Single-engine Airlines Fill Niche in NYC Market

 - September 7, 2017, 9:34 AM

While the New York City area is well connected by airlines, two turboprop operators have found a niche market offering scheduled flights linking the city to Boston and New England summer enclaves such as Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

Having just passed its 15th anniversary, Connecticut-based Tradewind Aviation is one of the largest operators of the Pilatus PC-12 in the U.S., recently adding another three of the capacious turboprop singles to its fleet for a total of 18 split between scheduled service and on-demand charter. (The company also operates a trio of Cessna CJ3s in charter service.) “We’ve been running single-engine turboprops since day one,” noted company president Eric Zipkin.

The company made its debut in the dark days following the 9/11 attacks and instantly felt the aftershocks on the industry. “The biggest challenge to starting in this business was getting insurance,” Zipkin told AIN. He noted that for typical piston-powered Part 135 aircraft, at that time, it was nearly impossible to obtain coverage, so as the company’s founder and chief pilot, he looked to single-engine turboprops. “I’d like to say it was by choice, but it was really more by necessity, and we were pleasantly surprised with the larger turboprop singles.” The company started off with the Cessna Caravan, and customers who previously considered the term “single-engine aircraft” to mean something like a 172 were quickly re-educated. “As soon as they walk up to the airstair and walk down the aisle on the airplane, they realize that the number of engines ceases to be part of the conversation,” said Zipkin.

Tradewind acquired its first PC-12 in 2003, and by 2015 the company had moved to the Swiss-made airplane as the sole turboprop, phasing out the Caravans for a number of logistical reasons. “The Pilatus is 100 knots faster than the Caravan, so we can squeeze in three round trips to Nantucket versus two with the Caravan, so we’re effectively increasing our capacity by 50 percent,” explained Zipkin. “It doesn’t require any more crewmembers, and it’s a more comfortable ride because it’s pressurized, so you get a lot more choices in terms of the altitude it can go.” The airplane is certified for single-pilot operations, but the company uses two crewmembers on every flight, both for safety and customer service benefits.

Operating mainly from New York Westchester County Airport, one of the Northeast’s most active business aviation hubs, Tradewind offers seasonal scheduled service to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, as well as year-round flights to Boston. “Our customer is a private charter customer who doesn’t need the entire airplane, because it's just them,” noted Zipkin. “From a regulatory standpoint, we’re a scheduled airline, but the experience for the customer is a shared charter. Customers are going FBO-to-FBO and have the same experience a private charter customer would have.”

The company reports year-on-year growth of nearly 30 percent in each of the past five years, and given the interplay between the scheduled and charter fleets, it has the flexibility to accommodate periods of high demand. “One of the nice things about the PC-12 is you have eight passenger seats, so even in the scheduled environment, if you put up an extra airplane to meet demand, you’re not taking an enormous risk,” said Zipkin. “We have the on-demand [charter] aircraft which are not committed, so if the airplane is not on private charter, we’ll put it on for the extra capacity as needed.”

In many cases the customer's single-seat purchase marks his first exposure to the aircraft, and his impression of it often leads to full charter bookings of it for other travel needs later on. “So our scheduled operation really feeds our on-demand operation,” Zipkin said.

In the late fall, as traffic to the Cape Cod area dwindles, most of the company’s fleet migrates to the Caribbean, where it runs shuttle service to islands such as Nevis, Anguilla, Antigua, St. Barts and St. Thomas. “We move a number of our airplanes down to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and our scheduled operations in the Caribbean are much more the traditional airline type where we are taking passengers out of the main airport,” said Zipkin.

Last year Tradewind inaugurated a weekend ski mountain shuttle service between New York and Stowe, Vt. “The Pilatus was designed to be a short takeoff and landing airplane and that’s what we use it as. Stowe is a smaller airport, but we can get in and out of there without any problems,” noted Zipkin. “It’s the same thing with many of the airports we serve in the Caribbean.”

The Water Option

New York-based Tailwind Airways has taken a different approach, offering scheduled and charter service direct from midtown Manhattan using a pair of amphibious Caravans. The flights depart from and arrive at the seaplane base on the East River at E. 23rd Street, offering the ultimate in convenience for time-conscious customers. “I think a lot of people in New York don’t realize that Manhattan has an airport, and we’re out there trying to build awareness,” said Peter Manice, the operator’s vice president of sales. “New York has a lot of congestion, both at the airports and then getting to the airports." He added that using the seaplane base allows customers "to bypass TSA, bridges, tunnels, La Guardia Airport reconstruction and getting out to White Plains or Teterboro if they fly privately.”

Unlike Tradewind, Tailwind has no intention of trading in its Caravans, as their amphibious nature suits the company perfectly. It is, in fact, looking to expand its fleet of the turboprop amphibians. “It’s a great aircraft for what we need,” explained Manice. “It has a practical range with a full load of 250, almost 300 miles, which covers a big chunk of the Northeast from New York City.” While the company’s takeoffs and departures on the New York end involve water operations, at the other end they typically use airport runways. Like Tradewind, the carrier flies its aircraft exclusively with two pilots.

Tailwind began flights into and out of Boston Logan last year, and added the Nantucket route this year, in time for the Memorial Day weekend. Manice noted that traffic for Boston is bidirectional, whereas for Nantucket it flows to the vacation destination on Thursday and Friday and returns on Sunday and Monday. The company doesn’t sell the empty legs, which results in a higher price for the Nantucket flights. Manice describes the flights to the island as largely weekend commuter shuttles, for families with vacation homes. “They’re just looking to get back to their office, and we can get them door to door in under two hours, which no one else can do,” he told AIN.

During the week, the Caravans, along with the several Daher TBMs on Tailwind's certificate, are busy with charter to destinations such as Sag Harbor and Shelter Island (where the Caravans land on the water), the Hamptons and Montauk Airport. It also operates as a contractor for helicopter charter provider Blade’s Aqua division.

The company has obtained FAA approval for water operations in Boston Harbor, and while it had hoped to offer that option this year, it is still working with developers to establish a permanent seaplane base downtown near the financial district.

While other operators move their equipment south to the Caribbean when winter descends on New England, once the company wraps up the Boston flights around the beginning of December it puts the Caravans into hibernation until the middle of March. Manice did not rule out the possibility of a future seasonal migration, if his company can forge the proper relationships. The company also operates an aircraft management division to keep it occupied through the colder months.

Tailwind plans to expand throughout the Northeast, with a New York to Washington D.C. route slated to begin in 2019. It is also considering Pittsburgh and Hartford, as well as Montreal, which offers U.S. Customs pre-clearance. According to Manice, Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is in the process of developing a pre-clearance facility of its own, which would allow Tailwind to operate from downtown Manhattan direct to downtown Toronto.