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Two New Airlines. Really?

Industry watchers never cease to be surprised at the allure of starting a new airline. Sure, they’ve seen all the red ink, even from the big guys. They’ve seen the history of the dozens of failed start-ups since deregulation in 1978. And they’ve all heard the old saying, “The way to make a small fortune in the airline business is to start with a large fortune.” Still, there’s always someone around who thinks he or she knows something others don’t. And two new lines have been announced this month.

The more ambitious is Cal Jet Airways, which proposes to fly to Mazatlan, Mexico, from Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Antonio. Cal Jet is officially a charter operation, with flights actually performed by long-time charter operator Xtra Airways. Normally, I would expect an outfit such as this to emulate Allegiant’s model, featuring air-hotel packages: At least so far, the website seems to focus on air-only bookings, but I expect that will change fairly soon. The scheduling is a bit of a mystery: Departing flights are listed as once weekly, but return flights are twice weekly.

Cal Jet clearly thinks it has found a “hole” in the system it can fill. No other lines operate nonstop from its U.S. gateways to Mazatlan, and connecting fares are high. Currently, Cal Jet features an introductory round-trip of $399 from Houston, for example, compared with the lowest fares and decent connecting times on Expedia, which start at $754. Presumably, Cal Jet will try to maintain a cost advantage after the introductory period.

Flights on Xtra Airways are in 737-400s, in two-class configuration. Cal Jet calls it regular economy “comfort” class, which is a stretch; seating is actually the usual tight-pitch, narrow seating typical of economy in 737s and not “comfortable” by any rational standard. Planes also have a first-class section; the Cal Jet first-class fare from Houston is $699 round trip.

By chartering Xtra Airways flights, Cal Jet doesn’t have to go through all the hoops of starting a completely new line, so it really could start operating as early as the posted first-flight dates in January. If you’re headed for Mazatlan, this may look like a good deal. But buy with a credit card, just in case, and if you have any big nonrefundable destination payments, buy travel insurance.

The newer announcement is from Elite Airways, an established charter operator looking to provide scheduled flights nonstop from several New England airports to Melbourne, Florida. Initial flights will be from Portland, but other candidate cities include Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Worcester, Massachusetts, and several upstate New York cities. Elite is featuring Melbourne as an “alternative to busier airports in Orlando and Palm Beach.” The line plans to start with 50-seat regional jets, but the company has access to bigger jets, if business warrants.

The airline posts no information on prices or schedules. But any startup using regional jets faces the problem that costs per passenger are high, and Melbourne is more than 70 miles from Orlando and 100 miles from Palm Beach.

Four “carry-over” wannabe lines from prior times still, at least, claim they’re planning to fly “soon”:

  • PEOPLExpress, with a hub at Newport News, Virginia, is offering low-cost hubbing service to smaller cities other airlines have abandoned.
  • Avatar Airlines and LV Air both plan to fly jumbo jets—747s and 767s—from big eastern and Midwestern cities to Las Vegas at low fares, with potential “wholesale” seats to major casinos, but no specifics yet.
  • California Pacific Airlines plans to fly Embraer 170s from a hub at Palomar Airport, Carlsbad, California, in northern San Diego County to nearby big regional destinations; it also shows a potential alliance with United Airlines.

Of the four, I think California Pacific has the best odds. Northern San Diego County combines large upscale residential neighborhoods, a lot of small business, and great beach destinations; moreover, savvy travelers know the benefits of a small airport like Palomar. I wish them all well, but any new airline is, at best, a long shot. Bonne chance!

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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