Charleston native to launch airline; Yeager in future plans

May 27, 2009


May 27--CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston native John Weikle, whose plans to launch low-cost carrier JetAmerica from a base at Yeager Airport last year fizzled when fuel prices skyrocketed and previous startup Skybus went belly up, is back in the game.

Today in Toledo, Ohio, Weikle will announce the start of JetAmerica nonstop service between New York via Newark (N.J.) Liberty Airport and Toledo; Lansing, Mich.; South Bend, Ind.; and Melbourne, Fla. Also announced will be nonstop service linking Toledo and both Melbourne and Minneapolis, Minn., and Lansing and Melbourne.

Within the next 18 months, Weikle hopes to add Charleston and seven other locations as JetAmerica "focus cities," where more nonstop flights will originate and two to seven aircraft eventually will be based.

At least nine seats on each flight served by JetAmerica's 189-seat Boeing 737-800 aircraft will sell for $9 as part of the carrier's "Let's Get America Flying" campaign. The remaining tickets will sell for 50 to 70 percent less than fares offered by the major airlines.

The new air service linking Toledo, Lansing, Melbourne and South Bend to Newark, and Toledo to Melbourne, is scheduled to begin July 13. The Toledo-Minneapolis flights are scheduled to begin Aug. 14.

Weikle scrapped plans to launch JetAmerica from Charleston last April, after Columbus, Ohio-based Skybus, the low-cost carrier he founded, folded after operating for one year.

Weikle, who left Skybus shortly after its launch, said that airline's failure and $4-per-gallon fuel prices prompted the decision to abort JetAmerica's takeoff in Charleston 13 months ago.

"We took a few months off to study what went wrong [with Skybus], and determined that it was the execution of the business plan that failed," he said.

Skybus, according to Weikle, grew too fast and failed to maintain a reliable schedule. "It was always late," he said, "and the percentage of seats sold kept declining."

After resurrecting plans to launch JetAmerica last October, the airline found the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority to be an energetic backer. Toledo also fit JetAmerica's profile for prospective service locations -- an underserved market with a population of more than 3 million people living within 75 miles.

"We're committed to opening direct air links and getting people flying again from here," said Michael Stolarczyk, the port authority's CEO and a West Virginia University alumnus.

Before 9/11, the Toledo airport boarded about 600,000 passengers annually. Now, Stolarczyk said, only about 200,000 passengers depart from Toledo, with most air travelers choosing instead to drive to the hub airport at Detroit.

"Having a nonstop flight to New York is very important to Toledo," Stolarczyk said, particularly for business travelers. "Being able to go west to Minneapolis in August will also be important." Currently, Toledo passengers must first fly to Detroit or Chicago to get to New York.

Almost $1 million has been raised in the Toledo area to promote the new service, including funds from a Small Community Air Service Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and donated advertising time and space by area newspaper and television stations.

"Using the most fuel-efficient aircraft out there -- the Boeing 737-800, with 189 seats -- is an important aspect to making the new flights successful," Stolarczyk said.

In a news release announcing the flights, Weikle likened the JetAmerica business plan to the plan used in Wal-Mart's early years, when the low-price retailer "built big box stores in small-town America where there was no competition. This gave people a convenient alternative to traveling long distances to do their shopping, and they were guaranteed the lowest prices on the items they wanted to buy."

JetAmerica's main competitors are not airlines, he said, but automobiles, because residents of communities with poor air service "are used to driving as far as 100 miles to major airports to pay low, nonstop jet fares. Now they can fly nonstop in comfortable big jets at affordable prices from their hometown."

Weikle said he views Charleston as a city with "great untapped potential," which he would like to add as a JetAmerica focus city. "I see Charleston as a great opportunity -- not just because it's my hometown," he said.

Weikle said JetAmerica's business plan calls for relatively slow growth, making use of a maximum four aircraft by the end of its first year of operation, compared with 12 aircraft used by Skybus during the same period.

Rather than buying aircraft and hiring crews initially, JetAmerica will contract with a Florida-based carrier to provide jets and experienced flight personnel, he said.

Weikle said he had not identified possible JetAmerica destinations from Charleston.

"He's been in contact with us since last year, when he told me he was working on this project," said Yeager Airport Director Rick Atkinson. "We're always interested in new air service, and he believes the Charleston market will work for him. What he's planning is a very interesting concept."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at [email protected] or 304-348-5169.