News and Tribune

Community News Network

June 6, 2014

It's back! The world's cheapest airline flies again

WASHINGTON — Do checked-bag fees, $2 junk food "snack packs" and chronic overbooking make you nostalgic for an earlier, even less glamorous era of air travel? Then PeoplExpress is the airline for you. This week the relaunched version of People Express, the somewhat iconic 1980s-era discount carrier, began selling tickets for the first time in more than two decades for flights in markets that the major carriers have abandoned. In the early 1980s, the original version of the airline thrived on its ultra-cheap fares. But by 1987 debt, over-expansion and a reputation as "People Distress" had transformed the airline into one of the industry's most notorious failures.

So why would a group of entrepreneurs want to resurrect the brand? PeoplExpress hardly has the retro-transcontinental allure of a name like Pan Am. If anyone still remembers People Express fondly, it's probably for its cheap fares, ugly planes and the unswervingly perky demeanor of its employees - all of whom were paid in stock (as well as salaries) out of the belief that an invested employee is a committed, joyous employee. The January 1985 issue of Texas Monthly described the results of this compensation scheme in memorable terms:

You know the look that comes over the faithful at the mention of Sun Myung Moon? That's the look People Express personnel get when they describe their company.

Cult-like atmosphere aside, People Express still managed to be one of the most innovative U.S. airlines ever to light up an air traffic controller's radar. Texas Monthly inadvertently highlights that point in this gem:

"With smart fares and smart folks like yourselves, it's no wonder we're the fastest-growing airline in aviation history," enthused Captain Bob Slater as part of another curious PE phenomenon, the inflight commercial.

Of course, 29 years later, that inflight commercial isn't curious. It's as commonplace as several other People Express innovations that debuted with the airline in 1981, including checked-bag fees (People Express offered them first), meal-free flights, and snacks and beverages for purchase. Once considered extremes of the post-deregulatory U.S. skies, such features are now acceptable irritations that big legacy carriers use to pad their expanding bottom lines.

What made People Express work so well for a brief period were its cheap fares offered on short, cheap-to-operate routes under-served by the big carriers, such as Newark (the airline's base) to Buffalo, Columbus, Sarasota and Norfolk. Soon, however, full planes bred arrogance, and People Express expanded into markets where it competed directly with - and lost out to - the legacy carriers, including a Newark-London Gatwick route that went for $149 one-way. It didn't help that the airline didn't have a computerized reservation system, but rather allowed passengers to pre-book via phone and then - no joke - pay cash for their tickets on the plane, as if it were a bus. Overbooking rates, unsurprisingly, approached 200 percent. In 1987, crushed by debt and hubris, People Express was merged into Continental, never to be heard from again.

Who's nostalgic for this in an age when low-cost, low-frills carriers such as Spirit Airlines are common? PeoplExpress has an answer posted on its website: "It's time to dispel the myth that low air fares have to mean poor service or an impersonal experience." That's very nice, but it's hardly the basis for a successful business plan. After all, Spirit recently pulled off the remarkable achievement of becoming the U.S.'s most hated and its most profitable airline at the same time, suggesting that smiles aren't important so long as the price is right.

PeoplExpress will do more than smile, of course. Like its Reagan-era predecessor, it will fly theoretically under-served routes such as Pittsburgh-Newport News/Williamsburg. Its success will depend on whether people really do want and need to fly those routes. If they don't, PeoplExpress won't last much longer than its ill-starred predecessor.

Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk. He is the author of "Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade."

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Community News Network
  • Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 21, 2014

  • Hospitals let patients schedule ER visits

    Three times within a week, 34-year-old Michael Granillo went to the emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles because of intense back pain. Each time, Granillo, who didn't have insurance, stayed for less than an hour before leaving without being seen by a doctor.

    July 21, 2014

  • Starved Pennsylvania 7-year-old weighed only 25 pounds

    A 7-year-old Pennsylvania boy authorities described as being so underweight he looked like a human skeleton has been released from the hospital.

    July 21, 2014

  • Malaysians wonder 'Why us?' after second loss of airline jet

    It was all too familiar. Grieving families rushing to airport. The flashing television graphics of a plane's last radar appearance. The uncomfortable officials before a heavy thicket of microphones.
    For many Malaysians, the disappearance of Flight 370 in March has been a long trauma from which the nation has not yet recovered.

    July 18, 2014

  • A quarter of the world's most educated people live in the 100 largest cities

    College graduates are increasingly sorting themselves into high-cost, high-amenity cities such as Washington, New York, Boston and San Francisco, a phenomenon that threatens to segregate us across the country by education.

    July 18, 2014

  • Your chocolate addiction is only going to get more expensive

    For nearly two years, cocoa prices have been on the rise. Finally, that's affecting the price you pay for a bar of chocolate - and there's reason to believe it's only the beginning.

    July 18, 2014

  • Facebook tests button to let people shop from its website

    Members on desktop computers or mobile devices can click a "buy" button to make purchases through advertisements or other posts on the world's largest social network, the Menlo Park, California-based company said Thursday in a blog post.

    July 17, 2014

  • The terrible history of passenger planes getting shot out of the sky

    What is more clear is that, if initial reports are true, this would be the deadliest incident of a civilian passenger plane being shot down in modern memory. In some instances, the causes of the disaster are still shrouded in mystery. Here are some of the worst events.

    July 17, 2014

  • 130408_NT_BEA_good kids We're raising a generation of timid kids

    A week ago, a woman was charged with leaving her child in the car while she went into a store. Her 11-year-old child. This week, a woman was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to go to the park alone. Which raises just one question: America, what the heck is wrong with you?

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • web_starbucks-cof_big_ce.jpg Starbucks sees more Apple-like stores after Colombia debut

    This week Starbucks opened its first location in Colombia — a 2,700-square-foot store with a heated patio, concrete columns, mirrors on the ceiling and walls of colorful plants.

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

LOCAL MAGAZINES
Easter 2014 photos


Click on any photo to purchase it.

SPECIAL CONTENT
Twitter Updates
Follow us on twitter
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
AP Video
Raw: Lawmakers Scuffle in Ukraine's Parliament The Rock Finds His Inner 'Hercules' Michigan Plant's Goal: Flower and Die Raw: MH17 Passenger Remains in Kharkiv, Ukraine Raw: Israel Hits Gaza Targets, Destroys Mosques ShowBiz Minute: Hoffman, Oberst, Box Office WWII Vet Gets Medals, 70 Years Late Raw: Israel Bombs Multiple Targets in Gaza Veteran Creates Job During High Unemployment Raw: Cargo Craft Undocks From Space Station Widow: Jury Sent Big Tobacco a $23B Message New Orleans Plans to Recycle Cigarette Butts UN Security Council Calls for MH 17 Crash Probe Obama Bestows Medal of Honor on NH Veteran Texas Sending National Guard Troops to Border Hopkins to Pay $190M After Pelvic Exams Taped Foxx Cites Washington 'Circus Mirror' NASA Ceremony Honors Moon Walker Neil Armstrong
2013 Photos of the year


Take a look at our most memorable photos from 2013.