Low-cost carrier planned for Pittsburgh

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PITTSBURGH -- The founder of America West and a former CEO of Carlson Wagonlit Worldwide are leading an effort to launch a low-cost airline here, unveiling an ambitious plan even as they seek more than $100 million in financial backing.

The company, calling itself Project Roam for now, also has yet to apply for the Transportation Department and Federal Aviation Administration approval it needs to fly.

The company's chairman is Edward Beauvais, who founded America West and served as its chairman and CEO for 11 years. He's been out of the limelight, self-described as "semi-retired," but began work on this project more than a year ago.

"The opportunity today is better than it's ever been for a low-cost, low-fare airline," Beauvais said.

The president and CEO is Travis Tanner, who was CEO of Carlson and Grand Expeditions, and executive vice president of ANC Rental Corp., the parent company of Alamo and National.

In spite of Tanner's agency background, he said the new airline will not pay commission.

"Agents should be paid by the customers they serve," he said.

Tanner said the new airline instead will help agents by offering a product their customers will love.

Under Project Roam's business plan, the airline will launch in June. That could be optimistic: JetBlue, for example, started service about a year after it announced its plans.

The airline plans to begin service with up to five daily flights per destination to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Orlando and other Florida cities. It envisions service to 39 major destinations within five years.

Service would start with eight new 737 aircraft, each configured for 12 business-class and 114 coach seats.

The airline claimed its prices will be 30% to 70% lower than current fares. For example, nonstop fares would fall as low as $49 for nearby cities such as Philadelphia and Washington, and $99 for flights to cities such as Las Vegas and Dallas.

Passengers would get leather seats, complimentary wines and microbrews, live television, digital music, pay-per-view movies and electronic games. They also would be able to select their seat assignment.

Should the airline take off as envisioned, it could become a formidable challenger in Pittsburgh to US Airways.

"I believe the market is very favorable for competition," Tanner said, adding that his belief is based, in part, on the size of the Pittsburgh market, the quality of the airport and the dearth of low-cost competition to US Airways there.

US Airways has long been the dominant airline at Pittsburgh, with 397 daily departures, or about 80% of the airport's total. The carrier has been demanding that the airport lower its costs, threatening to reconsider keeping Pittsburgh as a hub.

But the carrier isn't flinching. A US Airways spokesman said, "We recognize that we not only have been but will continue to face low-cost competition all the way across our system," he said.

That's why the airline has moved aggressively to lower its operating costs, he said.

To contact reporter Andrew Compart, send e-mail to [email protected].

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