Tired of the long lines, congestion and security hassles at commercial airports? More and more business professionals in Greater Cincinnati and across the country are turning to private air charters as a convenient, cost-effective alternative.

“I would take wing-walking on a small plane to the best seat on a commercial flight any day,” says Paul Tarvin, founder and CEO of Frontgate catalog publisher Cinmar Inc., who regularly flies both commercial and charter in and out of Cincinnati. That kind of consumer sentiment is fueling a resurgence in air charter activity not seen since the late 1990s. Demand is so high that you could end up disappointed if you try hopping a last-minute charter flight.

“In the last two years, I hate to say it, but we turn down more customers than we’re able help,” says Bud Gawthrop, director of customer service at Air 10 Jet Center at Lunken Airport in eastern Cincinnati. “Over the last year, it’s (demand) reached a peak and stayed there.”
Tarvin learned the hard way when he tried in vain to get an unplanned charter flight to Boston to visit family and attend a Red Sox playoff game. “I called Bud (at Air 10) and a half-dozen other charter companies, both local and national, and struck out,” recalls Tarvin, himself an instrument-rated private pilot. “I was surprised no one could find a jet on short notice.”

Charter services that use smaller-engine planes and cater more to regional travel are also growing. Dave MacDonald, owner of Flamingo Air at Lunken, says his charter business is experiencing unprecedented demand. Flamingo owns three planes, all six-seater, single-engine Cherokee 6s, and leases another five. The biggest chunk of business for MacDonald is flying cargo for other businesses and transporting customers to regional destination cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.

“The big expansion, the big move, started around 2005,” MacDonald says. “Before then, you couldn’t give away a seat on a single-engine plane. Since that time, people literally stand in line rather than go through the nightmare at the airport.”

Total hours flown on charter, corporate and other general aviation aircraft peaked in 1999, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, before dropping off in 2000 and falling even farther in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. FAA statistics through 2005, the latest data available, show flat or slight decreases in annual activity since 2002, but anecdotal and other evidence at general aviation airports, including those in Greater Cincinnati, suggests marked increases in 2006 and 2007.

The surge in demand here — for both jet service to more distant destinations and smaller-engine, regional service — is underscored by the experiences of companies such as Air 10, Flamingo Air and the other dozen so-called “Part 135” charter operators in Greater Cincinnati. Part 135 Certified is the moniker the FAA uses for charter operators who meet certain safety guidelines and other critical performance requirements.

Consider the move made a couple of years ago by Air 10 (then operating as Midwest Jet) when it built a 25,000-square-foot hangar at Lunken to house and service its own fleet, along with aircraft managed for other owners. “We are investing in the staff and facilities to make sure we offer the best experiences in the industry,” says Bill Butler, CEO and chairman of Corporex. Butler, who flies out of Lunken often on Cessna Citation jets, is now invested with another partner in Air 10. “You can see this in our new $5-million hangar.”

Fred Anderton, manager of the Lunken and Blue Ash municipal airports, sees the same national trend playing out locally. He says total operations — takeoffs and landings — are dropping at general aviation airports nationwide, including Lunken, but charter and corporate flights are rising.

“The charter business has really picked up in Cincinnati,” observes Amy Christian, office manager of There By Air/Blue Ash Charters at Blue Ash Airport. “Businesses are making the connection that it’s a lot more time-effective to do charter,” adds Christian, who works along with her husband-pilot and chief operating officer, Bill Christian.

Indeed. Flying charter saves significant time — figure at least two hours each way on a roundtrip flight by eliminating wait time. It's tailored to a customer’s own schedule and doesn’t require the same tedious security checks now required at commercial airports or layovers. You might save even more time and incidental costs by avoiding overnight stays.

“It’s all about being on your own schedule,” Christian adds. “You don’t have to leave the night before or get home at 9 o’clock at night. You can be home for dinner. That’s the beautiful part of it.”

Local providers say charter attracts business folks of all stripes and corporate rank: from CEOs down to middle managers from all types of businesses. It’s even attracting non-traditional leisure travelers, what MacDonald of Flamingo Air likes to call his “little old lady” market of elderly women and widows flying regionally to visit family.

Charter pricing is based on cost-per-hour for a given aircraft, not per passenger, as is the case with the airlines. As such, charter prices — depending on the destination and number of passengers — can be surprisingly cost competitive with major commercial carriers. The price is approximately $2,000 per hour for planes seating four to six passengers, for example. Such flights are most economical for consumers who take along several people because the total cost of the charter is comparable in price to last-minute, first-class commercial airline tickets for the same group.

“The price isn’t onerous if you’ve got two or three people on a charter plane,” says Bill Sena Sr., a downtown money manager at Sena, Weller, Rohs, Williams. He travels on charter or commercial every month or so. “With shorter trips, particularly a couple of hours from Cincinnati, charter is much more cost-effective compared to commercial.”

International flights are another story. Charter is too expensive to be justified for overseas flights, says Tarvin, who has been a “platinum” customer on Delta Air Lines for nearly 15 years with more than 2 million domestic and international miles logged. It can cost upwards of $10,000 an hour to charter an international flight.

Flexibility also is a big plus. Tarvin, who still flies frequently on commercial and uses charter for business and leisure, covets the flexibility of charter. “I have used charter for business to visit two retail stores in Atlanta and Charlotte,” he says. “I can hit both in one day, take eight people total and be back the same day. You simply can’t do that on the airlines, and the cost is competitive with our friends at Delta on that specific trip.”

Both Sena and Tarvin have used a variety of charter companies, both locally based and national providers, including Delta AirElite, Air 10, Executive Jet Management and Citation Shares. Sena notes that national companies often charge more to cover a chartered plane’s down time — what’s dubbed “deadhead” or “empty leg” time. “It’s the difference between it costing $2,000 to go one place and $4,000 to go to the same place,” he explains. Tarvin says local charter companies are at least as price competitive as national companies and “probably more so.”
But individual needs can dramatically affect the cost of flying charter. Charter operators provide price sheets on request, list them on their internet sites or quote prices over the phone based on your itinerary and other needs, such as catering or ground transportation. There are many programs designed to suit a consumer’s needs, depending on how much you fly charter per year.

For example, larger charter companies offer pre-purchase programs, which guarantee a minimal number of charter hours and other perks. If you fly charter 50 to 100 hours a year, you may consider fractional ownership of a plane, which might allow you to depreciate your share or get other tax breaks.

Delta is one of the few, if not the only, among major carriers with a thriving charter business. The nation’s third-largest commercial carrier bought into business charter with its purchase of Cincinnati-based Comair Holdings and re-branded it as Delta AirElite Business Jets in 2001. Based at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Delta’s AirElite caters to business travel on planes seating six to 14.

AirElite owns, leases and manages aircraft at various locations throughout the country. Its core fleet at CVG includes five aircraft, two Challenger 604s that each seat up to 10 passengers and three mid-size Learjets seating between seven and eight passengers. Delta also has a separate charter operation based in Atlanta — called Delta Charters — that caters to large groups requiring seating for 50 or more.
Popular Planes and Perks

The aircraft used in what the FAA calls “business aviation” include a variety of airplanes, from the most pricey corporate Gulfstream G5s to relatively less expensive mid-size jets to even less expensive turboprops.

“Many of the aircraft used by the business aviation community are not corporate jets,” says Dan Hubbard, spokesman for the trade group National Business Aviation Association. “Piston twins and turboprops make up the largest segments of business aircraft types, followed by the various types of jets, with large jets making up the very smallest segment.”

Bill Orcutt of Air 10 points out that chartering larger planes for a small number of people isn’t particularly cost-effective. “It can become very expensive, depending on how they use it,” he says. “They have the choice. If you’re just flying the CEO, it’s not as cost effective…but it’s complex to put a dollar value on an executive’s time.”

Price isn’t always the deciding factor for business executives whose time is at a premium or for a company vying for a major customer account.

“People can’t rely on the airlines anymore. It’s cheaper to do this (charter) than miss a meeting,” comments Larry Davis, director of operations for Irish Air LLC at Lunken.

Kay Watson, the flight coordinator for Air Alpha at Lunken, says her company caters to people  who need to go anywhere, anytime, including smaller cities and towns. Their customers count on the charter service for a package of services, including arranging ground transportation and lodging at destinations, she notes.

An increasingly popular use of charter planes is taking groups of people to events, notably sports and concerts. Watson says Air Alpha flies alumni to football games in other cities. There are so many Notre Dame alumni locally, Air Alpha sometimes sends two full planes to South Bend, Ind.

Irish Air opened for business in 2001 and charters one plane — a high-end Gulfstream III that carries 12 passengers and four crew. “I am amazed at the growth,” he says of the Cincinnati market. “I don’t leave the ground for under $40,000. I can carry 12 people, but I often quote flights for two, four or six people. Rarely do they fill the airplanes. “People are looking for the space. It’s like a living room in here,” he says of his Gulfstream III. “We have Direct TV, anything you want.” ■