Someday, the only difference between the rich and the poor will be the amount of advertising they're subjected to. Already, you can get everything from free Internet access to cell-phone service by viewing or listening to ads. One Japanese company dispenses free soft drinks to folks who watch 30-second commercials on its vending machines.
And here in the States, we now have Skybus, a new discount airline offering $10 fares -- along with ad-plastered planes and flight attendants who sell everything from nasal spray to tennis bracelets.
Skybus, which flies to 11 cities from its Columbus, Ohio, hub, has adopted a business model pioneered by discount airlines in Europe: It provides cheap transportation stripped of every amenity and makes up for it by selling extras at every possible opportunity. You have to wonder, of course, how Skybus can possibly offer fewer perks than its U.S. rivals, which already charge extra for luxuries such as food. Booking a Boston-to-Columbus flight, which set me back $9.30 ($15.90 with taxes and fees), I could only assume this Scrooge-in-the-sky carrier must represent some new ring in Dante's customer-service hell.
The airline promises that every flight will have 10 seats for $10 each, not counting taxes and fees. Naturally, the measures underpinning those eye-popping fares quickly revealed themselves. For starters, where's the phone line? You can't call Skybus -- you have to buy tickets online and communicate by e-mail. Then there's the $5 fee to check your bag and a $2 charge for flight-status alerts.
Skybus also saves by flying out of the nation's more exotic airports, which for my flight meant a 70-minute, $37 bus and cab ride out of Beantown into a whole new state, New Hampshire. There, in the town of Portsmouth, you'll find tiny, two-gate Portsmouth International Airport, which charmingly announces the arrival of Skybus with a piece of notepaper taped to the front door. Like many small-town airports, it boasts security screeners who like to perform their jobs with painstaking thoroughness.
Skybus has no assigned seats, so unless you're in the mood for a mad rush, it's hard to resist paying another 10 bucks for a "priority boarding" pass that puts you at the front of the line.
After scampering across the tarmac and up the plane's stairs -- an arrangement that ensures passengers get a good look at the huge Nationwide Insurance logo on the side of the plane -- it was easy to snag an aisle seat with a view of the flight crew. Skybus seems to have dispensed with the whole "fancy captain" thing: The pilot and first mate were dressed as if for a barbecue, in khakis and camp shirts. It was an odd sight, like spotting the pope in bluejeans. Would they still have magic flying powers?
Maybe, but I was more concerned with my smuggled peanuts. On this carrier, you're not allowed to bring food, which left me to worry about Heidi and Fitz, the T-shirt-clad flight attendants, confiscating contraband snacks.
Fortunately, they were too busy selling. Skybus attendants supplement their $9 hourly wage with a 10% commission on sales of everything from blankets to beef jerky. The pair slowly pushed their carts up the aisle, entreating passengers to consider the goods. My $12 turkey sandwich and soda earned Heidi a whopping $1.20, but when Fitz started pushing the Toblerone, I demurred, citing the candy I'd already eaten for breakfast.
Fitz narrowed his eyes with mock scorn. "Why did you do that?" he demanded. "You knew you'd be flying Skybus!"
Really, it was a better flight than most, even though Skybus provides no entertainment (its Web site advises passengers to "bring a book"). The plane was new, the leather seats were comfy, and the crew members were sweetly human. We even landed on time.
On the other hand, after adding up all the extra expenses, including cab fare, the tab no longer seemed miraculous: $75 for a two-hour, one-way flight is fair at best. And as it turned out, Skybus still wasn't done selling. As we unbuckled our seat belts, the attendant had one last pitch: Skybus was looking for companies to sponsor its onboard announcements.