BURBANK, Calif. — The sun wasn't up when boarding began for Avelo Airlines Flight 117 to Eugene, Oregon.
But I was alert enough to notice a familiar sight on the Boeing 737: rows of royal blue seats.
It felt like stepping onto a Southwest Airlines plane.
It wasn't a mirage: Avelo bought the plane from Southwest during the pandemic, the flight attendant told me.
Avelo is one of three budget airlines to debut this year despite the continuing toll the pandemic has taken on the travel industry. Avelo, Breeze Airways and Aha, have all taken advantage of cheap prices for planes and zeroed in on nonstop routes they say major airlines have ignored, luring travelers with bargain fares.
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Most people haven't heard of Avelo, let alone know how to pronounce it (sounds like hello). The airline, founded by the former president of budget airline pioneer Allegiant Air, has just six planes and until early November only flew on the West Coast. It has infrequent flights and mostly serves tiny airports, like Hollywood Burbank Airport near Los Angeles, Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa, California, and Tweed New Haven Airport in Connecticut.
Avelo's target customers include travelers like Rosalinda Gutierrez, who lives closer to Burbank than Los Angeles International Airport but usually drives 45 minutes to LAX to catch a flight to see family in Pasco, Washington. Her sister-in-law heard about Avelo and snagged a last-minute roundtrip ticket for Gutierrez for $98. The price of Gutierrez's last flight out of LAX to Pasco was $278, and it required a connection.
"It's so cheap,'' she said.
To give travelers an idea of what to expect, I booked four Avelo flights in and out of California in October and stopped at Tweed New Haven Airport on Avelo's first day of operations there in November.
The full itinerary: Burbank to Eugene, Oregon, and Eugene to Burbank; Burbank to Santa Rosa, California; and Santa Rosa to Las Vegas. USA TODAY paid for the flights and Avelo wasn't notified about the trip.
Avelo Airlines: 7 things travelers should know about booking, flying new carrier
1. Avelo can't take you to most places and has infrequent flights to the cities on its ever-changing route map.
If you don't live in California, Connecticut or Florida, you're largely out of luck – for now. Avelo's flights are concentrated on the coasts and it only offers a total of 102 weekly flights in 16 cities. For comparison, Southwest offers more flights in a single day from many cities in its network.
The airline, like Allegiant and Breeze, only operates most routes a few days a week. Want to nab that $39 flight from Burbank to Eugene, Oregon? Your options in January are a single morning flight on Wednesday, Friday or Monday.
Avelo has daily flights from New Haven to some popular major Florida destinations including Orlando and Fort Lauderdale this winter but it only flies just a few times a week between others, such as Sarasota.
Travelers shouldn't get wedded to Avelo's routes. The airline is quick to shake up its flight schedule if bookings are weak. The airline started flying in late April and has already abandoned some of its initial destinations, including Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport outside Phoenix; Bozeman, Montana; and Grand Junction, Colorado. Avelo CEO Andrew Levy admits the route map has already changed dramatically.
"We're a for profit business and we have to have things that work,'' he said. "As an early-stage business, our patience is pretty thin because we just can't take huge risks.''
The airline is growing, with plans to add more than nine planes by the end of 2022.
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2. Tickets are cheap, even with added fees. But bag fees are rising sharply in 2022.
Three of my four one-way flights, all booked last minute on the airline's website, were $70 or less, including a $25 fee for a carry-on bag. (That's the prepaid price; the airline charges $35 at the airport, so pay for bags when you book to save money.) My priciest flight was $104 with a bag because it was a Friday flight to Las Vegas from Santa Rosa, California.
Avelo's bag fees are about to spike, though. Beginning Jan. 12, carry on bag fees will jump $10, to $35 when paid in advance and $45 at the airport. The first checked bag fee is also rising, to $30 from $20. And that's just for West Coast flights. Bag fees on Avelo flights to and from New Haven already have those higher prices.
On Feb. 10, bag fees for all flights will increase. Carry-on bags will start at $40, the first checked bag fee, $35, both when paid in advance..
Seat assignment fees are prevalent at Avelo, too – as is the case at most airlines – and the carrier touts the option when booking and during online check-in. Prices started at $6 on my flights but that price was generally for middle seats in the back of the plane. I declined to pay for a seat on each flight and had no trouble getting an aisle or window seat. One on flight I got a window seat that the airline was peddling for $14 during online check in just hours earlier. Note that most of my flights were far from full and rolling the dice might be a risky move for families traveling together or those traveling during holidays and other peak travel times.
Pro tip: Don't book a ticket on Avelo without searching for promo codes. The airline posts frequent offers on its website, Facebook and Twitter accounts and in marketing emails to travelers. The discount might only be $15 but that's a significant percentage if you snag a cheap fare.
3. The airline doesn't offer TSA Precheck and it doesn't take American Express.
I was stunned to learn Avelo doesn't accept American Express, a ubiquitous charge card.
CEO Levy, who got rid of American Express as a cost-saving move when he was at Allegiant, said it isn't about money. (Allegiant brought Amex back after he left.) He said the airline had limited options for a credit card processor due to the pandemic, and the one it went with did not have the technology for American Express.
"The banks all ran away from travel. They were scared to death,'' he said.
Avelo hopes to add American Express in the first quarter of 2022. The airline would also like to add options including Apple Pay and Google Pay, Levy added.
A bigger sore point for travelers: Avelo doesn't offer TSA PreCheck, the popular fast pass through security.
The early morning security lines in Burbank were longer than I'm used to with PreCheck, but not a deal breaker given the size of the airport. (That wouldn't be the case if you were to fly Avelo from Las Vegas or a major Florida airport like Orlando and Fort Lauderdale).
The most annoying part? Having to take off my shoes and jacket, and take out my laptop from my bag.
Levy can relate. In New Haven, he forgot to take his iPad out of his bag and his AirPods went flying when he tried to gathering his belongings after going through security.
He had hoped to have PreCheck in place by the end of November but Avelo is now targeting mid-December, spokesman Jim Olson said.
4. The "throwback" airports it serves are easy to navigate, the roomy planes are a surprise to many passengers.
Hollywood Burbank Airport, known as Bob Hope Airport until 2017, is the kind of airport you can be dropped off at the curb an hour before your flight and have time to spare before your flight (unless the TSA checkpoint is clogged.) Don't try that at LAX.
Flights board and deplane outside and one of the baggage claim areas is outside, too. There are just 14 gates between two connected terminals.
At Tweed New Haven Airport, you practically park your car next to the plane. Avelo is the only airline serving the airport (American stopped service earlier this year) and its ticket counter is in a temporary trailer-like structure outside the airport's small terminal. Avelo is spending millions to expand and modernize the airport.
Small airports don't mean small planes, though. Many Avelo passengers on my flights were surprised to be on a Boeing 737 that seat 150 or more passengers.
"I was impressed that the planes are new. And there's lots of legroom,'' said Samantha Piehoff, who flew Avelo from Santa Rosa to Las Vegas to catch a Las Vegas Raiders game with her fiance. "Normally when you fly small airlines out of smaller airports you don't quite get those things.''
5. Inflight service is pleasant but sparse.
Avelo's flight attendants have that new airline eagerness, with a couple of them waving to passengers when introduced during the preflight safety announcements on one of my flights, and another wishing a group of Los Angeles Rams fans well on their road trip from Eugene to Seattle.
Avelo is currently serving a complimentary bottle of Dasani water and a package of Lorna Doone shortbread cookies on flights. Plans are to eventually add more items for sale.
With food options limited at its smaller airports, passengers should pack snacks, though most of Avelo's flights are under 2.5 hours.
6. Bring your own inflight power and entertainment, as long as it doesn't require Wi-Fi.
Avelo isn't going to wow anyone with seatback screens or in-seat power ports and there are no plans to offer internet service.
I actually liked the mini digital detox on my flights, the longest of which was about 2 hours.
7. In a summer of airline meltdowns, Avelo has canceled 11 flights.
One of the risks of booking tickets on an airline with a small number of planes and less-than-daily service on most routes is getting stuck when flight problems arise.
The good news for Avelo passengers, at least so far, is that the airline has had only a handful of cancellations. (My four flights, an admittedly small sample, were all on time.)
Levy said the airline has canceled just 11 out of more than 2,300 flights since it began flying. He said one of the reasons is its modest flight schedule and a big focus on operations. "We are also very focused on having a schedule that we can operate."
He doesn't promise there won't be bumps ahead.
"They'll be days when there's bad weather or airplanes break, of course, but it's how you deal with that that really sets you apart.''