George Washington, stylishly dressed in antique velvet, flew over Valley Forge and into New England yesterday, welcoming passengers to Presidential Airways, the new low-cost carrier that hopes to do for Dulles International Airport what People Express has done for Newark International Airport.
"This is a hometown airline for Washington, D.C., so I guess I could be considered the mascot," said Washington (actually a man named Frank Alderson), the president whose signature is scrawled in blue on the nose of each of the company's four planes. "Our hopes are pretty high."
Presidential's hopes include becoming the preeminent force at Dulles, drawing thousands of new passengers to an airport that officials say can handle 10 times the 4 million people who passed through its terminal in the last year. Presidential already has begun construction on a $5.7 million terminal that will allow the airline to increase its service from five cities to 10 or more by spring.
"We have selected our initial markets with real care," said Harold J. Pareti, the president, majority stockholder and driving force behind the new company.
Presidential's first flight -- to Indianapolis -- left an hour late yesterday morning because a coffee machine on the plane was not working properly.
"At 6:45 people have the right to a decent cup of coffee," said Pareti. "I want our customers to get more than what they pay for."
Pareti's low fares to Hartford, Cincinnati, Boston, Miami and Indianapolis have set off a round of price-cutting and fare wars among the airlines serving those markets. US Air and New York Air both are trying to match Presidential.
Yesterday, People Express, the focal point of no-frills flying and the company that Pareti left to begin Presidential, announced that it, too, would slash its fares to several cities served by Presidential.
"I have literally prayed for this," said Gary M. Heal, as he sat in the departure lounge at Hartford's Bradley International Airport, watching Washington/Alderson cut ribbons and eat cake. "I live in Virginia but I have business in Hartford all the time. This airline is a hot item for me. It's going to save me a lot of money." The cost of a round-trip ticket to Hartford is $150 at peak travel times and $78 at other times, about half what other airlines charge.
Passengers, who are often bewildered by the fluctuation in prices on different carriers, greeted the arrival of Presidential with skepticism. Many who use National Airport have said in the past that they would prefer to use Dulles -- which is much less crowded and has better parking -- but that it does not offer as wide a range of flights.
"I love to leave from Dulles," said Bess Jones of Arlington, on her way to Hartford for a wedding. "National is such a headache it can just drive nyone out of their mind."
Pareti said that he selected cities in areas that are generally considered to be underserved -- the Ohio Valley, New England and Florida.
Virginia officials and the Federal Aviation Administration, which runs Dulles, have reacted with delight to the new venture, hoping Presidential will finally bring the growth long predicted for Dulles.
Presidential has started its life with $34 million and the desire to grow slowly and steadily. By concentrating on places like Hartford, where air traffic has increased 20 percent annually during the last four years, Pareti hopes to carve out yet another niche in a crowded field.
"I don't know about the philosophy behind it," said passenger Joshua Seligman as he bounded off a flight from Boston. "But it's cheap, it's available and it seems to be safe. What more could you ask from an airline?"