September 3, 2003 -- There are three kinds of airlines in the US: big carriers that fly everywhere, like Southwest, United and American; smaller operators (think JetBlue and Spirit); and the truly little guys. Few people know about Southeast Airlines, Allegiant Air or I-Jet, but small airlines can often offer a cheaper or more convenient route home, especially if you live in a city that's not a major airline hub. Determined to find out more, I interviewed executives from Southeast and Allegiant recently, and got courtesy tickets from both airlines.
I started my cheap-airline odyssey on Southeast Airlines (www.flyseal.com; 800/359-7325). Southeast is a "public charter" carrier, which means they operate according to a slightly different set of rules than most airlines. On the downside, they're allowed to cancel flights for any reason and leave you without alternative transportation, as long as they tell you 10 days in advance and refund your money. On the upside, they put your fare in an escrow account, protecting your cash against the airline's bankruptcy -- if Southeast goes under, you'll get your money back.
That's unlikely to happen, though, as Southeast has been around for a decade, ferrying charter passengers to sunny destinations. They now fly from Newburgh, NY, Newark, NJ, Allentown, PA and Columbus, OH to Florida, and they ferry partiers from Allentown and Columbus to Las Vegas.
My flight from Allentown, Pennsylvania to Las Vegas on Southeast on a cramped, aging MD-80 was utterly uneventful. My knees were up near my nose, I had no room to unfold my laptop, and the six-hour flight offered no entertainment and no food service (other than free soft drinks and $5 "snack packs" containing a muffin, a candy bar and some applesauce.) But I got to Las Vegas ten minutes early, and the flight offers fares as low as $99 each way if you book far in advance. Their online reservation system is terrific, showing you the dates to fly for the lowest fares. For flights to and from Florida, fares are as low as $59 one-way if you book far in advance.
Southeast's most innovative idea is Club 59, their answer to a frequent flier program. Unlike regular frequent flier programs, here you pay up front -- $149 per year or $299 for a family -- and get flights between the Northeast or Columbus, OH and Florida for $59 each way, any time you want except around major holidays. If you're willing to travel in Southeast's cattle-car conditions, it's a terrific way to make airfares predictable, reliable and easy. Call 800/359-7325 if you're interested in joining.
Allegiant Air (www.allegiantair.com; 888/594-6937) is suffering some growing pains, but that shouldn't scare fliers away. With only five airplanes, this tiny, cheerful, Las Vegas-based carrier is susceptible to knock-on delays, as I discovered when trying to fly them on a free ticket from Las Vegas to Fresno.
Allegiant's one flight of the day was running 45 minutes late, and I'd scheduled too tight a connection in Fresno to get to my final destination, Los Angeles -- so faced between spending a night in Fresno and grabbing a cheap walk-up ticket on Southwest to LA, I chose the latter. My Southwest flight got in five minutes early, and I was able to write this column thanks to Southwest's comfortable 33 1/2-inch seat pitch.
Marc Peterson, Allegiant's spokesman, says, "we've flown over 1,000 scheduled flights since the beginning of this year, and we've had a total of three cancellations, including weather cancellations." But cancellation number three was a hideous two-day ordeal for a bunch of passengers in Lansing, Mich., where a string of contingency plans all fell through and Allegiant's president ended up issuing a public apology in the local newspaper.
That said, six-year-old Allegiant is a financially stable carrier that provides nonstop service from Sin City to towns seen as redheaded stepchildren of the airport world: Fresno, Lansing, Colorado Springs, Des Moines, Fort Collins, Denver, and Wichita. An hour's delay may not matter much to Fresnoites (Fresnoans?), if the only other choice is to fly a much more expensive United flight. Allegiant's flights to Fresno start at $49 one way. Other destinations' fares to Vegas, each way before taxes:
- Colorado Springs: $69
- Denver: $109
- Des Moines: $99
- Fort Collins: $89
- Lansing: $109
- Wichita: $79
Southeast's and Allegiant's small-airport destinations also let fliers save time. Big airports, such as Detroit Metro and Philadelphia, offer big parking and traffic hassles. But I zipped into Allentown by taxi in minutes from the center of town, and Lansing is much more accessible than Detroit for many Michiganders.
If Southeast and Allegiant show the struggles of good carriers trying to make it in a tough world, Interstate Jet (www.flyijet.com) offers a different lesson. Not only would I-Jet not respond to our requests for interviews, they pulled out of the Allentown-Las Vegas market unexpectedly, leaving them running a stubby set of southern routes based in Atlanta. Given that instability and their unwillingness to speak with us, they're one airline we can't recommend at all.
We'll cover Southeast and Allegiant sales in our future domestic roundups. They're going through growing pains, but it's the same process every small airline has eventually triumphed over. Given a few years, and some patience on the part of budget fliers, Southeast and Allegiant could become strong, stable players keeping fares in the heartland as low as they'll go.
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