General aviation in this central region of Canada has been pretty steady in recent years, according to Dylan Fast, president of Fast Air, a ten-year-old charter company based at Winnipeg International Airport. The charter operator has seen success during its relatively short tenure by focusing on what it calls the “briefcase segment” of its customer base, as well as its medevac operation. And while Fast says growth is among the goals of the company, it doesn’t necessarily mean getting bigger, but rather doing what it does better.
Dylan Fast started his company some ten years ago. He was a pilot flying a Cheyenne out of Winnipeg when he approached the owner of the aircraft about using it in a charter operation when the owner wasn’t flying. Within six months, Fast purchased his own aircraft and today the charter operator has seven of its own aircraft on its certificate and four managed aircraft. The fleet of 11 includes the Westwind Business Jet, King Air B200, Cheyenne II, Chieftain, Navajo, and an Otter based at Baker Lake.
In addition to business charter and aircraft maintenance, Fast Air also offers medevac services, which has been “extremely busy,” according to Fast. The company recently added a second medevac aircraft.
Fast Air currently employs some 50 people, 20 of which are pilots.
Since 1996 when Fast started the operation, he says business has grown steadily each year. While he wouldn’t share figures, he says revenue has increased some 20 percent every year in the last ten years of business. Fast Air has a 40-year lease at Winnipeg International, which Fast says is atypical here. When he opened his business at Winnipeg International, there was an empty World War II hangar, which Fast assumed the cost of tearing down in exchange for the longer lease term. Facilities here include a 13,000-square foot hangar with 6,000 square feet of attached office space. The company is in the process of constructing another 20,000-square foot hangar.
Looking ahead, Fast says that adding bases could be in the future for the operator, if it makes sense financially and operationally. Other goals include filling empty return charter legs and seeking more aircraft management opportunities. “We’re always trying to do things better,” says Fast, “not just concentrate on growing bigger but doing what we do well.”
The Positive Impact of Effective Marketing
Marketing is key to the company’s growth and success so far and Fast Air employs a full-time marketing manager, Margaret Koshinsky. [At the time of this interview, Dan Rutherford was transitioning out of the company and Koshinsky was assuming his role as marketing manager.]
Fast Air targets its marketing efforts to what Rutherford calls the “briefcase segment” of the market — business charter. The “tackle box segment” (sport fishers) and the “tool box” segment (contractors) of charter customers are very competitive in Winnipeg, according to Rutherford and, particularly with the sport fishers, there is only really a ten-week season when that business is available. “So we’ve chosen to be focused more on the briefcase segment,” he says. “If we let others do the tool box and tackle box segments, we can focus on the briefcases and that strategy has served us very well so far.”
In addition to the briefcase customers not being as seasonal, Rutherford adds that the flying is generally easier for Fast Air — it’s easier on the equipment because they’re most often going to more developed airports as opposed to remote locations.
Rutherford says Fast Air has used things such as its website (www.flyfastair.com), brochures, participation in corporate golf charities, direct mail, and word of mouth to promote its services. “Referrals are huge, like in any business,” he says.
Because the pilots are often the first and only contact a customer might have with a Fast Air employee, Rutherford says he often attended pilots’ meetings to conduct sales training and to help them better understand customer service. “A lot of times it was just giving them [pilots] permission to do things that will make the experience better for the customer,” he says. “The rationale behind it is, even if they’re not the ones doing the actual booking, the flyer can often influence the decisionmaking process on what charter company is used.”
In the case of the medevac pilots, they are the ones that are primarily in the community at the nursing stations and can develop the relationships that will lead to future business. Rutherford says Fast Air developed an employee incentive plan to encourage pilots to spread the word about the company’s services. Fast Rewards, an allegiance program developed for Fast Air customers, has also been successful for the operator.
As for marketing pieces such as brochures, Rutherford says it’s all about targeting one’s efforts to the appropriate audience. As of yet, e-mail marketing has not been as successful for Fast Air as direct mail has been. And, he adds that people should not overlook the effect of a handwritten note. “Ten handwritten notes are worth 10,000 e-mails,” says Rutherford.
Fast expects that the introduction of the very light jet will have an impact on the industry, but perhaps not as profound as some predict. “I don’t think the impact is going to be as great as everybody says, but I think there’s a future in it, and certainly if you want to be in the charter business, you’re going to have to fly them,” he says.
At this point, Fast does plan to make the VLJ a part of his business and he says he currently favors the Eclipse 500.
Increased security, both on the U.S. and Canada sides of the border, has made charter operations more complicated, says Fast. “The U.S. is building the fence higher and higher,” he says. “The process is more time-consuming and more complicated.” Fast says that, as a charter operator, he must have more information on his customers and ensure that it’s accurate. “Gone are the days where the passport number is mistakenly incorrect,” he says. “You just have to make sure your Is are dotted and your Ts are crossed better.”