Oct. 17--HAMILTON -- Joe Conrad and his wife Chris have embarked on a $1 million venture -- the first charter service based at the Butler County Regional Airport.
County Commission President Charles Furmon called it a "big step" for the regional airport, which until two weeks ago had its runway space almost limited to companies and private aircraft owners. Now, any business or anyone can access passenger service for up to 12 people in or out of the airport.
"I think it's definitely going to do great things," Furmon said about Conair Charter, LLC. "The airport is kind of a hidden jewel and it's just starting to come into its own." Conair Charter formed in late May with one jet, four new employees and faith that it could work. Two weeks ago, the company began flying and has several flights booked ahead.
While spending the past 16 years operating ProAero, a fixed-based operator at the regional airport, the Conrads noticed the increased business use of the airport, Conrad said.
In fact, the airport is now a launching pad for 150 aircrafts, compared to 98 in 1999, said Ron Davis, the airport's administrator. Millions in federal and state funds have paid for the airport's continued growth, including hangar construction and the ongoing terminal ramp replacement, he said.
Also, Conrad expects the demand for charter service to increase as commercial airlines continue to take financial hits. Comair, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, Inc. with a hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, announced Thursday it would eliminate up to 1,000 jobs or 14 percent of its work force during Delta's Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.
Airlines like Comair have reduced departures, have even cut some destinations, and have reserved the right to cancel flights two days in advance. Both of Conair's pilots were laid off in April by Chicago Express.
"Business people can't deal with these kinds of hassles and inconveniences," Conrad said. "That's where charter is a whole lot more important now."
When most people think of a private air charter, they think the price is way out of their league. But Conrad said for business trips Conair can be a cost-saver. The reason -- its 12-passenger Jetstream 31 twin-engine turbo prop aircraft.
"It operates at a cost per hour similar to a six- or eight-seat plane, but this is a 12-passenger plane," Conrad said. "It's almost twice as efficient as the next best airplane out there. That's why we can offer such good deals with SharedCharter.net." The Jetstream 31, built in the mid-1980s for 19 passengers, is slower than corporate jets, but it can carry a heavier load at less cost and land on short runways, making it a popular commuter plane, he said.
Charter air service also has the ability to land or depart from just about any airport, rather than just large commercial airports.
"The nice thing about charter is we do things (more) on the customers' schedule than like the airlines do," Conair co-pilot Mitch Barber said.
Charter flights can often be more convenient, Barber said.
"You can park in the lot right here, spend all day in Chicago, and return by dinner with no connections, no waiting in line for two hours," Conrad said.
For $3,900, 12 business representatives could fly out of the county airport with as little as 18 hours notice at 8 a.m., arrive in Chicago by 10 a.m., attend a meeting until 2 p.m. and arrive back by 5 p.m., according to www.conaircharter.net.
For the four hours of flight time at a pay rate of $35 an hour, the employer spends $1,480 for the time of 12 employees. Therefore, the total cost to the employer is $5,380.
Comparing the same trip with a traditional airline, the employees would spend 17 more hours with flight time, waiting in security lines, connections, leaving work early to catch an evening flight, and taking the next day off to compensate. Therefore, 21 hours costs $8,820 for 12 employees at $35 an hour. Add three $95-a-night hotel rooms and 12 short-notice airline tickets at $523 per person as quoted by Cheaptickets.com, the trip costs the employer almost three times as much -- $15,381.
"Productivity is real cost for a business," Conrad said. "Time is money to a lot of people and that's what you are buying -- time -- with charter service." After attempting to get a charter price quote from Blue Star Jets for the same trip, it was discovered a turbo prop aircraft to hold 12 passengers was not available in the service area. The next best option was a heavy jet, which would cost $11,000 to $12,000 for the trip, a charter broker said.
The agent attempted unsuccessfully to find a deal better than Conair's quote. "That's really the best deal considering that fact that it has the capacity for 12 passengers. That's what makes it unique," he said. "If $5,380 is their price, I'm going to call them up and use them."
Conair Charter adds a new dimension of service at the regional airport, which could be the start of more to come, county commissioners said.
"It's just the beginning of a lot of good things that will happen as we develop the airport," said Commissioner Michael Fox. "With the (Ohio) Bypass 4 widening project, there will be a new entrance to the airport from the bypass and with new development around the airport you are going to see more activity. We want to make it easily accessible and that will be beneficial all the way around." Commissioner Gregory Jolivette said Conair's presence could be the first step toward the airport becoming a commuter airline hub.
"It could be something that can lead into more of a commuter stop," he said.
"It will open up a lot of ease for business travelers and it would have a ripple effect for other services." Conair Charter will host an open house from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday at the airport's terminal building, 2820 Airport Road East. Families and visitors can tour the jet.
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