Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Skybus and online flight booking

We have entered a new era in airline booking with the creation of YACA (yet another cheap airline): Skybus, operating out of all places, Columbus Ohio. I mean no disrespect for the town, where parts of both sides of my family once lived before they all retired to Florida or Vegas. And I wish this new entry well, even though they don't fly anywhere near where I live.

There are several things that are interesting about Skybus. First, their Web site is modeled after EasyJet and Jet Blue and has a nice booking engine where you can quickly figure out what flights are available at what prices. I call this Strom's first law of airline booking: a customer wants the utmost in transparency and ease of use when it comes to finding the cheapest fare. The sites and airlines that do this well will succeed. It isn't enough to know that I can find the cheapest seat, but that I can have some reasonable assurance that the seat I buy today will continue to be a good deal next week too.

I like the calendar view that Skybus and EasyJet use, but I also like how Southwest shows you the prices of flights the day before and after your initial query. If you have some flexibility in your trip, it is very easy to use.

Other travel booking sites have gotten into doing some interesting things with searching the airline reservation system, and the one that I have come back to more than once is It takes some learning to figure out how to eliminate and focus on the flights that you want to take, and I am not sure of its entire universe of fares, but for trips where you have to connect and could use a variety of hub cities, it has a lot of promise.

My second point about Skybus is you can't call them – operators are definitely NOT standing by to take your reservation, they are 100% Web-only. If you have a problem, send them an email. I think this is great until you have a problem and need someone to resolve it. And time will tell if they are responsive via emails.

We all have our horror stories about airline travel, especially after this winter, and I will share one of mine here with flying United. One of the things I learned about United is that their call center is really sub-par. Clearly, they have outsourced this offshore, and the level of expertise is definitely lower than what I have seen on other airlines. About a month ago, I ended up sitting on the tarmac here in St. Louis, knowing that I will miss my connecting flight in Chicago. So I get on the phone and see if I can at least expect that a seat for the next flight out of Chicago. The call center people – and I tried multiple times – all were spectacularly unhelpful, even going so far as to say that the connecting flight was sold out. Of course, when I got to O'Hare and got on the next flight it was nearly empty, and I had no problem finding a seat.

But I will never fly United again, if I have a choice. Now trying to project that experience with Skybus, they still need something for passengers who get delayed. Perhaps at the Columbus hub they will have plenty of terminals that you can access – I haven't been there so can't say – but what if you have problems at their remote airports where the Internet connectivity isn't that good, and there is only a single flight per day?

My third point is that Skybus is also being transparent about charging for things beyond the space your body fills on their planes. Want early boarding so you can get the seat of your choice (they don't assign seats, ala Southwest)? Want to check a bag? Change your ticket? They are upfront about these charges, although they could do a better job of enumerating them in a single place on their site. They are also upfront about those oversize passengers that should book two seats, but usually don't. Having sat next to quite a few of these people who "compromise any portion of the seat next to them" (a wonderful locution from their site), I applaud this wholeheartedly. One nit: golf clubs aren't charged extra but bikes are.

About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.