LA Times Rates Song a Standout vs LCCs
Coast-to-coast comparison: Flying the frugal skies
By Jane Engle
The Los Angeles (CA) Times
Time was, Southwest was the only discount airline most people knew. No
more. The "bus of the skies" has a host of imitators, all promising low
fares and high fun.
Now the question is this: Who really delivers?
To find out, I recently rode four self-proclaimed low-cost carriers --
Delta's Song, JetBlue, United's Ted and Southwest -- plus United on a
cross- country barnstorming tour to compare service, entertainment
options, food, comfort levels, fares and more.
My main impression of these five: Song was a standout, with its
cheerfully corny crew, wacky color scheme and gourmet food. JetBlue
pulled up second. As for the rest, I found little difference in the
flying experience --
or sometimes even fares -- from one to the next.
I chose a route that would take me from Los Angeles to the East Coast
and back: Song from Los Angeles International Airport to Orlando, Fla.;
JetBlue from Orlando to Boston; United from Boston to Denver; Ted from
Denver to Las Vegas; and Southwest from Las Vegas to LAX
This was not a scientific sampling, certainly. Trip legs varied from 4
1/2 hours on Song and United to an hour on Southwest. I wasn't able to
taste full menus on all flights. Even within the same airline, different
crews may give different service. Fares, of course, shift constantly.
So I can report only what I found on my flights, detailed in the order
Delta launched this low-cost carrier last April on a fashionable note:
Kate Spade designer crew duds, organic buy-on-board menu by former W
Hotel chef Michel Nischan and seatback TVs. All this plus extra legroom.
The airline shuttles mainly between the Northeast and Florida but also
flies nonstop to Florida from the West, including Los Angeles. Its
promise, on its Web site: "The song is personal. It's unique. Memorable.
And brings a smile to your face."
It does just that, for the most part. The LAX
gate crew for my morning
Song nonstop to Orlando was subdued. But at 54B next door, a Song agent
regaled -- or tormented -- his captive audience with jokes such as:
"Knock knock." "Who's there?" "Shelby." "Shelby who?" "Shelby coming
around the mountain when she comes."
Inside the squeaky-clean B757 cabin, where the color scheme was bright
blue with lime, purple and orange accents, the good humor carried
through to the safety audio, set to salsa music.
"You're lucky," the crew told us: We were on one of the first Song
planes to be wired for live satellite TV
, with 24 channels.
You pay for food, and it's not cheap. But my gourmet vegan sandwich, a
7- inch-diameter lavash stuffed with grilled vegetables, tofu and rice,
was worth the $8, and the Song Sunrise (vodka, orange juice and a splash
of cran-apple), $5, wasn't bad either.
Neither was my one-way fare: $129.10 (including taxes), the lowest in
the market the day I booked it..
This 4-year-old, New York-based carrier has enjoyed a meteoric rise,
powered by low fares, roomy leather seats and 24 channels of satellite
beamed to every seatback. It flies to 23 cities in 11 U.S. states and
Puerto Rico, with a West Coast hub in Long Beach. In Northern
California, it offers service from Oakland and soon will fly out of
Sacramento and San Jose.
It also sports a breezy, cheeky style.
Directing us to pick up headphones from a box before boarding, the gate
agent in Orlando announced, "They're free now. But if you get on the
plane, they're $5,000."
By comparison, the crew on our A320 to Boston played it straight. But
flying was still fun.
monitor worked, with occasional audio glitches. Guides to travel
manners ("Be nice"; "Pack your own meal") and "Airplane Yoga, or how to
look like a real weirdo to your fellow passengers," were clever.
The downside on my nearly three-hour flight: no magazines and skimpy,
albeit free, food offerings. The latter included the airline's
reduced-fat "blue" potato chips, party mix and cookies. There was no
buy-on-board program. The cabin was a vision in gray; I missed Song's
However, my one-way fare was $87.60, lowest in the market when I
This industry giant, which traces its roots to a 1926 air-mail service,
is the largest U.S. airline under bankruptcy protection. United has cut
costs, reduced some business fares, launched a low-cost carrier named
Ted and made other changes to try to pull out of its financial tailspin.
At Boston's Logan airport, I checked in for my 9 p.m. flight to Denver
at one of the self-serve kiosks. The remaining staff tagged bags and
processed customers with paper tickets.
The gate agents were efficient and cheerful, although devoid of knock-
knock jokes -- a mercy, perhaps. Ditto for the onboard crew.
The mostly gray cabin of our B757 showed some fatigue: Worn seatback
pockets were stuffed with unwrapped headphones and well-thumbed airline
and Sky Mall magazines. I missed having a personal TV
, although "Master
and Commander: The Far Side of the World," screened on drop-down cabin
monitors, was a classy film offering.
My main complaint was legroom. With the seat in front reclined, my knees
cleared the seatback by barely 2 inches, less than half the gap on Song
and JetBlue. I'm 5 feet, 7 inches tall. No wonder 6-footers scramble for
bulkhead and exit-row seats.
There was no free food on my 4 1/2-hour flight, another "frill" that the
once-glamorous majors are eliminating to compete with their low-cost
cousins. But my $7 chicken Caesar salad wrap, bought onboard, was ample
Except for legroom, United delivered a good flying experience. As for
the fare: Had I booked JetBlue, I could have flown for $87.50 instead of
the $127.60 I paid on United..
I had high hopes for a fun date with Ted, the low-cost operation that
United launched in February from its new Denver hub.
Sporting white, blue and orange plumage, Ted, which takes its name from
the last three letters of United, is "warm, friendly and casual,"
according to its publicity. It also seemed aggressively trendy. The
onboard "Tedevision" and "Tedtunes" entertainment was getting
enthusiastic reviews from teens.
But I was mostly disappoin-Ted.
The Denver gate agent told me there would be no meals because the one-
hour, 49-minute flight was too short to qualify. (On longer flights, you
can buy $7 club sandwiches and salmon Caesar salads.)
At the gate, there was a forest of orange signs, offering cheery
greetings such as "It's a great day to be flying," and "Ted is happy to
But onboard, it was much like flying United, with its pleasant but
business-like crew and cramped legroom. Plus one unsettling oversight: a
used tissue in my seatback pocket.
Ted's entertainment was hipper, of course. There was no seatback
, but drop-down monitors showed a Liz Phair music video, a
profile of teen singer-actress Mandy Moore, an episode of NBC's "Scrubs"
comedy and other shows. Music on 14 channels ranged from retro to house
and trance mixes. We got little bags of party mix and beverages,
including what Ted touts as Starbucks coffee. On the upside, Ted
delivered the lowest fare of the five carriers I compared, $179.10,
matching low-cost competitor Frontier..
This granddaddy of discount carriers, launched in 1971 from Texas,
pioneered "flying for peanuts" with a sense of humor.
Although Southwest's flights, once regional, now stretch from coast to
coast, you'll still get only peanuts on shorter sojourns, and you won't
get a reserved seat. Just hope you get into Boarding Group A.
But Southwest is looking a little tired these days, judging from the
packed, hourlong flight I took from Las Vegas to Los Angeles
The repairman apparently hadn't made a recent pass through our B737
cabin. My reading light didn't work. The seat in front was locked in
half-recline. A couple nearby shifted seats, complaining they couldn't
turn off the arctic blast from their air vent.
Although the crew was pleasant enough, they weren't funny. Not one corny
joke or silly guessing game. Just the standard safety announcements.
I was grateful for my two bags of free peanuts and an apple juice -- and
for my $47.60 fare, the lowest on the day I'd booked it. Southwest still
gets that right.
But for me, on this trip, there was little difference between flying
Southwest or United or Ted.
Allison Zahorik, a Southern Californian handbag designer who was in Las
Vegas for business, is a fan of Southwest, having been on flights with
more typically jolly crews.
"I like the people," she said. "They make a lot of jokes and make you
feel comfortable." For a less-than-avid flier like her, "it makes a huge
difference," she said.
I hope the airlines are listening customers like her. Flying, after all,
was once fun. As Song and JetBlue prove, it still can be, even when done
on the cheap.