The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Community News Network

June 6, 2014

It's back! The world's cheapest airline flies again

WASHINGTON — Do checked-bag fees, $2 junk food "snack packs" and chronic overbooking make you nostalgic for an earlier, even less glamorous era of air travel? Then PeoplExpress is the airline for you. This week the relaunched version of People Express, the somewhat iconic 1980s-era discount carrier, began selling tickets for the first time in more than two decades for flights in markets that the major carriers have abandoned. In the early 1980s, the original version of the airline thrived on its ultra-cheap fares. But by 1987 debt, over-expansion and a reputation as "People Distress" had transformed the airline into one of the industry's most notorious failures.

So why would a group of entrepreneurs want to resurrect the brand? PeoplExpress hardly has the retro-transcontinental allure of a name like Pan Am. If anyone still remembers People Express fondly, it's probably for its cheap fares, ugly planes and the unswervingly perky demeanor of its employees - all of whom were paid in stock (as well as salaries) out of the belief that an invested employee is a committed, joyous employee. The January 1985 issue of Texas Monthly described the results of this compensation scheme in memorable terms:

You know the look that comes over the faithful at the mention of Sun Myung Moon? That's the look People Express personnel get when they describe their company.

Cult-like atmosphere aside, People Express still managed to be one of the most innovative U.S. airlines ever to light up an air traffic controller's radar. Texas Monthly inadvertently highlights that point in this gem:

"With smart fares and smart folks like yourselves, it's no wonder we're the fastest-growing airline in aviation history," enthused Captain Bob Slater as part of another curious PE phenomenon, the inflight commercial.

Of course, 29 years later, that inflight commercial isn't curious. It's as commonplace as several other People Express innovations that debuted with the airline in 1981, including checked-bag fees (People Express offered them first), meal-free flights, and snacks and beverages for purchase. Once considered extremes of the post-deregulatory U.S. skies, such features are now acceptable irritations that big legacy carriers use to pad their expanding bottom lines.

What made People Express work so well for a brief period were its cheap fares offered on short, cheap-to-operate routes under-served by the big carriers, such as Newark (the airline's base) to Buffalo, Columbus, Sarasota and Norfolk. Soon, however, full planes bred arrogance, and People Express expanded into markets where it competed directly with - and lost out to - the legacy carriers, including a Newark-London Gatwick route that went for $149 one-way. It didn't help that the airline didn't have a computerized reservation system, but rather allowed passengers to pre-book via phone and then - no joke - pay cash for their tickets on the plane, as if it were a bus. Overbooking rates, unsurprisingly, approached 200 percent. In 1987, crushed by debt and hubris, People Express was merged into Continental, never to be heard from again.

Who's nostalgic for this in an age when low-cost, low-frills carriers such as Spirit Airlines are common? PeoplExpress has an answer posted on its website: "It's time to dispel the myth that low air fares have to mean poor service or an impersonal experience." That's very nice, but it's hardly the basis for a successful business plan. After all, Spirit recently pulled off the remarkable achievement of becoming the U.S.'s most hated and its most profitable airline at the same time, suggesting that smiles aren't important so long as the price is right.

PeoplExpress will do more than smile, of course. Like its Reagan-era predecessor, it will fly theoretically under-served routes such as Pittsburgh-Newport News/Williamsburg. Its success will depend on whether people really do want and need to fly those routes. If they don't, PeoplExpress won't last much longer than its ill-starred predecessor.

Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk. He is the author of "Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade."

 

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • Sunburn isn't the only sign of summer that can leave you itchy and blistered

    You've got a rash. You quickly rule out the usual suspects: You haven't been gardening or hiking or even picnicking, so it's probably not a plant irritant such as poison ivy or wild parsnip; likewise, it's probably not chiggers or ticks carrying Lyme disease; and you haven't been swimming in a pond, which can harbor the parasite that causes swimmer's itch.

    July 30, 2014

  • Survey results in legislation to battle sexual assault on campus

    Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill joined a bipartisan group of senators Wednesday to announce legislation that aims to reduce the number of sexual assaults on college campuses.

    July 30, 2014

  • An alarming threat to airlines that no one's talking about

    It's been an abysmal year for the flying public. Planes have crashed in bad weather, disappeared over the Indian Ocean and tragically crossed paths with anti-aircraft missiles over Ukraine.

    July 30, 2014

  • Sharknado.jpg Sharknado 2 set to attack viewers tonight

    In the face of another "Sharknado" TV movie (the even-more-inane "Sharknado 2: The Second One," premiering Wednesday night on Syfy), there isn't much for a critic to say except to echo what the characters themselves so frequently scream when confronted by a great white shark spinning toward them in a funnel cloud:
    "LOOK OUT!!"

    July 30, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140729-AMX-GIVHAN292.jpg Spanx stretches into new territory with jeans, but promised magic is elusive

    The Spanx empire of stomach-flattening, thigh-slimming, jiggle-reducing foundation garments has expanded to include what the brand promises is the mother of all body-shaping miracles: Spanx jeans.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Medical marijuana opponents' most powerful argument is at odds with a mountain of research

    Opponents of marijuana legalization are rapidly losing the battle for hearts and minds. Simply put, the public understands that however you measure the consequences of marijuana use, the drug is significantly less harmful to users and society than tobacco or alcohol.

    July 29, 2014

  • linda-ronstadt.jpg Obama had crush on First Lady of Rock

    Linda Ronstadt remained composed as she walked up to claim her National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony Monday afternoon.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Can black women have it all?

    In a powerful new essay for the National Journal, my friend Michel Martin makes a compelling case for why we need to continue the having-it-all conversation.

    July 29, 2014

  • Dangerous Darkies Logo.png Redskins not the only nickname to cause a stir

    Daniel Snyder has come under fire for refusing to change the mascot of his NFL team, the Washington Redskins. The Redskins, however, are far from being the only controversial mascot in sports history.  Here is a sampling of athletic teams from all areas of the sports world that were outside the norm.

    July 28, 2014 3 Photos

  • 'Rebel' mascot rising from the dead

    Students and alumni from a Richmond, Va.-area high school are seeking to revive the school's historic mascot, a Confederate soldier known as the "Rebel Man," spurring debate about the appropriateness of public school connections to the Civil War and its icons.

    July 28, 2014