The Nation; Airline Ticket: $10; Pillow: $15

May 29, 2007
Ultra-low-cost carriers cut freebies to keep fares low. Some flight attendants are paid partly on commission.

How low can airfares go?

Try $10 for a one-way ticket from Burbank to Columbus, Ohio. Or $9 from Los Angeles International Airport to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Better yet, there is a 1-cent fare for flights from LAX to Guatemala.

Yes, those are actual fares offered by a new generation of carriers that are redefining budget travel by taking "low-cost, no-frills" service to new heights.

Such as $15 for a pillow. Or two bucks for water. Don't want a middle seat? You can pay $10 and you can jump ahead of the line to board a Skybus Airlines plane.

And the flight attendants are paid partly on commission based on in-flight sales.

"It's the extreme example of a la carte flying," said Michael Boyd, an airline industry consultant.

Even so, flights on these cheapie airlines, now officially dubbed ultra-low-cost carriers, can be a bargain and quite a trip even if you missed out on grabbing one of the limited number of $10 teaser fares.

"The seats were comfortable and the flight went pretty well," said Allyx Kronenberg, a Santa Monica resident who paid $105 for her round-trip ticket on an inaugural Skybus flight from Burbank to Columbus last week. "But you do have to pay for everything."

These flights have been around Europe for several years, but they are now making a splash in the U.S.

Skybus offers 10 seats on every flight for $10, with the vast majority of the fares ranging from $50 to $175 one way. That's about half the cost -- or less -- of other airlines flying to Columbus.

Spirit Airlines, which flies out of LAX, has promotional fares that range from 1 cent to $24, including the $9 tickets to Ft. Lauderdale and Detroit.

The Skybus fares were so much cheaper than other carriers' that Shahla Salamat decided to fly her family to Columbus and then drive eight hours to Atlanta for her cousin's wedding during Memorial Day weekend.

Renting a car and driving that distance with her sister and three sons -- Andres, 8, Antonio, 4, and Adrian, 2 -- was worth the estimated $2,000 savings, the Chino Hills resident said.

"It's kind of crazy, I know," Salamat said, explaining how she chose the $200-round-trip fares on Skybus.

The cheapest alternative she could find from Los Angeles to Atlanta was $600.

"But when you think about the savings," she said, "it doesn't sound too bad."

The savings were so substantial for the Salamats that they didn't mind paying $2 for bottled water.

Passengers are not allowed to bring food or beverages onto the plane. Besides, Skybus had warned them ahead of time in a stark reminder on the company's reservations website: "No, the drinks aren't free. Give us a break -- some of you paid $10 for your seat."

Skybus says it will gradually expand its network to such places as Oakland and Seattle as it gets new Airbus A319 planes, which are on order. The airline hopes to be profitable within a year, even with its rock-bottom fares.

"We don't think the same way as everybody else," said Bill Diffenderffer, Skybus' chief executive and former attorney for now-defunct Eastern Airlines.

"Major carriers are going to say Skybus is going to have terrible service because you have to buy everything, but what makes passengers happy is having low fares and on-time, nonstop flights to their destinations. They don't need all that free stuff."

In many ways, Skybus doesn't seem much different from Ryanair, an Irish carrier that has shaken up European air travel by offering dirt-cheap fares with virtually no amenities or service. It is now the largest European airline.

Diffenderffer said that Skybus initially considered modeling itself after Ryanair and U.S. low-cost behemoth Southwest Airlines. But then it decided to start from "scratch and try to improve on everything."

To generate additional revenue, it will allow a company to paint a logo on its planes for $500,000.

To keep costs down, the airline doesn't have a telephone service center. Everything, from booking a flight to changing or canceling a reservation, must be done on its website.

The airline flies only to secondary, less-crowded airports that have lower fees and can turn Skybus planes around in less than 25 minutes.

Major carriers typically have their planes at the gate for about 45 minutes to an hour. The longer the plane stays on the ground, the less passenger revenue it generates.

Skybus also flies new,fuel-efficient Airbus planes, which keep maintenance and operation costs down. Its labor costs are among the lowest in the industry. It has one of the lowest hourly rates for flight attendants, but they get a 10% commission on what they sell on the plane.

With the commission and stock options, the overall compensation is higher than competitors', Skybus said.

"The result is that we have a cost structure that is so much lower than anyone else," Diffenderffer said. "That's why we can have fares that are half as low and make money."

Airline consultant Boyd said he was skeptical that the airline could survive, contending that low-cost carriers such as Southwest are going the other way by beefing up service and amenities.

"Once you start nickel-and-diming things and having flight attendants hawking food, passengers might not want to try it again," Boyd said. "It's novel, but most pipe dreams are."

Moreover, the eye-popping fares often have caveats that could create ill will. For instance, the 1-cent deal from LAX to Guatemala on Spirit Airlines was available only on certain days and didn't include a bevy of taxes that totaled $84.70.

A flight to Guatemala recently was available for 1 cent, but the return 1-cent fare was sold out. The next-best fare was $109.50. In the end, the total round-trip fare was about $200, or about half the prevailing fares at other airlines.

Even with the super-low fares some passengers wondered whether they had indeed saved as much money as they had initially thought.

As Andrew Jones of Thousand Oaks carried his 9-week-old infant son through airport security at Burbank airport, he began mentally adding up other costs, such as the $99 DVD player he bought before the flight for his 3-year-old son because the airline has no entertainment system. And then there was the $20 charge for checking in an infant seat and two pieces of luggage as well as snacks on board.

With the anticipated savings, the Joneses also decided to check into a hotel instead of staying with their family in Wheeling, W.Va.

"We saved $700 on the airfare," he said, "but at the end of the day, it'll probably come out about the same."



Where you can save money

Cheap airlines flying in and out of Southern California:

Ultra-low-cost carriers

(Extra charges for everything including checked baggage, drinks and meals. No seating assignment, no in-flight entertainment system.)

Skybus Airlines (Burbank)

Spirit Airlines (LAX)

Low-cost carriers

(Baggage check, nonalcoholic drinks and snacks free. Some have in-flight entertainment systems.)

Southwest Airlines (LAX, Burbank, Orange County, Ontario, San Diego)

JetBlue Airways (Long Beach, Burbank, Ontario, San Diego)

ExpressJet (Ontario, Bakersfield, San Diego)

AirTran Airways (LAX, San Diego)

Frontier Airlines (LAX, Orange County, San Diego)

ATA Airlines (LAX, Burbank, Ontario, San Diego)

Sun CountryAirlines (LAX, San Diego)


Source: Times research


The extras

Here's a sample of extra charges you might incur on Skybus Airlines above and beyond the cost of your inexpensive ticket:

$5 - For each of first two checked bags ($50 for each additional )

$10 - Priority boarding pass (for first choice of seats)

$15 - Pillow (you get to keep it)

$8 - Blanket

$2 - Bottled water and soft drinks

$5 - Alcoholic beverages

$2 - Trail mix

$5 - Breakfast sandwich

$10 - Lunch sandwich

$10 - Meatloaf plate


Source: Times research

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