When Delta and Continental dropped service out of the Toledo airport last year, residents were left with only a few daily departures—or a 65-mile drive to Detroit's airport. Then something happened to ease the pain: Direct Air moved in, offering flights between Toledo and two warm-weather spots, Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Punta Gorda, Fla., for as little as $49 each way.
This is a trend gaining air: As major carriers cut back service to second-tier cities to save money, second-tier airlines—ones that never show up on Expedia or Kayak—are filling the vacuum. "Communities are begging us to come in," says Ed Warneck, president of Direct Air. "Legacy carriers think smaller airports aren't worth it, but we can work with the little guys."
Before you book a ticket on one of these scrappy shuttles (we highlight four below), here's what you need to know: Flights may not be frequent—some routes are run only once or twice a week. That means if there's a delay, you may not be able to get out later the same day, or even the next day.
Last winter, when a Direct Air flight from Sanford, Fla., to Worcester, Mass., was grounded because of weather, passengers were stranded overnight without food or lodging vouchers. Direct Air doesn't staff the Sanford airport, either, so nobody was on hand to explain the problem.
Small airlines also routinely go out of business (remember Skybus?). Be sure to pay with a credit card so you can get your money back if the airline disappears. With Direct Air, you have extra protection: Your cash is held in escrow until after the flight; if anything happens, you'll get a refund.
Travelers also benefit because these upstarts don't always adopt the major carriers' policies. Allegiant Air, for instance, never oversells its flights, and USA3000 checks the first bag for free. But the biggest advantage for residents of cities like Fargo, N.D., and Allentown, Pa., may be access to the rest of the U.S. Worcester had no commercial flights before Direct Air arrived last year—now it's a quick jaunt away from sunny Florida.
Where it flies: The 10-year-old airline has service to about 70 airports. Most routes connect cities in the Midwest and the West Coast with Las Vegas or Phoenix, and cities in the Midwest and the East Coast with four Florida destinations. Last year, Allegiant announced new service to Greenville, S.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Grand Rapids, Mich.
What we Like: Allegiant doesn't overbook; all seats are guaranteed. Souvenirs such as poker sets and Elvis Presley sunglasses are sold on Las Vegas flights.
Downside: It's à la carte all the way, with fees for everything: $13.50 for online booking, $15 for the first checked bag in advance, and $25 for the first checked bag at the airport.
Where it flies: Most flights are between Midwest and East Coast B-list airports and warm getaways: Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Sanford, Fla. (25 miles from Orlando); and Punta Gorda, Fla. (30 miles from Fort Myers). New routes announced last year include Worcester–Sanford and Niagara Falls–Punta Gorda.
What we Like: Direct Air leases Virgin America planes, so passengers are able to recline in leather seats and watch free movies on touch-screen seat-back TVs.
Downside: At some airports, check-in operations are outsourced to private contractors who might not know the policies on refunds or ticket changes. They also go off the clock at midnight, regardless of whether there's a delayed flight.
Where it flies: The Toronto-based carrier services six Canadian cities, Chicago-Midway, and Newark. In 2009, it plans to add flights between Toronto and Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
What we Like: Porter flies into Toronto City Centre Airport, a short drive from downtown. Also, Wallpaper magazine founder Tyler Brûlé's advertising firm helped design the playful website, throwback flight attendant uniforms (scarves and pillbox hats), and mascot (a cartoon raccoon named Mr. Porter).
Downside: Canadian airports add a capital improvement fee to every ticket, so expect to pay $12.25 extra to fly to Toronto and $16.50 for Montreal.
Where it flies: Beach vacations are the priority—connections are between 10 cities in the Midwest and Northeast and 10 tropical destinations, such as Cancún, Mexico, and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Flights can be purchased as part of travel packages with partner Apple Vacations. Among the routes added in 2008: Detroit–Cozumel, Mexico, and St. Petersburg, Fla.–Chicago.
What we Like: Passengers get to check one bag for free. In-flight movies are also complimentary.
Downside: Certain routes are flown only once a week; if a trip is canceled, you'll be offered a full refund or a seat on the airline's next available flight, which may not be for days.