Austin airport looking to grow

City, GE may partner to build 'ultra-low-cost' terminal


The City of Austin Aviation Department and a private partner are talking about building a bare-bones terminal at the south end of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to serve "ultra-low-cost" airlines.

Such airlines, an emerging trend in the aviation business, typically charge as little as $60 for round-trip flights scheduled a few weeks in advance. But passengers have to pay extra for everything, including luggage and Diet Pepsi.

A new Mexican airline, vivaAeroBus, has tentatively agreed to fly between Austin and five Mexican destinations, provided that the city and its potential partner, GE Commercial Aviation Services, can provide low-cost services before the end of the year. Jim Smith, aviation director for the City of Austin, told the Austin City Council in a briefing last week that the new facility would put Austin in a strong position to land other carriers, too.

"Our goal is to market Austin as having two different products," Smith told the council. "The ultra-low-cost business model is a growing business model, and more airlines are entering it. We want to be competitive in going after and recruiting them to come to Austin."

The new facility would be accessible off Burleson Road rather than the airport's main entrance off Texas 71 and would have ramps with steps up to the plane's door rather than jetways.

Smith said that his department is still negotiating with GE Aviation, a subsidiary of General Electric, and that he hopes to bring a proposed lease to the council for action by late July. The contractor would probably bear most or perhaps all of the cost of constructing the terminal, Smith said.

Smith said Monday that given the tight time frame - vivaAeroBus would like to start flights by Thanksgiving, assuming it can get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration by then - the initial flights probably would use the main terminal.

But GE would probably begin construction of a tentlike interim facility, to be followed by a modular permanent facility in perhaps 18 months. Although the facility could be in the northern end of the airport where the main terminal and cargo operation sit, Smith said, there's a more than 50 percent chance that it will be in the south end near the general aviation facilities.

Ultra-low-cost airlines, which have existed for years in Europe and other places around the globe, are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States.

They are able to offer very low fares by automating most ticketing and check-in functions, offering only nonstop flights, cramming a few extra seats into the fuselage, making passengers pay for things that are free on mainstream airlines, and getting lower gate fees at utilitarian facilities like the one being contemplated here.

The main U.S. carrier of this type is Skybus, which is based in Columbus, Ohio, and offers flights to 13 North American cities from there. Monday, a same-day round trip to Fort Lauderdale was $300. To fly the same route this weekend cost $200, and round trips in August could be had for as low as $60.

But aside from a couple of small carry-ons, a passenger has to pay $5 a bag each way for the first two checked bags and $50 for each additional bag.

A Dr Pepper on the flight will set you back $2, and a turkey sandwich with fruit salad and a cookie is $10.

Smith said such airlines by and large would not compete with the major carriers already in Austin, including budget carrier Southwest Airlines. Business travelers, for instance, probably would not gravitate to the threadbare offerings, he said.

"They're chasing different markets," Smith said. "A college student looking for a cheap trip to CancĂșn, this is their ticket."

bwear@statesman.com; 445-3698

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Possible low-cost airport teminal (see microfilm)


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