When it was announced roughly two months ago, the first direct air link between Charlottesville and Florida in nearly a decade was promising that Orlando would be two hours away. On Wednesday, the inaugural day of the service, as the University of Virginia’s Cav Man mascot and five cheerleaders jumped to keep warm, the two cities were also at least 25 degrees apart.
“We’re standing on the tarmac where it’s about 55 degrees, and Orlando is right now sitting at 76, and it’s going to be in the mid-80s this afternoon,” said Courtney Goff of Avelo Airlines.
Minutes later, as if on cue, the sun suddenly broke through the gray clouds and beamed down on an incoming 737, and a pair of fire trucks sprayed geysers of water on what is now the largest regularly scheduled craft using the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport.
“Our plane’s a bit bigger than the normal suspects around here,” said Goff as the craft rolled toward the gates. “We’ve got anywhere from 160- to 190-seaters coming through.”
“It’s so clean,” exclaimed cheerleader and second-year UVa student Abby Phillips on her tour of the vehicle. “I’ve never seen a plane so clean.”
The captain said the flight in to CHO was uneventful until landing.
“It was windy,” said pilot Jorge Diaz. “A cross-wind landing, but just a normal day of operation.”
While the craft is large for CHO, the schedule is not. After this special midweek journey, the Orlando-based service will settle into a routine of one round trip each Friday and Monday. A discount airline headquartered in Houston, Avelo will provide evening flights for the first few weeks and then switch to morning flights, according to CHO Chief Operating Officer Jason Burch. He said he hopes that travelers figure it out.
“A passenger can choose whether they fly out on a Friday and come home on a Monday, or they can take a long week,” said Burch. “You know, Orlando’s definitely got things to do for a long week.”
The four-member Crouch family of Lynchburg has plenty. Daughter Kalie and friend Krisiley Stengel were invited to a cheerleading event called the D2 Summit held at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports athletic complex.
“We’re going to compete,” said mother Ashley Crouch, as her husband noted a total expenditure of $670 for the five travelers, including younger daughter, Aubrie, who may want to check out some of Orlando’s famed theme parks during her five days.
Javon Esh won’t be staying that long.
“We’re gonna go to Orlando for the night,” said Esh as he and his wife Nora waited for the first run of Avelo Flight 745. “It’s always been a bucket list thing of mine to do an inaugural flight.”
The couple, who live near Stanardsville, said they paid $49 for each ticket and will use mileage credits to get home the next day on Delta.
“I’ve always been an av’ geek,’” explained Esh. “That’s a nerdy group of us that get together to talk about aviation.”
Fellow traveler Paul Storm said he found a promo code to ride Avelo for $39 for the southward leg of his journey to see family and $65 ride back. Storm paid $40 extra for his carry-on bag.
“That’s where they get you,” said Storm. “But that’s OK; it still works out better than the other airlines.”
At press time, Avelo still had some $49 tickets to Orlando this Friday. While Avelo’s return flight this Monday was priced at $124, a traveler who could wait until the following Friday could return for $49. Meanwhile, the least expensive one-way ticket on another airline is $231 charged by American, and that requires a layover in Charlotte.
What makes executives think this time will be different than early 2014, when Allegiant Air stopped its flights between CHO and Orlando Sanford International Airport after fewer than four months?
Burch contended that post-pandemic travelers seem more time-conscious and eager for destination vacations. He also says that Avelo’s Friday to Monday schedule has shown itself to be more marketable than Allegiant’s schedule of Thursday and Sunday.
“The goal is that everyone books a trip and goes to Orlando,” said Burch.
Another coming factor is Brightline. Later this month, America’s only private intercity passenger railroad will begin selling tickets on its new 125-mph trains that will run hourly between the Orlando airport and such coastal cities as West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
The inaugural CHO-MCO flight left on time and arrived on time Wednesday afternoon. But how long will Avelo’s nonstop service last?
“There is no contract,” said Burch.
In other words, use it or lose it.