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...


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."

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