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Skybus: The trade-offs of no-frills, low-cost flights

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Midway between San Diego and Columbus, Ohio, on Skybus Flight 241, attendant Olivia Champ had had enough of "the $10 question."

Yes, there were people who had paid only $10 for a seat on the July 16 flight, she announced to the cabin. And for those who were still skeptical, Champ asked the lucky few for a show of hands.

Nine arms shot up, including mine. A few rows ahead, Mary Engelhardt of San Diego turned back toward me. "You too?," she said over the seats and flashed a sly you-devil look. "Welcome to the club."

The handful of $10 seats were the lowest fares on Skybus Airlines, the new bargain-basement carrier that in May began flying between Burbank and Columbus. In July it added flights between San Diego and Columbus, and now has routes from Columbus to 11 cities nationwide.

It's the ultimate "no-frills, low-cost" airline. And I mean no-frills. For rock-bottom fares, passengers have to pay for almost everything. No movies, no music and no complimentary coffee, tea or milk.

It's a la carte flying taken to the extreme as one airline industry consultant put it. But if it stays in business, Skybus could be the future.

For now, Columbus is the center of the universe for Skybus. The airline offers flights from Columbus to smaller airports near major metropolitan areas, including two cities in Florida and places like Portsmouth, N.H. (60 miles from Boston), and Bellingham, Wash. (between Seattle and Vancouver.)

I couldn't resist checking out the 10 buck bonanza even though there was no reason whatsoever for me to go to Columbus -- personal or business.

Columbus (pop. 773,000) is the capital of Ohio and the state's most populous city. It's the home to popular apparel company Limited Brands, with clothier Abercrombie & Fitch and fast-food restaurant chain Wendy's International Inc. based in the suburbs.

The journey to Columbus actually began in April when Skybus announced it was beginning service and that it would offer 10 seats on every flight to and from Burbank for $10 each. Other seats wouldn't be as cheap but many of them were still half the price of other airlines.

After the $10 seats, the one-way fare starts at $50 and rises in $25 increments to $175. The airline won't say exactly how many seats are sold at which price, but the average fare typically runs $100.

In a lightning-fast Internet society, I was too slow. Within hours, the $10 fares on every flight for the entire year had been sold out online. Business commuters and couples in long-distance relationships were hoarding them, buying up a dozen tickets at a time. "It was like a feeding frenzy," said Carmen Hulbert, director of marketing for Skybus.

But one night in late May I got a call. The tipster said that next morning Skybus would begin selling tickets for a new service from San Diego to Columbus. It felt like insider trading but I wanted that $10 fare.

Engelhardt, the woman from San Diego, said she had a tipster of her own. Her sister-in-law in Columbus checked the Skybus website every day for a week before calling her in the middle of the night.

"She woke me up and told me I had to get it right away," Engelhardt said. Engelhardt and I had a problem: We couldn't get a $10-return fare. The time difference gave Columbus residents a three-hour advantage to grab all the Columbus departures. So we ended paying $10 one-way and $50 coming back.

Still, for $60 -- it was actually $80.80 after taxes and securities fees -- we would fly to Columbus and back, roughly a 4,000 mile round trip for less than two cents a mile.

Skybus marketing geniuses must have figured it wouldn't stop there.

Fearful of getting stuck in a middle seat, I paid an extra $10 for priority boarding since Skybus, like Southwest Airlines, doesn't have seating assignment. I paid another $10 for priority boarding for the return trip as well.

Now the round trip cost had risen to $100.80.

Knowing that the airline charges $5 for each piece of checked baggage, I flew with a small carry-on case.

At the airport, you can see how the airline cuts costs. Passengers can either check-in using the Internet at home or at self-service kiosks at the airport that print out boarding passes. It has no telephone customer service department.

Three people help check bags but the terminal counter is closed 30 minutes before the flight. The counter staff then moves to the gate where they help board passengers. Meanwhile on the plane, the flight attendants clean the cabin, eliminating the need for a separate cleaning crew.

"The result is that we have a cost structure that is so much lower than anyone else," said Bill Diffenderffer, Skybus' chief executive.

Many passengers were surprised by the plane, which was a new Airbus A319 that had been delivered just a week before. It had slick, comfortable leather seats designed by Recaro, the famed German seat maker for Ferrari sports cars, and a seemingly wider aisle than other planes in its class.

"I thought it would be a rinky-dink airplane, but it is much better than I thought," said Amanda Faretta, who was traveling with her new husband, Jonathon. They paid $50 each for the one-way fare to Columbus.

Skybus officials claim that new, fuel-efficient Airbus planes keep maintenance and operation costs down.

But cost-cutting comes right down to legroom. The seats had about 2 inches less than on other airlines. Taller passengers took up seats at the exit or at the front of the plane where there is more room.

Keeping seats closer together allows Skybus to cram about 20 more passengers into the cabin than on other airlines, which typically configure their Airbus A319s to carry about 134 passengers.

Once the plane was in the air, passengers got to experience what could be the future of domestic air travel.

Armed with wireless, hand-held credit-card readers, flight attendants in long-sleeve shirts and black pants began selling what other airlines provide for free. Skybus says it's selling advertising space on the shirts, as well as on the overhead bins, aisle carpet and even on the outside of the plane. It has already signed up Columbus-based Nationwide Insurance to have its logo painted on the plane for $100,000.

The flight attendants are paid lower wages but they get 10% commission on what they sell on the plane.

For $8, you can get a breakfast entree, such as a platter of bagel, pastry, yogurt and fruits. A lunch box with a ham sandwich, fruit salad and cookie costs $10. Bottled water, soft drinks and candy were $2, with alcoholic beverages selling for $5.

I bought a turkey wrap for $10 and a Sierra Mist soda for $2, bringing the total to $112.80.

Shortly after the meal service, the flight attendants rolled another cart down the aisle, this time it was loaded with $47 Calvin Klein perfumes, $125 Skagen watches and $98 Crislu cubic zirconia bracelets.

At first, attendants Tracey Post and Erin Schramm, who was also modeling a children's backpack for sale, weren't having much luck.

Then Post pushed the cart next to the $10 riders.

Having saved a bundle on the air fare, as they later explained to me, the previously frugal bargain hunters went on a shopping spree.

John and Gloria Fuentes spent $80 buying two chocolate gift boxes, two children's backpacks and a travel pouch. They spent another $24 on their meal and drinks.

"We're still saving a bundle," John Fuentes said, adding that they would have had to spend about $700 on air fare for the both of them on another airline.

Engelhardt and her mother, Carolle Banks, also splurged, buying two boxes of chocolates and a travel organizer for $44 after spending $30 for two lunch boxes, two drinks and a cheese platter.

Banks said she "absolutely" didn't mind that she had to pay for everything. "To me, I'd rather know how the costs are broken down," she said. "If I don't want to drink or eat, I shouldn't have to pay for them."

Toward the end of the flight I also wavered and purchased a $15 "Executive Travel" pillow made of "visco-elastic memory foam." Including lunch, the total cost of my trip had now grown to $127.80 but that was still far better than the passenger next to me.

Carol Walker of Ramona, a San Diego suburb, paid about $150 for her one-way fare, having purchased the ticket later than others on the flight.

But she was happy nonetheless. She said she would have had to pay "a lot more" on other airlines. The fares at that time had ranged from about $350 to $400.

There were other advantages, she said. It was a nonstop flight, the plane was new and bright, and the flight attendants were young and perky without being overbearing in trying to hawk products.

For the record, the tenth passenger to buy a $10 ticket for the trip to Columbus was Fuentes' granddaughter, who got sick and couldn't make the flight. Skybus tickets are not refundable, but that didn't bother Fuentes.

"We can't complain," Fuentes said. "It's only ten bucks."


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