Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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Look! Up in the Sky! It's, Um, Sky Airline!
January 5, 2017 Here's a crazy idea for a passenger airline and let's just hope some chief executive or chief revenue officer doesn't try to duplicate it in the United States.

Imagine a carrier that's mostly a bare-bones clone of so-called ultra-low-cost Spirit or Frontier, a smidgen of a pricey full-service airline and part flying billboard. That describes Sky Airline, a regional carrier operating mostly in the southern half of South America. It's making a slow transition from full-frills airlines to low-cost carrier and the journey has been, um, odd.

Sky sounds like a great option for flexible business travelers. It has morning nonstops on short hauls while rivals such as the merged LAN-TAM and Aerolineas Argentinas turn a two-hour trip into a six-hour, two- or three-stop marathon. Sky caught my eye when I was booking a one-way morning flight from Santiago to Montevideo, Uruguay. It had an 8:30 morning nonstop for just $50.50 one-way. That was the lowest of ten different fares on the flight, the highest of which maxed out at around $500 one-way.

The $50.50 Sky pricing, I thought, was odd and too good to be true. I couldn't book it on Sky's Web site and the airline's toll-free number didn't answer repeated calls. I even tried calling the corporate office in Santiago, but couldn't rouse a soul.

Several Chilean businesspeople assured me that Sky was a safe, legitimate airline although occasionally plagued by operational snafus and customer service gaffes. I then called a recommended travel agent and he also vouched for Sky.

"They're just sometimes disorganized," explained Claudio Arzola Foitzick, owner of Travel and Adventure Chile, an agency he runs out of his Santiago home. And his English was a lot better than my Spanish.

Talking and E-mailing by WhatsApp, Foitzick worked four straight days, including over a weekend, to get me an aisle seat on that morning flight to Montevideo.

He's an old-school travel agent who obviously puts the customer first. For example, three times Foitzick told me American Express rejected my card, but would not tell him why. Finally, I called American Express's travel agency directly and was told that my card wasn't honored "because we don't support Sky Airlines."

Why? And why not just tell the hard-working Foitzick the facts so his time wasn't wasted? The Amex Travel rep didn't have an answer.

So I paid with a Visa card and the sale sailed through. The price? $100, including a $25 fee for Foitzick. The trick with booking Sky is don't dawdle. Choose a flight and act quickly. The lowest prices go to first callers.

Seating on all-coach Sky is extremely tight and the aircraft to Montevideo was an older Airbus 319. I didn't have a tape measure with me, but I guessed the seat pitch was 28 inches. I later learned it was a nearly-as-awful 29 inches.

It was certainly the tightest in-seat squeeze I've ever endured. Worse, while Spirit's seats don't recline, Sky's leather seats do lean back. I had that aisle seat and it didn't take long before someone else in my row raised a fuss.

"My wife, she is pregnant, she cannot breathe. Please let her out," he said. The passenger in front of her had leaned back and would not budge when the husband sounded the alarm. The obviously expectant mom stood up in the back of the plane near the galley for a good chunk of the flight. And so, consequently, did I.

Don't even think you're going to use your laptop on a Sky flight unless you pay extra for an emergency row or front-row seat. There are no extra-legroom sections such as United EconomyPlus or Delta Comfort+.

Of course, back-of-the-bus seating on U.S. "full service" carriers is edging precariously close to the Spirit-Sky standard. On United's A320s, for example, seat pitch has shrunk to 30 inches. The newest Boeing 737-900s in United's fleet are also at 30 inches.

Ironically, the front of Sky Airline cabins displays a plaque from Skytrax proclaiming it South America's top regional airline for 2015, the second year in a row. And you may run into Sky aircraft when you least expect them since Sky has code-share arrangements with Taca, COPA, Avianca and Aerolineas Argentinas.

This split-personality airline is strange in other ways. Sky charges a fee for everything on board, including coffee and water. Even passengers who book late and pay full-fare still have to shell out the couple of bucks required for an in-flight cup of joe or a bottle of water.

What's more, Sky has turned its aircraft into flying billboards. The airline sells ads over the windows and beneath the overhead compartment. Banco de Chile's name and logo is emblazoned on all of the tray tables. Plus, in some weird deal, the best seats on the plane--the spacious exit rows--are reserved for Banco de Chile employees. The lead flight attendant says those seats will be sold to the public in 2017, but she didn't know what the surcharge will be.

Does Banco de Chile own a piece of Sky? Is it a major lender? The personable flight attendant didn't say and I could never locate an official spokesperson. However, it's worth remembering that Sky, founded in 2001, only began its transition to the ultra-low-cost model 18 months ago.

All carping aside, if I was booking passage from Santiago to Montevideo again, I'd fly Sky. But this time, I would call a Chilean travel agent the moment I knew I had to make a trip and let him or her cut the ticket pronto to bag the best deal and seat location.

What about booking direct on Sky's website? Good luck. Even the flight attendant wasn't encouraging.

"We're having trouble with our Internet site," she explained.

This column is Copyright 2017 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.