The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
Your Guide to the Upstart Discount Carriers
May 1, 1994 -- If you're flying from Atlanta to Philadelphia, would you rather pay $288 or $119?

If you want to fly between Sacramento, California, and Portland, Oregon, would you choose a $174 fare or a $79 fare?

If you had to travel from Birmingham, Alabama, to New York, would you book a $415 seat or a $149 seat?

It doesn't take an enlightened traveler to realize that, all things being equal, the less expensive fare is a bargain. Well, all things are more or less equal. Better yet, each of those comparisons are real-life examples of a discount airline launching a new route, then charging a one-way fare far below the price charged by the incumbent major carriers.

Best of all, those examples are not curiosities. All over America, discount carriers are challenging the established order of the major airlines. They are slashing fares, expanding their route networks, and reducing the cost of flying by as much as 70 percent. And for the first time in years, travelers can book scheduled flights for reasonable prices without having to untangle a thicket of Saturday-stay, minimum-stay and advance-purchase restrictions.

The new discount lineup Of the eight discounters listed on the accompanying chart, perhaps the only familiar name is Southwest Airlines. The granddaddy of low fares, Southwest has expanded nationwide: to California, the Midwest and as far east as Cleveland and Baltimore. Demand for its low-fare flights is so great that Southwest now carries more domestic passengers than all but four other airlines.

Two other carriers--ValuJet of Atlanta and Morris Air Service of Salt Lake City--are Southwest-style clones that have prospered by flying where Southwest has not yet ventured. In fact, Morris Air is such a faithful reproduction of Southwest's service that Southwest bought the airline last year. Two other discounters, American Trans Air and Tower Air, were once strictly charter carriers. The others are largely the creation of employees who lost their jobs when full-service carriers such as Eastern and Pan Am flew into oblivion.

But these eight are by no means the only discount airlines. Among the others: Midway Airlines (800-446-4392), based at Chicago's Midway Airport; Private Jet (800-949-9400), another Atlanta-based carrier; and Carnival Air Lines (800-437-2110), which flies from the Northeast to Florida and the Caribbean.

What discounters offer Unlike the homogeneous major carriers, the discounters each have a distinctive flavor. Southwest, for example, is strictly an airborne bus service. It offers peanuts instead of in-flight meals, all coach seating and none of the other frills (such as advanced boarding passes and assigned seats) offered by the full-service airlines. Others, most notably Kiwi International, offer extraordinarily spacious coach seating and tasty in-flight meals. One new discounter, Reno Air, even offers a first-class cabin.

What discounters don't offer Low fares sometime have their own costs. Carriers such as ValuJet, Southwest and Morris, for instance, do not "interline." In other words, you cannot effortlessly transfer your tickets and luggage between their flights and flights operated by another airline. Others, especially Tower Air, have limited schedules, sometimes offering only one flight a day between cities. And few discounters are full-fledged participants in the computerized reservations systems used by travel agents. As a result, not all computer systems list the schedules of airlines like Southwest. In fact, increasing numbera of travel agents won't write tickets for their flights. That means you may have to make all your own arrangements.

The next trend The popularity of the discounters, especially Southwest Airlines, has not gone unnoticed by the major carriers. In fact, Continental (800-525-0280) already has begun transforming itself into a low-fare specialist. The airline's 875 daily "Peanuts Flights" eschew frills like meal service, but seats sell for low, unrestricted fares. There's also a novel twist: travelers who book Peanuts Flights can bring along a companion for just a penny more. And at least three other major carriers--American, United, and USAir--are planning their own discount-flight operations.


Airline (Code)

Where It Flies

Type of Service

One-Way Fares


Between California, New York, Arizona, Florida, Chicago and Indianapolis

All coach, with light meals

Refundable, priced about 50% below major carriers.


Between Chicago, Atlanta, Newark, and Florida

Upgraded coach with roomy seats and excellent meals

Refundable, prices range from $69-$149


To the Rockies, Southwest, and Pacific Coast, mostly via Salt Lake City

All coach, no assigned seats, no meals

Mostly nonrefundable, priced about 50% below major carriers; average 1993 fare: $65.16


Within Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Arizona, and California

Coach and first-class cabins; AAdvantage frequent-flier miles

Traditional array of fares, priced about 25% below major carriers


1,500 daily flights to 41 cities in 19 states

All coach, no assigned seats, no meals

Refundable; prices drop 50-70% when WN enters market; average 1993 fare: $59.44


New York to Miami; Los Angeles and San Francisco

Coach and business class cabins

Refundable; prices in both classes as much as 70% lower than major carriers


To six cities in South and Florida from New York

Upgraded coach with roomy seats and light meals

Refundable; prices range from $99 to $169


Between 14 cities in South, East and Midwest via Atlanta

All coach, no assigned seats, no meals

Nonrefundable, prices range from $39-$169

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

This column is Copyright 1994-2017 by Joe Brancatelli. is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.