Foggy Morning, Misty Eyes Usher Out Independence

Independence Air workers Alfredo Rigalt, Valarie Rabung and Claudia Hale watch as a flight, bound for White Plains, N.Y., pulls away from the gate.
Independence Air workers Alfredo Rigalt, Valarie Rabung and Claudia Hale watch as a flight, bound for White Plains, N.Y., pulls away from the gate. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006

There was an everything-must-go sale in Washington Dulles International Airport's Concourse A yesterday -- caps, T-shirts, pillows, blankets, mouse pads, model airplanes, all priced to move -- because the seller, Independence Air, really did have to go.

On the last day of the Washington area's homegrown low-fare airline, a company that carried more than 8 million passengers over 18 months but never figured out how to make money, Independence Air employees stood in a line 25 deep for a chance to grab some mementos.

"This is sort of sad," said pilot Bill Brown, clutching a clump of shirts with the Independence Air logo. "It would have been better if the boys who ran this airline had a better plan so we wouldn't all be here today, buying this stuff."

The airline's final day began in a fog, with many of its flights delayed for an hour or longer. It ended shortly before 9 p.m. as one of its relatively new Airbus A319 jets pulled into Dulles International Airport from Tampa.

In between, misty-eyed workers hugged, swapped e-mail addresses and spoke of job prospects and what-ifs. Lots of what-ifs.

What if Dulles-based Flyi Inc., which had begun life in 1989 as Atlantic Coast Airlines, a regional commuter carrier for United Airlines, had not broken away from United to become Independence Air? What if Flyi had not sold its seats so cheaply -- as low as $29 one way?

"We needed an angel to come rescue us," said Gordon Herndon, 80, a customer service representative who came to the company nine years ago after a career in publishing. "We needed a Bill Gates to come in and buy us."

The shutdown came two months after Flyi filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and a year after it first warned of trouble, citing record fuel prices and an unrelenting response by competitors. Two rivals, JetBlue Airways and United Air Lines, promptly sought job applications from furloughed Flyi workers.

"This is one of the saddest days of my life," senior customer service representative Peggy Anstead Hudson said at Dulles Airport's Gate B26 as a regular Flyi passenger approached with tears in her eyes.

"I love this airline. Your service is fabulous," Kate Williams of Leesburg said. "I just called my girlfriend to say: 'Can you believe this? I'm at the airport crying.' "

Two airlines, United and Mesa Air Group Inc., had showed interest in bidding for some Flyi assets, but neither wanted to operate Independence as a stand-alone carrier.

Wall Street analysts and the realists among Flyi's 2,700 employees were not surprised. The airline simply had burned through too much cash.

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