Sunday, September 5, 2004

Steve Tower inspected a Cessna 172 that he chartered from Moore Air Wednesday to fly interisland. Small charter companies are seeing big business from airline-weary customers.

Now boarding

Charter flights are taking off
as customers tire of airline hassles

On the sleepy back side of Honolulu's airport, a van pulls up to the tarmac and out steps former pro football star Terry Bradshaw.


A comparison of per-person round-trip travel costs between Honolulu and Kahului.

>> Aloha Airlines: $279.20
>> Hawaiian Airlines: $222.20
>> Pacific Wings: $159.20
>> Charter plane: $200 (for full eight-seater)
>> Self-piloting: $60 (for full four-seater)

Note: Airline fares are for online bookings of mid-week, mid-morning travel in coach class or equivalent.

Sources: Airline Web sites, Moore Air Inc.

He walks a few paces past single-engine planes at rest with their noses in the air and wordlessly takes a seat on a golf cart that takes him to a chartered plane bound for Kona.

No fuss, no paparazzi, no pestering fans -- at least no one brave enough to test the glower on his face.

"That's why people like that come to us. They're in, they're out and no one bugs 'em," says George Hanzawa, owner of charter and flight-training firm George's Aviation Services, as Bradshaw's golf cart pulls away.

The alternative for Bradshaw would have been to fly one of Hawaii's major airlines and submit to the security procedures that would have made him a sitting duck for autograph-seekers. But reclusive celebrities aren't the only ones leaving the jet set to join the propeller pack.

Thanks to security delays, rising interisland air fares and the attraction of charting one's own course around the islands, small aviation firms say they are working flat out these days to handle a surge in business from both local and malihini travelers who are chartering aircraft or even renting planes that they fly themselves.

Though the Federal Aviation Administration does not track statistics on such activity, an FAA spokesman said Hawaii's busy small-fry flyers are catching a wind that's blowing nationwide.

"This is one of the big trends in aviation now. Not just in Hawaii but across the country," said Don Walker, an FAA western region spokesman. "These charter guys are just jamming."

Besides the convenience, hitching a ride on one of these air taxis brings some cost advantages, particularly when traveling in a group. For example, a round-trip chartered flight from Honolulu to Maui comes out to about $200 a person for a full eight-seater plane, about the cost of the lowest-priced tickets on Hawaiian and Aloha Airlines.

Annie Gordon, an Oregon resident who visits Hawaii four to five times a year with her husband, Alan, to stay in a Molokai vacation home they partly own, admits that she still gets white knuckles riding the smaller propeller planes but she still can't understand why anyone would do otherwise.

"It's laziness," she says. "People automatically think of the big airlines when they have to fly somewhere and don't investigate other options that they might like better."

A growing number appearing to be doing their homework, though. Local charter firms say they're handling as much as double the amount of interisland charter work they did even before 9/11.

Actions speak even louder than words.

>> Maui-based commuter airline Pacific Wings, which also runs several charter flights a month, has just purchased an additional plane and is in negotiations for two others as it plans to expand its charter operations.

>> Air cargo carrier TransAir recently established a new charter business called Inter-Island Airways and began flying last month with a just-delivered 30-seat propeller craft.

>> Several aviation industry veterans are launching Pacific Air Charters, which has purchased several small planes and expects to receive FAA clearance to carry passengers in October.

Several other small operators say they have similar plans to tap into the charter market.

"It's something we feel we have to do," says Pacific Wings President Greg Kahlstorf. "We haven't had to turn any charter business away yet but we've got way more demand than we can handle right now."

Some firms see a core market in the rich and famous who have bought Hawaii homes or vacation here regularly.

Kahlstorf says Pacific Wings' repeat charter customers are usually celebrities or corporate executives who jet to Oahu and Maui and then seek chartered flights to whisk them to more secluded areas.

Pacific Wings charters vary in price based on the destination and the client's peculiar needs -- and some are peculiar indeed. The company does not divulge customer identities but Kahlstorf said some wealthy individuals recently chartered a plane, asking that all the seats be removed to accommodate dog cages specially built for the plane to transport the customers' purebreed pets from Maui to the Big Island.

"I guess they didn't want their dogs to feel stressed," he says. "That's the typical kind of thing we get. People call from their Learjet and say 'we're landing in 15 minutes and need a plane standing by to take us to Lanai'. So we set everything up the way they like it, right down to the kind of scotch they drink and whether they take it with ice."

Other travelers are taking matters into their own hands.

Rob Moore, a partner in fledgling Pacific Air Charters and also head of Honolulu-based flight-training and aircraft rental firm Moore Air Inc., said the latter's rental business has doubled over the past year. This is partly a rebound from a post-9/11 dropoff but Moore says he's also seeing a growing number of resident professionals such as doctors and lawyers who maintain practices on more than one island and use their amateur pilot licenses to fly themselves.

Do-it-yourselfers stand to save even more money than charter customers. One of Moore Air's four-seat Cessnas rents for $120 for each hour it is in the air, with no extra charge for keeping the plane overnight. So a round trip to Maui involving two hours of flight time is significantly cheaper per person than an airline ticket if more than one person travels.

But Moore says that, for such travelers, cost concerns pale in comparison to the desire to avoid a wait in the main terminal that usually exceeds the length of the flight itself.

"I think most people have a problem with the two-hour wait and it was only a matter of time before many of those people started looking for a better way," he says.

There are clouds on the horizon, however.

Hanzawa of George's Aviation had to hike some of his rates by 10 percent at the beginning of August to reflect high aviation fuel prices, which have grown nearly 50 percent this year due to soaring oil prices.

Rising insurance rates also are taking a bite. Operations like his require coverage of at least $1 million per passenger, and his premiums have grown 40 percent the past couple of years.

All of this comes at a time when overall interisland travel by Hawaii residents is shrinking. A new study by SMS Research and Marketing Inc. said such travel has declined 22 percent since 2000, citing fare increases and a reduction in statewide business travel since 9/11.

Hanzawa said all of these factors have forced formerly easy-going companies like his to abandon a past "seat of the pants" operational style and focus on doing greater business volume as a hedge against rising costs. His company is now more organized and keeps closer tabs on seasonal travel trends to position it for spillover business from the major airlines.

So far, so good, Hanzawa says.

"If just 10 people come over to us because they missed a flight or got bumped, that fills a whole plane for us. It doesn't take much to give us a big shot in the arm."



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