Boutique Air Grows With PC-12s

 - September 10, 2020, 1:43 PM
San Francisco-based Boutique Air serves 29 U.S. airports in 17 states nationwide, operating a fleet of 27 PC-12 aircraft. Pictured here are pilots Jarin Delis and Mike Ponce.

Pilatus originally envisioned the PC-12 turboprop single as an executive and utility aircraft, but the model has gained widespread popularity as a commuter airliner since its 1994 introduction. Of the 1,750 PC-12s delivered through mid-August, 94 are flying with 35 passenger airlines around the world, according to the Swiss OEM. The largest fleet PC-12 airline operators are Boutique Air, Tradewind Aviation, North Star Air, and Sino-Swiss United Aero Technologies. 

San Francisco-based Boutique Air was started in 2011 by high-tech executive Shawn Simpson, who bought a company with a Part 135 certificate and one aircraft. In 2014, it began flying regularly scheduled service with one airplane on one route—between Clovis, New Mexico, and Dallas. Today, Boutique serves 29 U.S. airports in 17 states nationwide, operating a fleet of 27 PC-12-45 and PC-12-47 aircraft configured for eight passengers. (The airline also operates five King Air 300s and has two Piaggio P.180 Avantis as reserve aircraft.) “We’re the largest PC-12 commercial carrier in the United States,” said Boutique general manager Brian Kondrad. Last year the airline flew 180,000 passengers. 

Boutique operates exclusively on routes subsidized through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $316 million annual Essential Air Service (EAS) program, linking rural airports with major airline hubs. The carrier has a code-sharing agreement with United and an interline accord with American and can route passenger luggage to its ultimate destination on those airlines. Airfares are based on demand, but generally run from $27 to $99 each way and sometimes substantially less. In late August, Boutique was offering $49 one-way fares from Ironwood, Michigan, to Chicago O’Hare. The airline assumed that route in April from a previous operator, which flew it using Cessna Grand Caravans. The switch to the PC-12 shaved an hour—and sometimes more—off the 290-nm trip each way, down to an average flight time of one-hour, 20 minutes. Boutique also flies from Ironwood to Minneapolis, a Delta hub, with a flight time of 40 to 50 minutes.

Altogether, Boutique flies into four Delta hubs, and Kondrad said it is exploring an interline agreement with Delta. When connecting to airlines with which it has agreements, “Our passengers can get anywhere in the world with just one stop,” said Kondrad. 

Per TSA regulations, baggage gets loaded first through the aircraft’s large rear cargo door and separated from passengers by a cargo rail approved by the security agency. The cargo door “makes loading really fast,” said Kondrad. Passengers are not allowed to access bags in flight. Boutique has a liberal luggage policy—the first 50 pounds are free and the airline allows additional baggage cost-free on a space-available basis. Passengers can also pre-ship bags via Boutique to their destination. 

Boutique’s PC-12s have the standard eight-passenger executive interior complete with individual seats with slide, swivel, and recline and a forward lav that is best suited for emergencies only. “We tell our passengers definitely to use the restroom before they board. But the lav is there if you need it,” said Kondrad. The airline also stocks each aircraft with complimentary drinks and snacks. 

To expedite turn times, the airline employs its own ground personnel at major airline hubs and uses passenger vans to speed passenger movement on the ramp when required. Using the vans means passengers aren’t stuck on airplanes waiting for a gate to vacate. The vans drive them directly to the terminal stairs in hubs like Chicago.  

Kondrad admitted that the aircraft’s interior does wear out faster with such high-frequency usage and that the company replaces key elements such as carpets and seat coverings as needed. Maintenance is handled at one of Boutique’s five owned maintenance centers in Dallas; Denver; Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; and Portland, Oregon, where more than 120 A&P mechanics are employed. Due to the aircraft’s reliability, Kondrad said Boutique generally has seen an absence of issues. Boutique maintains its own parts supply and can access what it doesn’t have quickly from one of the 26 factory-authorized service centers in the U.S. That said, the PC-12 is more maintenance hungry than a traditional commuter airliner. While calling the company’s fleet of PC-12s “solid,” Kondrad did offer the following qualification: “The PC-12 is a reliable, durable aircraft but was not made to use commercially. The cycles are faster and line checks are more often. So having our own maintenance bases to complete the line checks is quicker and allows us to service the route faster.”

A Pilatus spokesman told AIN that “with the introduction of 300-hour scheduled maintenance intervals for NG and 600 hours for NGX, Pilatus did away with the progressive inspection program that was designed specifically for high-utilization operators. Instead, now the master maintenance plan allows all operators to schedule maintenance packages with great flexibility, fitting their unique operational requirements.” 

Regarding pilot qualifications, Boutique prefers Part 135 experience with a hard floor of 500 hours for first officers and 1,000 hours for captain, total time. The airline will hire pilots with fewer than 500 hours and employ them as ground agents while they build more time elsewhere and then consider them for first officer slots once qualified. “It’s a good way for them to learn the company and ground handling,” said Kondrad. Boutique does its own in-house pilot training and has relied on FlightSafety for the simulator piece. While pilot turnover had been a problem, since the Covid-19 pandemic arose, Kondrad said, there have been “no resignations.” Boutique currently employs 160 pilots. 

The pandemic has led to minor changes in Boutique’s operations. All interiors are sanitized with alcohol wipes and in some markets with UV devices after each flight, and passengers are required to wear masks. Boutique does not conduct passenger temperature checks.  Kondrad sees an upside to Covid when it comes to growing Boutique’s air carrier niche. “The major airlines have reduced capacity and connections and now sometimes you have to wait 10 or 12 hours for a connecting flight. Fifty-seat RJs are now limiting capacity to 25 passengers. Commuter service has been dropped at some locations altogether. We are a private company and we have kept all of our seats available for purchase, and we expect to see increased [passenger] loads in or near those markets where routes were dropped.”