start to lose others."

Douglas Abbey, partner in the Washington-based aviation consultancy the Velocity Group, also said the flying public will probably allow Skybus more time to work out its glitches.

"Clearly, there are teething pains. I'd be surprised if these kinds of things didn't happen, quite honestly. You even see it when a big airline introduces a new airplane type."

Abbey added that in some ways, Skybus has it easier at this point than JetBlue or Southwest, which have staked their reputations on a high expectation of customer service.

"It's a reasonable strategy to keep expectations low," Abbey said. "The mantra is underpromise and overdeliver. If the problems persist, then I'll think they have a problem with execution. But I think these issues will ultimately disappear."

Skybus investors include Nationwide Mutual Capital, Huntington Capital Investment Co., Battelle Services Co. and Wolfe Enterprises Inc., a subsidiary of The Dispatch Printing Company, which publishes The Dispatch.