AIR CHOICE ONE

Published in Midwest Flyer – February/March 2018

All too often, we complain about things that go wrong in the aviation world. We fail to look at the big picture—that despite all of our complaints, we still have access to the greatest aviation system in the world. This series of articles entitled “When things go RIGHT,” aims to point out the SUCCESSES in our industry.

by Jim Hanson

This is an article about three separate but related subjects—Flying for Air Choice One, Essential Air Service, and the company—Air Choice One.

I lease airplanes to Accelerated Aviation Instruction (AAI), based at the airport I manage in Albert Lea, Minnesota. As the name implies, AAI specializes in one-on-one instruction—students are fully immersed in each course—it’s an “all you can fly” way to get the rating in a short time—much like airline training, military training, or training for corporate jets.

One of the students, Taylor Matz, was a successful young farmer, but had always wondered about an aviation career. He obtained all of his ratings from AAI, then became a flight instructor for them. Having just gone through the training process himself, it was easy for him to teach in an accelerated fashion. Taylor had achieved his dream job, it seemed—running the family farm satisfied his financial needs, but he found that he loved flying, and that’s what he wanted to be doing. Teaching courses that span from three to 10 days gave him the ability to plan ahead for overseeing his farm operations. He knew what his schedule was going to be for the next few days. He seemed to have found the perfect balance.

Taylor had considered the airlines, but that seemed to be an unobtainable goal. Not only did it require amassing a lot of total flight time (something he was making progress toward with his flight instructing job), but the airline life didn’t seem to be compatible with his farm responsibilities, until he found Air Choice One.

Air Choice One provides scheduled air service to nearby Mason City, Iowa under the FAA Essential Air Service (EAS) contract. EAS provides a subsidy to link remote cities to air hubs like Minneapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis. It helps rural cities remain competitive with larger cities when vying for industries. I’ve flown a lot of site-search flights for corporations looking to locate businesses, and found a universal theme – “If we can’t get to a city, they aren’t even in contention.” A corporate aircraft makes it feasible to locate in smaller communities, providing lower costs for development, housing, and labor, but not every business has a corporate aircraft. That’s where Essential Air Service comes into play.

People often cite the “small planes” as being part of EAS, but that’s not always true. I prefer to call them “right-size” planes; they can run from 10 seats to 50 seats, depending on growing demand. EAS usually tries to link remote cities with established airline hubs to give passengers a good choice of flights to and from small communities.

I’m a frequent visitor to Mason City, Iowa, located only 40 miles south of Albert Lea. Mason City is an important regional center in this agricultural area, but its location means a 130-mile drive from either Minneapolis or Des Moines, and one of the axioms I’ve learned from flying site-location searches is that prospective businesses won’t drive that far.

Back in the days when the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) regulated the airline industry, cities like Mason City had “regional” carriers. Mason City had Ozark Air Lines; other nearby airports had North Central Airlines. Both used DC-3s in the early years, then progressed to 50-seat turboprop aircraft. With the changes in the airline industry following deregulation, that operation model was no longer viable.

Each city had a number of EAS providers over the years. Mason City had Great Lakes Airlines, utilizing 19-seat Beech 1900s. The pilot shortage following the passage of the “1500-hour rule” for new-hires as co-pilots, caused Great Lakes to consolidate its routes in order to crew its airplanes, and Mason City (and other regional airports) had to find a new EAS carrier. Enter, Air Choice One!

Air Choice One again “right-sized” the airplane to fit the route. Rather than following a business plan that had proven unprofitable for other airlines flying the same routes, Air Choice One offered a “game-changer.” They would fly the routes in a single-engine turboprop Cessna Caravan. Though the Caravan has a maximum capacity of 14 seats (almost that of the 19-seat Beech 1900), by limiting the seating to eight (8) passengers, they could operate under FAA Part 135 rules for scheduled air taxi. It was yet another of the “right-size” rules, where the larger turboprops had to operate under virtually the same rules as larger airline jets (which often made no sense).

I questioned whether passengers would accept flying in a single-engine aircraft, even if it was the Cessna Caravan—one of the safest aircraft in the world! (Full disclosure… I’ve operated the Caravan from the high Arctic to Antarctica, to Greenland, Iceland, Europe, North Africa, and South America—73 countries in total). Operating under the same rules, FedEx has operated the aircraft worldwide for decades with an outstanding safety record—at night, in all kinds of weather, and single pilot. Those safety statistics look good on paper, but would passengers accept them?

I asked my friends at Mason City about passenger acceptance. They told me that passenger acceptance has actually been better than the Beech 1900 formerly used. “Passengers love the ease of boarding the Caravan,” they said. “They really like the extra room in the cabin…with only eight (8) passenger seats, everyone gets first-class legroom!” They like the ability to look down without the wing in the way. They like the quiet cabin compared to a twin.

I asked about any concerns over airspeed. “On legs of less than 150 nautical miles, the difference between fixed and retractable gear is negligible.” There’s that “right-size” approach again…stop doing things “the way everyone else does it,” when “everyone else” has failed! Mason City has flights to and from Minneapolis, Chicago O’Hare, and St. Louis. Those Cessna Caravans connect passengers to the world!

Back to Taylor Matz. He had also seen the Caravans at Mason City, and figured that this would be a way to fly for the airlines, while still managing his farm; it would be a short commute for him. When he contacted Air Choice One, he was told, “This would be a good fit for us, too! Many of our pilots are from the large hubs, and it would be good to have pilots based near our out-stations.” With only 350 hours total time, Taylor applied, and was given a conditional offer of employment. Operating under FAA Part 135, the flights could be operated single-pilot, but Air Choice One correctly figured that a second pilot would allay any fears passengers might have about that subject. It’s yet another example of the airline “doing the right thing” instead of what is expedient.

Taylor first went through ground school at the airline. “I’m so glad I learned and taught in an accelerated fashion,” he stated. “I was used to working hard to meet schedules, and I was used to being required to be prepared for the upcoming lessons. I was the lowest-time pilot in my class at Air Choice One, but several higher-time pilots didn’t make it through the intensive ground school. When it came to the flight check, I was also used to preparing for and taking difficult check-rides.” Less than a year after Taylor decided to pursue a career in aviation, he was onboard as an airline pilot!

“I couldn’t believe my good fortune!” Taylor enthused. “Air Choice One pays a stipend while in training, $30 per flight hour after reaching 1,000 hours, and $41 when qualified as a captain after 1200 hours, plus per diem expenses. Another pay scale increase happens upon reaching 2501 hours, which rewards longevity and experience and provides a stable living environment for those who wish to stay in a particular community or at a particular base. There is even a retention bonus for the last 6 months on a training contract when fully completed.” At the rate that Taylor is flying, he will qualify for a captain slot within a year. New hires must sign a training contract for two years.

When I asked Air Choice One President Shane Storz about the training contract, he replied, “I’d say that 85% of our employees honor their contract (some buy out their remaining contract). It’s inevitable that many will move on, but some have left and found they like our style of flying better, and come back to us. Many of our former employees continue to keep in contact with us…we’re proud of our employees.”

I was intrigued by the story, and wanted to find out more about this airline and the people behind it, so I arranged a telephone interview with President Storz. We had so much in common that the interview lasted for over an hour! Some direct quotes:

• About success in the business: “Like so many of the successful FBOs, ours is a fourth-generation, family-owned business. I grew up in the business, and have done just about every job in this company.”

• Company background: “We started our present operation in 1979 in Festus, Missouri, doing most everything in the business, including banner towing at Lake of the Ozarks. By 1986, we had built quite a charter business, with three airplanes and five pilots. We moved to scheduled cargo, and flew as a UPS feeder and the U.S. Postal Service. We tried a lot of ways to market our business, including the “charter-by-the-seat” concept recently adopted by operations like Surf Air. We did Branson (Missouri) charters. We were kind of a mini-Allegiant Airline – a seasonal charter company. We managed corporate airplanes, including a Beechjet, Lear, and King Air, which made us comfortable flying and maintaining turbine airplanes. After many years of paperwork, we received a Part 135 Airline Operating Certificate, and began pursuing scheduled passenger routes.”

• About the Caravan: “This airplane is fantastic, especially compared to piston twins. It has a 99.5% dispatch rate. In addition to the availability, it has very well-defined cost controls. We had extensive experience with the Caravan on our freight runs. We knew what it could do; we knew what to expect on maintenance; it was a good match for us. Today, we have 12 Caravans…most of them are new models, with glass cockpits and the TKS (liquid) de-icing systems. It’s just a truck that will get the job done!”

• About any other airplanes he’s looking at: “We bought a Beech 1900. It is pressurized and faster, and can hold up to 19 passengers. Right now, we have it configured for nine (9) passengers. We have the growth potential if the market requires it. One of the problems of EAS is that an airline will spend time and resources developing a market, and if successful, someone else may come in and bid that market with a different airplane. We want to be able to handle success.”

• About employment with the company: “We currently have 80 pilots and 12 mechanics. By necessity, we have to farm out some of our mechanic work. We’re always looking for good mechanics, and of course, good pilots. We offer one of the best starting wages in the industry for aircraft of our size, a retention bonus, a 401K program, and travel benefits.”

• About minimum pilot qualifications: “For captains, we require a minimum of 1200 hours total time, 500 hours cross-country, 100 hours night, and 75 hours actual or sim time (at least 50 hours in flight). For First Officers, a Commercial Pilot Certificate with Instrument Rating, 300 hours minimum, experience operating in busy airspace, and strong radio skills.”

• About the kind of pilots they are looking for: “Send us more Midwest pilots! Midwest pilots are used to flying in weather, not like someone that got their instrument rating in Arizona. We like the work ethic of Midwest pilots…they want to work, to fly. They enjoy living close to our bases. They do what they agree to do…you can count on them!” I agree. Most Midwest pilots enjoy the short legs, the takeoffs, enroute, approaches, and landings—the mix of operating out of both big and small airports.

• I asked about minimum time and ratings: “Right now, for a First Officer, 350 hours total time, and a Commercial rating.”

• I asked about maximum age: “There isn’t any for Part 135. As long as you can pass the physical and pass the check-rides.” (I mentioned that we have a pilot in his mid-50s that was so enthused by Taylor’s positive experience, that he is adding his ratings so he could also apply…flying for an airline was not out of reach for him!)

I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with Mr. Storz. We share many of the same experiences in our years in the business – made many of the same mistakes – but also made many of the right decisions. All too often in this business, we see CEOs of companies that “over-promise and under-deliver.” Shane Storz has guided Air Choice One as a rapidly-advancing company based on solid basic tenets. The company has prospered by resisting the temptation to grow only for growth’s sake. They have exploited a niche previously unserved, and despite success, they have remained “family” enough that the CEO knows almost every employee. They have “right-sized” their choice of airplanes to fit the markets served, and that same “right-sizing” has seemed to carry over into their employee relations. That’s GOOD BUSINESS!

If you would like to apply for a flying or mechanic position with Air Choice One, contact: jobs@airchoiceone.com

To learn more about Air Choice One, go to their website at www.airchoiceone.com.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is in his 56th year of flying. He is the airport manager at Albert Lea, Minnesota, and writes on the state of the aviation industry for Midwest Flyer Magazine. When not flying, he can be reached at his airport office at 507-373-0608, or jimhanson@deskmedia.com, and he welcomes reader feedback and input.

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