1) Identify a concept. That is to say - will it be a low-cost, no/low-frills airline, like easyJet or the original ValuJet, or will it be an airline aimed at high-end Business users?
2) Identify a market. That is to say - will it be long-haul, short-haul, transoceanic, domestic, from where, to where etc. Will it have flights non-stop from New York to London, London to Singapore, Los Angeles to Auckland, New York to Seattle, or Boston to Washington DC? All these concepts have to be addressed.
This could have a bearing on what concept you take up... ie if you are starting a shuttle from DCA-BOS/LGA, then it is more likely to be geared toward Business travelers, but at the same time there is unlikely to be a requirement for any separate Business / First Class cabin.
3) Decide where the airline will be based, and what the size of the home Origin/Destination market is for such a city. EG.. an airline starting service from Savannah will not require as many services as one starting an airline in Jacksonville - only 100 miles down the road. The reason for this is because the city of Jacksonville has a much bigger catchment area and is so huge in itself.
4) Are you going to compete with the majors? Are you going to enter an alliance with an airline such as Delta (a highly recommended thing if you plan to run mainly out of the Southeast, as no-one wants to take on Delta - they have the biggest cash supplies of any airline in the world.) If you compete with the US majors they tend to compete on convenience and schedules rather than in-flight service etc... they are all pretty much the same in that respect, at least on domestic routes. The competition however on transatlantic routes, for example, with airlines such as Virgin and British Airways, is also focused on In-flight service. Both airlines (+ the US carriers) offer excellent premium products, each however with their own strategies to tackle the market. The US carriers' coach class are pretty much standard, but they are better on FF program benefits for discounted-ticket passengers. The UK carriers (and European carriers generally) compete more inflight, including Coach Class, and less on pre-/post-flight benefits.
5) Once the first four are done, identify a direction for the fleet. The way things seem to be going nowadays with most airlines (but not all) you are either a Boeing customer or an Airbus customer. Identify which aircraft suit your requirements better. That is to say, if you have 250 passengers wanting to fly from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires in relative comfort and style, maybe look at aircraft such as the 777 and A340. If there are also routes that require long over-water stretches, then you may want to consider the A340, an excellent efficiency aircraft. The 777 is slightly bigger and again has excellent efficiency. But you need to decide what aircraft you want.
If you have 250 passengers, you also have to decide if you want to have a big-small aircraft (a stretch of, say the 767 - IE the 767-400) or a small-big aircraft... (such as the A340-200.) A shrink of a larger airframe TENDS to have higher seat/mile costs than a stretched airframe. Another issue is commonality.
Cross-crew qualification (while not used in the US), and consistency in maintenance provide significant savings for airlines such as USAirways. For example you may choose to have the A319/A320/A321 to cover all your short haul routes, and the 767-400/777-200/777-300 for long-haul routes. Or you may prefer the A340-200/-300 to compliment the A320 series. This is up to you.
Hope this is of some help to you. Bear in mind that I, like you, are a total amateur at designing airlines - I just do it for fun. By trade (apart from being a musician) in four years I should be a pilot. Hopefully!
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