The US Airline That Lasted Just 11 Months

It’s hard to imagine that an airline with $ 160 million in funding ($ 228 million in today’s money) would cease to exist in less than a year. But that’s what happened to the highly ambitious carrier Skybus. The carrier took off in May 2007 and ended just 11 months later.

Revolutionary at the time

Skybus was initially based in Columbus, posthumously determined to be the wrong city. The airline’s approach was revolutionary at the time. It was so different and frequently pushed boundaries – in order words, it tried different things – that it often led to outrage and disparaging comments from passengers and outsiders alike.


Growing usually is key to reducing costs, and Skybus had an extreme growth plan. It ordered 65 A319s – its only type – even before its first flight took off. It had expected to operate 20 aircraft by the end of its second year. It seemed to spread itself thinly, always very dangerous, and it opened its second base, at Greensboro, a few months after its first.

As its CEO said:

The goal of Skybus was to do something that nobody was doing in the United States. The goal was 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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How did it lower costs?

Skybus applied many of the lessons learned by Ryanair to a US context to increase aircraft productivity and drive down costs. This enabled what Skybus called “outrageously low fares” from just $ 10 one-way (excluding taxes; this was a time when they were separate).

It offset fares with as many pay-for items as possible, a concept very uncommon in the US at the time but which is normal now. The fares enabled demand to grow on the routes it served, most of which were brand-new or used different airports for existing airport pairs. It targeted those who’d rarely, if ever, fly. By increasing demand, it’d make more money from ancillary sales. Among many other things, Skybus had:

  • No frills (believe it or not, this really was a novelty once!)
  • Ancillary revenue (pay-for bags, food, and drink)
  • Website bookings only
  • No airbridges, with passengers entering / exiting via the front and rear doors for quicker turnarounds
  • No telephone line (everything was via email)
  • High seating density for the A319 (156 seats), driving down unit cost
  • Low average pay (versus the industry), offset by more commissions and incentives
  • Very high daily utilization (15 hours per aircraft targeted), from working aircraft from early morning often until well after midnight (for example, Kansas City arrived back in Columbus at 01:10; ouch)
  • 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)
  • Typically, six sectors per aircraft per day (combined with the aforementioned long working day)

Skybus’ aircraft were pushed very hard, great for high productivity, but it often had substandard punctuality and reliability. Photo: Jacko via Wikimedia.

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And it had …

  • A return-to-base approach, so no aircraft or crew overnighting, as done by Allegiant
  • Point-to-point only (no transit passengers) to reduce cost, complexity, and responsibility (but it often had a 1x daily or more frequency, so it needed to discount even more to fill planes from P2P passengers)
  • Exterior and interior advertising
  • Secondary airports for major metro areas, such as Burbank for Greater Los Angeles, Stewart for Greater New York, and Oakland for Greater San Francisco
  • Previously little-used airports, such as Bellingham for Seattle and Vancouver, Portsmouth for Boston and beyond, Chicopee for Hartford, St Augustine for Jacksonville and Daytona Beach, and Gulfport for New Orleans
  • Incentives from smaller airports and areas that wanted passenger traffic, tourism, and route growth

A good chunk of Skybus’ routes fell into the one to two-hour sweet spot ULCCs need for aircraft productivity. However, notice the much longer sectors, especially bad during high fuel prices. Image: GCMap.

Carried a million passengers

In Skybus’ less-than-a-year life, it carried just shy of a million passengers, according to the Department of Transportation’s Consumer Airfare Report. Its route network had an average seat load factor of 71.9%, the consequence of being new, expanding rapidly, and often having too many seats to fill from often pretty high frequency. Its top 10 routes by passengers were:

  1. Columbus to Burbank: approximately 104,077 roundtrip passengers
  2. Columbus to Portsmouth: 103.273
  3. Columbus to Fort Lauderdale: 100.885
  4. Columbus to Greensboro: 69.366
  5. Columbus to St Augustine: 59.718
  6. Columbus to Richmond: 59.149
  7. Columbus to Oakland: 57.655
  8. Columbus to Kansas City: 55.954
  9. Columbus to Bellingham: 47.646
  10. Columbus to Punta Gorda: 46.508

Did you ever fly Skybus? If so, share your experiences in the comments.

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