A new Portland-based airline is staking its future on direct flights between small New England airports and Florida, eyeing a niche that will likely start with service between Portland and an Orlando-area airport.
Elite Airways, a 36-employee startup airline headquartered in Portland's Old Port, received Federal Aviation Administration certification just under a month ago. It plans to connect regional airports throughout New England to Florida's eastern "Space Coast," a busy tourist corridor in the Orlando area that neighbors the state's marquee theme parks.
"It's been awhile since somebody started a small airline with a very specific focus," says Elite Airways President John Pearsall. "We would like to think we are the first of a new type of airline."
Bryan Glazer, a spokesman for Elite Airways, says consolidation among larger carriers and rising fuel costs have dramatically changed the aviation landscape for smaller, regional airports like the Portland International Jetport (PWM) over the past decade, opening a door for targeted airlines like Elite. Smaller airports are more likely to offer incentives, another factor in Elite's decision.
With a fleet of smaller, 50-seat aircraft and a specific route, Elite hopes to succeed in a market where company officials say larger airlines have failed: serving regional airports with direct routes to their most popular destinations.
"If you're a startup, you have to look for routes that no one else is traveling," says Glazer. "You don't want to compete with anybody, the concept is just to fill your planes."
By starting with flights from Portland to Melbourne, Fla. — the city, with 76,000 residents, is roughly the same size as Portland — Elite hopes to capture a slice of the robust air traffic between the two states.
Orlando International Airport is currently the third largest market for departures out of PWM, drawing over 99,000 passengers each year, according to jetport Director Paul Bradbury.
"Orlando is a wonderful market for us, so I think this will be well received by customers," says Bradbury.
Flying into an airport like Melbourne also gives Elite the opportunity to take advantage of airline incentives that tend to be harder to come by at a facility such as Orlando International.
"They will waive landing fees, gate fees, terminal leasing fees and help with counter space and marketing dollars. Both Portland and Melbourne are very accommodating to new carriers," says Pearsall.
The company has yet to release a timeframe for when the service might begin, but Bradbury says after four years of planning for the Portland start, the hardest part should be behind them.
"Getting that [FAA certification] is the big hurdle. Compared to that, all the other stuff will be easier," says Bradbury.
After raising capital for several years as a Portland-based LLC, the company recently bought its first 50-seat jet.
Currently, Elite is hiring additional pilots, flight attendants and airport staff for potential departure and destination airports and plans to purchase two additional planes in the next three months. By the end of 2013, Pearsall expects Elite will have five planes in its fleet.
The plane has already run chartered flights for several NCAA sports teams, says Glazer.
Beyond Portland, the new airline is looking to establish a departure presence out of Portsmouth, N.H., Worcester, Mass., and upstate New York, and identified Melbourne International Airport as a flier-friendly alternative to the busier facilities in Orlando and Palm Beach.
"The beauty of Melbourne is, you get off the plane, you're at the rental car lot within 11 minutes and it's a 45-minute-to-an-hour ride to Disney," says Glazer. "It's a great alternative to Orlando."
And people are willing to make the drive, Glazer says.
"Statistics show that people will drive at least 100 miles to the nearest airport to get a low fare and a non-stop flight, so we look at secondary airports that are being seriously underserved," he says.
"Everyone is done with having to connect twice to get a reasonably priced fare," says Pearsall.
Pearsall says starting with the Portland-Melbourne route is a slow, measured approach to growth.
"We want to make sure we have a good route that is going to be a winner for us," he says.
With large national carriers continuing consolidation, Bradbury says carriers like Elite hold some real potential.
Citing the now-defunct Boston-Maine Airways, a Pan Am subsidiary which flew from Portsmouth, N.H., to New Jersey and Massachusetts, Bradbury hopes Elite can take advantage of current market trends to succeed where the Boston-Maine Airways failed.
"Continued consolidation could make what didn't work for Pan Am work for Elite," says Bradbury. "We're hopeful that this becomes a huge success."