How low can airfares go?
Try $10 for a one-way ticket from Bellingham to Columbus, Ohio.
Yes, that's an actual fare offered by a carrier redefining budget travel by taking "low-cost, no-frills" service to new heights.
Such as $15 for a pillow. Or two bucks for water. Don't want a middle seat? You can pay $10 and jump ahead of the line to board a Skybus Airlines plane.
And the flight attendants are paid partly on commission based on in-flight sales.
"It's the extreme example of a la carte flying," said Michael Boyd, an airline industry consultant.
Even so, flights on these cheapie airlines, now officially dubbed ultra-low-cost carriers, can be a bargain and quite a trip even if you missed out on grabbing one of the limited number of $10 teaser fares.
"The seats were comfortable, and the flight went pretty well," said Allyx Kronenberg, a Santa Monica, Calif., resident who paid $105 last week for her round-trip ticket on a Skybus flight from Burbank, Calif., to Columbus. "But you do have to pay for everything."
These flights have been around Europe for several years, but they are now making a splash in the U.S.
Skybus offers 10 seats on every flight for $10, with the vast majority of fares ranging from $50 to $175 one way. That's about half the cost - or less - of other airlines flying to Columbus.
The Skybus fares were so much cheaper than other carriers' that Shahla Salamat decided to fly her family to Columbus and then drive eight hours to Atlanta for her cousin's wedding during Memorial Day weekend.
Renting a car and driving that distance with her sister and three young sons was worth the estimated $2,000 savings, the Chino Hills resident said.
"It's kind of crazy, I know," Salamat said, explaining how she chose the $200-round-trip fares on Skybus.
The cheapest alternative she could find from Los Angeles to Atlanta was $600.
"But when you think about the savings," she said, "it doesn't sound too bad."
The savings were so substantial for the Salamats that they didn't mind paying $2 for bottled water.
Passengers are not allowed to bring food or beverages onto the plane. Besides, Skybus had warned them ahead of time on the company's reservations Web site: "No, the drinks aren't free. Give us a break - some of you paid $10 for your seat."
Skybus says it will gradually expand its network to such places as Oakland, Calif., and Seattle as it gets new Airbus A319 planes, which are on order. The airline hopes to be profitable within a year, even with its rock-bottom fares.
"We don't think the same way as everybody else," said Bill Diffenderffer, Skybus' chief executive and former attorney for now-defunct Eastern Airlines. "What makes passengers happy is having low fares and on-time, nonstop flights to their destinations. They don't need all that free stuff."
In many ways, Skybus doesn't seem much different from Ryanair, an Irish carrier that offers dirt-cheap fares with virtually no amenities or service. It is now the largest European airline.
Diffenderffer said Skybus initially considered modeling itself after Ryanair and U.S. low-cost behemoth Southwest Airlines. But then it decided to start from "scratch and try to improve on everything."
To generate additional revenue, it will allow a company to paint a logo on its planes for $500,000.
To keep costs down, the airline doesn't have a telephone service center. Everything, from booking a flight to changing or canceling a reservation, must be done on its Web site.
The airline flies only to secondary, less-crowded airports that have lower fees and can turn Skybus planes around in less than 25 minutes. Major carriers typically have their planes at the gate for about 45 minutes to an hour. The longer the plane stays on the ground, the less passenger revenue it generates.
Skybus also flies new, fuel- efficient Airbus planes, which keep maintenance and operation costs down. Its labor costs are among the lowest in the industry. It has one of the lowest hourly rates for flight attendants, but they get a 10 percent commission on what they sell on the plane.
With the commission and stock options, the overall compensation is higher than competitors', Skybus said.
What: Budget Airline
Where: Headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. It has flights to and from 25 cities, including Bellingham.
When: Started offering once-daily nonstop flights to Columbus on Tuesday.
The deal: At least 10 seats on each flight sell for $10.
On the Web: http://www.skybus.com
Here's a sample of extra charges you might incur on Skybus Airlines beyond the cost of your inexpensive ticket:
$5: For each of the first two checked bags ($50 for each additional)
$10: Priority boarding pass (for first choice of seats)
$15: Pillow (you get to keep it)
$2: Bottled water and soft drinks
$5: Alcoholic beverages
$2: Trail mix
$5: Breakfast sandwich
$10: Lunch sandwich
$10: Meatloaf plate