ATLANTA - ValuJet Airlines' plan to drop Mobile, Ala., after it adds service to West Palm Beach, Fla., could mean a return to higher ticket prices in the Mobile market, a city official says.
The Atlanta-based airline announced Monday that service to Mobile will cease Jan. 16. ValuJet is to begin flights between Atlanta and West Palm Beach today.
"This was a difficult decision to make, considering the lengths to which Mobile airport and community officials went to bring low fares to their area," said Ponder Harrison, the airline's senior vice president of sales and marketing.
Bay Haas, executive director of the Mobile airport authority, said ValuJet never had time to get established in Mobile, where the discount carrier flew only one flight a day for about four months.
But Mr. Haas said ValuJet's entry into the market did force competitors, particularly Delta, to lower fares.
"You have to understand we had very high fares until ValuJet came," he said. "It reduced our fares significantly. Delta reduced their fares; they've been flying the bulk of the people."
The city still has Continental Express and Northeast Air Link in its low-fare market.
ValuJet officials said Mobile lagged significantly behind other cities in number of seats filled.
"We were the lowest load factor on their system. They weren't selling tickets here," Mr. Haas said.
Customers with tickets to Mobile after Jan. 16 will be offered refunds, the airline said.
Also, ValuJet Airlines announced a Free Flight fare sale for system-wide travel through Feb. 13.
Customers who purchase any regular ValuJet fare before Jan. 31 for travel during this period may take along a friend for free.
Mobile officials had agreed in March 1996 to pay $708,000 as an incentive to win ValuJet's low-fare service over competitor Pensacola, Fla. But the city never paid ValuJet to service Mobile, Haas said.
On Friday, ValuJet won Federal Aviation Administration approval to expand to West Palm Beach and Fort Myers, Fla. ValuJet had said it might have to reschedule or cancel flights to other destinations in order to serve the two Florida cities because the FAA did not approve its request to add five aircraft to its current 15.
The discount carrier said it will have two daily round-trip flights between Atlanta and West Palm Beach on peak days - Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Friday - and one daily flight on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.
No date for service to Fort Myers has been announced.
ValuJet had struggled to win the FAA's approval for flights to West Palm Beach, Fort Myers and Dallas/Fort Worth since September, when it resumed flying after a three-month shutdown in the wake of the Everglades crash that killed 110.
In November, ValuJet sold thousands of tickets for flights to Dallas and the two Florida cities even though it had not heard from the federal agency. Last month, when the FAA refused to let ValuJet expand, the airline scrambled to arrange charter flights for stranded holiday passengers.
ValuJet said it has not formally sought approval to resume service to Dallas because of its limited number of aircraft.
Also Monday, ValuJet announced free companion fares for flights to any of its 17 cities until Feb. 13, except for flights to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, Feb. 6-13. Tickets must be purchased by Jan. 31.