The Brancatelli File



February 5, 2004 -- Here's the thing about talking theoretically about the decline of the Big Six and the rise of the alternate airlines: It's all theory. It doesn't speak in the practical terms that we deal with every day when we head to the airport and have to live with our decision to fly one of the old guys or one of the new guys.

So let's get ready to rumble in real terms. Real flights. Real routes. Real fares. Real planes and real service. And real decisions.

What appears below, in six easy installments, are head-to-head comparisons of the Big Six and the alternate airlines on randomly chosen routes. The prices were generated last night, February 4, by the airlines' respective Web sites for flights leaving today, February 5, and returning tomorrow, February 6. The service offerings and the aircraft referenced are for the nonstop flights that the Web sites suggested.

I've put my verdict on the head-to-head matchups below. You should draw your own conclusions because it's your bucks and your butts on the line. Of course, it won't surprise you to learn that the alternate guys are cheaper--sometimes insanely cheaper--on five of the six routes. What may surprise you is how often the alternate guys are cheaper and better.

JetBlue Airways is a nationwide darling now, but don't forgot that the airline first made its bones flying chronically underserved intrastate New York routes. For $217.20 roundtrip, JetBlue will fly you between New York/Kennedy and Buffalo, the state's second-largest city. The fare will get you Airbus A320 flights outfitted with 18-inch wide coach seats with 32-to-34 inches of seat pitch and free, seat-back television service. US Airways flights from New York's LaGuardia airport cost $535.21 roundtrip and you get service on a US Airways Express DASH 8 turbo-prop that offers 17-inch wide seats with 31 or 32 inches of seat pitch.

My Verdict: Kennedy Airport is about $15 more in cab fare from most Manhattan locations and you won't get US Airways Dividend Miles. But that investment will save you more than $300 in airfare and you'll get free TV to boot. Besides, US Airways' turbo-props take 20 minutes longer to fly the route than JetBlue's jets, which mitigates the extra transit time to JFK. Can you say no-brainer?

So you say you want to fly in style from Motown to the Mile High City? Northwest charges $2,480 roundtrip to fly first class on an Airbus A320 that offers a 21-inch wide chair with 36 inches of seat pitch. But the upstart at Northwest's Detroit/Metro hub, privately owned Spirit Airlines, will charge you $507.19 to sit in the Spirit Plus class of an MD-80. Spirit Plus offers 19.5-inch wide chairs with 36 inches of seat pitch.

My Verdict: Northwest has a nice terminal at Detroit and a great WorldClub there. (Membership costs more, of course.) Spirit flies from one of the old, tired DTW terminals and doesn't have a club. Northwest offers a bit more in-flight food and the WorldPerks frequent-flyer program. And Northwest's seat is 1.5 inches wider. But since Northwest charges almost $2,000 more, that works out to $657.60 per half-inch of extra seat width. Fly Spirit. Save the extra cash until November when Northwest starts selling holiday flights to Europe in business class for about $900 roundtrip. Then you can take a loved one to Rome and still have enough left over for a New Year's Eve feast at a great trattoria.

Only mad dogs, Englishmen and folks who live, work or have business in the northern suburbs of Chicago use O'Hare for point-to-point service. Smart travelers who start or end their flights in Chicago know that you're better off using Midway Airport. If you're headed to Newark, ATA Airlines flies the MDW-EWR roundtrip for $269.20. That'll get you a coach seat on a Boeing 737-800 that offers 17-inch wide chairs with 31 or 32 inches of seat pitch. Newark-based Continental Airlines will match the $269.20 fare and fly you on a 737-500 using ever-so-slightly wider (17.2 inches) seats and about the same legroom (31 inches of pitch) as ATA. For the record, Continental's O'Hare-Newark fare is about $250 more ($422.70) than its ATA fighter fare at Midway.

My Verdict: You could make the case for flying ATA because you'll avoid the maelstrom that is Continental's hub terminal at Newark. But with the same fares, Continental is the choice thanks to its Presidents Clubs (for an extra charge) at Newark and the power of the OnePass frequent-flyer program.

AirTran Airways has grown from a thorn in Delta Air Lines' side at their shared Atlanta hub into a major threat to the nation's third-largest carrier. Here's why: A business-class seat on AirTran's 717s between Atlanta and Minneapolis/St. Paul costs $534.20. That'll get you 37 inches of seat pitch and a 22-inch wide chair. Delta charges $940.20 to sit in first class on MD-88s outfitted with 19.5-inch wide seats with a 37-inch seat pitch. Delta's in-flight food and beverage service isn't noticeably more substantial than AirTran's business-class offerings.

My Verdict: Delta's $400-plus premium buys you the F code on your ticket, credit in SkyMiles and proximity to Delta's Crown Rooms. AirTran's frequent-flyer plan doesn't offer the breadth of SkyMiles. Is any of that worth $400 more? I don't see how.

United Airlines is so desperate to blunt Frontier Airlines' advances at their shared Denver hub that the still-bankrupt Big Six carrier next week launches Ted, another attempt at a low-fare carrier. Meanwhile, Frontier will fly you back and forth from Portland, Oregon, for $438.20. That buys an 18-inch wide coach seat on an Airbus A318. The seat pitch is 33 inches. United charges $484.20 to fly roundtrip on a Boeing 737-500 that has 17-inch wide coach seats with 31 inches of seat pitch.

My Verdict: Fly United if you want the privilege of being close to a Red Carpet Club room (membership required, of course) or need the MileagePlus miles. Otherwise, I'd save the $46, take the Frontier EarlyReturns miles and the wider, roomier Frontier seats.

America West may be aviation's most heartening post-9/11 success story. The airline has cleaned up its operations, simplified its fare structure, launched transcontinental service--and started turning a profit. America West sells first-class seats on Airbus A319s that ply the Boston-Los Angeles route for $998 roundtrip. The chairs are 20.5 inches wide with 38 inches of seat pitch. American Airlines charges $2,232.70 to fly first class on a Boeing 737-800. Seats are 21 inches wide and offer 40 inches of seat pitch.

My Verdict: American's seats are slightly larger and offer in-flight power points, both nice perks for the long-haul flights. American's in-flight victuals are more bountiful, if not better. And, if you're a member, you've got access to American's Admirals Clubs at both ends of the route. American AAdvantage is better than the America West Flight Fund, but the latter program is surprisingly good. Besides, if you fly America West, you'll be plenty comfortable on its Airbus. And with the fare savings of more than $1,200, you can buy a couple of back-up laptop batteries, a nice hamper of food and wine--and still have enough cash left over to buy another America West first-class roundtrip between Boston and Los Angeles.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.