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Tiny Allegiant Air thrives

No-frills, high-fees airline has been profitable for 10 consecutive years

By Scott Mayerowitz

Associated Press

Published: Friday, June 28 2013 6:25 p.m. MDT

To book a trip by phone, Allegiant charges $50 for each roundtrip ticket. To book online costs $20 for each roundtrip ticket. The only way to avoid the fees is to purchase tickets at the airport, something fewer than 3 percent of its customers did last year.

But whether you book by phone, Internet or in person, paying with a credit card costs an extra $8.

Placing a suitcase in an overhead bin is $10 to $25. Boarding passes signify who has paid the fee. If passengers show up at the airport with a large carry-on bag and haven't prepaid the fee, the airline penalizes them an additional $25 to $50, depending on the route.

But what really makes Allegiant different are the commissions it earns from selling hotel rooms, rental cars and other extras including Everglades boat tours and theme-park tickets. It even gets people to attend timeshare sales presentations. Before a passenger can finalize a ticket purchase online, they must click through page after page offering them these add-ons.

Last year, revenue from commissions totaled $36 million, or nearly $12 per roundtrip passenger.

"I don't think of them as an airline. I think of them as a travel company," says Helane Becker, an airline analyst at Cowen Securities.

Once onboard, Allegiant passengers are again bombarded with sales pitches. On a recent flight from Cedar Rapids to Las Vegas, flight attendants came over the loudspeaker and hawked show tickets and airport shuttles. The in-flight magazine is filled with ads for shows and attractions instead of stories. One ad offers $30 off a Las Vegas helicopter tour if purchased from flight attendants, who are paid extra for each item sold.

Allegiant finds ways to profit on routes other airlines couldn't make work, often swooping in after they pull out. This month, it started flying between Asheville, N.C., and Tampa, Fla., a route abandoned by AirTran after Southwest Airlines acquired it.

Like other discount carriers, Allegiant prefers small airports that charge airlines lower rents, even if they aren't the most convenient. In Orlando, that means flying into Sanford, Fla., 30 minutes further from Walt Disney World than Orlando International Airport.

Frugal decisions like that helped Allegiant post a net profit of $78 million last year on revenue of $909 million. Its 8.6 percent profit margin was the highest of any U.S. airline, making it a darling of Wall Street.

The last five years have been good for airline investors. After a major spike in fuel prices in 2008 and a drop in business travelers, airlines tweaked their business models, adding baggage fees and cutting unprofitable flights. They started to make money and their stock prices climbed. While the S&P 500 climbed 26 percent in the past five years, an index of all U.S. airline stocks has tripled. Allegiant's stock has done even better, increasing more than fivefold to $105.86.

Allegiant has 64 planes and flies to 87 cities, but it's tiny compared with an airline like United, which carried 20 times as many people last year, often on much longer flights.

Allegiant benefits from paying lower salaries and having work rules that are more favorable to management than at most airlines. Flight attendants with 15 years of experience are paid $34 for each hour their plane is in the air — $10 to $20 less than colleagues at larger carriers. Planes and crews typically end up at their home cities overnight, avoiding hotel rooms.

Thanks to its choice of aircraft, Allegiant has more flexibility than other airlines in deciding when and where to fly.

Instead of buying the newest, most expensive planes, the airline buys used, inexpensive jets. Its planes are 23 years old, on average, compared with the industry average of 14 years.

Each used MD-80 costs $3 million, compared with $40 million for a new Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 of similar size.

"When you have such little investment in an aircraft, you only fly it when it's going to be full of passengers," says Peter B. Barlow, an aircraft finance lawyer at Smith, Gambrell & Russell. "Other airlines don't have that luxury. They need to keep their aircraft in the air in order to make the economics work."

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