Looking for a cheap flight but leery of booking a seat on an airline that you're not all that familiar with? Join the crowd. Although the bigger-is-better theory really shouldn't hold true in the airline industry -- especially considering that some of the best service and fares exist on niche airlines -- many travelers mistakenly lump all small carriers into the same category.

The fact is, not all small carriers are created equal.

Southwest Airlines

(LUV) - Get Report

,

Alaska Air

(ALK) - Get Report

,

Midwest Express

(MEH)

and

Frontier Airlines

(FRNT)

have been around for years -- decades, in the first two cases -- and are in a whole different league from financially shaky start-ups like

Vanguard

,

AccessAir

,

Tahoe Air

and the recently deceased

WinAir

.

What do the successful small carriers have in common? Each has captured a particular market niche and developed a loyal core of customers, has a seasoned management team, typically offers lower fares and provides consistently better (read: friendlier) service than the majors.

Unfortunately, these same established and profitable airlines -- with the exception of Southwest -- still suffer a bit from lack of recognition because of their smaller size and regional strength. Alaska is a key player up and down the West Coast, Frontier flies to 20 cities from its Denver hub and Midwest Express focuses on serving key business cities from its Kansas City hub. "There's no shame in being a big player in a small pond, but often that's why these carriers aren't as well known as they should be," says Stuart Klaskin, principal of

Klaskin Kushner & Co.

, an aviation consulting firm in Miami.

The small carrier also gets a bad rap from the residual

ValuJet

effect, which resulted from the ValuJet crash that killed 110 people in 1996. That, coupled with a string of start-up secessions resulting from poor management and lack of funds, causes travelers to be wary about going with what they don't know. "Smaller carriers still have to deal with the perception of being less safe," explains Klaskin. "The reality of it is, size shouldn't bring an implication of safety with it, but it does, and that's what matters."

Additionally, small carriers -- no matter what their safety record and balance sheets look like -- still must overcome the challenge of proving their financial viability, because it directly affects a traveler's willingness to rely on them.

And perhaps rightly so, given the lack-of-cash failures for such start-ups as

Western Pacific

,

Air South

,

Carnival Airlines

,

Kiwi

,

Mahalo Air

and, most recently, WinAir. Air travelers should steer clear of these red flags because they're often telltales of financial instability: Airlines that consistently alter their route systems, offer frequent last-minute sales and have limited flights (and no deals with other airlines), aren't bookable by travel agents in the Central Reservations System and advertise ridiculously cheap fares -- like $29 one way. You should book such airlines with caution because it's likely they desperately need cash and are facing near-term shutdown.

John Dekker, owner of

Carlson Golden West Travel

in Westminster, Calif., says that management's lack of knowledge is the biggest difference between the wannabe and the real success. He found this out recently when he placed a phone call to WinAir, based in Long Beach, Calif., to ask about the airline's future plans only to come up empty-handed. "No one could answer my questions; they were all clueless," says Dekker. "That's typically the case with many of these start-ups."

So, Dekker's enthusiasm and desire to support his new hometown carrier waned quickly, and he wasn't at all surprised to hear the airline was ceasing operations just eight months after launching its service in November 1998.

Travelers should be a bit proactive if they're considering trying to save some money by booking a cheap flight but are concerned about flying a smaller airline to do so. One surefire way to gauge a carrier's reliability is to call the airline directly and ask what happens if your flight is canceled. If there's no contingency plan in place, it's probably best not to rely on this airline to get you to your destination.

Additionally, an airline that participates in a major airline's frequent-flier program or code-shares with a major carrier is probably a safer bet than one that doesn't. "This is often a stamp of approval," says Kevin Mitchell, president of the

Business Travel Coalition

.

When it comes down to it, the long-term success of small airlines largely depends on the willingness of individual travelers to support them. "If travelers don't take on the responsibility of choosing to fly the solid, smaller, more-affordable carriers, the majors will continue to take advantage of the situation and there will be no competition," says Mitchell.

Clearly, this message is getting out, albeit slowly, to corporate travel managers faced with increased pressure to cut costs as well as to entrepreneurial business travelers tired of paying sky-high plane fares out of their own pockets. A recent study conducted by

American Express

reveals that, on 96% of city pairs, travelers chose lower-priced tickets more often than full, nonrestricted fares on major carriers -- even if that meant taking a connecting rather than a nonstop flight, purchasing a ticket further in advance and buying a nonrefundable fare.

The results of a survey conducted in March by the

National Business Travelers Association

further cement this trend. They indicated that 72% of corporate travel managers are using or plan to use low-fare carriers.

According to Dekker, clients are increasingly recognizing the potential savings. "Most are savvy enough to see the value in paying $166 for a one-way flight

on a small carrier from Fort Lauderdale to New Orleans as opposed to shelling out $411 on

Delta

(DAL) - Get Report

," he says. "For some business travelers, the frequent-flier programs still rule, but when it comes to leisure travelers, they just want the cheapest fare."

On Southwest -- the best-known and undoubtedly the most successful of the low-cost carriers -- you pretty much get what you pay for. If price, frequency and friendly flight attendants matter most, then this carrier is likely your best bet. Just know that the ticket price doesn't include an advance seat assignment or any real food.

For its part, Alaska entices travelers by offering a $30 upgrade to first class that can be booked within 24 hours of every flight as long as there's space.

Fly Midwest Express, and for the same or slightly lower price of a ticket on a major carrier, you'll get a cushy, wide leather seat, great service and good food -- including Midwest's trademark baked-in-the-air chocolate chip cookies.

And in an attempt to woo the business traveler, Frontier offers a 5% travel credit based on the amount those travelers spend on tickets each quarter. Regardless of the size of the company, business travelers can sign up for the program free of charge, obtain an account number and begin accumulating credit toward future travel.

"Companies are becoming increasingly interested in saving money," says Tom Allee, national director of sales, distribution and marketing programs for Frontier. "They see the value in our product when the money is coming out of their own pocket."

Most important, with each of these carriers, you'll get to where you need to go as a result of intelligent management and backup plans.

The bottom line? Bigger isn't necessarily better.

Stacy H. Small is the senior West Coast editor for Travel Agent magazine. She is also a freelance writer for publications including Conde Nast Traveler and National Geographic Traveler. At time of publication, Small held no positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. While Small cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, she welcomes feedback at

stacysmall@aol.com.