How two executives started new airlines as aviation’s biggest crisis hit


(NEW YORK) — As coronavirus concerns decimated the demand for travel and the aviation industry was faced with its biggest crisis in history, two former airline executives were about to do the unthinkable: start an airline.

Major U.S. airline CEOs were just trying to stop the bleeding and save their companies, while Andrew Levy, 51, and David Neeleman, 61, were just starting up — launching the first two new U.S. airlines in more than a decade — during a global pandemic.

They are both betting their low prices and smaller, no-hassle airport destinations will be enough to win over customers during the summer post-lockdown travel surge.

Levy described starting Avelo Airlines as an “itch” that he’s “wanted scratched for a really long time.” It started 27 years ago when he began working with the founders of now-defunct ValuJet.

“They built this phenomenal business that just grew like crazy and I had a front-row seat to watch it all,” he told ABC News. “I got to see capitalism at work in front of me, and see what happens when we take risks and we progress with hard work. I thought I want to be like those guys, I want to be the ones who start with the company.”

In January 2020, taking what he learned from Allegiant and United, Levy got the green light from the Department of Transportation to start Avelo.

Then, COVID-19 hit.

“It was a little bit of a shock for all of us,” Levy said about watching the number of fliers dwindle, but “I probably was less affected by that than many of my investors. I kind of was always optimistic that it would come roaring back.”

At its lowest point, less than 100,000 people were flying each day nationwide. Airlines scrambled to pull flights out of smaller airports, causing some, like Hollywood Burbank Airport, to lose service.

“We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go in there because of COVID,” he said. “So many airlines cutback service there, and as a result we can go in there at a level of service with airplanes that we couldn’t have done a couple of years ago.”

Avelo began service in April and plans to fly 11 routes between Burbank and vacation destinations this summer, mostly on the West Coast, for as little as $19.

David Neeleman’s Breeze Airways launched a month later and will carry leisure travelers in the eastern and southern parts of the country. Breeze’s fares start at $39.

“There’s a ton of pent-up demand,” Neeleman told ABC News, “and there’s a lot of money people didn’t spend during the pandemic.”

The JetBlue founder only had 55 people on the payroll at Breeze when demand plummeted.

“We had the foot on the gas and the brake at the same time,” he said. “And I said we just have to ease into this and there’s no reason to launch an airline at the heat of the pandemic. You have to have some kind of vision or foresight to look ahead, and try not to seize up in the moment when things are at their worst.”

His team worked with regulators virtually “spread out all over on Zoom.”

“Just getting an airline certified under normal circumstances is a feat that is very difficult,” he said, “and has rarely been done over the last 20 years.”

Neeleman’s vision for Breeze is getting travelers to their destination “twice as fast for half the price” choosing to establish non-stop routes between smaller airports like Hartford, Connecticut, and Charleston, South Carolina, that would have otherwise required a layover.

“When you don’t have to worry about your flight getting canceled or delayed or missing your connection and all the stress that goes with it, then people just travel more often,” Neeleman said.

Like other low-cost carriers, Breeze and Avelo will both charge for baggage fees and additional legroom.

“Our mission is to inspire travel,” Levy said. “We want to inspire travel by making it easy to do so, and that is really low fares, but also just a convenient, pleasant experience.”

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