Skybus … We Hardly Knew Ye

One of the area residents interviewed by a local TV station said it felt like a family member had passed away.

At first blush, this sounded a little melodramatic, but the more one thinks about it, there are some similarities. The announcement that low-cost carrier Skybus was shutting down came suddenly, without any real warning, and it left many in the area with a pronounced feeling of loss. This sensation came in different ways for different people.

For those who used Skybus — and some flew on it regularly — this was a personal loss because it eliminated what had become a popular, low-cost option for business and pleasure travel. And there are few, if any, real alternatives left. And for those who didn’t fly the airline but had read or heard about it, this was the loss of one of the real feel-good stories to reach this area lately.

Skybus was something positive. A new airline had chosen Chicopee, population 50,000 or so, to be one of its centers of operations, and for nine months or so, things worked at least well as anyone hoped they could, and probably much better than most anticipated. Heck, there were people who showed up at Westover just to watch the planes land and take off.

And now, it’s gone. Chapter 11 doesn’t always mean the end, but in this case, it’s the end at least for a while; the conditions that doomed the carrier, at least according to its chairman — soaring aviation fuel prices and the downturn that stunted ticket sales — will be with us for a while.

What are we to take from all this? Many things, actually. For starters, people here can see that this economic downturn, recession, or whatever people want to call it, is very real, and it’s not just something happening somewhere else — it’s happening in Chicopee, as the now-quiet terminal at Westover attests.

Then there’s the plight of the airline industry, but that’s another story, and there isn’t nearly enough room here to discuss what the demise of several small carriers and changes at some of the big outfits means for the nation, this region, and all those who travel. In short, this sector is in real trouble, and things are probably going to get worse before they get better.

But what of that feel-good story and the fact that it ended so quickly and so badly? There are some positives that this region can take away from this, and we hope they are not lost amid all the jokes, the sadness, and the frustration.

First, people need to remember that Skybus, despite what seemed like a good business model, one based on the European carrier Raynair, was a gamble — actually, a pretty big gamble. The people at Westover knew this, Allan Blair and others at the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. knew this, and Chicopee Mayor Michael Bissonnette and others managing that city knew this.

It was a gamble they thought was worth taking, and while some might disagree, probably with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, history should prove them right.

If nothing else, they showed that passenger service in and out of Westover is viable. There are enough businesses, college students, and people with means for a venture here to succeed. Yes, Westover is out of the way, and it is no one’s real airport of choice, but it became one.

And while the numbers were never very thoroughly crunched, anecdotal evidence suggests that, while the region is good for passenger service, such passenger service is good for the region. We don’t know how many more people came to the Valley because of Skybus, but the service couldn’t have hurt the area, and it probably helped.

We don’t know enough about the airline industry, or simple mathematics, to know if maybe another airline with a different model and considerably better timing could make it work in this market, but we’d like to think so.

Looking back, Skybus was (it’s hard to use that tense) fun. It gave the region a little boost, while giving some people a $10 ticket to Columbus, Ohio, where … well, use your imagination. This really was the feel-good story of ’07, but this is ’08, and fun will be just a little harder to come by.

Like that person said … it really is a little like a death in the family.

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