Chalk's International Airlines, a fixture on the South Florida aviation scene since World War I, has lost its federal operating license and its future looks dim.
The tiny seaplane operator, with headquarters at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, has not flown since Sept. 3, according to airport officials.
Crippled by a fatal crash of one of its Grumman Turbo Mallard seaplanes in Miami on Dec. 19, 2005, Chalk's had been leasing planes from another airline to ferry passengers between airports in South Florida and the Bahamas. Without operating authority from the Department of Transportation, however, it cannot even do that.
On Tuesday, the Broward County Commission is scheduled to consider terminating the airline's lease at the Fort Lauderdale airport. Chalk's has not paid rent since April on its counter space in Terminal 4 and is more than $11,000 behind on rent and landing fees, according to an airport memo.
Efforts to reach Chalk's general manager Rajan Nair through phone messages and e-mail were unsuccessful. Fort Lauderdale airport spokesman Greg Meyer said the airline has not returned phone calls left by airport officials for several weeks.
"If they're not going to pay, we need a tenant in there that will," Meyer said.
Chalk's over the years developed a strong following among Bahamians living in South Florida. Unlike other airlines that fly to the Bahamas, Chalk's seaplanes allowed it to fly directly to North Bimini.
"Some people could go to their houses in minutes," said Kimani Dottin, dockmaster at Weeches Marina in Alice Town, North Bimini, who said visitors now have to fly to South Bimini, take a bus to a water taxi and cross a channel to get home.
After the 2005 crash, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded the type of plane Chalk's uses, the Grumman G-73T Mallard, because of metal cracks in the wings. In August 2006, Chalk's resumed flights using 19-seat conventional planes leased from Montana-based Big Sky Airlines.
Earlier this year, Chalk's briefly launched service from Palm Beach International Airport to Freeport, Nassau and Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas. But by August, it carried only 14 passengers the entire month and 559 since the service began in late May.
The airline boarded 1,510 passengers this year from Fort Lauderdale, though it failed to file a report for August, airport officials said. It hasn't flown out of Miami since the crash.
Chalk's has a colorful history. Started as Red Arrow Flying Service by A.B. "Pappy" Chalk in 1917, it operated at the foot of Miami's Flagler Street under a beach umbrella, with a desk and a phone nailed to a nearby utility pole, according to a company profile on its Web site. Chalk left to fly in World War I, but resumed the business under the name Chalks Flying Service in 1919. It claims to be the oldest continuously operated airline in the United States.
Chalk's was sold to Resorts International in 1974 and was owned by the late Merv Griffin, who in 1989 tried to get rid of its seaplanes and fly only regular planes to his resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. George Fredlund, director of safety and training at National Jets Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, and a Chalk's buff, said the Bahamian government refused to let Griffin do it.
High operating costs made Chalk's financially precarious, however. It had several owners since Griffin sold it in 1991. Except for Bimini, most places it flew could be reached by land-based planes, such as those flown by Gulfstream International Airlines from Fort Lauderdale.
The 2005 crash shook confidence in Chalk's and left it without a fleet of its own. In its Sept. 30, 2007 order, the Department of Transportation said it gave Chalk's more than a year to get the Federal Aviation Administration to re-approve its seaplanes, or to acquire new planes, but it has done neither, so the department revoked its flying charter.
Tom Stieghorst can be reached at email@example.com or at 305-810-5008.
Go to Sun-Sentinel.com/chalks to see photos of Chalk's Ocean Airways fatal 2005 crash in Miami