Short-Haul Carriers Reach Outward

Lower fares, fewer frills tempt transcontinental travelers

By: Jerry Chandler

The tenor of transcontinental travel is changing and for the better, if you ask travel agents. Once the province of high-fare majors such as American, Continental, United and Delta, transcontinental routes are increasingly being rendered affordable by the likes of JetBlue, Frontier and, finally, Southwest. Even West Coast-centric Alaska Airlines is flying farther afield, spreading its wings to Miami and Newark.

“We’re seeing short-haul carriers reaching out into the long-haul world,” said Jack Keady, a Marina del Rey, Calif.-based airline consultant. “We’re seeing them doing that on an opportunistic basis. For example, Southwest has pushed US Airways around pretty badly at Baltimore, so it decided to test the market by flying Baltimore-Los Angeles.”

Indeed, the low-fare juggernaut was set to inaugurate nonstop BWI-LAX service Sept. 15 with a pair of daily nonstops. Southwest has sweetened the deal by capping one-way, walk-up fares at $299 (the move applies to all its routes).

Southwest flights follow the tone set by JetBlue, the well-funded, low-fare wunderkind based out of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. JetBlue fields a quartet of often-packed nonstops from JFK to Long Beach, one of the L.A. Basin’s increasingly popular pocketports. JetBlue also flies nonstop twice daily from LGB to Washington Dulles. Don’t look for Frontier to follow suit with nonstop transcon service, but the Denver-based carrier is rolling out a slew of coast-to-coast tariffs designed to tempt travelers. San Diego-New York La Guardia can be had for as little as $308 roundtrip, providing your client doesn’t mind connecting at DEN on Frontier’s close-in, convenient concourse.

While your clients may be flying cheap, the airplanes these low-fare carriers use on the transcon are anything but old. JetBlue uses new, long-range A320s; Southwest uses new long-legged 737-700s; and Frontier is replacing its older 737-300s and -200s with new Airbus aircraft.

What low-fare flyers give up, of course, is room. All-coach coast-to-coast can be uncomfortable, especially if the airlines don’t feed you.

While JetBlue and Southwest offer snacks, it’s best to advise your customers to take along their own meals. Thankfully, the market has responded to this new breed of airline by opening good eateries at key airports such as LAX and BWI. Most of them will package food for flight. And since these restaurants and sandwich shops are located beyond security checkpoints, flyers don’t have to hassle with screeners X-raying their ham-and-cheese on rye.

Not all alternative transcon travel is cut-rate. Some of it is decidedly full-service. Alaska Airlines, following the resumption of its successful Seattle/Tacoma-Washington Reagan National service, just added a couple of new coast-to-coast markets. Miami and Newark fliers will soon espy the smiling Eskimo at their local airports. On Oct. 28, AS launches daily nonstop SEA-EWR service. SEA-MIA follows on Nov. 21.

Far-Reaching Concerns

Why reach so far? For one thing, Keady said, it costs less for airlines to operate long-haul service than it does up and down (as in lots of takeoffs and landings) short-hauls.

For another, “The New York City region and South Florida are top travel destinations for our frequent flyers,” said Alaska President and CEO Bill Ayer.

That’s certainly the way some Seattle travel agents feel about things.

“It’s a big help,” said Bill Scharff, an agent with Seattle’s Magnolia Travel. “It’s been received very favorably, particularly to the Miami and Fort Lauderdale area.” The reason is simple: Barring Alaska’s new service, there isn’t any way to fly nonstop between the Puget Sound and Biscayne Bay. Once upon a time, in an era far, far away, American Airlines flew this lengthiest of Lower 48 nonstops. No longer.

The cruise connection is what has Beverly Ann Schukar jazzed about Alaska’s Miami nonstop.

“It is a morning departure,” said Schukar, owner/manager of Seattle’s Treasure House Travel & Cruises.

While the flight may not touch down in time for evening sailings, it’s an improvement on AA’s former flight, Schukar said especially on the return leg. American’s flight pushed back early in the morning; the Eskimo exits MIA at 6 p.m., arriving Sea-Tac at 9:30 p.m.

“Anybody we have suggested it to finds it a good idea,” she said. “Most people here use Alaska an awful lot anyway, particularly our business people,” said Magnolia Travel’s Scharff. “When they go on vacation, they’ve already built up Alaska Airlines miles, and they’re very loyal to the airline. So having these East Coast flights is a big plus.”

Not to mention a big challenge for the entrenched majors who’ve traditionally dominated transcontinental flyways.