Small planes, cheap tickets but no help by phone: The inside scoop on budget-friendly Breeze Airways

Breeze Airways started service in mid-2021 to offer nonstop flights on routes it says are overlooked by major airlines. The airline's biggest cities for departures: Charleston, South Carolina and Tampa, Florida.

The airline currently flies Embraer jets and will soon add Airbus A220s, another regional jet.

Pat Flynn fell in love with Breeze Airways as soon as the new budget airline started flying between Oklahoma City and New Orleans last summer.

The convenience store chain executive commutes to southwest Mississippi every other week and the new nonstop flight meant no more connecting flights on major airlines, a big time saver.

"This is an hour and a half flight," he said of his 6 a.m. New Orleans-Oklahoma City flight in late October.  "It can be as much as six hours (on other airlines)."

Tickets were cheap, too, with a last-minute one-way ticket just $68 including a bag.

The relationship turned out to be a fling.

Breeze, the startup from JetBlue founder David Neeleman, ended the flight in late 2021, pointing to a lack of passengers. (My New Orleans-Oklahoma City flight had just 13 passengers.)

The airline, like fellow newcomer Avelo, doesn't stick with a route very long if it doesn't perform, especially during a pandemic. Breeze has axed five routes since it began flying but, unlike Avelo, hasn't exited any cities. It has also added two new cities, West Palm Beach, Florida, and Islip, New York, which debut in February. That will give Breeze 42 routes to and from 18 cities, including popular vacation spots such as Charleston and Tampa.

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A frequently changing route map is just one thing would-be passengers should be aware of when it comes to the new airline. 

To give travelers an idea of what to expect when flying Breeze, I took four flights over two days in late October.

The full itinerary: New Orleans to Oklahoma City; Oklahoma City to Tampa, Florida; Tampa to Charleston, South Carolina; and Charleston to Providence, Rhode Island. USA TODAY paid for the flights and Breeze wasn't notified about the trip. 

Breeze Airways: 6 things travelers should know about booking, flying new budget airline 

1. Tickets are cheap and some come with perks, but passengers need to do the math to get the best value. I booked my one-way tickets last minute and the priciest was $88, including a carry-on bag, for a prime-time flight out of Charleston on a Friday night.

Breeze has two fare types: "nice" and "nicer." The nice fare is the no-frills fare anyone who has flown Spirit, Allegiant or Frontier airlines knows well, with passengers only allowed to bring on a small bag that fits underneath the seat. Carry-on and checked bags are extra, as are advance seat assignments.

The "nicer" fare comes with a bunch of perks including a carry-on bag, checked bag, extra legroom seat and priority boarding. Other discount airlines call them bundles. Buy a "nicer" ticket and you'll also get something I didn't even notice when booking: your pick of a snack and soft drink or juice from the inflight buy-on-board menu. 

This is where the math comes in. The fare difference between the nice and nicer fare varies by route, travel date, and booking trends for the flight. On my early morning New Orleans to Oklahoma City flight, the fare difference was only $15.I was traveling with a traditional size carry-on bag, which Breeze charges $20 for in advance, so it was a no brainer even without the other perks. The cheapest seat I could have reserved in advance was $13 and the extra legroom aisle seat I ended up getting with my ticket was going for $37.

A seat map for a Breeze Airways flight. The airline charges extra for advance seat assignments unless you buy it's pricier "nicer'' fare. Travelers who don't not pay for a seat are assigned one at check in for no charge.

Conversely, the spread between the nice and nicer fare for my Charleston-Providence flight on a Friday night was $51. I was traveling by myself and didn't care where I sat (Breeze flies regional jets with no middle seats) or whether I had a free soda and snack so saved money by buying the nice fare and paying $20 for my carry-on bag. (Bags are pricier at the airport so pay in advance.)

The nicer fare is not always available. It was sold out on my Tampa-Charleston flight ahead of Halloween weekend.

Breeze offers two types of fares, "nice'' and "nicer.'' The latter includes a checked and carry-on bag, extra legroom seat and a drink and snack on board. Travelers need to do the math to see what's right for them.

2. You can't always get there from here. Breeze, like Allegiant and Avelo, does not offer service every day on every route, and on days it does fly it usually has just one flight, at least for now. Saturday flights are particularly hard to find on many routes except during peak travel periods like holidays, yet on some routes, only Saturday flights are offered.

The limited schedule complicates things for travelers without flexibility and could portend trouble if a flight is canceled as there aren't others to immediately be rebooked on. Find a cheap fare on one day and no flights on another? Book it and buy a one-way ticket on a different airline for the other leg to save money overall.

3. The airline sends proactive texts about potential flight issues, but forget about calling the airline when troubles arise.

My flight from New Orleans to Oklahoma City wasn't due to depart for more than 12 hours when my iPhone buzzed with a text message and an app alert from Breeze. "We're watching the forecast and the weather might delay your flight tomorrow," it said. This was during a torrential evening downpour in New Orleans.

The next day, I received another one ahead of a different Breeze flight.

Like all frequent flyers, I've seen airline texts galore about delayed or canceled flights, but this was the first time an airline had given me a heads up that my flight might be delayed, with a reminder and link to check my flight status.

A Breeze Airways pilot addresses passengers before a flight to Providence, Rhode Island.

I didn't have any flight issues on my Breeze flights except for manageable weather delays and I found that Breeze pilots updated passengers more frequently than the Southwest pilots on my flight into New Orleans during a storm. ("Well, the storm beat us here," the Breeze pilot said as we started circling Tampa. "Good news," he said, "we have plenty of fuel.")

Passengers who have had flight issues with Breeze, however, are surprised to find the airline does not have customer service agents reachable by phone and have flocked to the airline's Facebook page to complain and post negative reviews.

A review posted Dec. 18: "Never again. The low price isn't worth the headache. Customer service is nonexistent. Staff is only available during departures. If they can't squeeze a dime out of you for something then there is no help available for it. Problems that major airlines can handle with ease become horror stories. Nothing about it was a "breeze.' "

Breeze's website notes that "it does not support phone calls as a means of communication." It directs travelers to Facebook messenger, text or email.

Breeze spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones acknowledged the Facebook reviews and said it can take people time to get used to customer service via text or chat instead of a toll-free number.

"We're a tech-forward airline and guests are far better served through online options," he said via email. "And it also keeps costs down so we can offer $39 fares."

Edmondson-Jones said based on Breeze's net promoter score, a customer service metric companies frequently tout, the airline is "the best-reviewed airline in the country, significantly ahead of Southwest and JetBlue and other industry leaders."

4. No middle seats are a plus, no Wi-Fi or power ports a negative.

Breeze's Embraer regional jets have a two-by-two seat configuration, so there are no middle seats, a big benefit for travelers. 

There are no middle seats but also no Wi-Fi, power outlets or other inflight entertainment. Most of its flights are short so it's not a deal-breaker for most and wasn't for me.

Breeze Airways' Embraer jets aren't lacking legroom.

The airline's inflight amenities will get a major upgrade when Breeze starts adding a new plane type to its fleet beginning this spring as part of a planned expansion that will include not-yet-announced longer flights. The Airbus A220, already in use by Delta Air Lines, will offer premium seats, in-seat power and USB ports, Wi-Fi and inflight entertainment. They will hold up to 137 passengers, compared with 108 to 118 on Breeze's current planes.

5. You can buy soft drinks and snacks but no booze.

Breeze's "Beverages and Bites" menu includes soda, juice and Dasani bottled water ($3.50); snacks including Chex Mix, Pringles and Peanut M&Ms, a protein nut mix ($4.50); and a snack box with dried cranberries, cheese spread, flatbread, Brownie Brittle and almonds ($8.50).

The airline does not currently offer alcoholic beverages for sale. Edmondson-Jones said Breeze plans to add it in March.

6. Some of the flight attendants are college students.

Breeze founder Neeleman, who is from Salt Lake City, partnered with Utah Valley University to develop a flight attendant training program. Breeze hires qualified UVU students as flight attendants and provides them with required training plus full tuition reimbursement or, in the case of out-of-state students, a tuition credit.

Students, who must be 20 years old, work 15 days per month out of Breeze flight attendant bases and receive a salary, paid housing, airport transportation and other benefits.

The partnership was criticized by the Association of Flight Attendants, a major airline union, last year and Breeze said it would expand hiring beyond students. Edmondson-Jones says 17 of Breeze's 186 certified flight attendants are part of the program.

One of the flight attendants on my flights was a psychology student who went through the program.