Image: Skybus
Tim Revell  /  The Columbus Dispatch via AP
Nationwide Insurance CEO W.G. Jurgensen, left and Skybus CEO Bill Diffenderffer walk by a Skybus plane in this file photo. The airline is set to begin service Tuesday.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/22/2007 6:12:33 PM ET 2007-05-22T22:12:33

If you’re a fan of chaos theory and/or Ashton Kutcher movies, you’re already familiar with “the butterfly effect,” which posits that seemingly small events can have large and unforeseen consequences.

If you’re not, the folks at Skybus, which launches today in Columbus, Ohio, may be able to shed some light on the subject. With its no-frills approach and colorful butterfly logo, the most anticipated start-up in years may also turn out to be an unexpected social experiment in the sky.

The Ryanair of the Rust Belt?
Skybus will offer seats at ultra-low fares — as low as $10, in some cases — but charge extra for just about everything else.  It will compete with the likes of Southwest and JetBlue, but it takes its operational cues from Ireland’s Ryanair, one of the most successful carriers in the world.

Checking bags? The first two are $5 each; subsequent ones, $50 a pop. (“Yeah, so pack smartly,” says the company Web site). There’s no reserved seating, but an extra $10 will get you onboard before everybody else. You’ll also be able to buy a snack, meal or soft drink onboard, but note, bringing your own is prohibited by an official “Rules of Flying.”

The airline is backing up its no-frills flying style with an equally bare-bones business plan. Reservations can only be made online (no 800 number or call center to maintain); gate agents work limited hours; and whatever processes can be automated or outsourced have been. Most important, perhaps, the airline will keep costs down by flying to secondary airports, such as Burbank, Fort Lauderdale, and Portsmouth, N.H.

The result is a fare structure that sounds almost too good to be true: Columbus to Fort Lauderdale for as low as $40 one way (before fees and taxes). Columbus to Burbank for $50. The airline is even offering 10 seats on every flight for just $10 each, although most of those loss-leader fares are already gone. Still, with a little effort, you can actually fly Los Angeles to Boston roundtrip for $200 ($240 with fees and taxes).

There are, however, a few catches. All flights begin or end in Columbus, which means there’s no direct service between any of Skybus’ other destinations. If you’re flying beyond Columbus, you’ll have to book two separate segments, check in twice and re-check any luggage along the way.

Then there’s the airline’s definition of a secondary airport. Burbank vs. LAX? Sure. Fort Lauderdale vs. Miami? Absolutely. But Portsmouth is at least 50 miles from downtown Boston. And what Skybus calls Seattle/Vancouver is actually Bellingham, Wash., which is an hour’s drive from Vancouver, 90 minutes from Seattle and not exactly blessed with ground transportation options.

Ultra-low fares that lead to added expenses later on — maybe there’s more to Skybus’ butterfly logo than meets the eye.

The onboard Petri dish
Clearly, the folks at Skybus are tapping into one of the defining trends in air travel today: a good percentage of the flying public will give up just about any amenity in exchange for a cheaper fare. We forgo reserved seating on Southwest; we choose the least expensive of Air Canada’s Tango tickets; and we bring along our own food, pillows and headphones rather than forking over more money mid-flight.

But I wonder: Given the above, will Skybus passengers pay $5 to check luggage or will they just schlep ever-larger carry-on bags? Will they spend $10 to get a good seat or will boarding resemble a Ryanair rugby scrum? As for the rule that personal food will not be permitted, well, have you been to a movie theater lately?

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I’m not knocking the concept or Skybus itself. Lord knows the existing system isn’t working and new ideas are desperately needed. I just wonder if people have considered the unintended effects of cramming 150-plus passengers into a confined space with tight seats, no entertainment (“Bring a book,” says the Web site) and a fee for every amenity. Factor in the inevitable weather-related delays and you’re looking at a Petri dish of potentially ugly behavior.

Of course, you could argue that that’s also true for most other airlines these days. But Skybus is going further, betting the bank that the Ryanair model will fly in the U.S. and that ultra-low fares will create new demand among those who wouldn’t fly otherwise.

Personally, I hope they succeed, just as I hope their passengers accept the fact that ultra-low fares can entail hidden costs and unforeseen consequences. Most of all, though, I hope those passengers remember that they’re the ones who decided to go the no-frills route in the first place, which means no whining when the service isn’t up to snuff.

Sometimes you get what you pay for; sometimes you get more than you bargained for.

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