Skybus: The Ambitious LCC Startup That Lasted Less Than A Year

$160 million in funding wasn’t enough to save one airline. The USA’s Skybus took off from its first base at Columbus (Ohio) on May 22nd, 2007, but it lasted for less than a year. Its approach was revolutionary at the time, often leading to disparaging labels despite trying to offer lower fares and more choice. We delve into the short-lived airline.

Skybus A319
Skybus existed between May 2007 and April 2008. While it had a short life, it tried many new things in a US context. Photo: OZinOH via Flickr.

Skybus was an ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC) that was forged in the image of Europe’s controversial airline Ryanair. In many ways, Skybus was well ahead of its time. As its CEO said:

“The goal of the airline was to do something that nobody was doing in the United States. The goal was to be able to fly an airline profitably at half the price of everybody else. That means that your costs have to be less than half of everyone else.”

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A European-style LCC in the US

The classic low-cost model is normally adapted to local circumstances wherever it is used. For Skybus, this meant applying lessons learned by Ryanair to increase aircraft productivity and to drive down costs.

This enabled headline-grabbing “outrageously low fares”, as Skybus called them, from just $10 one-way (excluding taxes), offset by as many pay-for items as possible. Lower fares enabled it to grow demand on the routes that it served, many of which were brand-new. Among many other things, Skybus had:

  • No frills (this really was a novelty once!)
  • Ancillary revenue (pay-for bags, food, and drink)
  • Website bookings only
  • No telephone line (everything was via email)
  • One aircraft type (the A319)
  • Low average pay (versus the industry), offset by more commissions/incentives
  • Higher seating density (156 seats)
  • Very high daily utilization (15 hours targeted), from working aircraft from early morning often until well after midnight (for example, Kansas City arrived back in Columbus at 01:10)
  • 25-minute turnarounds (unheard of in the US nowadays, although operational reliability was an issue as it didn’t have a scheduling firebreak, in-between crew changes, to help make up any delays)
Skybus A319
Skybus adopted most of the original low-cost model, including 25-minute turns and quieter airports to achieve more sectors and higher block hours per day. Photo: WacoJacko via Wikimedia.

And Skybus also had…

  • Larger-than-normal aircraft (against regional jets, anyway) with lower unit costs
  • A return-to-base approach, meaning neither aircraft nor crew overnighted
  • Point-to-point only (no connections) to reduce cost, complexity, and responsibility
  • Exterior and interior advertising
  • Secondary airports for major metro areas, such as Burbank and Oakland
  • Previously little or never-used airports near(ish) to major metros, such as Bellingham for Seattle and Vancouver; Stewart for Greater NYC; Portsmouth for Boston and beyond; Chicopee for Hartford; St Augustine for Jacksonville and Daytona Beach; and so on
  • Incentives from smaller airports/areas that wanted traffic and route growth
Skybus A319
While the ULCC served Florida, it was less significant for the airline than it is for Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit nowadays. A much bigger focus on leisure-orientated destinations would probably have been sensible. Photo: BriYYZ via Flickr.

Big growth, big plans

Skybus had a very bullish growth plan. It had ordered 65 A319s even before its first flight took off, and expected to operate 20 aircraft by the end of 2008. However, it often seemed that it spread itself quite thinly, which is always dangerous. It opened a base, at Greensboro (North Carolina), in January 2008.

Skybus A319
Quicker taxi times to active runways and no slots or delays help to increase aircraft productivity and to reduce costs. This photo was taken at Bellingham (Washington) used for both Seattle and Vancouver. It is now served by a small number of carriers, including Allegiant and Alaska with Southwest arriving later this year. Photo: Marada via Flickr.

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Higher-than-normal frequencies

Today, ULCCs normally have two or three weekly flights, as shown by Frontier and Allegiant and, in Europe, by Ryanair and Wizz Air. Even new entrant Breeze, which is a hybrid carrier and has a decent hard product, has an average of four-weekly services.

In contrast, Skybus had a minimum of a once-daily offering designed for usability, something that very price-sensitive people normally give up in return for very low fares. This required even heavier discounting to grow demand to help achieve higher loads and to generate enough revenue.

Skybus A319
Skybus used 156-seat A319s. This one was registered N571SX and was leased from Air Canada. It returned to the Canadian flag carrier before later being used by Rouge. Photo: Ken Fielding via Wikimedia.

Where did Skybus fly?

In its less-than-a-year life, Skybus carried just over 946,000 passengers, according to the Department of Transportation’s T-100 dataset, obtained via Cirium. It had 26 routes, with the top-10 by total passengers shown below the map.

Skybus' route network
Many of Skybus’ routes were within the one-to-two-hour sweet spot favored by ULCCs for greater aircraft use and more passengers per day. However, three were 2,000+ miles, very long for an A319 in the best of times, let alone with high fuel prices. Image: GCMap.
  1. Columbus-Burbank: approximately 104,077 round-trip passengers
  2. Columbus-Portsmouth: 103,273
  3. Columbus-Fort Lauderdale: 100,885
  4. Columbus-Greensboro: 69,366
  5. Columbus-St Augustine: 59,718
  6. Columbus-Richmond: 59,149
  7. Columbus-Oakland: 57,655
  8. Columbus-Kansas City: 55,954
  9. Columbus-Bellingham: 47,646
  10. Columbus-Punta Gorda: 46,508

The 26 routes had an average seat load factor (SLF) of 71.9%, pulled down by a number of new routes towards the end of 2017. These included Portsmouth (New Hampshire) to Punta Gorda (Florida), launched just before Christmas, although funnily enough, this was the only route to achieve a SLF of more than 80%.

Did you fly Skybus? If you did, where did you go and what did you think? Let us know in the comments.

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