SeaPort Air flies PC12s to achieve low DOCs in scheduled charter ops

Use of fields with short runways keeps pax happy with arrivals at close-in target terminals.

By Grant McLaren

(L–R) SeaPort Airlines Pres Rob McKinney, Senior VP James Day, Dir Maintenance David Schultz, Chief Pilot Bruce Phillips and Asst Dir Ops Noel McDermott on the ramp at Flightcraft PDX (Intl, Portland OR) with one of the company's 7 PC12s.

A growing fleet of Pilatus PC12s and Cessna Caravans are providing new 9-passenger scheduled service options across the US, using FBOs rather than airline terminals, and avoiding hassles and delays of TSA screening.

Scheduled Part 135 with less than 10 passenger seats (not including jet options) falls below TSA screening thresholds and PDX (Portland OR)-based SeaPort Air has used this niche opportunity to advantage in developing profitable and expanding scheduled operations during the toughest economic conditions the nation has faced in 50 years.

SeaPort Air Pres Rob McKinney says the secret to success is selecting the right aircraft, keeping costs under control, providing effective career opportunities to pilots and maintaining a motivated workforce.

"We began scheduled BFI (Boeing Field, Seattle WA)–PDX PC12 service [between the BFI terminal and Flightcraft PDX] in Jun 2008, and by September the economy had started to tank and fuel costs skyrocketed," recalls McKinney. "We were on a trajectory to succeed but maybe not quickly enough before the cash ran out.

We had to do something. Expanding our network saved us and we had an essential air service (EAS) PDX–PDT (Pendleton OR) route up and running that same year."

Today SeaPort runs 2 distinctly different operations under SeaPort Air and Wings of Alaska banners. SeaPort ops include 3 PC12s and 18 pilots out of PDX and 4 PC12s and 22 pilots out of MEM (Intl, Memphis TN). Based in JNU (Juneau AK), Wings of Alaska operates similar scheduled Part 135 services but with three 9-place Cessna Caravans and 3 Cessna 207s.

The combined network flies 110 flights per day with operations ranging all the way from ELD (El Dorado AR) to SGY (Skagway AK) and aircraft utilization runs at times as high as 200 hrs a month.

Company aircraft are normally flown 2-pilot with "full CRM best practices." SeaPort offers opportunities for new pilots with first officers often hired in the 500-hr TT range and advancing to left seat with as few as 1200 hrs TT. "This is an entry level flying job with lots of work but good experience and our pilots are well taken care of," says Chief Pilot Bruce Phillips.

"We fly 2 pilots by choice and this creates a flow-through situation where we never have to hire captains. We have a very successful pilot intern program with Kansas State University Salina and they train to our specific standards. We've never furloughed a pilot."

Capt William Eastwood, for example, joined SeaPort in Feb 2009 with 550 hrs TT and Cessna 152/172 and Piper PA34 Seneca experience, upgraded to captain 8 months later at 1240 hrs TT and now has 2400 hrs TT. "The PC12 was a big step up but an exciting one," says Eastwood.

"Transition training involved 1 week inhouse ground school and 6 hrs in the PC12. We have good benefits, I'm home 5 nights per week and we're a small enough operation that we can interact with the chief pilot often."

While SeaPort ops avoid TSA screening requirements—no pat downs, rubber gloves or bag checks and the ability to arrive at an airport just 10–15 minutes before a flight—McKinney says security is always at top-of-mind awareness. "We have a fully approved security program and could use main terminals rather than FBOs if we chose to," says McKinney. "Our pilots have the ability to check luggage or remove a passenger if they feel they need to."

Pres Rob McKinney (L) with PDX-based schedulers, mechanics, pilots, management and CSRs in front of PC12 freshly in from BFI (Boeing Field, Seattle WA).

Running a cost effective operation is critical to success when flying 2-pilot 9-seat turboprops on scheduled FBO-to-FBO services. SeaPort has been able to negotiate good deals on PC12s says Senior VP & CFO James Day. "At the beginning of 2008 there were only 7 or 8 used PC12s on the market but now there are over 80 available. The Pilatus does very well for us with its 30,000-ft ceiling, it's quieter than a twin and passengers like it. We're looking for more PC12s."

FBO operations are less expensive than airline terminal options points out McKinney. "If we moved over to the main terminal at MEM it would cost us an additional $3 million per year." PC12 runs from BFI to PDX typically burn just 51 gallons of fuel but pilots compete among themselves and have achieved sector burns as low as 42 gallons.

Rather than overnighting crews at pricy hotels SeaPort gets creative in sourcing crew lodgings. For example, says Asst Dir Ops Noel McDermott, SeaPort has a crew house right on the airport at PDT. Out of the MEM base pilots have crew houses at SLN (Salina KS) and HOT (Hot Springs AR) along with use of crew cars.

Creating a business

In 2006 3 Northwest US-based investors began thinking there must be a better way to get between Seattle and Portland. More than 3000 businesses have co-located offices in Seattle and Portland and the drive was about 3.5 hrs while traditional airline options could consume up to 2.5 hrs considering checkin requirements and security screening.

McKinney was brought on board in 2007 and the group acquired JNU-based Wings of Alaska in Apr 2008. "Within 2 months we'd added PC12s and IFR rated pilots and inaugurated BFI–PDX service with 7 daily round trips on Jun 28, 2008."

SeaPort passenger experience is different than airline options and more along the lines of charter than Part 121. Arriving at BFI, for example, a passenger enjoys free airport parking and simple non-TSA 10-min check in process before meeting the pilots and walking out to the aircraft.

Meanwhile SeaPort Customer Service Associates (CSA) will have everything ready for passengers at the destinations—car keys out on the counter or hotel shuttle buses waiting at the FBO. While waiting in FBO lobbies passengers have access to Wi-Fi and, at least in the Northwest, a variety of popular Voodoo brand doughnuts. "We have many customers with corporate aircraft who use our services between BFI and PDX rather than their own aircraft," says McKinney.

After expanding operations to provide EAS services to PDT the group went on to establish a base at MEM, now the fastest growing base in the system. Currently, SeaPort runs a mix of EAS and market services but the future for the company lies in standalone market services says McKinney.

New non-EAS routes are opening PDX–SLE (Salem OR), BOI (Boise ID)–IDA (Idaho Falls ID) and MCI (Intl, Kansas City MO)–HRO (Harrison AR). In addition, DAL (Love, Dallas TX) has been added as a destination.


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