I Took the First Flight on Avelo, America's Newest Airline — Here's What It Was Like
A pandemic might not be the most obvious time to start a new airline. Andrew Levy disagrees, though. The former cofounder and president of Allegiant Air, and former CFO of United Airlines, just premiered his latest venture, low-cost carrier Avelo Airlines. "Honestly, there could not be a better time for us to launch," said Levy. "People are ready to reconnect with family and friends and explore new places."
With the operation of its first flight from Hollywood Burbank Airport in Los Angeles to Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County in Santa Rosa at the end of April, Avelo Airlines became the first new mainline carrier in the U.S. in 15 years. And we went along for the ride.
Seasonal Routes, Smaller Cities
Aimed squarely at price-sensitive fliers, "Avelo was built from scratch to offer leisure travelers a smooth way to get where they want to go through smaller, more convenient airports in major markets," said Levy.
"We've devoted a lot of time to creating an experience that reduces the frustration and increases the joy of travel," added Levy. Flying in and out of minor airports means necessities like parking, check in, and security remain accessible and uncrowded. Levy also pointed out that, due to the pandemic-related drop in air traffic, Avelo was able to get unheard of deals on its planes and vie for slots at airports that it would not have otherwise been able to stake out.
In addition to its maiden route, Avelo will add services from Burbank to various other outdoorsy destinations throughout the western U.S. in the coming months, including:
- Arcata-Eureka, CA (ACV)
- Bend-Redmond, OR (RDM)
- Bozeman, MT (BZN)
- Eugene, OR (EUG)
- Grand Junction, CO (GJT)
- Medford, OR (MFR)
- Pasco, WA (PSC)
- Phoenix-Mesa, AZ (AZA)
- Ogden, UT (OGD)
- Redding, CA (RDD)
- Santa Rosa, CA (STS)
Flights to most of these destinations will be operated only three or four times per week, but that's the whole idea. By using secondary airports in larger markets — Ogden instead of Salt Lake City, for instance, Mesa instead of Phoenix, and Burbank instead of Los Angeles (LAX) — Avelo hopes to attract customers looking for straightforward point-to-point flights to get them to vacation spots like national parks, ski areas, and wine regions.
The airline has also announced its intentions to set up its first East Coast hub at Tweed New Haven Airport (HVN) in Connecticut, with 100 employees based there. Although the airline has not yet shared which routes it will operate from the location, it is investing $1.2 million to help modernize and upgrade the airport.
It's true that during the pandemic legacy airlines like Delta and United have pivoted to limited-time point-to-point routes between major hubs in the Northeast and both coastal destinations and mountain areas in the West, too. But Levy thinks they will revert to traditional hub-and-spoke networks and focus on high-paying business travelers post-COVID.
"Avelo's connection-free service on currently unserved routes is one of the reasons we're able to offer everyday surprisingly low fares," he said. By cutting out connections, targeting routes where demand might be strong but seasonal, and avoiding the congestion that larger hubs suffer from, Avelo aims to keep its costs low and pass on the savings to customers.
Low Fares, High Fees
In fact, the airline is selling tickets starting as low as $19 each way now through Sept. 15. Just beware of incidental fees. Pre-reserved aisle or window seat selections will start at $5 apiece. Your first checked bag will set you back $10, while overhead carry-ons will price out at $35 each. Priority boarding will be $10, while the charge to bring along a pet will be $95.
Given the uncertainty that still surrounds travel, and the fact that Avelo will be trying to woo customers away from other airlines in the near term, there will not be change fees on tickets. Plus, it won't charge extra for making reservations through its call center rather than online.
First Flight Festivities
As for Avelo's first public flight, it was all clear skies. Flight XP 101 was scheduled to depart Burbank at 10:45 a.m. Pacific time, but there was fanfare at the airport beforehand. Media attendees and #avgeeks who had purchased tickets were greeted by Avelo employees at the carrier's new ticket counters and issued boarding passes.
From there, it was a quick walk down the hall to the TSA checkpoint — none of the serpentine lines here that you might find in a larger airport. A small crowd started gathering at gate B4, which was manned by four newly minted Avelo agents and festooned with balloons in the airline's signature colors of purple, gold, and teal.
Levy thanked everyone for coming and cut a ceremonial ribbon. Then, it was time to board via a ramp out on the tarmac — albeit slowly since everyone was eager to take photos with the two Avelo Airlines jets parked there. Levy stood at the bottom of the jet bridge, personally handing each passenger a decorative ticket jacket, while the flight's pilot doled out commemorative bag tags.
So far, Avelo Airlines has just three Boeing 737-800 aircrafts and expects to be flying six by the end of 2021. Though these are not new planes, their interiors have been completely redone. Each 737 has 189 slimline seats in a single cabin, with rows laid out in a 3-3 configuration, similar to what you'd find on Southwest Airlines.
The 129 standard economy seats have a mere 29 inches of pitch and are around 17 inches wide. There are 60 premium seats at the front, with 31 to 38 inches of pitch, for which you can expect to pay upcharges starting at $18. Most seats recline (not those in exit rows) and have tray tables and small shelves to hold electronics. Don't expect power ports or entertainment screens, though.
The airline will eventually offer in-flight Wi-Fi, but it was not yet functional. It also intends to obtain a liquor license so that it can sell alcoholic beverages, but passengers toasted with sparkling apple cider on the inaugural flight.
Chipper flight attendants gamely doled out individually wrapped packages containing small bottles of water, Purell disinfectant wipes, and packets of cookies. Although these were free, it's likely that the airline will eventually charge for such amenities in keeping with its pricing model.
Watching from the front of the cabin, an exuberant Levy detailed the airline's Soul of Service ethos, saying, "We try to make sure that every crew member we bring aboard is genuinely kind and caring, and enjoys serving others. And we give them the power to take care of our customers." He hopes that will become a point of distinction for the airline over time "as more and more customers engage with them, whether on the airplane, at the airport, or through the contact center." He added, "We're trying to build a very purposeful culture."
Just over an hour into the flight, after we had hugged the coast and banked over San Francisco, the captain came on the intercom to announce that we were beginning our descent. Around 15 minutes later, we landed in Santa Rosa. In his concluding remarks on the ground, Levy said, "This was our first flight — the first of many. Each and every one matter, but we just couldn't wait to get to this part of our journey where we are taking care of customers."
In a year when most news about airlines (and travel in general) has been rather dismal, the advent of Avelo Airlines is a rare bright spot that should have fliers celebrating. Although Avelo's fleet and route network will remain limited for some time to come, folks in the western U.S. will enjoy bargain tickets to popular leisure destinations. Plus, if Avelo's operations succeed, more established carriers might weigh new routes of their own. For instance, West Coast incumbent Alaska Airlines recently ramped up flights to Santa Rosa from Burbank, Orange County, and San Diego. All that might mean even more choices for travelers, and hopefully even lower fares for the foreseeable future.