PeoplExpress Launches With Low Fares, Empty Seats

July 01--Two things stood out on PeoplExpress's maiden flight from Newport News: The seats were cheap, and many were empty.

It cost $56 -- taxes included -- to book the 6 a.m. departure to Boston. When Doreen Grimm saw the price while making her reservation in June, she wondered: How can they afford that?

Her round-trip total, with a $25 carry-on bag fee, came to $162, "which is half what everybody else wanted out of Norfolk," said Grimm, a teacher from Hampton.

PeoplExpress began operations Monday after more than two years of build-up and fundraising delays, with flights between its hub at Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport and three current destinations: Boston, Pittsburgh and Newark, N.J. Officials at the upstart airline, which bears the name and logo of a popular low-fare carrier of the 1980s but is a different company, are hoping cut-rate deals will help it elbow its way into the Hampton Roads market.

Now all they need are customers.

Grimm raved about the new direct service to Boston from between two open seats. About two of every three were vacant on the flight. The crowd was even sparser on the return trip. An attendant counted 31 passengers before the 150-seat plane took off.

Company officials have declined to say how many people are buying tickets, but Steve Shatsky, vice president of marketing for PeoplExpress, said occupancy rates on flights later this week are "up considerably."

Passengers arriving for the inaugural flight Monday were greeted by chipper airline employees and the occasional opening-day hiccup. At the front counter, one worker helped a fellow staffer who had hit a snag checking in her first passenger.

"OK, it's not going to print because you're in Google Chrome," she told her. "You have to be in Internet Explorer."

The plane itself still bore the colors and name of Vision Airlines, the small Las Vegas-based carrier that is doing business as PeoplExpress. The company has two planes for its Newport News service and is getting a third; all eventually will sport the PeoplExpress colors and name, Shatsky said.

The interior looked much like any other aircraft. The seats on the Boeing 737-300 reclined farther than those on some other commercial planes. Before takeoff, an attendant told the passengers that there had been a glitch and they needed to collect everyone's boarding pass to re-scan them. She apologized.

"It's a new day for us," she said.

The 6 a.m. flight took off at 6:08. There was no wireless Internet to purchase, but there was a free pouch of mini-pretzels.

Soft drinks were free to celebrate opening day. Normally, the airline will sell coffee and tea for $1 and cans of soda for $2, Shatsky said. There will be complimentary snack boxes, paid for with advertising, but the boxes hadn't arrived in time for the first flights, he said.

A carry-on bag costs $25, while items that can fit under the seat -- roughly the size of a large laptop bag -- are allowed on at no charge. It costs $20 to check one bag and $25 for a second.

The pilot encountered no turbulence, though when the plane landed in Boston, some of the safety compartments below the seats opened, exposing the hidden life preservers. The same plane and crew were back in Newport News by 10:05 a.m. -- it was scheduled to return at 9:40 a.m.

Next up for the airline: flights to West Palm Beach, Fla., beginning July 14; to Atlanta beginning Aug. 1; and to New Orleans and St. Petersburg, Fla., on Aug. 28.

Travelers won't find PeoplExpress tickets on price-shopping sites such as Travelocity or Expedia because the airline doesn't want its tickets to incur the extra booking fee to those services, Shatsky said. That's one way the company intends to keep costs down for passengers, he said.

Robert Mann, an industry analyst and consultant based in Port Washington, N.Y., said by email that PeoplExpress won't be able to tell if there's enough demand to support its routes until travelers are sufficiently aware of its flights, and the number of empty seats on Monday's $56 service to and from Boston seems to indicate that awareness is "quite limited."

Besides price, the airline is promoting its customer service. That was another calling card of the PeoplExpress from the 1980s, said Shatsky, who was a customer service rep for the previous airline.

He joined the relaunch effort about a year and a half ago, after Michael Morisi, another former employee of the old airline, had acquired the name and logo.

"It was an emotional day for me," Shatsky said after returning from Boston. "I'll admit, I got a little teary eyed at the beginning of the flight."

Dave Forster, 757-222-5005, dave.forster@pilotonline.com

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