ValuJet makes skies friendlier at Dulles

June 11, 1995|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

Price wars erupt. Passengers drive two hours to nab a $49 fare. Business perks up for rental car companies, taxis and food stands.

Sound familiar? No, it's not BWI. This time, it's Dulles.

What Southwest Airlines did for BWI, an aggressive, little Atlanta-based carrier named ValuJet Airlines Inc. is doing for Washington Dulles International. And the North Virginia airport, better known for its long, domestic flights and international service, is quickly becoming a haven for shorter, low-cost flights, with BWI no longer the only discount game around.

"People used to say, 'Oh my God who's gonna drive to Dulles,' but price is a powerful motivator," said Ponder Harrison, vice president of marketing and sales of the Atlanta-based airline.

Indeed, not since the days of the now defunct People Express and New York Air in the late '70s have Dulles passengers seen bargains like ValuJet's $49 one-way fare to Boston. Not only is ValuJet offering the low fares, it's also filling the void in the North-South discount service created by the demise of Continental CalLite earlier this year. And value-conscious passengers, who once flew from BWI, seem willing to drive to Dulles, about 30 miles west of Washington.

"It's $5 worth of gas and another hour to save $100 on your ticket," said Alan King, an Annapolis resident who recently took his wife, Dinah, to Dulles for a trip to Fort Lauderdale. She paid $152 for a round trip compared with the $260 lowest fare she could have purchased from Baltimore-Washington International.

Likewise, Robin Ginter and Ron Nebbs of Harrisburg, Pa., who usually fly from BWI, drove another 50 miles to Dulles to get a $224 round-trip fare to Orlando. "It's an extra hour, but the fares are worth it," Mr. Nebbs said.

While no passenger studies are available, it's likely that ValuJet is at least attracting bargain hunters from the "swing markets" of Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- a population that accounted for much of BWI's dramatic growth during the past two years.

But BWI officials say ValuJet's impact here so far has been

insignificant. Ultimately, its effect may hinge on how fast ValuJet grows at Dulles and whether Southwest Airlines, BWI's premier discount carrier, decides to expand to Florida and other areas where ValuJet flies. Currently, the two airlines compete only on the Washington-to-Chicago route.

"Right now I don't think their [ValuJet] schedule is that strong," said Nicholas J. Schaus, deputy administrator at BWI.

Future North-South expansion by Southwest -- the airline that spearheaded BWI's sudden growth spurt after its arrival here two years ago -- could easily reverse any momentum toward Dulles, he said. For the moment, however, Southwest flies only East-West routes, and it's expanding slowly at BWI, devoting far more energy to its battle on the West Coast against United Airlines.

With no pressure from CalLite, North-South fares offered by USAir and others have risen substantially. Last summer, for instance, a round trip from BWI to Orlando cost $170. Today, the lowest fare, with a 21-day advance purchase, is about $240.

While ValuJet officials were anxious to fly into the Washington area, they never considered using BWI, largely because of the fierce competition that existed here. In addition, it saw an opportunity to fill a gap at Dulles after United, the airport's hub carrier, scrapped a large number of its North-South flights.

With low-fare carriers coming and going at many airports, Dulles officials feel as if they bet on the right horse -- or the right horse bet on them.

Other airports, all too aware of the beneficial economic spinoff from a low-fare carrier, have been wooing the Southwest look-alike. "We are being courted by all the airports on the East Coast saying, 'Please, please bring us your service,' " said Katie deNourie, a spokeswoman for ValuJet. "The feedback we're getting is we couldn't grow rapidly enough."

Not that it hasn't grown pretty rapidly already.

Established in October 1993 by four former airline executives, it JTC first flew from Atlanta to three Florida cities, introducing a $39 one-way fare. Since then, it has expanded to 20 other cities in 15 states and Canada. In July, it will add Newport News, Va.; Jackson, Miss.; and Kansas City, Mo. Last year, the airline employed 2,800 people and carried more than 2 million passengers.

At Dulles, ValuJet operates 24 daily flights, five times as many as it did a year ago, to 11 cities. In April, it carried 82,649 passengers, compared with 17,031 in April 1994. It has become the airport's second largest domestic carrier, behind United, and handles twice as many passengers there as USAir. Recently, ValuJet leased additional gates at the airport's newly extended Concourse D. "They're a very focused airline," said Keith Meurlin, Dulles airport manager.

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