How do the three new U.S. budget airlines compare?

At the Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada, my driver asked me which airline I was flying.

“Aha,” I repeated, as if I were rehearsing a new Abbott and Costello comedy routine.

“Never heard of it,” she said, pulling up to the curb. “Are you sure you’re at the right airport? Go ask that guy.”

She watched my bags as I scurried over to a Southwest baggage handler. The old guard assured me that the new guard did indeed depart from here.

Last year, the clouds parted for the arrival of three domestic upstarts: Avelo, Breeze Airways and Aha. The new budget carriers follow a similar script: They mainly serve overlooked or smaller destinations and use alternative airports, such as Hollywood Burbank Airport instead of Los Angeles International. They offer a la carte pricing, so passengers pay only for what they need — a seat, a carry-on item, a bag of peanut M&M’s. And the flights are nonstop, not the carpool routes run by the major airlines.

“We never had a nonstop before,” said a passenger on a recent Aha flight from Reno to Redmond, Ore. “I had to fly to Seattle before. It was a crazy route.”

The three newcomers are entering airspace that, over the years, has grown friendlier toward low-fare airlines and the cost-conscious passengers who fly them. In a recent report by Airlines for America, the trade group noted that 15 percent of travelers boarded ultra-budget carriers in 2020, up from 5 percent in 2010. “Travelers in general view the price of the ticket as the number one reason for choosing a flight,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, “not the size of the seat.”

The new entrants come with a few drawbacks, which the pandemic has exacerbated. Because of their small fleets, one mechanical issue can upend the carrier’s entire schedule. Flights are infrequent, often one departure every few days. For this reason, travelers have less flexibility in planning, and a long delay or cancellation could sabotage a holiday. “They don’t have a robust route network, so if there is a problem, you might have to wait not hours, but days,” Keyes said. “That can ruin a four- or five-day vacation.”

Last month, I flew all three airlines: one on the East Coast and two out west. Below is an overview of each carrier, plus my experiences, a mix of highs ($29 fare to Charleston, S.C., free sympathy snacks) and lows (five-hour delay, 3½-hour delay).

Background: For nearly 35 years, ExpressJet Airlines provided regional air service for major carriers, filling the “operated by” role on short hops. In the summer of 2020, the company lost its contract with United and, a few months later, folded up its pandemic-battered wings. A little over a year later, it returned to the skies with a new brand name and a reimagined mission.

Inaugural flight: From Reno to Tri-Cities, Wash., on Oct. 24.

Planes and routes: A quintet of 50-seat Embraer ERJ145s fly between Reno, its hub city, and 10 western destinations: Pasco/Tri-Cities and Spokane in Washington state; Bakersfield, Fresno, Humboldt County, Ontario and Palm Springs in California; and Eugene, Rogue Valley/Medford and Bend/Redmond in Oregon.

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Future plans: Aha’s acronym — air, hotel, adventure — spells out its higher aspirations: to offer multi-night vacation packages with flights furnished by the airline and lodging and attractions provided by local purveyors. Passengers can add activities to their reservation, such as a private tour of Burning Man art and murals in Reno ($65) and a Deschutes River rafting trip near Bend ($95). The company hopes to double its number of planes and places and introduce for-purchase food and beverages, including alcoholic drinks.

Pricing and amenities: The three fare categories allow varying degrees of flexibility to rebook or receive a refund. One-way flights start at $43. Seat selection ranges from $10 to $30, and priority boarding goes for $10. The ticket covers one personal item; all additional luggage, including a carry-on and the first checked bag, costs $30. There are free in-flight water and graham crackers.

The experience: I paid $79 for a one-way ticket from Reno to Redmond, plus $30 for a gate-checked bag. With the one-seat/two-seat configuration, I didn’t have to worry about getting landlocked in a middle seat, so I declined the seat-selection option. Twenty-four hours before my flight, I attempted to check in but could not find the link on Aha’s website. I called the Reno-area number and, after a short prompt, an employee appeared on the line to help. Less than five minutes later, I had my boarding pass and (free) chosen seat.

At the airport, I swung by the counter — two staff members, one other customer — to make sure I had not missed a step. An agent motioned for me to place my bags on the scale and tagged my duffel. At the gate, I bumped into a bearded passenger strapped into a backpack who worriedly asked me whether my boarding pass also displayed an 11:40 a.m. departure time, two hours past our scheduled takeoff. The flight attendant emerged with an explanation: Our plane had a mechanical issue. The pilot reassured us. “It happens,” he said. “I am not going anywhere. Go get breakfast.” And lunch, too, as it turned out.

While twiddling my thumbs at the gate, I received two emails from the airline. One belatedly informed me of the multiple delays, and the other contained a mysterious $50 voucher. I called the carrier to ask about the credit. My spirits sank when the agent told me it was good only for a future booking, not for food or the airport slot machines.

Around noon, the flight attendant returned with an update: They were ditching the disabled plane and putting us on the aircraft completing a run to Palm Springs. The travelers bound for Eugene would also be joining us. To keep the groups separate, the Redmond passengers would board first and sit in rows one through 18; the Eugene folks would occupy the seats behind us. Before takeoff, the flight attendant asked for two volunteers to move to the back of the plane for weight distribution. I offered to relocate, as did a man whose wife had talked him into flying instead of driving, a concession he seemed to regret. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, the flight attendant called us forward.

The flight was only an hour, so she quickly started beverage service, handing out water (“It’s a very good year,” she said of the Dasani water, displaying the bottle with the flourish of a sommelier) and packets of graham crackers (“I baked them last night”). Upon landing in Redmond, she offered us each a piece of candy, a sweet ending to a flight that nearly soured. (An airline spokesperson attributed the delay to staff shortages caused by the pandemic.)

Background: Andrew Levy, co-founder and former president of Allegiant Air, created Avelo to fill a vacuum left by budget airlines that outgrew the niche category. “Allegiant was not as efficient as it became bigger and older,” he said, “and Southwest now flies into [Chicago] O’Hare.” In 2018, he purchased Xtra Airways, a jet-setting charter company, and expanded its fleet of one plane to six. The airline’s name combines “ave,” for avenues, and “velo,” the Latin word for speed.

Inaugural flight: From Burbank to Santa Rosa, Calif., on April 28.

Routes and planes: The airline uses three 189-seat Boeing Next Generation 737s on the West Coast and three 147-seat Boeing 737-800s on the East Coast. The carrier flies from New Haven, Conn., to six Florida cities: Tampa, Orlando, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers and Sarasota/Bradenton. From Burbank, it serves Fort Collins, Colo.; Tri-Cities; Ogden, Utah; Bend/Redmond, Rogue Valley/Medford and Eugene; and Humboldt and Sonoma counties and Redding, Calif. It also operates flights between Las Vegas and three Northern California airports, plus Fort Collins.

Future plans: Avelo expects to add nine aircraft by year’s end and bump the number of destinations to at least 40 cities on both coasts.

Pricing and amenities: One-way economy fares start at $29. Seat selection runs from $6 to $39. Starting Feb. 10, the airline will charge $35 per checked bag and $40 per carry-on purchased online; pay $10 more at the airport. Priority boarding costs $10. No change or cancellation fee, but travelers owe the difference in fare. If the price is less, the remainder will be deposited into an Avelo Travel Fund and can be used on future travel within a year. East Coast passengers receive a complimentary cookie and bottled water, and only water on West Coast routes. Avelo participates in the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program.

The experience: I bought a one-way ticket from Redmond to Burbank for $44, plus $35 for a carry-on. I skipped the seat selection but enjoyed perusing the options, such as $6 for the middle seat in the last row. (For real?) The day before my flight, I contacted the carrier by phone with a few seating questions and waited 20 minutes before the call disconnected. I tried again but hung up after spending another 20 minutes on hold. I emailed and heard back in less than 15 minutes. The agent answered my query about the airline choosing my seat but ignored my follow-up about switching to an open aisle seat once onboard.

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At the airport, I joined a small mob congregating by the gate. The clock ticked past our 9:55 a.m. departure time. An agent’s voice crackled through the PA system. He said we would share the gate with the Allegiant flight to Las Vegas and instructed Avelo passengers to use the boarding pass scanner to the left. “Whose left?” someone shouted from the crowd.

On the plane, I located my seat between two expansive men. I asked a flight attendant if I could move to an open row. She said of course, then showed me a pillow with an image of her cat printed on it. I napped through the water service. We arrived about 10 minutes late, but I hardly noticed as I stepped off the plane and blinked at the noon sun still sitting high in the L.A. sky.

Background: Breeze was founded by David Neeleman, the serial airline entrepreneur who also hatched JetBlue and Brazil-based Azul. The company’s raison d’etre is to offer nonstop service to secondary routes previously accessible only by connecting flights. Its official tagline is “Seriously Nice,” but Breeze spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones said its “elevator pitch” is “getting you there in half the time for half the price.”

Inaugural flight: From Tampa to Charleston on May 27.

Routes and planes: Thirteen Embraer jets — the 118-seat E195 and the 108-seat E190 — shuttle passengers to 16 cities: Hartford, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; Pittsburgh; Richmond; Norfolk; Charleston, S.C.; Akron/Canton, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; Tampa; New Orleans; Huntsville, Ala.; Louisville; Tulsa; Oklahoma City; Fayetteville, Ark.; and San Antonio. The company will expand to Long Island MacArthur Airport (formerly Islip) in New York and West Palm Beach, Fla., later this month.

Future plans: Breeze has purchased 80 new Airbus A220-300s. The company will introduce the first batch of 15 planes this year, as well as the top-tier fare category, Nicest, which is exclusive to the Airbus. Bookings will start in May on 17 routes. The company will add fresh food options on longer routes.

Pricing and amenities: The most basic Nice price starts at $39 one way and includes a personal item and 2 percent BreezePoints, which are calculated on the base fare and ancillary purchases. (One point equals one cent.) Passengers pay $25 for a carry-on and $29 for a checked bag in advance, or $50 at the airport. Seat selection runs $15 to $39. The Nicer fare comes with an extra legroom seat; personal item, carry-on and one checked bag; priority boarding; a drink and snack; and 4 percent BreezePoints. The Nicest fare has the Nicer perks plus a first-class seat, two checked bags and 6 percent BreezePoints. No change or cancellation fees for any of the fare categories, and passengers can alter their reservations up to 15 minutes before takeoff. Credits are valid for two years from the original departure date. Starting this month, travelers can stream in-flight movies, TV shows and music free. Qualified Breeze passengers can use the PreCheck line.

The experience: I lucked out on a special $29 Black Friday fare from the Hartford area to Charleston. (February flights start at $43.) I held off on purchasing baggage, unsure of whether I was packing light for a warm spell or heavy for a polar freeze. The day before my flight, I received a text informing me that I still had time to add a bag. I chose the carry-on option, easily amending my reservation. After checking in online, I realized I had forgotten to include my trusted traveler number for PreCheck. I texted Breeze — the carrier communicates only by text, Facebook Messenger and email — and a response arrived almost immediately. After several exchanges, the agent determined that the system wasn’t accepting my number because I needed to use my middle name, per my passport. I apologized for the oversight. “Please don’t be sorry,” the employee texted. “We are happy to assist you.” The next day, it was Breeze’s turn to apologize. “We’re sorry …” began the first of eight alerts of a flight delay.

At the airport, the gate agents were tight-lipped about the situation. I texted Breeze and learned that our plane had mechanical issues and the airline was swapping out planes in Charleston. Hours later, the aircraft landed in Connecticut, but now it had a problem. I reached out to my text buddy again, who told me they were planning on sending up a plane from New Orleans once they had assembled a crew. Meanwhile, two travelers anticipating a cancellation booked a Southwest flight departing at 6 the following morning, and a woman broke down in tears. More than three hours after our original departure time, the agent announced we were boarding. I quickly settled into my seat, only to wait again — for airport operations.

About 30 minutes into the flight, the bubbly flight attendants rolled through with beverage carts. Snacks typically cost $3.50 for a can of soda or juice or bottle of water and $4.50 for Chex Mix, Pringles, a nut medley or a bag of peanut M&M’s. However, the crew waived the fee, because, as one flight attendant told me: “You’ve had a long day.” Upon landing, the pilot shared the bad news that our gate wasn’t ready. To pass the time, I checked my email and opened a message from Breeze. In it, the airline vowed that it is “working to do better next time.” As an olive branch, it deposited 5,000 BreezePoints into my account, a $50 value.

After my trip, I contacted Edmondson-Jones about the carrier’s on-time arrival data. He said that, in the fourth quarter of 2021, 84 percent of all flights arrived within 14 minutes of their scheduled time and 95 percent landed within the hour. The Hartford-Charleston flight that departed the day after mine performed even more impressively: Its wheels were on the ground 23 minutes early.

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Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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