This story was written by John Cameron for AirlineReporter
If you are old enough to have been flying commercially in the early 1980’s, especially along the eastern half of the United States, then you might recall a certain low-cost airline that rose to prominence in the blink of an eye, and faded away just as quickly.
By the end of its first year of operation, it offered nearly 50 daily departures from its home base in Newark, NJ (EWR) and eventually provided non-stop flights from Newark to London’s Gatwick Airport (on a 747) for $149 each way. A few years later, it purchased numerous airlines (most notably Frontier Airlines) to add to its ever-expanding route network.
However, by 1986 the company was struggling to stay afloat, and in early 1987 – roughly six years after it began operations – the wild ride came to an end as the plucky low-cost carrier was absorbed into Continental Airlines.
I’m talking, of course, about PEOPLExpress Airlines (PEx).
Considered by many to be a key low-cost player that made air travel “affordable and accessible” to the masses, it is set to return to the skies on June 30… sort of.
You see, obtaining certification from the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to operate aircraft as a true commercial airline is a very, very arduous process. It requires mountains of paperwork attesting to the operational and financial feasibility of any new company hoping to compete with the big boys of commercial aviation.
Many airline startups wither on the vine as they go through the seemingly endless certification process. PEOPLExpress was very close to becoming one such casualty.
After going public with their plans to launch the new airline back in February of 2012, the founders and investors struggled to complete the certification requirements for DOT approval. So, in 2013, the company made plans to purchase XTRA Airways – a small charter airline best known for its heavy affiliation with Las Vegas casinos. The idea was, apparently, to perform a bit of an end-run around the DOT requirements by simply acquiring a carrier that was already certified.
That plan was eventually placed on hold, and the founders of PEOPLExpress have now partnered with Las Vegas-based Vision Airlines to get PEx into the air.
So, what are the plans?
Vision Airlines, which for the purposes of this business venture will be doing business as PEOPLExpress, will fly an initial fleet of 3 Boeing 737-400 “Classic” aircraft out of the new PEx home base of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) in Virginia. The aircraft will sport the original logo of the popular 1980s carrier but with a “fresh, green livery.”
The choice of the 737-400 was a bit of a surprise (to me, at least). It’s probably a necessity brought about by the financial realities of the situation, and I expect the airline to upgrade at the earliest convenient date. But, the 737-400 had its first flight in 1988, and the bulk of the production run was from 1989 to 1998 (with the last of the series being delivered in the year 2000). In other words, depending on the serial number, the PEx fleet might be a little “long in the tooth” – which could affect costs, given the poor fuel efficiency of these planes.
One of the aircraft, registration N745VA, returns as a Boeing 737-400 produced in 1989. So, if this is truly one of the PEx aircraft, then at least one of their airframes is probably showing a little grey.
Of course, all of the aircraft will have undergone extensive refurbishing and refitting to get them ready for their big day. Each will be configured with 150 seats – 138 coach seats and 12 “Living Large” seats which will provide more personal space, for a fee (more on that in a bit). But, don’t call these first class, or even business class seats… all passengers, regardless of where they sit, will receive the same level of service.
The new PEOPLExpress is slated to make its inaugural flight on June 30th, when service is launched to three initial cities: Boston, Newark, and Pittsburgh. They will follow that up with additional service to West Palm Beach, FL (July 15) and Atlanta (Aug. 1). Then, at the end of August, they plan to add St. Petersburg, FL, and New Orleans.
That’s not a bad route map for a new airline if they can sustain it, and it’s clear that they are trying to avoid routes that will put them in direct, heavy competition with the legacy carriers.
The PEx management team is claiming that they are going to bring “respect, value and excitement to the air travel experience.” I think that’s certainly a noble goal, but they’re likely to encounter some headwinds based primarily on their business model. You see, PEx is rolling out what is, essentially, an ultra-low-cost carrier model – think Spirit Airlines or Ryanair.
The concept is a straightforward one – you pay only for what you want. (Or, perhaps another way of stating that is – you get only what you pay for.)
Fares start as low as $76 each way. Then, you pay for whatever additional perks or extras you want.
Want a pre-assigned seat? That’ll be $15 each way. (Unless it’s an exit row, which will be $25.)
Have a carry-on bag? That’ll cost $25 per flight. Want to check a bag instead? That’s $20 for the first bag and $25 for the second.
The roomy “Living Large” seats? That’s an extra $59 per flight.
You do get a complimentary snack, but a drink to wash it down with is going to cost extra, too.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not passing judgment on this type of airline revenue model. In fact, if other ultra-low-cost carriers are any indication, PEx has a decent chance to be very successful. Personally, I can see myself heading over to Pittsburgh just to catch a flight to wherever my favorite football team is playing that week.
The problem, though, is going to be maintaining “respect, value and excitement” with a revenue model that many travelers despise. (Just look at the satisfaction ratings of other ultra-low-cost carriers to see what I mean). Air travelers, as a whole, are notorious for wanting to “have their cake and eat it, too.” They want to pay $76 for their ticket, but want to be treated like first class jet-setters. (Present company excluded, right?)
Will it work? Will PEOPLExpress be able to provide great value and great service? Time will tell, of course. But one thing is certain – you will soon see an 80’s aviation icon taking to the skies again… and I believe that’s a good thing for commercial aviation.