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Flying the frugal skies can be fun

We fly five carriers, including newcomers Song and Ted, and find that the little things (jokes, entertainment) go a long way.

March 21, 2004|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

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 rode four self-proclaimed low-cost carriers -- Delta's Song, JetBlue, United's new Ted and Southwest -- plus United on a cross-country barnstorming tour last month to compare service, entertainment options, food, comfort levels, fares and more.

My main impression of these five (chosen because they serve this market or they're new): Song was a standout, with its cheerfully corny crew, wacky color scheme, gourmet food and onboard trivia contests. 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 LAX 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 flown:

Song

Delta launched this low-cost carrier last April on a fashionable note: Kate Spade designer crew duds, organic buy-onboard 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 website, www.flysong.com: "The song is personal. It's unique. Memorable. And brings a smile to your face."

It does just that, for the most part. My 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."

"We try to make it fun," he said.

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.

Or not so lucky. For more than half the flight, my seatback monitor and some others cut out every few seconds. ("It worked perfectly" westbound, the apologetic crew said.)

A diverting bonus was an on-screen music-trivia contest with such questions as: "What was the name of Kid Creole's band?" and " 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was a super-hit for which group?" (Answers: the Coconuts; Nirvana.) Sign-on names and seat numbers were posted for the top 10 scorers. (My tally: an unhip 44%.)

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.

When I asked a shuttle van driver the next day what he'd heard about Song, he replied: "I hear mixed. There are no magazines and no [free] food."

Almost true. (There was a budget travel magazine in my seatback.) But I agreed with fellow passenger Ann Nethero of Moorpark: "When I was told I was flying Song, I thought, 'What kind of rinky-dink airline is that?' But it's really nice."

So was my one-way fare: $129.10 (including taxes), the lowest in the market the day I booked it.

JetBlue

This 4-year-old New York-based carrier, with a West Coast hub in Long Beach, has enjoyed a meteoric rise, powered by low fares, roomy leather seats and 24 channels of satellite TV beamed to every seatback. It flies to 23 cities (including Ontario, Calif.) in 11 U.S. states and Puerto Rico.

It also sports a breezy, cheeky style.

When the door to the jetway kept setting off an alarm as I waited for my 7:35 a.m. flight to Boston, the JetBlue gate agent in Orlando made the sign of the cross and remarked, "That was just to make sure you guys were awake."

Directing us to pick up headphones from a box before boarding, he announced, "They're free now. But if you get on the plane, they're $5,000."

By comparison, the crew on our A320 played it straight. But flying was still fun.

My TV monitor worked, with occasional audio glitches. I'd been able to plan my viewing before flying by checking schedules on www.jetblue.com. 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.

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