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Vision Airlines' flight plan: Bargain airfares to Florida


Vision Airlines, a company that started by giving tours of the Grand Canyon, will begin offering commercial flights to 20 U.S. cities on Tuesday, promising to save vacationers time and money on getaways to Florida.

Vision says fares, some initially as low as $49 one way, will go on sale Tuesday for trips between the beach communities of northwest Florida and such cities as Baton Rouge, Knoxville, Tenn., and Little Rock starting March 25.

Flights aimed at business travelers shuttling between Louisville and Atlanta began Dec. 13, while service between northwest Florida and Miami and Niagara Falls, N.Y., launched Dec. 17.

The carrier, based in Suwanee, Ga., is taking a page from the playbook of Allegiant, one of the most profitable airlines in the country, by flying non-stop from smaller cities to tourist spots and offering vacationers one-stop shopping by selling packages that include everything from the hotel room to the rental car.

"If Allegiant Airlines is Coke, then there's always got to be a Pepsi," says David Meers, Vision's COO. "Our goal is not to take over the aviation industry. It's not to go out and try to poke the large carriers in the eye. We believe there's a niche available in the marketplace to provide ... packages to consumers at discounted prices."

Low fares, non-stop service and large jets — perks more often enjoyed by fliers through major hubs — will be key, Meers says.

"We'll be flying from cities that have been neglected by large carriers with large aircraft for a number of years," Meers says, adding that many visitors to the tourist hubs of Destin and Fort Walton Beach in northwest Florida often drive to avoid connecting flights and high fares.

"It opens up the ability for people from all these communities to not only go as they normally would (but) to go more frequently," he says.

Vision's entry into commercial passenger service comes as the airline industry is starting to climb back to profitability after skyrocketing fuel prices and the economic downturn that caused leisure and business travelers to cut back on flying.

Still, airline analyst Mike Boyd says that Vision is carving out good turf. "They're not going into business to meet pent-up demand, they're going into places to provide a product that wasn't there before," Boyd says. "It's an entirely different business than an airline, but I think it's going to be a very successful one, as Allegiant has been. They're creating their own business, a low-cost, high-value vacation to the Florida Gulf Coast."

Vision started in 1994, operating tours of the Grand Canyon with small planes, and grew into a charter service for celebrities and others.

But it's long been a goal to become a full-service travel company that offers commercial flights and other packaged travel services, Meers says.

Vacation packages should be available on Vision's website in the next 60 days, he says. And in the next three years, "It's realistic to expect we'd add cities out West ... and we'll look at the Caribbean and Mexico."

Some smaller airports are welcoming the new service, seeing it as a way to boost Gulf Coast tourism, which dipped after the BP oil spill last year, and to get travelers who would usually drive to take to the air instead.

Vision's non-stop service could even help Florida residents traveling within the state, such as those who now take a connecting flight or drive seven hours from the Destin area to get to Tampa, says Greg Donovan, director for the Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Fort Walton Beach.

"The communities that they're going to be flying to are difficult to get to via hub connections," says Donovan, who adds that fares on larger carriers such as Delta and US Airways are often more than vacationers want to pay. "I think it's going to bring back many people we've lost to driving," Donovan says.

Some airports are waiving fees for Vision and helping to promote its new service.

Northwest Florida Regional will waive Vision's landing fees and terminal rent for two years, as well as spend tens of thousands of dollars on marketing efforts in targeted communities.

Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, which will see non-stop service to and from Orlando Sanford International, as well as Northwest Florida Regional, which serves the Fort Walton Beach-Destin area, is also waiving some fees and tapping funds for new air service.

"We all try to secure low-cost carriers for our community," Anthony Marino, Baton Rouge's airport director, says of small and midsize airports. "The competition it creates in the market helps us when we're dealing with (legacy) carriers like American and Continental and US Airways."

Vision will continue to separately offer tours and chartered flights. That diversification, along with the vacation packages it sells, should create a healthy revenue stream, Meers says.
Source: USA Today

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

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