Tailwinds for Tradewind

Tradewind Aviation has seen strong success in operating nineseat Pilatus PC-12s on scheduled services and charter flights in the Northeastern United States and in the Caribbean and is continuing to grow apace, Chris Kjelgaard discovers


All photos Tradewind Aviation

Tradewind Aviation is one of the more unusual airline operations to be found in the United States. Certified as an air operator by the FAA to Part 135 of the US Federal Aviation Regulations, Tradewind basically has to conform to all the operational and maintenance safety standards required of operators of large commercial aircraft which are certified to Part 121 requirements. But its Part 135 certification means the Connecticut-headquartered carrier can’t fly more than nine passengers on any of its many scheduled services or its frequent whole-aircraft charter flights.

However, Eric Zipkin, Tradewind Aviation’s founder and president, who runs the operational side of the company (founding member David Zipkin, Eric’s brother, handles Tradewind’s business development), stresses the carrier is not merely a scheduled-charter or shared-charter service. “We are indeed an off cial scheduled carrier – we can post and advertise [scheduled service to] any destinations we want, with no restrictions”, he told AIR International. “We are subject to increased scrutiny from the FAA on a safety basis, basically to the same level as Part 121 [oversight] and from a DOT (Department of Transportation) consumer-protection standpoint. All that said, the service [level] we provide is a shared-charter experience, per seat.”

What he means is that, constrained as it is to operating flights with no more than nine passengers, Tradewind Aviation’s shorthaul scheduled and charter services must of necessity charge individual customers and small groups premium fares – at price levels which would shock the average cost-conscious airline traveller. But for those very high fares and high charter rates Tradewind Aviation’s passengers receive a premium standard of service the average air traveller can only dream of.

For a start, Tradewind is dedicated to making sure its high-paying passengers get to their destinations as soon as is humanly possible, even when its flight schedule – like those of all the other airlines operating in the same areas of the United States or Caribbean – is impacted by bad weather.

Today, Tradewind operates 18 Pilatus PC- 12s, aircraft which are fast, off er low cabin noise, have modern avionics and systems and are “extremely reliable”, according to Eric Zipkin. Each of Tradewind’s PC-12s operates about 1,000 flight hours a year, a level that, although “for this class of aircraft [it] represents pretty high utilisation”, is insignificant compared to the 3,500- 4,000hr large commercial aircraft typically fly annually. But while one might think Tradewind Aviation would have difficulty making money operating aircraft at such a low utilisation rate, the opposite is true, according to Eric Zipkin: the low utilisation rate is ideal for the company’s premium-fare, premium-service business.

Margin, not volume

“Our business is always one of margin, not of volume – we make enough money flying at peak times and on good routes that it allows us to dedicate all our corporate resources to our customers”, said Eric Zipkin. For instance, should severe weather on a Friday or Sunday impact Tradewind’s scheduled departure times on its busy summer-weekend scheduled ‘Shuttle’ services between White Plains Airport near New York City and the chic resort islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, “We will try to get our customers [there] all tonight and even tomorrow morning. Our customers are paying for that product – absolute reliability.” In comparison, according to Zipkin, ordinary airlines would eventually cancel their weather-impacted flights on those routes and reschedule their aircraft to operate other services instead, leaving many passengers in the lurch.

Another reason Tradewind Aviation’s customers are happy to pay the high fares it sets is that they aren’t subjected to the time-intensive, anxiety-producing and occasionally personally degrading process of having to undergo commercial-airport security screening by the US Transportation Security Administration. Tradewind’s passengers do indeed receive TSAapproved security screening, but because on all its Northeast US flights the carrier operates only from fixed base operator (FBO) facilities serving business-aviation operators, no large crowds of people need screening and so the screening process is much quicker, easier and more relaxing to negotiate.

At Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport (IATA code SJU) serving Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan, the one major US airport where Tradewind Aviation does operate from an airline terminal rather than an FBO, the carrier has a special arrangement to make sure its customers aren’t subjected to routine, airline-style mass TSA security screening. At SJU, Tradewind’s main Caribbean base, most of its passengers connect to its intra-Caribbean services – which mainly focus on serving chic resort islands such as Saint Barthélemy and Nevis – from mainline flights. They check in at Tradewind’s counter in Terminal A and then they go to the carrier’s private lounge there to relax, after which they enplane on a “nonsterile” security basis. “We are [located] in the terminal, but we have a carve-out in the terminal for our operations”, said Eric Zipkin. “If somebody did do something untoward”, security-wise, “plenty of [Tradewind’s] people would be aware of it and would take action immediately.”

Recipe for success

Tradewind Aviation’s focus on offering high, personalised service levels and getting its scheduled-service and charter passengers to their destinations whatever the weather challenges involved has proved to be a recipe for success ever since Eric and David Zipkin founded the company in New York shortly after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center. “A lot of people thought it was an inauspicious time” to launch, “but it turned out very good for us”, for two reasons, said Eric Zipkin.

First is that “the tight insurance market pushed us into turbine aircraft” immediately, so the company started up operations with a Cessna 208 Caravan, which allowed Tradewind to offer reliable service using a robust, relatively comfortable aircraft. Second was that “the commercial-airline experience had degraded so much that what we were offering” – personalized air service, operated from FBOs – “was very much in need. Even before 9/11, we had identified the fact that quality of service and the quality of aircraft out there provided a great opportunity to bring large-aircraft standards into Part 135 operations.”

Eric Zipkin was Tradewind’s first pilot and in addition to operating the fledgling carrier’s flights he answered the company’s phone and took bookings for its services. Tradewind Aviation began its growth curve with Cessna Caravans and Beech 200 King Airs, but an individual who owned a Pilatus PC-12 approached the company in 2003 and asked Tradewind to manage the aircraft as a revenueearning asset. “That was a serendipitous event for us”, said Eric Zipkin: Tradewind promptly put the aircraft into service.

Although by 2006 Tradewind was still adding more Caravans, it decided that year to stop operating King Airs and to try to add more PC-12s instead. The PC-12 was ideal for Tradewind’s operation because its STOL capabilities allowed the PC-12 to operate from short runways at destinations such as such Saint Barth, Fishers Island, Provincetown and Chatham in Massachusetts. Additionally, the PC-12’s pressured cabin and fast cruising speed made it much more suitable than the Caravan for operating Tradewind’s charter and scheduled flights in the Northeastern United States, where poor weather frequently impacts small-aircraft operations and can make low-altitude flights by unpressurised aircraft uncomfortable and unpleasant for passengers.

However, one barrier to Tradewind acquiring more PC-12s to replace its unpressurized-cabin Caravans “was airframe availability – we couldn’t get enough PC-12s for the price we needed” to remain profitable, said Eric Zipkin. But gradually that changed, as further PC-12 owners asked Tradewind to manage their aircraft for them and as more well-priced PC-12s became available, after having accumulated several thousand flight hours. PC-12 values show “a very steep depreciation curve over the first 2,000 hours”, he explained. As a result, by 2013 Tradewind was able to dispose of its last Cessna Caravan and use only PC-12s for its short-haul flights.

Today Tradewind Aviation operates 18 PC- 12s, 11 of which it owns and seven of which it manages and operates as revenue-earning assets for their owners. The lowest-time PC-12 it has inducted to date was an 18-month-old aircraft with 350hr flying time. The highesttime aircraft inducted to date was a PC-12 with 21,000hr accumulated, but this aircraft came to Tradewind “after receiving a new lease of life”, the carrier leasing it from a company which buys PC-12s as they reach the 20,000hr life milestone at which Pilatus mandates a very major inspection. At that point the leasing company puts its PC-12s through a lifeextension programme which gives the aircraft unlimited additional service life.

Tradewind Aviation’s operation

Tradewind Aviation operates year-round scheduled short-haul services both in the Northeastern UNITED STATES and in the Caribbean, as well as charter flights in both regions. (Eric Zipkin notes that many of Tradewind’s scheduled-service customers also charter its aircraft for business flying.) Under aircraft-management deals, Tradewind Aviation now also operates three Cessna Citation CJ3 medium-range business jets which it deploys year-round on whole-aircraft charters, many of which see the aircraft flying to Florida and the Caribbean from large cities in the US Northeast.

However, most of the carrier’s business is seasonal – in a profitably complementary way – because some of its highest-demand scheduled services in the Northeastern United States, its PC-12 ‘Shuttle’ flights between White Plains and Massachusetts resort destinations, operate only during the summer months. The same goes for some of its PC-12 charter flying, which links the New York-area airports of Teterboro and White Plains with those same Massachusetts destinations. (Tradewind also operates some seasonal schedules and charters in winter in the US Northeast, to skiing resorts such as Stowe in Vermont.)

The seasonal natures of its two different PC-12 operations helps Tradewind because, while it operates year-round services in the Caribbean linking San Juan, Saint Barth, Anguilla, Nevis and Saint Kitts, it only bases two PC-12s at San Juan in the summer. In those months almost all its PC-12s are flying on its busy services in the US Northeast. In winter, however, when Tradewind’s Northeastern United States operation contracts to a core White Plains-Boston Logan scheduled service and charter work from its two main New York-area airports and from the Boston-area Logan International Airport and Hanscom Field, the carrier transfers six or seven PC-12s to San Juan. These aircraft help service with scheduled flights and charters the peak Caribbean winter-tourism market at Tradewind’s islandresort destinations.

So robust are some of Tradewind’s summerand winter-peak scheduled-service routes nowadays at peak weekend times – particularly to Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Saint Barth – that the carrier automatically builds into its schedule an additional two or three flights, all at the same departure time, said David Zipkin, noting that the carrier operates as many as 30 flights on peak days to Nantucket from Teterboro and White Plains.

The carrier watches the bookings on each peak-period scheduled flight carefully and once a flight gets to five passengers Tradewind introduces another “section” – an additional aircraft operating under the same flight number, which it is allowed to do on US domestic flights – to accommodate the expected additional passenger load. Tradewind does the same for its peak-period Caribbean flights from San Juan, but because these are international flights it has to allocate a new flight number to each additional aircraft it puts on the schedule, even if the departure time remains the same.

So personal and high-quality is Tradewind’s customer service that it runs an automated wait list for passengers wanting to fly at peak times. “We let people book a fight at an alternate time and we automatically e-mail them when a seat opens up on their preferred flight, so they can book it”, said David Zipkin. “It creates a domino effect of seats opening up for other wait users. We don’t charge for changes: if you’re running late, you can move from [a] 3:00pm to 4:00pm [flight]. We may have 100 changes in a manifest, right up until the last minute.”

Business development

Exciting times lie ahead for Tradewind Aviation. To boost its presence at San Juan, the company is negotiating a series of interline agreements with major carriers serving San Juan from Northern and Latin America, so its high-paying customers’ bags can be checked through to their final destinations and they don’t need to pick them up from the baggage belts at Luis Muñoz Marin. Tradewind signed its first interline deal with United Airlines, at San Juan, Puerto Rico in late October on United’s flights linking San Juan with Washington Dulles, Newark, Chicago O’Hare and Houston Intercontinental airports. David Zipkin has been busy negotiating similar deals with American, Delta, JetBlue (San Juan’s biggest airline tenant), Avianca, Copa Airlines and Iberia.

Tradewind also sees opportunities for growth by adding more business and leisure destinations to its scheduled-service network in the Northeastern United States, down the Eastern Seaboard and perhaps elsewhere in the nation. “Airlines don’t do short-range very well [in the United States], and definitely not for high-end service”, said David Zipkin. “So we see great opportunities in general in certain short-range markets throughout the country.” But Tradewind doesn’t want to grow too quickly. “We’ve had a great deal of success growing organically and a little bit of experience growing too fast. Overall, we’re all about growing methodically and profitably.”