The Skybus effect; Other cities welcome airline with open arms; Columbus earning some raves, too

Glowing travel stories. Water-cannon salutes. Welcome ceremonies packed with local officials.

Skybus Airlines might be Columbus' hometown carrier, but it also has been received with open arms in other cities, including jaded towns such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. Newspapers and TV stations have covered the arrival of the upstart, with the coverage helping to boost ticket sales.

The publicity also has focused a national spotlight on Columbus. The day after Skybus started service in May, reporters from two of its destination cities landed here. Others have followed, writing largely positive reviews of a city they probably never would have visited otherwise.

"The mere fact that Columbus is being mentioned is a big freakin' deal," said Paul Astleford, CEO of Experience Columbus, who is keenly aware of the greater name recognition of Cleveland and Cincinnati. "It really opens up a broader national market for us."

Visitors from within the region -- generally defined as those within a three- or four-hour drive -- are valuable to Columbus. But travelers from other areas of the country are much more likely to drop more money here, because they almost certainly will stay in a hotel and spend more on things such as ground transportation and food.

"It's still really early," Astleford said. "You don't create destination demand within a week, a month, two months. It'll take a year or so of really getting in there and marketing.

"We'll be looking at possible advertising opportunities, and doing some (familiarization) trips for travel writers and tour organizers from some of these Skybus markets."

In a larger sense, Experience Columbus and organizations such as the Columbus Chamber even see economic-development opportunities arising from the Skybus venture.

"This isn't just about visitors," Astleford said. "This is about introducing our community to new businesses and to possible new residents." Smaller burgs such as Portsmouth, N.H., Skybus' near-Boston destination, also are excited about receiving a boost from the airline. Some have practically given the airline the keys to the city in appreciation for being included in their route map.

Skybus CEO Bill Diffenderffer joined airport board members, the mayor of Portsmouth and other local politicians who were marking the arrival of the first Skybus flight.

"Oh, it was quite an event," said Bill Hopper, manager of the Portsmouth International Airport.

Hopper said the only other regular commercial service there is a twice-weekly, seasonal flight on Allegiant Air to Florida.

"Skybus really offers something unique to this area because of its very affordable service. People are choosing it for that reason."

In Chicopee, Mass., which will serve the Hartford, Conn., market, they're delighted to be adding rental-car service and a bus connection at the Westover Metropolitan Airport in anticipation of Skybus' arrival next month.

"The overall response has been overwhelming," Diffenderffer said. "It proves the (business) model more than anything I could say."

Although the appeal of cheap flights from Columbus to California and Florida is obvious, skeptics have questioned whether enough demand could be generated from the other direction, even at a low price.

All Skybus flights go through Columbus, so passengers boarding in other cities will be making a stop here, even if they intend to drive or fly to someplace else after landing.

He declines to give specific figures, but Diffenderffer says that sales from other markets have been stronger than expected.

For example, from Oakland, Calif. -- across the bay from San Francisco -- and Bellingham, Wash. -- between Seattle and Vancouver -- there aren't any flights to Columbus for less than $150 one way before taxes and fees until late August.

"We've been very surprised by how many people are coming the other way," Diffenderffer said. "During the '80s and '90s, there was a lot of migration to other states. There's a lot of family and friends taking advantage of the low fares."

Diffenderffer said that airports from across the country are clamoring to land Skybus. At a convention of airport executives this month, he said, he was approached by more than two dozen airport representatives urging him to meet with them about bringing Skybus to their city.

Andrew Vasey, president of Aviation Capital Management and a consultant to Skybus on some facilities issues, said Skybus' popularity in other markets is quite a change.

Vasey explained that "at a macro level, an airport is an economic-development tool. More air service means a greater ability for a city or region to attract businesses and visitors, and a corresponding increase in revenue and payroll taxes."

"A year or two ago, the Skybus people were making the rounds and a lot of people were telling them, 'Come back when you're actually flying.' Now the tables are turned a bit, and Skybus is being courted just like airports court the JetBlues of the world."

Despite this status, all of the resulting publicity hasn't been positive. Some of the reactions of outsiders point out that Columbus still has some work to do in selling itself and improving visitor amenities.

"A drive that should have taken 20 minutes ends up lasting an hour," said Portsmouth, N.H., weekly The Wire of the reporter's long COTA bus journey from the airport to Downtown, echoing a frequent complaint about the inconvenience of traveling in Columbus without a car.

The Wire writer also expressed disappointment that the Brewery District "does not have any working breweries."

Although most publications were kind to Columbus, the city has been dismissed as a destination by a couple of bloggers.

Said a writer on the San Diego CityBeat Web site: "You can get to Columbus, Ohio, for $50 one way, which would be great if I wanted to go to Columbus. Unfortunately, I never want to go to Columbus. Ever."

Box Story: Quotes about Skybus and Columbus from across the country

\ "A few minutes before 8, I walked into the Topiary Garden at the Old Deaf School Park. Except for the burbling of a fountain, it was very still. But even on a quiet morning this park seems more alive than most. Placed very purposefully are 54 neatly manicured topiary-people, not to mention three dogs, a monkey, a cat and eight boats. ... Park literature describes it as a "landscape of a painting of a landscape." You have to see it to believe it. A small easel holds a bronze version of Seurat's painting. Stand behind it and you'll be able to see the soft green figures from just the right perspective."

The Kansas City (Mo.) Star

referring to the Topiary Garden

\ "You can get to Columbus, Ohio, for $50 one way, which would be great if I wanted to go to Columbus. Unfortunately, I never want to go to Columbus. Ever."

The Last Blog on Earth

on the San Diego CityBeat Web site

\ "It's probably a bad metaphor to use with an aviation business, but Skybus Airlines has created quite a buzz in the Pioneer Valley. For anyone who missed the news, Skybus, a new discount airline, announced last week that on July 16 it is going to start one round-trip a day between Westover Metropolitan Airport and Columbus, Ohio, for introductory fares as low as $10 one way. It puts Westover in the commercial airline business."

The Republican

Springfield, Mass.

\ "This city is a big mystery to many Triad residents, but Skybus is about to reveal the truth: Columbus is booming. And it's not a bad tourist spot, either. A 2006 study ranked Columbus' economy as the seventh strongest in the nation, according to factors such as salaries and job availability. Charlotte ranked first on that list. In some ways, this capital city of more than 700,000 takes many of Charlotte's best features and leaves some of the worst behind. Construction, redevelopment, a big airport, an acclaimed new downtown arena district and big hotels invite the comparison to Charlotte. But you won't find Charlotte's "big 'n' rich" attitude here."

News & Record

Greensboro, N.C.

\ "On Saturdays, this place becomes a farmers market, but it's a cacophony of colors, sights and smells during the week, too. We passed by stalls selling barbeque, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and Indian foods. There are cheese shops, florists, bakeries, organic butchers and a place called Jeni's Ice Creams. Owner Jeni Britton, behind the counter, has created a line of handmade ice creams that I still have a hard time imagining: Thai chili? Lavender and wild berries? Creme de violet? My biggest regret of the day was not finding time to go back for a dip -- or six."

The Kansas City (Mo.) Star

describing the North Market

\ "As he watched the first Skybus morning flight soar through clear blue sky yesterday toward Columbus, Ohio, Portsmouth International Airport's top leader, Richard Green, was dreaming big dreams for the future. Green, executive director of the Pease Development Authority, which oversees the airport and former Air Force base properties and is working to turn them into an "international tradeport," said he's optimistic about the new ultra-low-fare carrier rapidly expanding its Portsmouth service."

The Boston Globe

\ "Skybus flight attendants look like rock 'n' roll roadies in their black T-shirts, black pants and sneakers. It's fitting because Skybus carries the personalities you might find in a cantankerous rock band: squirmy children, high-spirited young adults and veterans enduring one more day on the road. Skybus is grabbing this mix of bargain hunters and casual travelers at Piedmont Triad International Airport with cheap fares of $10 and up."

News & Record

Greensboro, N.C.

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