Thursday, January 1, 2015

Salt Island Seaplanes: Land on the water — new service flies from Naples to Key West

Photo Credit/Courtesy: DAVID ALBERS



NAPLES, Fla. - A saltwater adventure made for a sweet anniversary surprise.

On a recent Saturday, Matt Galbraith, 31, of North Fort Myers, took his wife of two years on a seaplane, flying from Naples to Key West.

"She had no idea that we were going to be doing this," he said.

They were some of the first passengers to try the new service, offered by Salt Island Seaplanes.

They took off at the Naples Municipal Airport and arrived by water in Key West. They stayed overnight and flew back the next afternoon.

"It was a first for both my wife and I to go to Key West and flying in a small plane," he said. "It seemed romantic and adventurous too."

For he and his wife, Nichole, 33, the float plane ride was the most thrilling part of the trip.

"Just flying in the plane and seeing everything was awesome," he said. "You don't go super high. So when you're leaving out of Naples, you fly over and you can see Tin City, see Marco Island, then out over the Gulf. We were just trying to see anything we could spot in the water and look out into the horizon."

The service took off Oct. 1 and will fly through April 30. Flights are available every day, except Wednesdays, and on three holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. It operates as an on-demand service, offering up to two flights a day.

Salt Island's seaplane, a Cessna 206, has room for up to four adventure-seeking passengers.

"Our idea is to make individual seats available, so one person can make this trip at a reasonable price," said Jon Rector, the company's owner.

A one-way ticket goes for $210, and it's double for a round-trip ticket. Reservations are a must, at least two days before take off.

Rector isn't just the owner of the business. He's the pilot, with more than 35 years of experience flying with commercial airlines and more than 27,000 hours of flight time logged.

Though the service between Naples and Key West is new, the company isn't. The business is 11 years old and the Rectors purchased it a few years ago. He offers a similar summertime service on the same plane to hikers and campers in northern Michigan, with flights between the Houghton County Memorial Airport and the Isle Royale National Park.

"My wife and I are actually Fort Myers residents," Rector said. "We wanted to have another season for the business. So that is why we are starting in Naples in the winter."

He offers charter flights as well. "We will fly pretty much anywhere," Rector said.

While he's not the only operator flying to Key West from the Naples Municipal Airport, he's the only one doing it on a seaplane.

"It's not that common," Rector said. "Inside the state of Florida, I think there are five seaplane charter operators, so not that many, compared to regular airplane charter operators. There are probably 50 or 60 of those in the state."

With a cruising speed of 125 miles per hour, the seaplane takes a different, more scenic route than commercial planes, reaching Key West in less than an hour. After landing in Key West, passengers take an eight-minute boat ride to the foot of Duval Street downtown.

"It's a 55-minute flight," Rector said. "There's free parking at the airport, no security lines. It's a way of doing a Key West trip without spending a lot of wasted time."

He operated a small sightseeing tour business in Fort Myers using a seaplane from 2001 to 2004.

"It did OK," he said. "But we were never able to make a consistent profit at it particularly because at that time we didn't have an offseason location for it. We learned that we need two seasons."

As the new service grows, Rector plans to hire another pilot and add another seaplane.

He expects to attract year-round and seasonal residents, and tourists looking to add a little adventure to their Naples visit.

Matt Galbraith, a year-round resident, said he liked the trip so much, he's ready to go again. "In your mind, you think it might be rough and difficult in a way," he said. "But it was a lot smoother, and really, really nice. It just felt like floating along and the scenery was awesome."

Salt Island Seaplanes has leased a hangar and offices from the Naples Airport Authority, which runs the airport. One of the authority's top priorities has been to bring commercial service back to the airport, and it recently hired a consultant to look into the costs of doing that and to gauge community support for it.

"We would love to have scheduled service," said Ted Soliday, the authority's executive director. "We are going to continue to work on it, but right now we are doing a study to find out whether it's realistic to even consider scheduled carriers in the future."

The last major airline to use the Naples Airport was Delta, which stopped flying there in 2007. Yellow Air Taxi, operated by Friendship Airways, halted its scheduled service from Naples to Key West in December 2008.

The city's airport is served by five air charter operators. One of them, Exec Air Inc., has several planes, including a vintage Cessna 182. It offers on-demand service to Key West from Naples.

"I'm not afraid of competition," said the company's owner John Swasey. "There's always room for competition, as long as everybody is fair with everything. That's all we ask is that everybody operates on an equal playing field."

His service, he said, is geared to the average Joe, not the Naples elite, though "they do use us." "If one passenger buys a ticket we're going to go," Swasey said. "We don't leave people stranded."

For about three years, Exec Air has offered scheduled service between Naples and Miami International Airport four times a week. Swasey expects to add a scheduled service between Naples and Key West by early next year. He sees growing demand.

"We get couples. We get singles. We get families. Everybody has their own different take on Key West," he said.

For more information about Salt Island Seaplanes, call 239-263-7258, or visit SaltIslandSeaplanes.com.

Story and Photos:  http://www.naplesnews.com


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