Sunday, June 16, 2013

Public air charters take off

By: Shane Tritsch
Chicago Business - Crain 
Sunday,  June 17, 2013 

On a business trip to Chicago recently, Jason Roudabush left his suburban Cincinnati home around 7 a.m., parked at the airport 10 minutes later and checked in for his flight a minute or two after that. By 7:30, he was on a jet bound for Midway Airport, and by 8:15 Chicago time—a little more than two hours after walking out his door—he had reached his destination in the Loop by cab.

After a full day of meetings, Mr. Roudabush, a partner at a private-equity firm, retraced his route, arriving at Midway a little before 5 p.m. for his 5:15 flight back to Cincinnati. “I was home in time for dinner and got to put the kids to bed,” he says. 

If Mr. Roudabush had traveled by commercial airline, he could not have squeezed nearly a full workday in Chicago into that time. But because he flew by public air charter, avoiding the security lines and chaos of commercial airport terminals in both cities, he was able to shave hours off his travel time. 

“To be able to pull right up to the terminal, get out of the car, get in the plane and go—that's very attractive,” says Mr. Roudabush, who flies to Chicago about once a month. 

That helps explain why Ultimate Air Shuttle's 30-seat Dornier 328 jets are, on average, 90 percent full on the Chicago-Cincinnati route—and why public air charters, after failing to catch on a decade ago, appear to be taking off, giving Chicagoans a growing, affordable alternative to commercial air travel. 

Besides Ultimate Air, two other public air charters operate at Midway: Fly Manistee offers service to Manistee, Mich., about an hour's drive south of Traverse City; Lakeshore Express has just launched Thursday-through-Sunday round trips to Pontiac, Mich., near Detroit's affluent north suburbs, and flies Chicago to Pellston, Mich., near the resort towns of Petoskey and Harbor Springs.

Meanwhile, Ultimate Air, which operates its Cincinnati-Chicago route on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, is awaiting federal approval to add round-trip service on Wednesday and offer second round trips on Monday and Thursday. Eventually it hopes to fly double round trips between the two cities five days a week. As the company expands, it is considering additional routes, including Chicago to Minneapolis-St. Paul. 

 Public charters occupy a niche between commercial air carriers and private charter services. Unlike private charters, which book their aircraft to clients who choose when and where to fly, public air charters sell individual tickets to scheduled destinations.

There's also a difference in price. A round-trip ticket from Chicago to Cincinnati on Ultimate Air costs $575, including all taxes and fees—more than an advance-purchase or Saturday-stay fare but less than a typical ticket for midweek travel. Privately chartering the same 30-seat jet for the same round trip would run roughly $15,000, according to Rick Pawlak, managing director of Ultimate Air.


Over the years, a few chartered air carriers have tried offering first-class amenities to passengers on scheduled business-jet flights. In the early 2000s, Indigo Airlines had regular service between Chicago and Teterboro, N.J. But round trips cost roughly $1,500 aboard its 10-passenger jets, and the venture folded in 2003. A NetJets-Executive Jet venture backed by Warren Buffett, which was to fly Chicago to New York, never launched.

Until Ultimate Air came along, “no one has really been able to offer almost a corporate jet experience with an affordable price tag and make it work,” says Mike Wheeler, general manager of Atlantic Aviation, which operates a private terminal at Midway used by Ultimate Air passengers.

Ultimate Air's parent company, Akron, Ohio-based Ultimate Jet Charters, has been in the private charter business since 1984, catering largely to corporate clients, casinos and college sports teams. But when the financial crisis in 2008 caused a sharp falloff in business, ownership hit on the idea of a public charter service to make use of underutilized aircraft.

Chartered carriers that use private passenger terminals at busy airports such as Midway or less-congested secondary airports can save fliers significant time and headaches. Both Ultimate Air and Lakeshore Express process passengers through Atlantic Aviation's private passenger lounge at Midway, which is separate from the main terminal on the south side of the airport.

Passengers can arrive just 15 minutes before flight time. Parking is free in lots nearby. Check-in lasts about 11 seconds—the time it takes an agent to compare the passenger's ID against a manifest pre-screened by the Transportation Safety Administration.

“It's like having private flight service for less than commercial flights charge,” says Kimball Derrick, a Cincinnati-based kitchen and bath designer who spent two years flying to Chicago almost weekly on Ultimate Air while overseeing the construction and launch of a cabinetry showroom at the Merchandise Mart. “The time I was dedicating to the actual travel was minimized, and that time was productive and pleasant rather than unproductive and stressful.”

For many passengers, being treated like a dignified guest rather than a stockyard beast is just as important as the reduction in travel time. The terminals have free Wi-Fi and coffee and comfortable furniture and workspaces. When it's time to board, passengers file to the plane and sit wherever they want. Light snacks and alcoholic beverages onboard are gratis.

“It was such a shock to be treated like a human being and to have a pleasant, civilized flying experience,” says Shan Bhati, global chief administrative officer and general counsel at Chicago public relations giant Edelman, who flies Ultimate Air from Chicago to Cincinnati to visit relatives. “I started calling it the Magic Plane. Now everybody I know calls it that.”

Jay Ratliff, a former general manager at Northwest Airlines who lives in Cincinnati, says “the growing airport security mess” has created an opportunity for public charters selling luxury and convenience to business fliers or affluent leisure travelers.


The other trend in commercial air travel may offer more opportunity for public charters. Cutbacks in service are creating gaps in the air-travel network across the country, Mr. Ratliff says. Fly Manistee is filling such a gap, connecting its Michigan passengers to the main terminal at Midway, where they can either terminate their trip or continue on commercial carriers.

Demand for such service is substantial, says Jim Gallagher, president of Avoca, Pa.-based Public Charters Inc., which teams with Ultimate Air Shuttle and Fly Manistee on ticket distribution, enabling them to book seats through travel websites. Already, he says, public air charters from Dayton, Ohio, and Evansville, Ind., are planning service to Midway as early as the fall. And more charters could be on the way.

“We have lots of airports that are underserved that want to fly into Chicago,” he says.


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