In the aftermath, pent-up demand is fueling a travel surge: The Transportation Security Administration recently has screened more than 2 million daily passengers, the most since the start of the pandemic. Analysts say they don’t expect numbers to reach pre-pandemic levels until at least 2023, but a rise in vaccination rates and a dwindling number of coronavirus infections have previously homebound Americans looking to the skies.
David Neeleman and Andrew Levy, two industry executives who are facing off in a battle of new ultra-low-cost carriers, say recovery from the pandemic has created an ideal moment to get into the airline business.
“There couldn’t be better timing for what we’re trying,” said Neeleman, founder of Breeze Airways. “People want to get away. They want to see new places. They want to experience new things.”
Breeze and Avelo Airlines are the nation’s first new airline start-ups since Virgin America, which made a splashy debut in 2007 before being acquired by Alaska Airlines nine years later. Even during a pandemic, there are plenty of players willing to get into the game: Aircraft leasing firm Avolon estimates the new U.S. carriers are among more than 100 airline start-ups worldwide.
The pandemic’s disruption has created opportunities for entrepreneurs in the airline sector as it has for other industries, said Jeff Reid, founding director of Georgetown Entrepreneurship and a professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business.
“There are new markets and new customer behaviors,” he said. “Whenever things change dramatically, it creates great opportunity.”
Utah-based Breeze is the fifth airline venture from Neeleman, a serial entrepreneur who launched JetBlue Airways in 1998. Breeze began flying in May, servicing 16 cities in the South, Midwest, southeast and eastern part of the country, launching with fares starting at $39 one-way.
Avelo, which began service in April with one-way fares as low as $19 from its base at Hollywood Burbank Airport in Southern California, is focusing service on the West Coast and plans to expand this year to Tweed New Haven Airport in Connecticut. Levy, the carrier’s founder and president, said he is bullish on the timing as travel demand surges.
“I like our chances a lot,” he said. “Bigger is not necessarily better. I just want to build a great company that takes care of all its constituents.”
Despite the confidence of the airlines’ founders, industry watchers say launching a new airline is risky enterprise, pandemic or not.
“When a low-cost airline is born, it immediately begins to die,” said George Ferguson, a senior aerospace analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. “All the costs begin to rise after day one.”
Carriers operate on thin margins in a fiercely competitive market. High fixed costs — airplanes and workers, mixed with more volatile fuel costs — mean getting people in seats is critical to profitability. Aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research, said budget airlines can face additional challenges because they often attract less frequent fliers.
The industry was on a roll before the pandemic, but after years of expansion and record passenger traffic, the pandemic showed how quickly profits can evaporate. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. airlines carried a record 926 million passengers in 2019, a number that plummeted to 369 million in 2020.
“It’s a cash-rich industry, but when it comes down to profits, it’s a tough one,” said Lowell Valencia-Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business, who was part of a team that launched Frontier Airlines in the 1990s. “As we’ve seen in this pandemic, airplanes make no money when they’re sitting on the ground.”
The dynamics that upended the industry also created openings for newcomers — opportunities that might not have existed before the pandemic, experts say.
With so many airplanes idled, they are cheap to lease, said Dan Bubb, an associate professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and expert in aviation history. Airlines have reduced the number of flights being offered, which enabled Levy to snap up slots at Hollywood Burbank, Avelo’s base. At the same time, thousands of airline employees — including highly skilled pilots and mechanics — were downsized or took voluntary buyouts. They might be looking to work again, even at a lower salary, Bubb said.
“This is kind of a strange golden opportunity for a small airline to get its foot in the door,” he said. “The pandemic has incapacitated the major airlines so much that it’s a great time for upstarts to come in, take some slots at airports and get planed at a discounted rate. These are the real ingredients for success.”
David Taylor, head of global strategy, travel and hospitality at Publicis Sapient, a digital consulting company, said the crop of start-ups has other advantages: They have low overhead costs and the ability to pivot more quickly than larger competitors. Though they are launching on opposite coasts, focusing on smaller markets they see as underserved or not served at all.
Coming out of the pandemic, Taylor said people might be more open to trying something new, such as a new airline with cheap fares.
Both carriers are eager to capitalize on a wave of newly vaccinated leisure travelers. On its website, Houston-based Avelo bills itself as “the go-to airline for the outdoor purist, wine enthusiast, skier, nature lover, or anyone who wants smoother travel that saves money.”
Levy, 51, is a former president of low-cost carrier Allegiant Airlines and was chief financial officer at United Airlines as it worked to compete with an la carte model pioneered by Allegiant Air, Spirit Airlines and other low-cost carriers.
Avelo’s focus is on secondary markets near bigger cities, a strategy that Southwest Airlines pioneered by choosing Midway International Airport over O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. In Avelo’s case, think Santa Rosa instead of San Francisco, or Ogden instead of Salt Lake City. Hollywood Burbank Airport is Los Angeles without the hassles and traffic that come with a trip out of Los Angeles International, Levy said.
In Levy’s view, smaller airports translate to a low-hassle experience with smaller crowds and where schlepping from ticket counter to gate can be done on foot, rather than shuttle. Its fares may be cheaper than competitors, but like other bargain carriers, passengers will pay for “extras” like more legroom, checked baggage and carry-ons.
Avelo, flying Boeing 737-800 aircraft, might have characteristics similar to low-cost carriers such a Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant, but Levy doesn’t like that label.
“We like to consider ourselves an everyday low-fare carrier,” he said. “When people think ultralow cost carrier, the perception is not great. … I think we’re different.”
Neeleman, 61, is pitching Breeze as the new “seriously nice” airline, hoping to lure customers from larger carriers by offering nonstop service mainly from four airports — in Tampa, Charleston, S.C., New Orleans and Norfolk — to cities where existing airlines offer no service or no direct service. As with Avelo and other carriers, passengers will pay fees for bags and additional legroom (billed as a “nice” seat or “nicer” seats). Routes are two hours or less on smaller Embraer aircraft. Breeze plans to begin operating on Airbus A220 aircraft in October.
“It’s going well,” Neeleman said of the carrier’s first few weeks. “Bookings are above expectations.”
Even before it began flying, Breeze drew scrutiny for its recruitment programs from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which criticized the airline for hiring students at Utah Valley University for jobs as flight attendants. After it didn’t attract enough students, it expanded its applicant pool to include nonstudents.
Established airlines are moving to defend their turf.
American Airlines recently announced it would fly bigger jets between Burbank and Phoenix, a route that Avelo recently began to service. Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines announced nonstop service between Burbank and Sonoma, Calif. — another pair of cities served by Avelo.
“Airlines are very focused on trying to knock someone out when they are trying to get into their marketplace,” Ferguson said. “They’re going to meet that competition head-on.”
Valencia-Miller said Avelo and Breeze must quickly build brand loyalty among a customer base willing to try the carriers. At Frontier, he said it took about four years before he and other executives felt they were on firm footing.
“JetBlue was so revolutionary when it started,” said Harteveldt. “As smart as David Neeleman is, he’s not undefeatable. This is a very different industry, and they are not going to cede market to Avelo and Breeze.”