Allegiant Air got off to a rough start in Gulfport. Just as passengers were preparing to board Gulfport's inaugural flight to Las Vegas, an airline employee made an unwelcome announcement. A mechanical problem would keep Allegiant Air on the ground indefinitely.
What happened next? Allegiant Air made a snap decision. It contacted its Orlando hub and had a spare plane flown to Gulfport. Consequently, the 7:50 p.m. departure didn't take off until well past 10 o'clock. When it did, it carried the hopes of tourism leaders, airline executives, and passengers on a sometimes bumpy late night flight from Gulfport to Las Vegas.
"Ladies and gentlemen. At this time we'd like to continue boarding Allegiant Air to Las Vegas," an airline employee announced.
Tired passengers who spent the previous two hours sitting near gate seven got up and walked toward their jet.
Kris Norton was flying out to Las Vegas to attend a spa convention.
"It was great because I was looking at all the other airlines. And there wasn't a late flight," she said, explaining why she bought a ticket on the inaugural flight. "We needed a late flight because I had to work some. So this was perfect."
Passengers on the first Vegas flight got a glass of champagne to toast the new service. Toward the end of the trip, the airline held a raffle. And one of its prizes was a free trip on another Allegiant Air flight.
Nearly four hours after passengers stepped onto Allegiant Air flight 433, they were greeted by the lights, the bells and the glitz of the Las Vegas Strip. After a couple of hours sleep, the flight's first passengers ventured out to the strip. I bumped into one of the passengers outside the New York New York casino.
"We enjoyed it. That was my first time to fly. And I would do it again," she said.
Before the flight, I asked Allegiant's director of sales and marketing if there was enough business around the Mississippi Gulf Coast to fill the planes up and go out to Vegas.
Eric Woodson said, "We certainly hope so. We think so. That's why we're in the market."
Allegiant Air operates 26 jets. It had just seven two and a half years ago. Woodson knows what it takes to fill planes. In May, 84 percent of Allegiant Air's seats were sold. However, Woodson admits initial sales for the Gulfport service starting June 1 didn't take off like the no frills carrier expected.
"Started off a little slow," he conceded. "But it's certainly built as we got closer to the departure date. And bookings have come along really nice. And we think this is going to be a good market for us."
Gulfport is one of 40 cities that now has a direct link to Las Vegas via Allegiant Air. Its arrival is very enticing to Las Vegas worker, and former Ocean Springs resident Joey Powell.
"Heck yes it is. And my parents will love it, too," he said. His parents still live on the coast.
Allegiant Air's inaugural flight carried passengers from Pensacola, Pascagoula, Gulfport, Jackson and New Orleans. Allegiant's challenge is to convince a lot more people in the Gulfport region, and in Las Vegas, that its low fares, and its twice a week service are more attractive than the perks offered better known airlines which fly in and out of Las Vegas everyday.
"I don't think it will be a hard sell," Woodson said, referring to the efforts to get Las Vegas people to fly east. "You've got the beaches here, you've got the casinos, lots of golf, a great place to bring the kids and come for a little weekend getaway."
An Allegiant Air flight to Las Vegas On June 29 costs $178 round trip plus taxes. The lowest fare I found on other Gulfport carriers for the same day was $398. However, you have to remember that Allegiant is a no frills carrier. So a can of Pepsi that you get for free on Northwest, Delta, American and Air Tran costs $2.00 on Allegiant. And every bag you check is an additional charge.
Allegiant flies to Las Vegas on Mondays and Fridays. It also flies from Gulfport to the Orlando/Sanford airport.