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Comparing the low-fare airlines: Who wins the side-by-side competition?

SmarterTravel

Here is a list of the current batch of top domestic low-fare airlines. For a side-by-side comparison of what each offers in terms of classes, number of daily flights, in-flight food and entertainment options, leg room, and more, check a comparison chart. Or, find out which major U.S. cities are served by each airline.

AirTran

AirTran flies from a hub in Atlanta (plus a minor hub in Orlando) to about three dozen business and vacation centers in the eastern half of the U.S. A few major cities in the West are also served. It offers not only a conventional coach service but also a business class priced at $35 to $85 per trip over the top unrestricted coach fare.

Alaska and America West

Alaska and America West seem to be carving out a low-fare niche while still operating hub-and-spoke route systems based in the West, with service across the country. Alaska also serves Canada and Mexico. Both lines offer conventional two-class service and fully realized frequent flyer programs complete with international partners. Fares generally follow the legacy-line pattern, with lots of restrictions on the cheapest tickets. Last year, America West kicked off several fare wars in first class—a strategy that would be most welcome in the future.

ATA

ATA Airlines (formerly American Trans Air) flies mainly longer-haul routes from hubs at Chicago (Midway) and Indianapolis to a number of major cities on the East Coast, in the West, in Hawaii, and to sun-sand-surf destinations in the southern U.S. and Caribbean. ATA’s future is very much in doubt these days—the line is in the process of selling gates at Midway plus, possibly, some of its planes. There’s no way to tell whether the line will survive as a separate entity or instead be absorbed by one or more of the other low-fare lines.

Frontier

Frontier operates from a hub at Denver, with spokes to more than 40 large and midsize cities around the U.S., as well as five Mexico destinations. It flies single-class planes, has a frequent flyer program, and is phasing in personal screen entertainment options on some planes.

JetBlue

JetBlue is emerging as a credible rival to Southwest as a business traveler’s favorite low-fare line. It flies mainly from a base at New York (JFK) to Florida, upstate New York, and the West, although it is now starting to fly a few additional routes. Sure, it’s nowhere near as big as Southwest, but right now it is probably the most innovative carrier in North America.

At 34-inch pitch, and with seats an inch wider than those of the ubiquitous Boeing 737 and 757 models, JetBlue’s coach is second only to Midwest in comfort among all the U.S. airlines, at least for rows 11 to 23. For some reason, JetBlue is keeping to the tighter 32-inch pitch in the first 10 rows of its A320s. Make sure to sit in row 11 or higher.

In early 2003, JetBlue announced a huge order for Regional Jets (RJs). JetBlue hasn’t yet said whether it will use those RJs to feed its long-haul flights—and thus become something of a network line—or use them for low-volume point-to-point flights. Perhaps we’ll see a bit of both. In any case, JetBlue could bring greatly improved air service to smaller U.S. cities.

Southwest

Southwest has grown to giant size with a formula of undercutting legacy fares, often by a big margin, and running an efficient point-to-point route system. The legacy lines match at least some Southwest fares, but currently Southwest’s unrestricted business fares are generally well below the competition.

Southwest is an all-coach line. It’s famous for serving peanuts rather than real meals (although these days it offers a bit more of a snack on long flights) and its free-for-all rushes for unassigned seats. A bonus: Southwest’s new-generation Boeing 737s actually give you more legroom than you get on most of the legacy lines.

Spirit

Spirit operates from the Northeast, Detroit, and Chicago (O’Hare) to warm-weather destinations in Florida and the Caribbean and to a few Western cities, with something of a hub at Detroit. The line offers a premium business-class option for no more than $100 (each way) over the price of its nonrefundable coach tickets, or $40 over its refundable coach fares.

Read this and other travel tips geared towards business travelers at Smarter Travel’s MyBusinessTravel.com, run by Ed Perkins.

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