Charlotte on verge of getting airline service; Skybus, famous for airfares as low as $10, is the most likely candidate to offer service from the county airport, experts say

Airport officials say the return of scheduled commercial airline service at the Charlotte County Airport is imminent.

But they are keeping the identity of the airline that might be providing the service and the time line of the move close to the vest.

If the new service arrives, it would be the first service at the airport since the 1980s.

The best guess among Southwest Florida airport and airline experts is that the potential provider is Skybus, a Columbus, Ohio-based ultra-low-fare carrier that primarily serves secondary airports in 11 major metropolitan areas.

Officials at Skybus were equally tight-lipped, saying that they keep such negotiations confidential for competitive reasons.

"We are actively looking to expand our service in various markets, and we are not discussing any of them," airline spokesman Bob Tenenbaum said Tuesday. "We don't want to announce our plans until they are done."

But Tenenbaum acknowledged another deal that seemed to lend credibility to the potential for Charlotte County Airport as the site.

Skybus recently made a deal to fly into a general aviation airport in St. Augustine. Flight service at that airport will begin within the month, he said.

Airport authority officials seemed confident on Tuesday that they would get a deal.

"The only reason it's not official is because an announcement has not been made," said Don Lee, a board member of the Charlotte County Airport Authority. "The announcement is soon to come.

"But there is going to be a commercial airline."

One national airline expert did not think the notion of a commercial airline serving the airport makes much financial sense.

"It really is a crazy idea. It is perfectly located to lose money," said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant who operates the The Boyd Group Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. "That is not a secondary airport. It is not even a tertiary airport. You cannot even find it on a radar screen.

"This is like a bad spoof of the airline industry," Boyd said.

Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, to the north, and Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers already provide plenty of low-cost options for flyers, Boyd noted.

In order to have scheduled flights, major changes would have to be made at the Charlotte County Airport. Airport officials would have to elevate its certification with the Federal Aviation Administration.

More lighting and signs would be needed, there would have to be an increased police presence, Transportation Security Administration inspectors, increased firefighting staff and equipment for screening, Boyd said.

Though details are still under wraps, word already had spread to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and to officials at the FAA about Charlotte County Airport's potential move.

Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said the laundry list of obstacles might sound more imposing than it is.

"It already has some certification. Some airports don't have that," Bergen said. "It really depends on the airport and the carrier."

Skybus is a well-financed startup that is dubbed an "a la carte" carrier.

The low-cost fees only cover the seats. Guaranteed seat placement, baggage check-in, drinks and just about everything else costs extra.

Perhaps the company's top marketing appeal is that it offers 10 seats on any of its daily flights that can be bought for $10.

The A319 jets the airline flies are flying gift shops of sorts, with not only food and drink for sale but also clothing, watches and perfumes. Even toiletries are for sale.

There are ads inside the cabin, in another effort to make money while keeping fares up to 25 percent below others carriers' prices.

The airline does its business exclusively through the Web at www.skybus.com, so there are no human beings to talk to when bad weather looms, a flight is delayed, a change needs to be made to a reservation or a complaint has to be lodged.

But Skybus has raised an estimated $233 million in startup capital, which was more than JetBlue Airways and its $130 million in startup cash.

That has put Skybus in a favorable light with its investors, which include Fidelity Investments, Morgan Stanley, Nationwide Mutual Capital, Tiger Management and several smaller firms.

SO YOU WANT A COMMERCIAL AIRLINE?

Obstacles

Bringing scheduled flights to the Charlotte County Airport would require:

* Elevating airport's FAA certification.

* Adding lighting and signs.

* Adding police and firefighters, plus Transportation Security Administration inspectors and equipment for screening.

A potential provider: Skybus

* An a la carte carrier, its low-cost fares -- as little as $10 on some flights -- only cover the seats. Guaranteed seat placement, baggage check-in, drinks and just about everything else costs extra.

* The A319 jets the airline uses are flying gift shops of sorts, with not only food and drink for sale but also clothing, watches and perfumes. Even toiletries are for sale. Cabin decor includes advertising.

* The airline does business exclusively through its Web site.



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