Breeze Airways’ inaugural flight from Richmond International Airport hadn’t departed yet on Thursday morning, but the co-founder of the new low-cost airline is already talking about wanting to expand service from the region.
“This is just the beginning,” Trey Urbahn said about two hours before Breeze’s nonstop flight departed for Charleston, S.C.
Salt Lake City-based Breeze also has nonstop flights scheduled from Richmond to two other markets — to New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport, starting next Thursday, and to Tampa International Airport in Florida, starting July 22. The airline offers the services on four days — Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and Mondays.
Richmond International Airport is one of 16 airports selected for the inaugural network of Breeze, joining markets including Norfolk; Columbus, Ohio; Hartford, Conn.; Huntsville, Ala.; Pittsburgh and San Antonio. The airline began flying to select markets in late May.
Breeze, Urbahn said, is looking at expanding service from Richmond to one of its current markets or to new markets — possibly to the West Coast when it gets bigger planes that the airline plans to add later this year.
“Ninety-five percent of the routes that we fly, we have no nonstop competition. So basically we go into markets that are really too small to support the kinds of larger airplanes that most of our competitors fly,” said Urbahn, a former JetBlue executive who serves on the Breeze board and as an adviser to the airline’s CEO.
“That is our secret sauce that we’re going to bring to many markets, and Richmond is at the top of the list,” he said. “We’re pretty excited about the possibility of really growing our footprint here substantially over the next couple of years.”
Medium-sized markets like Richmond want more nonstop service to other small and medium-sized markets, Urbahn said. These markets are well-served by the major airlines, but those airlines use a hub-and-spoke model by flying passengers to their hubs and then having the flyers take another flight to get to their final destination, he said.
But airlines offering point-to-point service, such as Breeze, Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines, provide passengers a quicker way to get to popular destinations, he said. For instance, someone flying to Charleston would take about four hours and have a connecting flight through Atlanta using Delta Air Lines or Charlotte, N.C., on American Airlines. The Breeze flight is scheduled for 1 hour and 20 minutes.
“As it turns out, particularly in this part of the country, there’s a ton of cities that are not connected by nonstop service,” he said. “Our role is to really bring point-to-point nonstop service for half the price that gets you there in half the time. And we think that model is pretty compelling.”
Perry J. Miller, president and CEO of Richmond International Airport, said Breeze’s entry into the Richmond market provides an alternative service at an affordable price point.
“It’s a great win for the Richmond community as it offers affordable and convenient flights from this location to other destinations,” Miller said.
Breeze’s flights to Charleston cost $51 to $87 one-way this month or in August, according to the airline’s website Thursday. One-way flights to New Orleans range from $62 to $146 and to Tampa cost $47 to $139 for the same time period, the website showed.
Breeze charges extra for checked or carry-on bags, though it’s free to bring a personal item that fits under the seat, such as a purse, backpack or briefcase. The airline has seats near the front of the plane that cost a little more but provide additional legroom.
In an effort to keep costs down and to offer low fares, Breeze uses a smartphone app to handle all customer interactions, from booking flights to issuing electronic boarding passes, he said. Passengers can’t call the airline — they have to interact online or via the app.
“The app creates a much more seamless frictionless experience, and that’s really important because it allows us to keep our costs down and having low costs allows us to do something that customers want, which is low fares,” he said.
Interest in service to Charleston, New Orleans and Tampa has been strong, Urbahn said.
“It’s early and it’s just preliminary indications, but bookings to New Orleans and Tampa are really super strong out of Richmond. Most of these routes will be flying north of a 70% load factor,” he said.
Thursday morning’s flight from Charleston to Richmond — it arrived 44 minutes late because of Tropical Storm Elsa — had 15 passengers, he said. Thirty passengers were flying there from Richmond.
“The load factor is low right now, and frankly it’s by design because we’re ramping up this airline very quickly and with that comes a lot of operational stress,” he said.
Breeze announced in May that it was starting up air service to the initial 16 markets.
The company was co-founded by David Neeleman, the airline’s CEO who previously founded JetBlue as well as Brazil’s Azul, Canada’s WestJet and Utah-based Morris Air. Breeze was supposed to start service last year, but the pandemic pushed the start to this summer.
“We are at the right place at the right time to see the resurgence of this business,” said Urbahn, who worked with Neeleman in the early days of JetBlue.
“The airline business is going to come back really, really strong, starting with leisure customers and that’s really our sweet spot,” he said. “I can see the domestic demand. You know this summer is just gonna be amazing, and what’s going to be interesting is the fall, which typically falls off a lot. I think the fall is going to be amazing because of pent-up demand.”