Comair beat United in starting bizav ops

 - May 7, 2008, 7:24 AM

When UAL Corp., the parent company of United Airlines, announced in May that it would enter the business aviation market with creation of a new subsidiary to be known as United BizJet Holdings for the time being, it was big news. And it was assumed by some that this was the first venture into business aviation by a major airline. Wrong!

Comair, a regional airline acquired by Delta Air Lines in January last year, has maintained a business aircraft operation since 1984 that now includes a jet charter fleet, managed aircraft and a new FBO at Ohio’s Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Comair Jet Express is a division of Comair and has been around for more than 15 years, said Brandon Greene, sales and marketing manager. “And we’re not only doing well, we’re expanding.”

The company started in December 1984 with a single Learjet 25D and two pilots. Ironically, the idea was that it would support the travel needs of the airline’s executives.

In 1986, to offset the cost of ownership, a Part 135 certificate was acquired so that the aircraft could be made available for charter. Over the next several years three more airplanes were purchased and added to the Comair Jet Express certificate. By 1991 another Learjet 25D and a Learjet 35 had been added and the charter side of the business was accounting for 70 percent of the total hours flown. In 1993 a Learjet 60 was acquired and then traded in 1995 for a Challenger 601.

Business boomed, and in 1996 Jet Express entered the managed aircraft business with acquisition of another Challenger 601, which was promptly added to the Part 135 certificate and made available for charter.

Today, the company’s owned fleet consists of two Challenger 604s, a Learjet 60 and a Learjet 35A. The managed aircraft available for charter are comprised of four Gulfstream IV-SPs, a Challenger 604 and a Citation II. Comair Jet Express provides a “fully managed” operation in which Comair Jet Express handles all aspects, from aircraft acquisition and certification to maintenance and crew assignment. The four new GIV-SPs are based at Cincinnati Lunken Field. One managed 604 is at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky. The remaining airplanes are all based at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky.

“We’re averaging about 1,000 hours per aircraft per year on our own fleet and 250 to 350 hours on the managed airplanes,” said Greene, who added that while Comair Jet Express expects to continue expanding its charter operation “the company has no plans at this time to enter the fractional-ownership market.”

Certainly the affiliation with Delta Air Lines and its Comair Delta Connection regional feeder and parent company are an asset. Following a recent audit, Flight Safety Foundation Q-Star administrator Robert Feeler noted, “Comair Jet Express benefits greatly from [its] association with this major air carrier and has adopted many of the programs, policies and procedures of the more stringent airline’s regulatory requirements.”

The association also allows Comair Jet Express to take advantage of fuel pricing discounts and insurance premiums available to Delta.

Finally, Delta, which charters out its own large-aircraft, will often refer customers to Jet Express. But it is a benefit that is not reciprocal. If a Comair Jet Express charter is canceled, said a spokesman, the company will charter a replacement aircraft, “but we would never consider putting our clients on a commercial airline as a solution.”

Delta, Comair and Atlantic Southeast Airlines provide seats for pre-positioning of crews for Comair Jet Express managed aircraft at no cost to the owner. Comair Jet Express crews also have access to the same hotel discounts available to Delta, Comair and Atlantic Southeast Airlines crews. Atlantic Southeast is another wholly owned regional airline subsidiary of Delta, operating out of Atlanta.

Comair Jet Express currently has a staff of nearly 30 pilots and 15 additional staff, including five cabin attendants. Greene said the company is currently looking to hire captains with an ATP rating, 3,000 hr TT and 2,000 hr as PIC (including 1,000 turbine hours). First officer candidates should have an ATP rating, 1,500 hr TT, 1,000 hr as PIC in fixed-wing aircraft and 200 fixed-wing multi-engine hours. Neither pilots nor flight attendants at Jet Express are union members.

The company pays for pilot recurrent training at FlightSafety International. It also pays for cabin attendant recurrent training at FACTS or FlightSafety.

Greene emphasizes 15 years of accident-free operation, noting that Comair Jet Express not only meets or exceeds the standards of the Flight Safety Foundation’s Q-Star charter operator verification program, it has also received the “Platinum Rating” from ARG/US’s CHEQ audit.

Further expanding its business aviation presence, in May last year Comair Aviation, a separate subsidiary of Comair, opened new FBO facilities at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky.

The $8 million investment includes a 40,000-sq-ft hangar. Amenities offered at Comair Aviation by manager Wynn Poe and the staff of 20 include weather and flight planning; three private business centers with work areas; a conference room; to accommodate up to 12 persons; hotel and automobile reservation service; shuttle service to area hotels; de-icing capability; overnight hangarage; U.S. Customs service; crew sleeping quarters, lounge areas and showers.