By Oliver Porter / Published June 30, 2014
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY: PEOPLExpress’ mission revolves around a basic, hassle-free, low-cost mode of transport around the east coast. From Airchive’s first look, the airline hit each of these points successfully.
Due to simplicity through the airport, an older plane, and stripped but friendly service, hopping onto PEOPLExpress felt like a different kind of air travel. The trip felt like a ride, whether in a bus or someone’s back seat, where the passenger spots a small fare, pops onboard, pops off, and has few frills yet few unexpected experiences. PEOPLExpress gets you there for a minimum fare, without making you feel overtly like a sheep in a herd.
Newport-News Williamsburg Airport (PHF) is situated in the Hampton Roads Metro Area. One barrier to arriving at the airport from the Norfolk area (south) is the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, which can have large delays. Besides a $60 one-way taxi fare to both Norfolk in the south and Williamsburg in the north, car is the only viable transit mode to PHF.
Once you arrive at the terminal however, the trip becomes quite simplistic. Check-in took longer than expected due to an antiquated computer-system. Combined with the ultra-small airport and effective security line, however, door-to-gate time was under fifteen minutes.
The terminal is modern, airy, and with lots of light. PEOPLExpress has the entire A-concourse, which makes flying through quite simple. The airline provided free mugs and breakfast refreshments in celebration of the new service. There were very few shops and restaurants within the airport, so eating options will probably be limited for frequent travellers.
The boarding attendant forgot that there was a premium section of the plane, and instead began boarding by the back five rows to the front. This was a minor mistake, however, and the back-to-front technique was fast and efficient, especially with our 75 percent load factor.
On the jet bridge, one could clearly note the “operated by Vision Air” titles, but most would not know to look for them and instead find the fresh livery appealing. Interestingly, the premium cabin is not separated from the rest of the cabin; the large seats are the only difference. Each seat is an old-fashioned Recaro leather job with plenty of legroom and old fashioned recline. After several recent flights on slimline seats with no true recline, this is actually a welcome site. As with most LCCs, there is no IFE.
We took off of Runway 7 smoothly, and then had a brief snack service with pretzels and a drink. In the future, snacks will be free, but drinks will be extra. This is the reverse of most services. Several employees from the airline, family, and members of the PHF airport helped keep the load factor relatively high, and the mood was exciting as executives moved up and down the aisle to welcome people aboard.
Our arrival at Newark was uneventful, as the fire department could not make it for a spray-down. We arrived in Terminal B, which is quite old and could use a remodeling. Nevertheless, the terminal is quite easy to use and not crowded, which is a major advantage for stress-free travel.
Origins and Aura
The original PEOPLExpress began serving customers in the Northeast United States. on April 30, 1981. The airline grew quickly throughout the 1980s, and eventually merged with Continental in 1987. It concentrated its network at Newark, but grew quickly and consequently suffered when it competed with major carriers, especially on international routes.
Riders had mixed opinions about the airline, but it successfully moved people at low fares – some colleagues remember getting from New York to Boston by air for only $19. The airline was cheap, convenient, and had no frills, either.
The new PEOPLExpress bears some resemblance to the old airline, but is in many ways a different company. In order to begin operations, PEOPLExpress currently operates aircraft under a wet lease arrangement with Vision Air. Wet leasing provides an airline with an aircraft, crew, maintenance, and insurance, or ACMI for short. Vision is based in Las Vegas, and has several charter operations. On the first day of operations, the airline did not have a distinct culture or brand identity apart from fully marked check-in, aircraft, and personnel. Nevertheless, the service was personal and the overall experience had a small-business aura, almost like going to your local deli. There was an upstart, can-do attitude among the senior staff on the plane for the first flight to Newark.
The lack of a strong brand identity at this stage of the airline’s life is subjective, because the airline has not had time to showcase its service and culture for more than one day. From the moment the door closed to the moment it opened, the crew, was positive and quite excited, and did not mention Vision Air once during the flight. This is a good sign, because if all crews indeed act the same way, the airline will be able to build its brand and count on employee buy-in, which is a key element of a solid corporate culture.
One true believer in the PEOPLExpress idea is founder Mike Morisi, who rode the first flight to Newark. Morisi is a former employee of the original PEOPLExpress. and was among many cheering on takeoff, landing, and arrival, with palpable energy and a positive outlook on what he and his team believe will be the next upstart to contend with a new, ultra-consolidated legacy airline industry.
Executives remarked throughout the morning that there were several challenges before operations began, but they have proved doubters wrong by actually taking off.
The airline still does not have its own operating certificate, but Morisi remarked that his team is working with regulators and should have one within a year at the very latest.
The Newport News Story
Many people on social media have asked why the airline chose the name PEOPLExpress, why they did chose to start now, and why they began in Newport News. The name probably came from senior management’s – including Morisi’s – former association with the original airline, but the story behind Newport News and the timing behind today’s launch is much more business-oriented.
The Newport News Williamsburg Airport (PHF) is in the Hampton Roads Metropolitan Area. The area expanded in the gilded age, when the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad came to town under the direction of magnate Collis Potter Huntington. Huntington’s rain line still brings coal from West Virginia mines straight to the port of Norfolk. Huntington, who was one of the leading investors involved in building the Transcontinental Railroad, also contributed to the Huntington-Ingalls Shipbuilding Company, which currently is the sole U.S. manufacturer of aircraft carriers, and is the largest industrial employer in Virginia. South of the shipyard and across the James River Bay lies the Norfolk Naval Base, which, combined with Ft. Eustis, Langley Air Force Base, and Naval Air Station Oceana make the location an enormous military port and base area. Additionally, Maersk and other shipping companies have operations in Norfolk. With such a large military, industrial, and educational base – Old Dominion and Hampton Universities are nearby – there is a continuous market of travellers coming to and from the area for a variety of purposes. This makes the area ripe for new competition given recent consolidation and service cancellations following the mergers of American and US Airways as well as Airtran and Southwest.
Airtran was one of the first major airlines to thrive off of the large Norfolk metro area, with services at both Norfolk (ORF) and PHF. The airline effectively sidestepped legacy routes that relied on hubs and provided substantially lower fares. When Airtrain and Southwest joined forces, the combined entity dropped all flights from PHF. Morisi explained that this was a “big loss” for travellers in the area, and in a single move PHF lost about 50% of its service. This was a large influence on starting an operation at the airport, as fares have skyrocketed. For the Oceana Airshow Weekend, three months away, for example, US Air fares are about $250 round-trip from Boston with a connection. Enter PEOPLExpress, with a nonstop service that takes almost half the time, and that fare now drops to $150. Many, including Airchive analysts, have remarked that under basic operating assumptions, profitability will be difficult at a 66% load factor. The first flight, albeit filled with many airline employees, had a 75% load. Morisi expects many customers to buy ancillary services, such as checked bags and food, in order to keep the airline profitable.
Growth plans for Florida, Atlanta, and New Orleans are still on track, according to Morisi. He explained that aircraft acquisition and further financing are a continuous process, and interestingly there is no financial backing from the airport itself. After using the service, it is clear that, while an infant, PEOPLExpress fills a huge need in the area. Even without marketing, the service is a no-brainer for those who want the lowest price. Government contracts and legacy frequent fliers may hurt PEOPLExpress in the short-term, but Morisi pointed out that in the end, fare price wins, and cost will be his airline’s major advantage as it expands to seven daily services out of PHF.
Analysis Part I: Nostalgia is Not a Viable Business Model for PEOPLExpress
Analysis Part 2: Nostalgia is Not a Viable Business Model for PEOPLExpress
PEOPLExpress Announces Initial Operations
Flashback: Check out these vintage original PeoplExpress timetables and route maps