I thought, as an air-travel writer, that flying sixty miles for a hot dog in a two-seater plane wouldn't be a problem. Actually, it was pretty terrifying -- a Cessna 150 is no Boeing 737 -- but as my father-in-law piloted us to a smooth landing by the Susquehanna River in Bloomsburg, PA, I started thinking that United, American and their ilk aren't the only way to fly.
Sandwiched between the "big boys" and flying in a Cessna with your dad are a network of smaller airlines you might not have heard of. Some are bigger than you might think. I'm not talking about charters -- most of these are real, scheduled airlines, supervised by the FAA with high safety standards. And I'm not talking about the code-shared regional airlines, like Trans States and Piedmont, which do all their flying under a big airline's name.
The Budget Boys
You've probably heard of JetBlue, Spirit, Southwest and AirTran, the well-known discounters. Allegiant Air (tel. 800/432-3810; www.allegiantair.com) is the biggest scheduled airline that you've never heard of in the US. Serving 32 cities with nonstop service to Las Vegas or Orlando, they've doubled their fleet and tripled their route map in the past year, according to spokeswoman Tyri Squyres. Allegiant serves places like Lansing, Wichita, Fargo, Missoula and Fresno, mid-sized cities where the larger airlines haven't delivered non-stops to their two vacation hubs.
Allegiant flies all MD-80 planes, an older but still reliable model, and they offer leather seats with 32 inches of legroom. Snacks will cost you $1-$3, and, like Southwest, they don't let you reserve seats in advance.
Allegiant is a survivor in a sector that's seen several airlines fail in the past few years; they've picked up business from the failures of Southeast Airlines and Transmeridian Airlines recently. So we asked Squyres about the private company's finances. "Unlike the industry, we are a profitable and well-funded company," she said. Part of their cost savings comes from not making deals with travel agents; you won't find Allegiant fares on Expedia or Travelocity. Instead, you have to go directly to the company's site or call them.
Along with Allegiant, USA 3000 (tel. 877/872-3000; www.usa3000.com) helps Northeasterners and Midwesterners get to sunny destinations at a discount; they fly from 15 cities, including New York, Chicago and St. Louis, to Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean. USA 3000 is owned by packager Apple Vacations and also flies vacation charters for their parent company. They fly new Airbus 320 planes with in-flight music, movies, and hot meals on board.
Hooters Air (tel. 888/359-4668; www.hootersair.com) serves 15 U.S. cities (including some oddball routes like Allentown, PA to Gary, IN) with an unusual in-flight amenity, but they'd like you to know the tight-shirted Hooters Girls on board are not actually flight attendants. (They have real flight attendants, too.) Unlike Allegiant and USA 3000, Hooters flies public charters rather than scheduled service, meaning they operate under a different set of FAA rules. Public charter rules protect your money if Hooters goes out of business, let you change the name on your ticket for $25 (verboten on most scheduled airlines), and ensure a refund if your flight is cancelled.
If you're flying to Canada, you should probably also know about our northern neighbor's discounters: WestJet (tel. 800/538-5696; www.westjet.ca), CanJet (tel. 800/809-7777; www.canjet.ca) and Harmony (tel. 866-868-6789; www.harmonyairways.com). All three connect U.S. and Canadian cities for prices that can be (but are only sometimes) lower than the major airlines', and might not show up on your travel agency Website of choice.
Fly Tiny Air!
New England Airlines (tel. 800/243-2460; http://users.ids.net/flybi/nea), makes Allegiant Air look like one of the big guys. Flying exclusively between Westerly and Block Island, RI with ten-seat planes, and the only airline at both of its airports, NEA is one of many tiny scheduled airlines filling needs throughout the USA.
NEA has been run for 35 years by Bill Bendokas, a Block Islander who took over when the previous island airline failed in 1970. Their flights -- hourly in summer, every other hour in the winter -- are literally a lifeline for island residents, especially during the winter when as little as one ferry per day serves the 850-person community. They also fly plenty of tourists in the summer who don't mind the $84 round-trip fare to clip travel time down to 12 minutes.
NEA and other tiny airlines like Idaho's Salmon Air (tel. 800/448-3413; www.salmonair.com) operate under the same regulations that cover larger airlines, but there are a few quirks in flying smaller planes. Small planes can only carry a certain weight, so passengers and luggage must be balanced -- and if one passenger weighs too much, someone else has to take the next flight.
"We carry work crews, and there are some pretty big guys who work on construction projects," Bendokas says. "So a flight like that may be limited to six or seven people instead of nine."
The islands of New England are fertile ground for small airlines like NEA and Cape Air (tel. 800/352-0714; www.capeair.com), which serves Massachusetts vacation areas like Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod. The little guys also flourish in Alaska and in the Pacific Northwest, where Kenmore Air (tel. 800/543-9595; www.kenmoreair.com) has been serving the Seattle area with float-planes for the past 60 years.
With its routes between Seattle, Victoria, Port Angeles and the San Juan Islands, Kenmore gets business travelers during the winter and tourists during the summer, says marketing director Jason Lee. They flew 130,000 people last year on their 25 planes, mostly 8-10 passenger floaters. It's certainly a lot easier to flit from Victoria's Inner Harbour to Lake Union right by downtown Seattle than to have to drive in all the way from Sea-Tac Airport. Kenmore Air maintains its own fleet and has been run by the same family since the 1950s. But the little guys have faced the same financial challenges that bigger airlines have. "Fuel is really costly now for everybody," says Kenmore marketing director Jason Lee. Kenmore is working to keep their costs down and to fill planes by offering last-minute Internet fare specials (www.kenmoreaims.net/scripts/mgrqispi.dll), he says.
Kenmore isn't the only small airline in their market, either. Harbour Air (tel. 800/665-0212; www.harbour-air.com) connects destinations in southern British Columbia with floatplanes, and Helijet (tel. 800/665-4354; www.helijet.com) links Vancouver and Victoria with passenger helicopters.
Sometimes when a bigger airline fails, it becomes a tiny airline. Boston-Maine Airways (tel. 800/359-7262; www.flypanam.com) is the rump of a company that a few years ago flew under the prestigious Pan Am name; now they primarily fly commuter service between Portsmouth, NH, Bedford, MA, and Trenton, NJ, and between Sanford, FL and Puerto Rico. Their route map is short, but they're still flying big (if old) Boeing 727 jets and they still pop up on major travel agency sites. Right now, they're keeping their loyal Bedford-Trenton commuters happy and doing a lot of charter work, while laying low until the airline industry stabilizes.
"We're not quite sure where larger airlines are going right now, so we're staying below the radar," says Stacy Beck, their director of stations. "We have no intention of disappearing in the middle of the night." As Boston-Maine has a powerful financial backer in banking heir Timothy Mellon, who knows what the future will bring?
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