After years of concentrating on short "flightseeing" trips and charters, Las Vegas-based Vision Airlines launched scheduled service last week in a way that could radically reshape Grand Canyon tours.
On Dec. 13, Vision began flying between Louisville, Ky., and Atlanta, followed four days later by a route that goes from Niagara Falls, N.Y., to Destin, Fla., and connecting to Miami. Senior Vice President David Meers said Vision would unveil a much broader schedule next month, mainly involving nonstop flights between vacation centers in Florida and secondary cities in the South, such as Knoxville, Tenn.
To free turboprop planes for the shorter routes, he said Vision is "about 80 percent sure" that it will shift one of its Boeing 737s to Grand Canyon flights next spring to shuttle between McCarran International Airport and the South Rim. Since the 1920s, propeller-driven planes with 20 seats or fewer have been the workhorses of Grand Canyon flyovers because they are slow, fly low and have big windows.
Besides meeting Vision's internal needs, Meers believes jet service will generate more revenue to cover the costs imposed by federal safety and operating regulations.
"When you place that burden on an airplane with 19 seats, the economics are tough," Meers said. "The price has gone up to the point where the relative value to U.S. travelers is not there."
Vision prices start at $179 for a one-hour loop flight, then go past $250 for trips that involve landing and ground tours or lodging. That can amount to a large percentage of a total trip price to Las Vegas.
Meers hopes that flying full-sized airliners will bring down the seat cost to the point where more people will buy tickets.
By contrast, the Grand Canyon may add less than 10 percent to what Asians or Europeans pay to come here. As a result, Meers said more than three-fourths of Vision's bookings are visitors from other countries. The resurgence of this market has boosted Vision's passenger total to 109,000 for the 10 months through October, a 29 percent increase over 2009.
The plan calls for the company to continue using some Dornier turboprops between North Las Vegas Airport and the West Rim, a jumping-off point for helicopter rides to the canyon floor or rafting trips on the Colorado River, said Larry Siggelkow, president of Vision Holidays. The small runway at the West Rim cannot accommodate big jets.
Vision Holidays and Vision Airlines are both subsidiaries of Vision Aviation Holdings.
"I wish them all the best," said Robert Graff, the vice president of marketing for rival Grand Canyon Airlines. "But it's the same model that has been tried in the past and has not lasted."
Vision Airlines has flown charters for a broad span of clients including MGM Resorts International's Beau Rivage resort in Biloxi, Miss., and the CIA. Earlier this year, Vision flew to Vienna to handle a spy swap between the United States and Russia.
To get more use out of its fleet of 19 active jets and turboprops, Vision decided to launch a schedule of flights closely following the model set by Las Vegas-based Allegiant Travel Co. and its carrier, Allegiant Air. This calls for nonstop flights between resorts and smaller cities within two or three hours' flying time a few times a week.
"It's really hard to ignore their business success and I've liked their model for a number of years," Meers said.
But first, they had to build a website capable of selling airline tickets. An attempt a couple of years ago to fly between Mesa, Ariz., and Las Vegas foundered partly because the systems were not ready for it.
Contact reporter Tim O'Reiley at toreiley @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290.