Friday, 21 September 2012

New spirit in air over America

The last great Texas fares war took place 40 years ago, when a cheeky new start-up airline called Southwest launched flights from Dallas to Houston. The flat one-way fare was $20 – saving at least five bucks on rivals' fares. The incumbent airline, Braniff, slashed its fares in response. Southwest hit back with a flat $13 – promoted by full-page newspaper ads reading: "Nobody's going to shoot Southwest Airlines out of the sky for a lousy $13." In fact, business travellers on expenses were encouraged to pay $26, which qualified them for Southwest's rudimentary loyalty scheme: a bottle of whiskey or vodka.
On Thursday, battle commenced once more between the two biggest cities in Texas – with Southwest this time as the incumbent. Its challenger: Spirit Airlines, which describes itself as "arguably the best airline in the Americas". I call it America's answer to Ryanair.

Checking the fares for the middle Tuesday in October, the two airlines are "wide open", with thousands of seats on Southwest's 25 daily departures at $65, while Spirit's start with a modest two shuttles a day at a flat $31. So, if you are flexible with your departure time, no contest? Not quite. "Like the automobile, brokerage and computer industries, Spirit's approach offers standard product features and options," says the challenger. And a closer look shows that, on the optional charges front, it out-Ryanairs the Irish low-cost airline.
While Ryanair allows you to take aboard a reasonably sized carry-on bag and pop it in the overhead locker, Spirit permits only a small case that must fit under the seat in front of you. Should you be deemed at the gate to be carrying something in excess of the miserly dimensions, you currently pay $45 (£30); from November the cost more than doubles to $100. Southwest, in contrast, includes two chunky pieces of hand luggage and two checked-in bags in all its fares.
As with Ryanair, you need to check where you are going with Spirit. Anyone buying a ticket from Spirit's Florida home of Fort Lauderdale to Montreal might fondly imagine they will touch down on Canadian soil, in the biggest French-speaking city outside Kinshasa and Paris. In fact, you will arrive south of the international border, at Plattsburgh in New York State: "Montreal's US Airport", as it is described.
Unforeseen consequences
As you wait in the departure lounge, you might like to examine the list of non-optional charges that are added to the price of your ticket. "Unintended consequences" and "air travel" do not look comfortable in the same sentence; nevertheless, Spirit adds a $2 fee for "Unintended consequences of US Department of Transport legislation". This goes back to a ruling from the regulator that passengers should have a 24-hour "cooling-off" window after booking a trip to change their plans without penalty.
Ben Baldanza, Spirit's feisty chief executive, said that forcing airlines to hold seats for people who then decide not to travel would lead to more empty seats: "The consequence is that we must spread costs over fewer customers, thus raising the cost for all passengers." This is the same concept as Ryanair's £2 EU 261 levy for complying with European passengers' rights legislation. Not a worry for Mr Baldanza, whose airline specifies: "Spirit will not assume expenses incurred as a result of a flight delay, cancellation, or schedule change."
Spirit's list of options is boggling, with a special section in the rules about the carriage of antlers. ("Head/skull must be completely clean and free of residue ... Points must be covered and protected.") As the fares war with Southwest begins, you may be relieved to learn that Texan chainsaws "are acceptable as checked luggage ONLY".
Air? No, bus
What does the first Texas air fares war teach about the likely outcome of this battle? Well, there is no chance that Southwest will follow Braniff into oblivion – the world's biggest low-cost carrier has weathered the storms of the 21st century better than anyone. As the first skirmishes of the fares war take place, crafty travellers between Dallas and Houston have already made their bookings. The smart option is to go with Megabus. The British-owned coach company has half a dozen buses a day between Dallas and Houston, and with a bit of advance booking you need pay no more than $1.50 (£1) for the four-hour, 15-minute ride from downtown to downtown – and even less if you book a return.