Who the F*&@ is PEOPLExpress?

Gather ’round, kids, because it’s story time. Today, I’ll tell the story of a once bright star that burnt out quickly. But not everyone believed it burnt out – some thought that it secretly retained its glow, just waiting to be reborn. Now, 25 years later, it’s happening, well, sort of. This is the story of PEOPLExpress, an airline that had its moment in the sun but should never be relaunched. This particular new effort is really comical. If it gets off the ground, it’s going to fail miserably.

People Express

The original PEOPLExpress was started in the 1980s by Don Burr. The guy was a visionary and had the dream of building a touchy-feely kind of no-frills airline where the employees were owners and everyone loved each other (along with cheap fares). It was a big change for a guy who came from a close working relationship with Frank Lorenzo at Texas International. For awhile, it worked brilliantly. Burr opened up shop at then-empty Newark Airport and New Yorkers flocked to the airline to take them all over the US for very little cash on this egalitarian airline. Egalitarian? Yep. Seats all cost the same and you bought your ticket when on the airplane.

The idea truly was brilliant, and Burr built a heck of an airline in record time. His low fare pricing model combined with extra charges for bags, drinks, etc, was well ahead of its time. But like many good things, PEOPLExpress came to an abrupt end. The airline over-extended itself and bought a bunch of airplanes to fuel its rapid growth. It was soon flying 747s to London and looking into mergers and acquisitions. It also started to tinker with its model. The wheels started to come off quickly, though it was really revenue management that was the dagger.

When American pioneered modern revenue management, it could offer low fares to compete with PEOPLExpres (and price being similar, people chose American) while keeping some seats to sell at higher fares in order to keep its flights profitable and full. PEOPLExpress never had a chance, despite many efforts to change its model in order to survive. Just before it would have failed, it sold and was merged into Continental. It was PEOPLExpress that formed the basis for Continental’s highly profitable Newark hub today.

That airline had a mission – it saw an opportunity to bring low fares to a big city market and it was wildly successful before it strayed and failed. And now, someone wants to bring PEOPLExpress back. Will the new one live up to such a lofty and deserving mission?

No freakin’ way.

The newest incarnation of PEOPLExpress is going to be based in Newport News. That’s in southeastern Virginia. Apparently, because Southwest decided to pull AirTran out of Newport News, this new team thinks that means there’s opportunity. Yeah right. There are already two low cost airlines there – Allegiant to Orlando and Frontier with seasonal Denver service. It’s 30 miles away from Norfolk, which has Southwest, and 60 miles away from Richmond, which has JetBlue.

So where exactly is that opportunity? There really isn’t one, but just for kicks, let’s pick apart their value proposition as given on the PEOPLExpress website:

Today’s PEOPLExpress seeks to re-establish convenient nonstop service in markets that have been abandoned by other carriers, or that only offer a “commuter” service option. We also want to simplify the booking and purchase process by including baggage fees and seat assignments without piling on upgrade and ancillary fees, and by keeping our fare structure simple and understandable.

I feel like a kid in a candy store with this kind of statement. I just don’t know where to start. Let’s start with the route selection. In general, markets have been abandoned by other carriers because there isn’t enough demand. If the markets have regional jets operating, again, it’s because there isn’t enough demand for something larger. Now, there are exceptions to this rule, if airlines are willing to look at other models. Allegiant, for example, serves markets that legacy airlines simply wouldn’t be able to touch. So is PEOPLExpress looking at other models? Not really. In fact, the differences in its model versus legacy airlines is going to hinder its chances of success even further.

The airline wants to be a low fare airline (as it says in the press kit, fares will start at $69) BUT it also wants to have no fees for two checked bags or for seat assignments. So it’s going to have a low base fare and low ancillary revenue. That spells disaster.

The airline will also be using 158-seat 737-400 aircraft. That is a lot of seats to fill on flights from places like Newport News, which it is serving due to “few air traffic issues, mild climate, and favorable economic conditions.” The last one is a good reason, but the first two are just downright silly. Where else is the airline going?

PEOPLExpress plans to initially serve destinations in Florida, New England, the Great Lakes, and MidAtlantic regions. We have identified service routes through Pittsburg [sic], PA, Providence, RI, Newark, NJ and West Palm Beach, FL. Additionally, we have plans to serve Orlando, FL, Boston, MA, and many cities abandoned by other carriers. Specific route structures will be shared at a later date.

So it’s primarily short haul flying in the east, but just to clarify, those other cities are potential focus cities. Pittsburgh, for example, will start with several frequencies early on. Yeah, that makes sense. Everyone remember Skybus? It had very low fares plus a low demand hub (Columbus) and it didn’t work there. PEOPLExpress wants to do the same thing but without the ancillary revenue that Skybus generated. This all spells financial disaster on so many levels.

In fact, I see almost nothing that works here. It’s just more of the same tired, recycled ideas that many an entrepreneur has tried in the past. Those have all been followed by failure. So will this airline even get off the ground? It’s unclear.

I tried to get in touch with PEOPLExpress using the email address on the website, but I received no response.

I want to know if any funding has been secured. (I don’t believe so.) I’m also really curious to know how the airline thinks it will start flying this summer when it doesn’t even have the structure in place to try for FAA approval. Maybe it will outsource flying to another airline as you see with companies like Direct Air. But again, I received no response so I have no clue.

To sum this whole thing up, this is not a good idea at all. It’s just like many other efforts which have come and gone quickly. The only reason this one is getting more press is because it’s using a familiar name.

Update 2/20 @ 1013a: Aspire has an interview with these guys that sheds light on a lot. It looks like the money man is Bill Hambrecht, who was so enamored with his initial investment in the original PEOPLExpress (which lost a ton of money) that he threw a bunch of money away building Vanguard in its image. (Remember that mess of an airline?) Now he’s going for the trifecta.

[Photo via Wikimedia user Eduard Marmet/CC 3.0]

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