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Wed, May 23, 2007

'America's Ryanair' Begins Service

Skybus Takes Flight

It's been called "America's Ryanair" -- by its proponents AND detractors -- and so far, it's been mostly clear skies for Columbus, OH-based Skybus Airlines.

The ultra-low-cost, no-frills carrier began operations Tuesday, flying from Columbus to Burbank, CA. The return flight was delayed by about an hour, according to sources close to the airline, due to a slow turn... but that's not the worst first day a new airline has ever experienced.

In keeping with its pledge to undercut nearly all other airlines, some tickets on the first Skybus flight sold for $10... and a low number of similarly-priced seats will be available on all its flights, according to Skybus CEO Bill Diffenderffer.

"We're sort of embarrassed our fares are as high as $10," Diffenderffer told USA Today.

But, as they say, you get what you pay for. Even the airline's highest ticket price -- currently $225 for a last-minute fare from Columbus to Burbank, according to the Skybus website -- does not include checked baggage, priority boarding, or any kind of onboard food or drink. Those are extra-cost items... and passengers aren't allowed to bring their own food onboard.

Should passengers neglect to bring along reading material, they may amuse themselves reading various advertisements plastered throughout the cabin. Flight attendants also peddle perfume, and other inflight impulse-buy items.

If this sounds familiar, you're right... as the Skybus operating model closely mirrors that of Dublin-based Ryanair.

"Skybus is very Ryanair-esque," said Dan Garton, executive vice president of marketing at American Airlines. "We're watching that carefully, and the question is, 'Is that a direction we want to go?'"

Skybus also mirrors Ryanair -- and, to a lesser extent, current reigning American LCC Southwest -- by flying to out-of-the-way, non-hub airports. For its advertised flight to the Seattle area, for example. Skybus flies into Bellingham, WA -- which is 78 miles north of Seattle. Driving to Seattle can easily become a three-hour affair during rush hour.

But so far, Diffenderffer says, the market has responded favorably. "A couple hundred thousand" tickets have been sold since they became available -- online only, no ticket agents -- on April 24, the CEO says, and more than 80% of the seats on its current 14-plane fleet of leased Airbus A319s are booked through the first month.

And plan on a packed aircraft... even if it the plane isn't full. Skybus will cram 156 seats into its own A319s, which the carrier expects to begin receiving next year. To give you an idea of the resulting seat pitch, or distance between the seats -- that type of plane typically carries 124 passengers in a two-class configuration; currently, Skybus is operating 144-seat A319s leased from for upstart carrier Virgin America.

Airline consultant Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, expresses doubts Skybus will be able to hold onto passengers, once the novelty wears off.

"In the US, the trend in low-cost carriers is toward a higher-value proposition," Boyd said. "They ain't Ryanair, and this ain't Europe."

(Photo above by Derek Rust)

FMI: www.skybus.com

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