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With fares as low as $10, no-frills airline lifts off

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Richard Sutter was pleasantly astonished when he learned last month that the country's newest and cheapest airline, Skybus Airlines, would charge him just $10 to fly him here from Ohio so he could attend his grandmother's 90th birthday this weekend.

And after landing at Portsmouth International Airport yesterday morning, Sutter was even more astonished by how pleasant the flight from Columbus was.

"It was more than I thought it would be, a lot more. For 10 bucks, I was expecting chickens on the plane," said Sutter, a Dayton native, who wound up paying just $146 total -- counting taxes and security fees -- for round-trip tickets for himself, his wife Mandy, son Tyler, 9, and daughter Emma, 4. The Airbus A319 plane was clean and new, and with the ticket price so cheap, the Sutters had no complaint about paying the $20 Skybus fee to check their four bags and $2 apiece for some cans of soda.

Yesterday was the first full day of operations at Portsmouth for Skybus, a start-up airline based in the Ohio capital. It's bringing to the United States the ultra cheap discount service once offered by PeopleExpress on the East Coast in the 1980s and today offered in Europe by carriers such as RyanAir and EasyJet, which feature one-way promotional fares as low as one British penny.

While other US airlines have been trimming frills and edging into a-la-carte pricing for once-free services like checked baggage and extra legroom seats, Skybus takes frugality to new levels. The airline promises at least 10 $10 fares on every flight -- although by yesterday afternoon those were all gone for June and July on the Portsmouth-Columbus route. Skybus's website offered only $30 to $150 one-way tickets, which were still significantly less expensive than other airlines.

All any of the Skybus tickets buy, though, is a seat on the plane. Passengers have to pay $5 to check a bag, $8 for a blanket, $15 for a pillow, and $10 to wait at the front of the line, since there are no assigned seats. Except for babies and people with medical needs, passengers are forbidden to bring food or drink on board so Skybus squelches any free competition for its $5 Budweisers and $10 meat loaf plates.

There are no movies. And by eliminating first-class seating, it squeezes 144 coach seats on a model of plane that has 124 or 126 seats in two classes on most other carriers -- although Skybus's 30-inch coach "seat pitch," or spacing between seats, is the same as Northwest Airlines and US Airways in coach.

Also holding down costs: There is no phone number customers can call. All tickets are sold online, and the only access to Skybus customer service is the gate agent at the airport. One big revenue stream for the airline is making its jets flying billboards for Nationwide Insurance, which pays an undisclosed fee to get its name and website on the fuselage and inside the cabin.

Initially, Skybus is flying to seven other destinations besides Portsmouth from its Columbus hub: Richmond; Greensboro, N.C.; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Kansas City, Mo.; Burbank, Calif.; Oakland, Calif., and Bellingham, Wash. Like Portsmouth, which is 55 miles north of Boston and had no regularly scheduled jet service to or from anywhere before Skybus began operations Tuesday night, Bellingham, Burbank, and Oakland are meant to be cheap, if remote, alternatives for getting into the big metropolitan areas nearby of Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

With $160 million in committed funding, Skybus plans to add 70 more jets to its current fleet of eight in the next five years and add several destinations. "Our belief is that if you bring down the fare a lot, a lot more people are going to want to fly," Skybus chief executive Bill Dieffenderffer said in an interview as he prepared to board the 9:05 a.m. flight back to his Columbus home.

Yesterday, Skybus was doing a better business eastbound than westbound, with about 105 passengers exiting the flight from Columbus to Portsmouth and about 50 waiting here to fly to Ohio, according to airport officials.

But the lure of too-cheap-to-believe fares clearly had huge appeal, especially for grandparents, who appeared to represent a disproportionate share of the passenger load. Gary Duncan , a Massachusetts environmental police officer headed with his wife, Kathy, to see their grandchildren Robert and Joseph in Indianapolis, figured he spent more on gas driving up to Portsmouth from his Wakefield home than the $10 he paid for the 1-hour, 45-minute flight to Columbus.

Jan Keefe , who was heading from Rochester, N.H., with her husband, Bill, to visit their son and his family in Florence, Ky., was initially thrilled with the $112 total round-trip fare. But after discovering she had erroneously booked a 9 p.m. flight instead of a 9 a.m. flight, she was actually happy to pay $80 to switch the tickets. "The Skybus people were unreal. They were so accommodating and nice about it," Keefe said.

Duncan, interviewed by cellphone after his flight landed in Columbus, said everything about the experience "was excellent. It was a brand new plane, very comfortable, and the service was excellent." Duncan, who rented a car to get from Columbus to Indianapolis, said compared to the nonstops he and his wife have flown from Logan International Airport to Indianapolis on US Airways, the Skybus plane was actually cleaner and better appointed. Negotiating the five-minute drive off Interstate 95 to the wide-open airport parking lot was a dream compared to Logan.

Even at $2 for coffee and $8 for a danish-and-fruit tray, he praised the food, too. "I'd recommend it to anybody. We'll be very glad to go again," Duncan said. "For $10, it was just amazing."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

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