Mark Cestari, right, has fond memories of his first plane rides, when he went with his grandfather, Domenick, on annual trips to Florida. They flew out of New Haven in the 1960s “when air travel was still glamorous and fun,” Cestari remembers. “Kids love the small airport experience — you smell the jet fuel on the ramp, you walk up the stairs, mom and dad could put you on the plane. That’s the romance. I got bit with the bug.”
Cestari is now managing director of the latest company (there have been 12) attempting to be successful at Trenton Mercer Airport. On April 4 Streamline began offering four weekday flights to and from suburban Boston’s Hanscom Field, located 20 miles northwest of Boston (as compared to Logan Airport’s cozy three miles from downtown), but nonetheless very convenient to the high tech Route 128 corridor.
You can take a 70-minute flight to Boston in the morning and return in the afternoon. “Our value proposition is that, if you are flying from Oracle’s headquarters in Waltham, Massachusetts, to Princeton University, your trip is two hours, door to door,” says Cestari. Travelers need to arrive just 30 minutes before the plane leaves. The price point is higher ($199 if you book a week ahead, compared to as low as $120 through Newark or Philadelphia), but the seats are leather, parking is free, and so are the cocktails.
Meanwhile, those who take major or discount carriers from Boston to Philadelphia or Newark are looking at four hours of aggravation, standing in line, and either expensive parking or a limo fee.
It’s the 12th company for the beleaguered airport, but Cestari thinks he has the formula for success — a combination of savvy caution and “back to the future” nostalgia.
His caution comes from having helped launch Shuttle America, one of the airlines that failed. Shuttle America ended up as the commuter line for USAir, and it lasted at Trenton-Mercer from 1998 to 2003. It had reliability problems and, according to Cestari, its 50-seat planes were too big. (Streamline flies the Embraer 120 turbo jet with 30 seats). Also, Shuttle America’s 11-hour daily schedule was too ambitious. “In the Northeast, if you fly eight or more hours a day, you have a very good chance of delays. We made a deliberate decision to scale more modestly and not to over-fly the airplane.”
Streamline is the brand name that represents a Cleveland-based public charter company, Charter Air Transport. CAT takes care of the flying part of the business, and Streamline interfaces with the customer — marketing and selling the flights and trying to provide excellent customer service.
Short haul flying works differently than it did 10 years ago. “The market has changed, low-cost carriers have proliferated,” he says. Small companies provide short hops for the large carriers, but when they must fly out of major hubs like Newark and Philadelphia, they get caught up in inevitable flight delays.
That’s why public charter companies are finding a niche. Cestari cites Myrtle Beach-based Direct Air, a four-year-old firm that flies to 20 cities, and Philadelphia-based USA 3000, which flies from seven northern cities to six vacation spots in Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean, but he says that Morristown-based Ultimate Jet is the most similar to Streamline because it uses the same size plane. He predicts that Streamline will use its 30-seat airplane to connect six or eight cities with Trenton Mercer Airport and then use larger aircraft to go to destinations like Myrtle Beach and Chicago.
Cestari works for Michael L. Hoyle, who founded CAT in 1997, and for CAT’s majority owner, Gordon Spelich. A 52-year-old Wesleyan University graduate with an MBA from Northern Illinois University, Spelich started out as an operations manager at a steel company and later helped form the International Steel Group, which took over such companies as Bethlehem Steel.
CAT also has planes in Farmingdale, New York, and Richmond, Virginia. These planes fly charters to Atlantic City but can also provide backup for the Boston/Trenton runs. “When you are the only airline in a small airport, you’ve got to get your flights reliable,” says Cestari. He is proud of his 98.7 percent on-time record with zero flights canceled, “quite extraordinary for the Northeast corridor.”
Cestari’s marketing savvy comes in part from another company he has worked for, Holland Mark, one of many job changes he has had in the volatile travel field. He has traveled widely — numerous trips to Europe and 25 to Mexico — but nobody in his family loved travel, except for his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who worked as a landscaper and loved to trek to Miami. His father is an assistant school superintendent and his mother a real estate agent.
The older of Cestari’s two sons (named Craig Domenick after his grandfather) has also been bitten by the travel bug and plans to get an air-travel job with more security than his father has had. When he graduates from college this year, he wants to sit in a tower at one of the big airports as an air traffic controller.
After graduating from Boston College, Cestari managed convention and visitors bureaus in the early 1990s and was VP of marketing and communications for Shuttle America for five years. Stints followed with an online travel publisher, a student group travel agency, a trade magazine, and Holland Mark, the marketing firm that branded Streamline.
“We were able to design Streamline from whole cloth, from the name to every single aspect,” says Cestari. “We were able to look at market conditions, market opportunity, and the pain point — we had a chance to build something from scratch.” Streamline is a popular name, so the website is www.iflystreamline and the toll-free number is 855-FLY-STRM.
The marketing plan emphasizes paid media (radio and print) and old-fashioned networking versus social media, although Cestari is not ignoring that. South Carolina-based Jane Spelich (daughter of the owner) manages a basic Facebook page and a Twitter account. Cestari sponsors events at the Princeton Regional Chamber. “We are positioning our project to be a little ‘back to the future,’ a little more formal,” he says. “Our target customer is probably a little older, and maybe ‘old school.’”
Fewer than 10 employees run the Streamline business in the two cities; they manage the reservations, customer service, and sales. Cestari picked Kurt Neinstedt to manage the Trenton office because “he knows the market like the back of his hand.” Neinstedt had worked for Eastwind’s Bee Line, Allegheny, and had been director of sales at Shuttle America.
Neinstedt also gives the personal touch that Cestari thinks is vital. From his own extensive travels, Cestari has learned that good personal encounters are the key to a good experience. “The opportunity for our company is that so much of the travel experience is dehumanized and uncomfortable — a cattle car, Wal-Mart mentality. A little romance and nostalgia, and a little TLC go a long way.”
“The city managers know which guests they are expecting every day. The business person who doesn’t want to line up by number like a kindergartner in the lunch line — Kurt greets him by name in Trenton.” Cestari pitches in at the Hanscom gate several days a week. It gives him an instant focus group when he greets the returning passengers, asking “How was your flight, Mr. Jones?”
Cestari expected to start slowly. After all, this airport hasn’t had a commercial airline for three years. “We are trying to make sure word-of-mouth is positive, to under promise and over deliver.”
And he has been encouraged by the support from small business. “They came out of the woodwork to patronize us.” In the past, more traffic originated from Boston, but now it’s about even. “My non-scientific view is that the technician and finance sectors were more robust on Route 128 (the Boston market) 10 years ago, but post 9/11 there was more growth in Mercer County, particularly of companies clustered in the medical space.”
To his surprise, the big companies have not yet supported Streamline. “They are sending their people in limos to Philly and Newark and taking a wait-and-see attitude about us,” he says. “But if they want to see the expansion happen they need to support the two flights that we have. We knew it wasn’t a cakewalk, and we are in it for the long haul. Just give us a chance to prove ourselves.”
Streamline LLC, Trenton/Mercer Airport, West Trenton 08628; 855-359-7876. Kurt Neinstedt, city manager. www.iflystreamline.com.