Can Newcomer Vision Airlines Make it Work?

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Vision Airlines is not new—it's been around as a tour and charter airline for some 20 years—but its recent foray into commercial passenger traffic has been getting buzz lately. So what, or who, is Vision Airlines, and is the airline built for the long haul, so to speak?

First off, the product. Vision's focus is the Gulf Coast region of the U.S., with its hub at Northwest Florida Regional Airport near Destin, Florida. From there, Vision will connect to 22 cities, including larger ones such as Miami, Orlando, and Houston, and smaller ones such as Gulfport, Mississippi, and Macon, Georgia. Aside from Niagara Falls, service will be limited to the Southeast.

Currently, the only routes in operation are Atlanta to Louisville, and Niagara Falls to Destin and Miami. The bulk of Vision's routes will launch March 25, with some beginning on April 1.

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The airline will charge bag fees: $15 for the first, $20 for each additional if paid online; $25 for the first, $30 for each additional if paid at the airport. Soft drinks and snacks will be complimentary. Change fees are currently $100, but will drop to $50 on January 28.

According to a recent USA Today profile, Vision modeled itself after Allegiant Airlines, another low-cost carrier that staked its claim with regional service to smaller destinations. "If Allegiant Airlines is Coke, then there's always got to be a Pepsi," says David Meers, Vision's COO, tells USA Today. "Our goal is not to take over the aviation industry. It's not to go out and try to poke the large carriers in the eye. We believe there's a niche available in the marketplace to provide ... packages to consumers at discounted prices."

Meers says his goal is to bring service to neglected destinations, and do so at a reasonable price. Northwest Florida Regional Airport and Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport both waived many fees for Vision in the hopes that the airline will bring much needed traffic to an area still reeling from last summer's disastrous oil spill.

Airline analyst Mike Boyd tells USA Today there's reason to be optimistic about Vision's future. "They're not going into business to meet pent-up demand, they're going into places to provide a product that wasn't there before," he says. "They're creating their own business, a low-cost, high-value vacation to the Florida Gulf Coast."

But history is littered with failed small carriers. One particularly pertinent example is Skybus, which launched in May 2007 and shut down less than a year later. At a glance, the similarities are striking: Skybus was a low-cost airline (Skybus modeled itself after Europe's Ryanair) serving neglected, secondary cities with low fares. More crucially, Skybus entered the industry as fuel prices were rising, just as they are now.

Of course, Skybus' route network was less cohesive, and included many long-haul routes into cumbersome alternative airports outside otherwise well-served cities. Skybus didn't serve a need or fill a gap the way Vision, with its focus on shorter flights within a particular region, thinks it will. Vision also has the advantage of an established tour- and charter-flight business, which will provide some cushion if the commercial endeavor isn't a smash hit. And clearly the airline has an optimistic mindset, if its press release touting a website-crashing 12,000 bookings this past weekend is any indication.

But the point is, for every Allegiant, there's a Skybus. Which trajectory Vision takes depends on the quality and value of its product, of course, but success truly hinges on Vision's bet that more people would travel to the Gulf Coast—Destin and Florida's panhandle, in particular—if only there were a better way to get there. So if Vision flies, will people go? If the answer is yes, the airline could be around for the long haul.

Readers, what do you think about Vision? Will it fly or flop?

Read comments or add your own insight!
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