“When you’re on ATA, you’re on vacation,” used to be the airline’s marketing slogan. But the 10th largest airline in the U.S., American Trans Air (ATA), has shed its vacation-only image to attract more business passengers by cutting Part 121 charter service, expanding its scheduled service and upgrading to the newest fleet in the industry. The airline’s executive flight department, ATA Execujet, is also seeking to expand its service by offering fixed-wing Part 135 service. It currently operates a mix of Part 135 helicopter and Part 91 fixed-wing operations.
ATA began operations in 1973 as an air travel club in Indianapolis. The company grew quickly after deregulation, and was certified as a common air carrier in 1981 operating Boeing 720s and 707s as a charter airline. Beginning its first scheduled service in 1986 with a route between Indianapolis and Fort Myers, Fla., ATA continued to operate primarily charter services for the next decade and did not receive “major carrier” status from the DOT until 2000.
ATA Execujet, officially formed as a subsidiary of ATA’s holding company Amtran (now ATA Holdings) in 1989, emerged from the airline’s corporate flight department. With ATA flying the majority of its passengers on airline charter, landing anywhere the customer wanted and the aircraft allowed, creation of a corporate flight department became imperative as the airline rarely had maintenance facilities or personnel where its aging aircraft would break.
“ATA has always had a corporate flight department,” said Mike Crenshaw, ATA Execujet’s chief pilot. “At various times it flew a Piper Aztec, Piper Navajo, King Air A100 and Cessna 310 [before acquiring jets]. At one time ATA maintained a Gulfstream I for European operations, finding it more cost effective to shuttle crews in the GI than to have them wait for a scheduled European airline.”
Gordon Moebius, ATA Execujet’s director, underscored that the corporate flight department arose from a need to serve ATA’s high percentage of airline charter operations. “In the early 1990s ATA flew charters 90 to 95 percent of the time,” said Moebius, who started with ATA in 1987 and was instrumental in forming ATA Execujet two years later.
Rescuing Standard Airliners
“Unlike scheduled service, a charter airline cannot just cancel a flight. As ATA rarely had any maintenance crew or facilities at these charter destinations, we flew parts and maintenance crews wherever an aircraft was stranded.
“ATA Execujet had one Learjet and two Citations at the time, and our sole purpose was to support the charter airline. But to raise aircraft utilization, we obtained a Part 135 certificate on the Learjet. We began flying approximately 800 hours per year, with 50 percent in direct support of the airline operations and 50 percent in charter operations.”
As the airline expanded its operations and its fleet aged, it demanded an increasing amount of ATA Execujet’s resources, and the subsidiary dropped the Part 135 certificate on the Learjet. But in the past two years, the “vacation airline” has curtailed much of its airline charter business and added scheduled service from its Indianapolis and Chicago-Midway hubs to such destinations as Aruba, Cancun, Grand Cayman, Boston, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
According to Moebius, ATA’s airline charters currently account for only 17 percent of its operations, and a majority of those are part of a contract that makes ATA one of the leading providers of military airlift.
Upgrading the Fleet
In addition, the airline is in the process of upgrading its fleet, divesting itself of old Boeing 727s and Lockheed L-1011s bought in the mid-1980s and taking delivery of new 737-800s and 757-300s. In December ATA took delivery of the 31st of 50 new aircraft to replace the 727-200s removed from the fleet at the end of April. The changeover from airline charter to scheduled service and the fleet renewal has had a noticeable effect on the airline’s corporate flight department.
“In 2001 Execujet flew 1,100 hours in the fixed-wing aircraft, all of which was in support of airline operations,” said Moebius. “But with the new aircraft and the focus away from airline charter service toward more scheduled service, its need for ATA Execujet services is diminishing.”
Instead of downsizing the flight department, however, ATA Execujet has expanded by obtaining Part 135 certification on the Learjet.
“We’re excited about this opportunity to expand our charter business,” said Moebius. “Our chairman, George Mikelsons, is an advocate of growth. If I can show that we need another airplane or another helicopter, he’ll get it for us.”
The fixed-wing pilots aren’t totally unfamiliar with Part 135 operations, however. It’s been only a few years since ATA Execujet dropped the Part 135 certificate for the Learjet, and turnover in the department is so low that several of the pilots remember those days.
“When we first got our first Part 135 certificate, we thought we would use the ATA passenger catering service for our own passenger operations,” recalled Moebius. “But on the first trip that we ordered ATA catering, we received 144 meals for our six passengers. We also found out that an individual who knows how to clean an airliner does not know how to clean a corporate jet. While the airline cleaners use brooms to clean their aircraft, we use feather mittens and toothbrushes.”
As a consequence, ATA Execujet has grown to be its own enterprise. No longer taking up space in the airline’s hangar, where the 727s and L-1011s once dwarfed the Lears and Citations, ATA Execujet’s aircraft are now hangared separately, along with the subsidiary’s own management and four-person maintenance staff.
Although ATA Execujet provides valuable services to the airline, its existence is not well known. “Many ATA crews and employees would be shocked to learn that we have a corporate flight department,” said Carrie Cunning, a first officer at ATA Execujet.
Cunning is another example of ATA Execujet’s uniqueness. A first officer on both the Learjet and Citation with approximately 1,600 hours TT, she was hired three years ago directly from a local flight school with no experience other than her CFII and approximately 900 hours, mostly in Cessna 172s.
“We have found that young flight instructors tend to make better first officers,” said Crenshaw, whose job as chief pilot includes hiring functions. “Some people don’t know how to take instruction, but flight instructors know what it is to accept training. We look for young, ambitious, talented pilots with the right personality who will work well with the system, get along with other people and are willing to do whatever is necessary to get the job done.”
ATA Execujet does not require its pilots to wear uniforms, especially on impromptu flights when getting a part or a mechanic to an AOG is more important than what the pilot is wearing. Only on scheduled flights when a company executive or VIP is flying is a business-casual dress code enforced.
“We are very mission-oriented,” said Crenshaw. “We don’t make our pilots do a lot of nonflying work; we just want them to come in and do their jobs. There’s room for individual expression in dressing casually, and then the pilots don’t feel that we’re dictating every little item.”
ATA Execujet pilots get eight scheduled days off per month. During the remainder of the days, the six full-time fixed-wing pilots rotate in 24-hour on-call segments. When the pager goes off, as it often does between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., pilots have a maximum of one hour to arrive at the hangar.
“A typical week does not exist at Execujet,” said Cunning. “There may be a week that the beeper does not go off, but then the next week the beeper may go off every day. Nobody really enjoys being called at 2:30 a.m., but in the big picture that’s a pretty small price to pay for all of the positives of the job.”
One of the benefits of working for ATA is that even though the airline is toning down its “vacation airline” motif, most of the destinations are still exotic and the ATA Execujet crews are occasionally called to those locations.