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I'm National, Fly Me

22 July 1999

If first impressions were permanent, you'd be reading a very different column today.

I'd been eagerly anticipating the launch of National Airlines, a new carrier designed to bring more flights to Las Vegas. It began service between Midway Airport and Las Vegas on May 27, and my wife and I gave it a try in June.

My first impression wasn't pretty.

The luxurious Boeing 757 with fewer seats, more legroom, hot meals and attentive service we'd been promised wasn't ready for our flight out of Midway. Instead, National leased a sardine-can charter to get its passengers to Las Vegas.

Computer woes added to the day's aggravation. Seat assignments fell by the wayside, promises to write boarding passes weren't kept, and my wife and I wound up sitting apart.

This was not the service level we'd been led to expect, but there were better times ahead.

Two days later, National came through in spades - and hearts, clubs and diamonds. With its own equipment instead of the leased charter, National got a chance to strut its stuff on the flight back to Chicago. With 11 fewer seats in coach and two fewer in first class than on a United Airlines 757, there was a little extra legroom for everyone.

In first class, I stretched out my legs and didn't touch the seat in front of me. Fresh fruit and a croissant were followed by a cheese omelet that was hot and tasted - lo and behold - like a cheese omelet. No movies or music -- the in-flight entertainment system wasn't completed -- but it was a small price for the extra room.

Extra comfort, edible food, a service level compatible with the service players expect from casino resorts -- that's what National promises, and that's what it delivered on the return trip. When president and CEO Michael Conway still had the airline in the planning stages, Harrah's Entertainment climbed on board as an investor. Travelers who stay at Harrah's Las Vegas or the Rio -- both owned by Harrah's Entertainment - don't have to go through baggage claim. Their bags are delivered directly to their rooms. Not only that, players can check in for their return flights and even check their bags at Harrah's or Rio.

"This airline was designed to work in the Las Vegas market," says Mark Suman, National's senior vice president for strategic planning. "It's a very price-sensitive market, and we need to be efficient in our infrastructure and design. We've settled on one single aircraft, the Boeing 757. We think that's as efficient an airplane as there is."

Efficiency in operation and the standardization of flying the same model on all routes lead National to believe it can offer low fares and a more comfortable flight, too. National, which flies to Las Vegas from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, also finds it can cut costs by keeping its planes in the air 13 hours a day instead of the industry average 10 hours.

National is trying to fill a gaping need in Las Vegas. More than 30 million travelers visit Las Vegas every year, and it's estimated that figure will have to increase to 40 million a year to keep occupancy rates up after the current casino hotel building boom.

There's not enough capacity on current flights to Las Vegas for that kind of growth. Pleas from casino operators haven't been enough to convince airlines to add flights.

"Most airlines are geared toward transporting the business traveler," Suman explains. "That's their bread and butter. Their cost structure is very high. Las Vegas is a leisure destination, and leisure travelers want low fares. When a business sends its people all over the country, it's willing to pay the higher fare to book at the last minute. So a big airline will move its equipment to where it can make the most money serving the business traveler. That's not Las Vegas."

But Las Vegas' boom is National's reason for existence. Its five-year plan calls for flights to Las Vegas from 20 cities. That includes expansion in Chicago, where National awaits a U.S. Transportation Department decision on who will get available slots at O'Hare. National then hopes to operate out of both Midway and O'Hare.

In the meantime, National will work on smoothing out the rough spots and adding equipment. Its 757s were acquired from other airlines, then refitted to National's standards. New aircraft have been ordered from Boeing.

The airline is eager to show itself off at full strength. Passengers who were forced onto the cramped charter on the way to Las Vegas were given vouchers to sample the real National experience another time. National showed me enough on the return flight that I'll be using mine real soon.

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

The Craps Answer Book

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski