Discount airline with $10 seat options sets definite arrival date; Skybus Airlines will begin service out of St. Augustine Airport on July 18.

June 6, 2007

St. Augustine Airport will begin offering commercial flights to Columbus, Ohio, in July when an upstart airline kicks off service with tickets as low as $10.

Skybus Airlines will begin service July 18, with one flight a day flying to its Midwest hub.

The airline, which is attempting to create a U.S. version of Europe's ultra-low-cost carrier Ryanair Ltd., took to the skies a week ago with service to seven airports, including two on the West Coast.

Low-cost flying comes with a shedding of amenities typically offered by airlines: Seats can't be reserved and customers have to pay extra to be in the first group to board ($10), buy drinks, snacks or meals ($2 to $10, and outside food and drink aren't allowed onboard) and check bags ($5 each for the first two; $50 per bag after that).

For most travelers, said Chief Executive Officer Bill Diffenderffer, "the math is easy." If tickets are half the price of other airlines, $7 for a checked bag and a drink is still a bargain.

"You were always paying for checked bags and paying for your Coke," he said. "We simply break it out."

Ten seats on each flight will be sold for $10, the company said: Wednesday evening, most of the $10 fares were gone in July and August, with most tickets costing $30, $50 or $80. The cheapest price for a round trip flight in July was $76.30, with a $10 flight to Ohio, a $30 ticket back and $16.30 in taxes and fees

The airline does not have a top price for tickets, it said, although a ticket from San Francisco to Columbus cost up to $280, which appeared to be the highest fare on the Web site.

The airline also makes money by selling items like perfume, suntan lotion and pillows aboard flights.

One other big difference with Skybus is that there are no connecting flights: A traveller going from St. Augustine to Oakland International Airport would pay a fare for each leg of the trip and would have to collect baggage and re-enter the terminal in Columbus - not necessarily a common occurrence for most passengers, as Skybus is focusing more on passengers going elsewhere from Ohio.

Travelers have had no problems with those limitations so far, Diffenderffer said, with the airline flying its planes 85 percent full during its first week of operation. "In most of these markets, for the people of Central Ohio, there was no nonstop flights; it was high fares and a connection," he said. "We're giving them low fares and direct flights."

Wednesday's announcement also included the unveiling of flights to Chicopee, Mass., and San Diego as well as a second flight to Ft. Lauderdale, which was part of the original group. The flight to the First Coast is identified as going to Jackson-ville/Daytona Beach, with the airline stressing on the booking page that the one hour and 49 minute flight leaves from St. Augustine Airport at 3:09 p.m..

St. Augustine is an attractive market because of the mix of business and leisure travelers, the CEO said, particularly since it puts flyers in between a mix of tourist and business destinations.

As well as introducing a new travel option into the First Coast market, Skybus' entry also sets the stage for a new commercial airport in the region. In order to be certified as a commercial airport, a facility has to meet certain requirements and then actually have an airline commit to providing scheduled service.

Executives at the facility were out of town Wednesday and did not respond to a message left at their office.


Having commercial flights has long been a dream of area residents, said Randy Brunson, a board member of the St. Augustine/St. Johns County Airport Authority. "I've been on the authority for three years and I've been asked every day when we'll get scheduled airlines," he said. "Research shows people in Northeast Florida travel to that area [of Ohio]. I think it's a tremendous boost for the economy in St. Johns County."

The authority is building a hangar at the airport that Brunson said would serve as a base of operations for Skybus. The cost of the structure was not available Wednesday.

Having another airport in the area shouldn't hurt Jacksonville International Airport, the area's major commercial facility, said Michael Stewart, a spokesman for JIA. If Jacksonville continues growing, he said, St. Augustine could eventually become a reliever airport - a setup common in bigger cities in which smaller nearby facilities take over some flights. (904) 359-4103

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