Ed Kwoka decided the trips to Manchester, New Hampshire, were getting a little annoying. Air Transport, a charter flight company serving mainly the Northeast, had been founded there in the 1980s. Kwoka, however, was here, running an IT business out of his offices on High Street in Burlington when he bought the company. So rather than relocate to New England, he did the next best thing and moved the company’s headquarters to Airpark Drive at the Princeton Airport.
Princeton, says Kwoka, is a natural location for a company like Air Transport, which is more akin to an airborne limo ride than it is to a commercial plane. Air Transport specializes in getting a few business travelers, or a few family members, to their destinations without the hassles of long lines, cramped conditions, and limited destinations.
“We are flying more people out of Princeton these days,” says Kwoka. The area’s business community, he says, offers an enormous amount of potential clients, particularly since so many large, wealthy, multi-location companies are here. Companies often want to get their employees to satellite office locations and are happy to trade the extra money for being able to get to destinations that are not always on the commercial route.
Charter service can be substantially more pricey than flying business class on a 747. Kwoka says flying with Air Transport to and from Nantucket could cost about $2,800, compared to the $200 or so that it would cost to go with a major airline to a neighboring major airport. One client, he says, routinely flies from New Hampshire to Jacksonville, Florida, for the seemingly shocking sticker price of $17,000 per roundtrip.
But looking at raw numbers is misleading, says Kwoka. First, the price of a trip to New England is well worth it to companies that need to get executives there in a hurry. Unlike commercial transport, where security lines, drive time, and check-in could feasibly take two or three hours, Air Transport often can pick you up and deliver you to Princeton Airport in mere minutes, Kwoka says.
Second, Kwoka says, the timing evens out in terms of getting people to their ultimate destinations. Whereas commercial airliners can get to, say, Boston in an hour or so, the airport is not the final destination for most travelers. Check-in time here and post-landing requirements there often suck up the one irreplaceable commodity travelers are often most pressed for. In two or three hours, Kwoka can make the same trip, but again, with less aggravation.
Air Transport can also land in more remote areas, Kwoka says. A traveler flying in for a meeting in Princeton, for example, would have to settle for landing in Newark, Philadelphia, or New York if they take an airline flight. A charter service like his, he says, can zero in on smaller airports and airfields and shave more than an hour off post-flight drive time.
“We can compete on time all day long,” he says.
Third, charter planes have the ability to get you close and wait for you, Kwoka says. Executives are able to get somewhere, conduct their business, and hop back on the plane and be home the same day. This, he says, greatly cuts down on the expense of putting any number of executives up in a hotel overnight.
Business travelers, of course, are not the only ones who find wider destination options and lack of long lines worth the extra money. A number of well-off individuals here, he says, have vacation homes in areas that have small airports (such as Nantucket). And a charter flight offers the ability to take along some members of the family who otherwise never get to enjoy the view.
“People don’t want to put their pets in a brown cardboard box,” Kwoka says. As more people view their pets as real family members, he says, people want to bring them along for vacation trips without having to pack them into the cargo hold. It is an area that is expanding in charter air service and one Air transport intends to play up in the future, he says.
Kwoka says his company’s target — the privately wealthy and the corporately funded — will likely stay the same, given that Air Transport has no plans to woo a mass demographic and given the sheer cost of operating. While drivers lament having to fork over $3 for every gallon of gas, Air Transport must factor in the costs of running a propeller-driven passenger plane that, every hour, burns 24 to 40 gallons of fuel that costs $6 to $8 a gallon.
Kwoka says Air Transport is looking to expand its two-plane fleet and is in negotiations for a King Air 200 (which uses 100 gallons an hour) and a Citation 5 jet. This “VLJ,” or “very light jet,” requires a crew of two and will likely cost Air Transport a million and a half dollars, but Kwoka says the jet will substantially expand its capabilities and range. The range of Air Transport’s current fleet is about 1,000 miles. Kwoka will fly you farther, he says — you’ll just have to stop to refuel.
Kwoka says he might eventually expand his fleet (the two craft he flies now are actually his own personal planes), but for now he is concentrating on making things more efficient. Longterm plans to continue operating in Manchester, where Air Transport still employs two full-timers and a part-timer, are iffy, he says, but it is almost certain that his six-person staff here will grow as his fleet increases.
Times could be favorable to a service like Air Transport. On January 7, Big Sky Airlines, the last commercial carrier serving Trenton-Mercer Airport, ended its services here. A subsidiary of Pan-Am, Big Sky followed Delta subsidiary Comair, which flew its last Trenton-bound flight last June.
While Air Transport does not compete directly with airlines, Big Sky and Comair focused on exactly the types of customers Air Transport has always courted. In the absence of any other regular local airline, charter companies could do well. “It definitely opens the need,” Kwoka says. Then again, he says, so does the weather. Now that it is getting warm, demand for charter services should rise sharply from its winter doldrums.