Flying Budget, But In Style

Discount carriers are trying to outdo each other in offering in-flight amenities.

I'm somewhere between Orlando and New York on Song, Delta Air Lines's (DAL ) new discount subsidiary, playing a game of music trivia against my fellow travelers. We've just completed round 19 and, with one multiple-choice question to go, I'm in second place. The final question pops up on the seatback screen in front of me: "Johnny Cash did a cover of Hurt by which band?" I know this one: nine inch nails. Too bad for me, the passenger in first place also gets it right and wins the contest. Still, it has been a fun way to pass the time. After scrolling through the channels to see what's on satellite TV, I think I'll play again.

People who look down on low-fare airlines as nothing better than buses with wings are in for a surprise. While Southwest Airlines (LUV ) and a few other discounters cling to their no-frills ways, a new breed of budget carrier is offering a buffet of in-flight amenities that, in some instances, surpass business-class service on major airlines. Twenty-four channels of real-time TV on individual screens? Frontier (FRNT ), JetBlue (JBLU ), and Song all have it. Leather seats? JetBlue and Song have them, too, as does ATA Airlines (ATAH ) on its newest planes. Gourmet sandwiches and salads? You can buy them on America West (AWA ), Song, and United Airlines' (UAL ) new affiliate, Ted. Flight attendants on Song will even shake up a Cosmopolitan for you, served in a giant martini glass, for $5.


Soon there will be more. Frontier, JetBlue, and Song will offer pay-per-view movies later this year. In a few months, AirTran (AAI ) and JetBlue will start broadcasting 100 channels of free XM Satellite Radio. Meantime, Song will add streaming MP3 programming to allow passengers to create their own music playlists. The best part is, you can get all these extras at fares that won't hurt your wallet or upset the corporate travel department. My one-way Orlando-to-New York ticket on Song was $77. That same flight in coach on Delta? Five times as much, with a 50-minute layover in Washington.

You can thank JetBlue Airways for this bounty. It instantly wowed passengers when it launched in early 2000 as the first airline with free TV beamed live over satellite to individual screens at every seat. Since then, older carriers such as ATA and Frontier have added headset entertainment to keep up. The two newest contenders -- Song, which started last April, and Ted, which just began in February with flights in and out of Denver -- have only intensified the in-flight-service competition by rolling out à la carte meals and expanding to more markets.

To better judge the latest offerings, I recently hopscotched around the country, flying almost every discount airline out there. While the overall level of coach-cabin service has gone up tremendously in the past few years, there are obvious laggards. Southwest, stubbornly true to its original concept, really is a bus with wings. And fast-growing AirTran is Southwest with seat assignments, though AirTran now at least sees the need to give fliers more, with its upcoming radio service.

The best was just as obvious. Song's Boeing (BA ) 757 aircraft come with leather seats in light blue, accented with muted orange, green, and purple. They're as comfy as they are colorful. Its live TV package is matched by Frontier and JetBlue, though Frontier charges $5 for the service. But no other carrier also offers 24 channels of free audio programming, including one of complete CDs as well as a video game. Song's food is also highly edible. For $8, I had a tasty salad of baby spinach, organic chicken, feta cheese, olives, and cherry tomatoes.

The flight wasn't perfect. Like all discount airlines, Song attracts a lot of families, and that can mean kid problems. Three rows up, a child got airsick all over the place. But what other carrier would let me show off my storehouse of music trivia while sipping a supersize Cosmopolitan? Goodbye, flying Greyhound. Welcome to the new golden age of air travel.

By Michael Arndt

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.