Look out, the next generation of air travel is here. For passengers, that means lower fares and direct service from smaller markets that, a decade ago, would have seemed like a pipe dream. Two carriers are going toe-to-toe with each other and leading the way - Avelo Airlines and Breeze Airways. After today, I have officially flown both.
Growing up next to Worcester Regional Airport, I had an affinity for the smaller no-name carriers looking to do something different. Allegiant Air was one of the first I could remember when Avelo’s current C.E.O., Andrew Levy, was a high-ranking official. Unfortunately, things did not end well between the city and Allegiant, but the damage had been done - my interest had been piqued.
Casino Express Airlines & Xtra Airways
The roots of Avelo date back to its days as a charter operator. Launched in 1987 as Casino Express Airlines, the airline flew a Boeing 737-200 for casinos out of Elko, Nevada. Growing little at a time, the airline eventually used a McDonnell Douglas MD-80 for weekend-only service from Elko to Portland and Seattle.
Realizing the potential to profit with more unscheduled charters, they grew to serve public or private charter groups. To properly reflect its growing focus, the name was changed to XTRA Airways in 2005. The carrier grew in size, with the fleet fluctuating as time passed. When they discontinued operations, the airline had a fleet of four Boeing 737-400s and two Boeing 737-800s.
Facing financial difficulty, most of the airline was acquired by competitor Swift Air, the largest charter operator in the United States at the time. Swift held many contracts they could use the assets for, which they still fly to this day. However, one Boeing 737-400 was retained to hold on to XTRA's operating certificate. Seeing an opportunity, Andrew Levy acquired the remaining assets used to launch his project, Avelo Airlines.
A former XTRA Boeing 737-400 flying for Swift Air in 2019.
Avelo came out of what felt like nowhere before the pandemic, actually beating David Neeleman’s highly-touted airline at the time known as Moxy, which we now know as Breeze. With a similar operating model, the first flights were flown out of Hollywood Burbank International Airport, emerging from the pandemic to smaller West Coast markets.
Its East Coast presence came after a significant announcement for New Haven, C.T. residents, by co-mingling launching service with major infrastructure upgrades for Tweed New Haven Airport. Following a Supreme Court ruling, nothing stands in the way of the City of New Haven from extending the runway and building a new terminal; two projects desperately needed for the potent Southern Connecticut market.
I had discussed most of this in a previous post dedicated to New Haven. This article will primarily focus on the Avelo travel experience itself. What is it like flying the ultra-low-cost carriers? Many travelers venturing on the airline will be dipping their toes into previously unused airports. While I can speak only to New Haven, I am confident the experience varies little from airport to airport.
Before Avelo’s entry, New Haven had enplaned under 50,000 passengers. In under two years, the airport is on the verge of enplaning over 500,000 and becoming a Small Hub under the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS). The growth rate is considerable, possibly one of the fastest improvements worldwide. This is not just the story of an untapped market - Avelo is the perfect fit, but why is that?
Well, think about New Haven residents who have been traveling for years. The options were to either venture closer to New York City to pick a flight out of the congested New York airports or travel over an hour at times to Bradley International Airport, north of Hartford, for a smaller selection of flights. Either way, the convenience was lacking from the moment they left their house until the moment they returned.
This is where Avelo comes in. We are familiar with ultra-low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit. However, Avelo is different in many ways. Frontier and Spirit thrive on service between larger airports, requiring the airline to sacrifice aspects like customer service or ancillary fees to compensate for their lower airfares. For example, requiring assistance at the airport for Frontier customers comes at a price.
Avelo is an ultra-low-cost carrier, but its purpose varies a bit. By bringing air service to relatively marginal communities, they draw people in with lower fares by commending favorable deals with the local airport community, combined with an already low operating cost.
For example, Frontier Airlines had attempted to serve Wilmington, D.E., on multiple failed attempts. Exhausting its options, the airline chose to focus on its service out of nearby Philadelphia International Airport instead, able to draw more customers and fly a wider variety of routes, like San Juan. This left Wilmington, an airport that could reliably provide air service, out to dry.
While there was proof a market existed, airlines already strapped for resources could not invest anything into making it work. Either that, they could not be bothered in providing leakage for already established routes out of Philadelphia. Why bother stealing passengers from yourself at a higher cost? This is where Avelo comes in.
Designed to cater to neglected airports, operating bases were established in Wilmington, D.E., and New Haven, and further service was also launched in cities like Binghamton, N.Y., and Kalamazoo, M.I. The critical components to making it work are:
Less than daily service. These markets are in an awkward limbo that cannot sustain daily service. However, with the proper cost structure, service can be provided reliably “less-than-daily” for local residents to plan trips.
Return-to-base flight scheduling. Much of keeping costs low lies in reducing costs in outstations, which requires Avelo aircraft to fly back to bases to spend the night. This requires almost reverse bases, such as Orlando-MCO and Raleigh-Durham, where flights can start to smaller markets early so the flights are not arriving all at once.
Build your fare. These markets would not work if the prices were placed at a premium. Yes, many would pay for the convenience - but not enough to sustain the service, which is the whole point.
Sound familiar? All of the above are staples of Allegiant Air, which Andrew Levy took to establish his growing airline today on the verge of profitability. Additionally, when feasible, Avelo ventures into ad-hoc charter flights, such as for college sports teams - another foundation for Allegiant.
For these reasons, Avelo will continue to dominate market share in the cities they open bases in. Why? Well, for one, rest assured they landed the most favorable deals possible, so much so that it is hard justifying similar investments to other carriers. To do so, several other stakeholders would be upset. Think about if you were JetBlue paying a specific rate for years, and Avelo comes in and gets a free ride. I would be pissed, too!
Levy is very open about his vantage point, which is hit or miss with many airport management departments. In a conference talking to leadership from airports nationwide, he pled for managers to see air service as a resource for the community rather than something to profit from. He argues that profit comes from other fees, such as parking garages or concessions.
Lastly, Avelo can compete by not competing. Routes are established with little or no competition - usually the latter - which other carriers will usually find unnecessary to contend with. For example, Avelo flies from Raleigh-Durham to Manchester, N.H. Other carriers serving Manchester, such as Southwest or Spirit, will not compete on such a fringe route.
However, Avelo will likely not want to maintain service to Manchester without adding more city pairs, especially with a less-than-daily frequency. Thus, expect Avelo to terminate service or expand at some point. For this reason, Avelo and Breeze have developed a cutthroat reputation for routes - either they work or don’t, no hard feelings.
Finally, why we are here. What is it like to fly Avelo? I am writing this in cruise to Orlando on a full Boeing 737-800 aircraft. Electing to depart from its New Haven hub was a different experience in many ways, making me think about a few things I had never considered before.
First, New Haven had only two lines in the checkpoint, making for slow processing through the T.S.A. Security Checkpoint. I will say that the equipment was state-of-the-art, but even for myself, with T.S.A. PreCheck, processing took almost twenty minutes. I cannot remember the last time it took so long, even at a larger airport.
This made me realize that much of Avelo’s service is past the present capacity of many of its airports. Before they came to town, New Haven only had to worry about three 50-seat aircraft spread out throughout the day. Now, they are fighting to meet capacity for almost fifteen Boeing 737 Next Generation aircraft per day. Something management has done an impressive job with so far.
You can likely find other situations across its route map, but I encourage you to see them as growing pains. When there is an influx in capacity, it is usually grounds for funding enhancements. The F.A.A. and local governments know how important it is to provide air service the adequate infrastructure, but these improvements do not happen overnight.
Avelo takes advantage of local limitations when possible. For instance, New Haven only has a singular jetbridge. Seeking to minimize their turn times (the time spent on the ground between flights), Avelo does not use this jetbridge in favor of hardstanding and boarding from the front and rear simultaneously. The result was a rapid turn time for two full aircraft - approximately 45 minutes until push and start after blocking in.
Rows 1-20 boarded in a lane to the left, and all rows after boarded in the yellow lane to the right. This may seem theoretically confusing to many, but it actually flowed smoothly and was evenly spaced. Boarding in the front approximated the total time it took to board from the rear, a vital efficiency component. It was a cramped space at times, but not enough to be troublesome, and it seemed to work.
The seats are very similar to Breeze but differ in their comfort. Some older aircraft have not been fitted with Avelo’s dedicated interior yet, so be mindful that your experience may vary in such a case. I found them quite comfortable for the flight’s stage length, able to recline with some cushion.
The lack of WiFi is bothersome, and I am curious to know if plans exist in the future to retrofit aircraft with the required equipment. Breeze Airways faces a similar dilemma, but after speaking to crewmembers, I understand there are plans to add Internet. This is important for airlines to consider, as not only would passengers be happier, but it would open up another revenue stream for these carriers to make more money.
At least on my flight, there was no inflight service, even if passengers were open to purchasing snack bundles such as found on other ultra-low-cost carriers. Even for me, I would have gladly spent a reasonable amount of money for more caffeine - something I am virtually always willing to do. I would be curious to know if more inflight options are planned for the future, allowing for more profitability and a better experience.
While Avelo currently does not offer any credit cards, they have a partnership with Capital One’s Venture One card, which you can purchase in flight for several Avelo perks. For example, travelers can earn up to $100 in Avelo credits and priority boarding in the first year, 1.25 miles per dollar on Avelo purchases, and no annual fees. This is not a bad deal, particularly for the travelers living in Avelo’s operating bases.
If you are a loyal customer with another carrier, it may not be worth the trouble to sacrifice all you have earned with minimal comparable incentives. I have heard of airlines allowing miles to be transferred in the past, but Avelo is nowhere near able to offer that yet. They are on the right track, but specifically for you, the benefits of traveling with your loyal carrier will outweigh what Avelo has to offer.
For everyone else, particularly the leisure traveler already working on a budget, Avelo is an excellent and reliable option while booking your next flight. I encourage those living in northern New York City to consider New Haven when planning future travel. Assuming you are a simple person like many of us, the slight inconvenience of a longer drive is more than made up for in the value you are provided.
Breeze or Avelo?
At least for now, these will be an entirely hypothetical question. The only markets where these two will coexist are more significant hubs, yet they do not share any routes. What I find funny worth mentioning is they even have the following route segments:
Avelo flies from Wilmington, D.E., to Wilmington, N.C.
Breeze flies from Charleston, S.C., to Charleston, W.V.
How cool is that? These carriers have done wonders for travelers nationwide. For example, Breeze simply launching flights to Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., was enough for JetBlue to add more non-Florida service and has driven down fares considerably. At airports like Bradley International Airport and T.F. Green in Providence, R.I., several carriers have been forced to match Breeze’s presence in one way or another.
That said, Avelo has proved to be a far more reliable airline. Remember that airlines can only handle what they can control. Breeze chooses to run flight crews close to the 10-hour duty time, resulting in several route segments being canceled with any delays. Similarly, the airline also allots unreasonable time on the ground between flights. For example, the ground time for Westchester to Los Angeles and back was 35 minutes. Even a novice traveler understands that taxi time alone sometimes is 15-20 minutes at LAX.
Avelo runs into problems that approximate growing pains, such as limitations at the smaller airports they fly to. New Haven, a city at sea level on the water, is prone to fog resulting in occasional days with much disruption. However, the airline seems well prepared for such happenings, with a backup plan to bus people to and from Bradley International Airport. Less convenient, but they are making the best of a situation out of their control.
As with any new airline, Breeze and Avelo have not entirely run a profit to this point. However, Avelo seems to be at least trending in the right direction, while Breeze is burning money at a 2:1 clip (that is, for every dollar they make, they are spending two). Only time will tell how or if these carriers mature in the market.
If you are someone living near an airport that Avelo serves, I would recommend giving it a try if an opportunity arises. I have flown both Spirit and Frontier and while Avelo shares the same business model, it was a very different experience. I always say supporting air service is the only way these routes will survive. Profit margins are thin, and if the flight isn’t supported, they will not last.
I am rooting for the Wilmington’s (both Delaware and North Carolina!) of the world. Even for Frontier, cities like Trenton serve a similar purpose. Air service is a commodity to the community and should be maximized. These carriers fill voids that larger airlines never bothered with, making life for residents more difficult.