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May 28, 2009

Skybus: The Sequel

by Barbara S. Peterson

Introducing JetAmerica, a new budget airline start-up aiming to fly between Newark and destinations in the Midwest and South. But wait, the $9 fares Jet America is shamelessly hawking sound a little too familiar. Hmmm. . . .

Remember Skybus? It was that Columbus, Ohio-based budget airline which used the same gimmick (except it was $10 fares) to grab free publicity, only to shut down in 2008, less than a year after its debut. Skybus was started by John Weikle, the same entrepreneur behind JetAmerica. Poor John. He apparently suffers from a strange compulsion to pilot an airline despite what he obviously knows firsthand: that the odds of succeeding are almost nil.

Or perhaps he has learned something from the Skybus debacle because JetAmerica--if nothing else--is starting out modestly, with one leased 737 that will fly from Toledo, Ohio, to Newark when it launches on July 13. Other cities to get service this year are Lansing, Michigan; South Bend, Indiana; and Melbourne, Florida. The cities are reportedly subsidizing some of JetAmerica's costs to lure flights to their airports--smaller depots like these have suffered disproportionately from the big airlines' cutbacks in the past year.

The $9 fares will be good for the first 9 to 19 seats on the plane, which can hold more than 150 depending on the configuration. I checked a few fares for future flights, and they were more in the $59 and $79 range, sans fees. With fees, the total tab for a trip from Newark to Florida was in the $189 range, not bad but not amazing, either. 

The original Skybus barely lasted a year. Officially, soaring fuel prices were to blame. But how about a dubious business model? Yes, Ryanair has succeeded along these lines in Europe by stripping down the airline experience to the basics--you get a seat--and then layering on the charges. Recently the European carrier has raked in the free publicity by threatening to make its passengers pay to pee.

Ryanair also flies to unsung airports that are conveniently near major cities. But that doesn't necessarily transplant to the United States. JetAmerica's proposed routes aren't likely to generate a huge demand. 

And Skybus, you may also recall, also got dinged for its lack of customer service. Judging from its Web site,, customer service isn't in the plan--there's no phone number or information on where to reach the company. A small disclaimer tells the story: The airline is actually a charter line operating under the aegis of Miami Air International.

When doing business with start-ups, keep in mind that more than 200 have gone out of business since the airlines were deregulated 30 years ago.  Caveat emptor.    


what a worthless thing

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