Low-profile budget airlines offer new flights and low fares
U.S. budget airlines fly under many travelers' radar, but they offer low-cost flights.
New York Times
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As major carriers continue to raise fares and cut capacity, budget airlines such as Sun Country, Vision Airlines and Direct Air, which operate mainly out of small U.S. cities, are adding new flights with low fares.
Sun Country Airlines flies 737s from Minneapolis/St. Paul, where it is based, to more than 30 destinations throughout the United States (including Seattle), Mexico and the Caribbean. It will begin flying to London Gatwick on May 27 with rates from $422 one way in the summer.
Vision Airlines, based in Georgia, started out as a charter service in 1994 and began flying scheduled service late last year between Atlanta and Louisville, Ky., and between Niagara Falls, N.Y., and northwestern Florida. It now flies prop planes and Boeing 737 jets from its hub in Destin, Fla., to more than 20 cities in the Southeast with rates typically $89 to $109 each way.
Direct Air is based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and provides nonstop service to more than 15 cities including Newark, Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, by chartering planes from other airlines. Later this year, it is adding flights to San Juan, Puerto Rico; the Bahamas; and Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Florida, with rates as low as $79 each way when on sale.
Never heard of these airlines? That may be because of their low-profile business style, which typically focuses on linking small cities to vacation destinations, largely avoiding direct competition with bigger airlines, and relying more on word of mouth than costly marketing blitzes. Some, including Direct Air and Allegiant Air, even refuse to pay to list fares at online agencies like Expedia or Travelocity, which means that travelers have to visit the carriers' own websites to find their flights.
All of this helps keep costs down and fares low.
"We don't have a massive overhead like we would if we were a legacy carrier," said David Meers, chief operating officer at Vision Airlines.
In addition, the budget carriers' low-fare strategies involve selling not just airline seats, but also hotel rooms and car rentals. With packages, Meers explained, "there's a little bit of a margin for the airline as well, which helps to defray increases in fuel prices."
One of the tradeoffs of flying a budget carrier used to be having to pay fees for things like checked bags and snacks, but now that most major airlines charge for the same things, such fees are almost expected. Allegiant, for example, charges for drinks and snacks, checked bags and seat assignments. Vision, on the other hand, offers free drinks, snacks and seating assignments.
Another issue to be aware of is the age of the planes. Some of the budget carrier planes are on the older side. Allegiant, for example, flies MD-88s, which are, on average, 21.5 years old. Vision's fleet, as well as aircraft chartered by Direct Air, include some older-model Boeing 737s (which were not subject to airworthiness inspections in the wake of the depressurization incident on a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-300 series aircraft on April 1). Each carrier is subject to the same safety and maintenance regulations as their larger counterparts.
"Safety is our first priority, and our aircraft are maintained in accordance with all FAA regulations," said Jordan McGee, an Allegiant spokeswoman, who also noted, referring to its MD-88 fleet, "because of our low frequency of flights, we only put about 1,000 cycles per year on them."
Passengers should be prepared for fewer routes and less frequent flights. While most flights are nonstop, few are offered on a daily basis. Small fleets and limited service mean a lack of backup options when flights aredelayed. "When you get in trouble," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of Farecompare.com, "you may not get home for a while."
Budget carriers say they can't afford to disappoint customers by canceling flights. Edward Warneck, president of Direct Air, said his carrier would land in a different airport if necessary (Boston instead of Worcester, Mass., for example) and shuttle passengers to their original destination by bus.
"Given the choice," he said, most passengers "would rather be late than not get there at all."
Here are some details on four budget carriers:
Where it flies: More than 70 small cities, including Colorado Springs, Toledo, Ohio, and Roanoke, Va., with nonstop service to vacation destinations like Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Orlando, Fla.
The rundown: Everything from snacks ($2 to $7) to seat assignments ($6.99 to $8.99) costs extra. The airline, which currently uses MD-88 aircraft, is in the process of certifying several Boeing 757-200 aircraft with the aim of flying to Hawaii.
Booking: Fares are found only at www.Allegiant.com. Travelers who buy well in advance get the cheapest rates. Also watch for "Fly Nearly Free" deals, offered periodically on air and hotel packages for two. The deal allows the second person to pay just the taxes and fees associated with the fare.
Where it flies: More than 15 cities including Niagara Falls, N.Y., Newark, Pittsburgh and Worcester, Mass., with nonstop service to popular destinations like Myrtle Beach, S.C., and West Palm Beach, Fla.
The rundown: Direct Air offers scheduled charter flights operated by Xtra Airways, Vision Airlines, Aviation Advantage/Sky King & Dynamic Airways, and handles marketing, reservations and other services. There are fees for extras, including $10 for a seat assignment and $25 for the first checked bag. Nonstop flights are usually about $99 each way.
Booking: Sign up for the carrier's email alerts for periodic discounts like the "family ties" special, which offers $169 round-trip vouchers, usually good for use within a year. www.visitdirectair.com
Sun Country Airlines
Where it flies: From Minneapolis/St. Paul to more than 30 destinations throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean including San Francisco; New York; Cancún, Mexico; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Starting May 27, it will also offer flights to London Gatwick through Sept. 4.
The rundown: Sun Country flies Next-Generation 737s, among the newer models in the 737 line. The first checked bag costs $20 to $35. Full meal service and free alcoholic beverages are offered in first-class. Booking: A weekly fare sale called "Wing it" every Tuesday at 2 p.m. Central time offers discounted rates from $69 each way for travel over the following two weeks. www.suncountry.com
Where it flies: More than 20 cities in the Southeast, including Atlanta, Asheville, N.C., Little Rock, Ark., and Louisville, Ky., with nonstop flights to and from Destin, Fla.
The rundown: Vision offers seat assignments and in-flight snacks and nonalcoholic drinks for no extra fees. The first checked bag costs between $15 and $25.
Booking: Sign up for email alerts to find out about specials like a recent summer sale with fares from $59 each way (normally $89 to $109) from Destin to Orlando's Sanford International Airport, Charlotte County Airport in Punta Gorda, Fla., and St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport. www.visionairlines.com