Independence Would Be Missed

US Airways and United Airlines had to cut fares on routes served by Independence.
US Airways and United Airlines had to cut fares on routes served by Independence. (By Tannen Maury -- Bloomberg News)

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By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Barbara Carnahan, travel manager for Ratner Cos., is busy rearranging schedules for her 150 traveling executives to take advantage of Independence Air's cheap fares sooner rather than later.

She appreciates the enormous cost savings Independence Air provides the company. For instance, Carnahan used to pay $865 for a round-trip ticket to bring executives to corporate headquarters in Vienna from Charlotte. When Independence Air began flying last year, she was able to get round-trip flights on the same routes for about $100.

But last week, Independence Air's parent, Flyi Inc., filed for bankruptcy protection and set a Jan. 5 deadline to auction off its assets to raise cash or find a major investor. Without a financial savior, many industry analysts say Independence Air may go out of business. If the carrier disappears, other airlines could raise fares in many of the 35 cities that Independence serves, including Washington, analysts say. Prices have dropped as much as 65 percent in some markets.

"The prices are just going to skyrocket again," says Carnahan, whose company operates Hair Cuttery, Bubbles and ColorWorks.

Many travelers -- even those who have never boarded an Independence Air 50-seat regional plane, have benefited from the tiny fledgling carrier. Its appearance in the summer of 2004 forced larger carriers such as United and US Airways to cut their ticket prices and at times offer bonus frequent-flier miles on routes where they competed with Independence Air.

But it's not just low fares that make Independence Air popular among companies, Carnahan said. The airline charges $25 to make changes on nonrefundable tickets, while other carriers such as US Airways and United charge $100. "Life happens. Business meetings get changed, a child gets sick, sometimes a trip isn't taken," she said. "With the other airlines, I'm stuck and I lose that money."

Independence attracted travelers with $29 and $39 ticket prices, but those fares were too cheap to offset the airline's costs. In June, July and August of this year, Independence Air had 776,507 passengers, up 54 percent from the same three months in 2004, according to figures from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. United, meanwhile, suffered a 3.5 percent decline in passenger levels between June and August compared with the same three months in 2004.

Businesses in small cities along the East Coast where Independence operates are also fearful of losing their low-fare carrier. Ted Child, owner of Child Travel Services in Burlington, Vt., said Independence Air cut average fares to Washington from his city by 50 to 70 percent. Child said most travelers between Burlington and Washington are business travelers because "no one goes to Washington, D.C., for fun." Before Independence Air, the average round-trip fare to Washington was about $800. When the airline entered the market, that fare dropped to $100.

"The Washington, D.C., market was the most expensive market before Independence started," Child said.

Coke or Pepsi, Bud or Miller : Like any marriage, the merger of US Airways and America West requires some tough decisions. Executives are mulling which drinks to serve on the new US Airways: Coke or Pepsi, Budweiser or Miller.

Before the merger, passengers on America West could get a free Pepsi and pay $5 for a can of Budweiser. Aboard US Airways the choices were Coke, or $5 for a can of Miller.

US Airways spokesman Philip Gee said the airline plans to make its decision by the end of the year. The biggest factor, Gee said, will be how available the beverages are nationwide at each of its airports when it comes time for loading. And, of course, the airline is looking for the better deal.

US Airways is accepting the views of its frequent fliers. To make your voice heard, go to http://www.americawest.com/awa/content/contact/generalform.aspx .

A Flood of Applicants : United Airlines said it received 7,500 applications since Sunday for the 2,000 flight attendant positions it announced on Friday. The carrier began accepting the applications through its Web site on Sunday.

In an e-mail to workers yesterday, Diane Sawyer, who is in charge of the airline's online recruiting, said United expected only between 500 and 1,000 applicants because the jobs were advertised just in the Washington area. About a third of the applicants were from the D.C. area. About 700 positions will be filled first at Dulles; then hiring will take place at other airports around the country.

The airline said it was still accepting applications, although it has already identified 2,600 people who it said "best meet the criteria" set for its new hires. Final interviews will begin at United headquarters in Chicago on Nov. 21.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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