A new budget airline makes bold promises, even of $9 tickets, but it may be too soon to start shouting "Holy Toledo!"
For all those who ever dreamed of flying to Toledo, Ohio for just $9, there's an airline for you.
Or is there?
At a news conference this morning, before a gaggle of television cameras and reporters, officials in Toledo are to announce the start of a new, low-cost airline -- JetAmerica -- with fares at least 40 percent below those of major carriers to and from small and midsized cities such as South Bend, Ind; Lansing, Mich.; Melbourne, Fla., and Newark, N.J.
Almost certain to generate buzz is that JetAmerica promises at least nine seats per flight for as little as $9, before taxes and fees. "Every Flight ... Every day ... No Gimmicks," reads a JetAmerica marketing brochure.
There are, however, some early signs that this airline may have a shaky takeoff.
Although it plans to offer nonstop flights from Minneapolis to Toledo and back starting Aug. 14, it has yet to reach an agreement with the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) to do so. In fact, the airports commission has not heard from JetAmerica since the airline made an initial inquiry about ground service logistics in January.
"It's a little unusual," MAC spokesman Patrick Hogan said of JetAmerica's decision to announce flights from Minneapolis before leasing gates. "We're not even sure we'll have the gates available at that time."
Another concern: JetAmerica flights will be one-stop, without connections. Someone wanting to fly from Minneapolis to Newark on JetAmerica must catch an evening flight to Toledo and wait until the following morning to travel to Newark.
"It's not a hub-and-spoke concept," said John Weikle, JetAmerica chief executive, in an interview Tuesday. "It's all point to point. We're just doing this for people in Toledo who might say, 'Look, I've never been to the Mall of America,' or, 'I'll just go to Minneapolis instead of doing a teleconference.'"
Aviation consultant Mike Boyd doubts whether there is enough traffic between these secondary cities to sustain an airline. "I hate to piddle on someone else's dream," he said, "but this has about as much chance for success as you have of seeing Elvis."
Observers such as Boyd see similarities between JetAmerica and Skybus, another ultra-low-budget airline founded by Weikle. In 2007, Skybus began flying to and from Columbus, Ohio, selling at least 10 seats on each flight for $10. But the airline closed within a year, blaming rising jet-fuel costs. Hundreds of ticket holders were left stranded and 450 employees were out of work.
Weikle insists that JetAmerica is taking a more conservative approach than Skybus. Rather than buying its own airplanes, JetAmerica will lease its 189-seat 737-800s from Miami Air International, which will also provide flight crews. Ground service will also be outsourced, minimizing the airline's start-up costs and enabling it to add flights as demand grows.
Weikle said the airline is receiving $1.4 million in grants from airports in Lansing, South Bend, Melbourne and Toledo, along with nearly $1 million in waived airport fees. The subsidies will help to insulate the carrier from higher fuel prices, he said. "We're doing this as conservatively as possible," he said.
Weikle said he expects to sign a MAC deal soon. He noted that JetAmerica initially planned to fly from Toledo to Baltimore, but then decided Minneapolis would be more popular.
"It was kind of added on at the last minute," Weikle said of Minneapolis. "We know the gates are available."
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308