Sunday, September 14, 2003

Flamingo flies on a leap of faith



By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Sharon McGee and David MacDonald in a twin-engine Piper Chieftain that they intend to use for charter service.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
What started as a whim and became known for its whimsy is about to take a serious risk in an industry already on the brink.

Flamingo Air, the Lunken Airport-based sightseeing company known for its romance flights for those who want to join the "Mile High Club," Monday will start booking charter flights to Chicago through a new service called Flamingo Express. It also plans to add flights to Detroit and Cleveland.

The launch, by the couple who started Flamingo originally, comes after:

• Months of local controversy over potential noise.

• A key business partner dropped out just months before the start-up date.

• A time in which aviation in general is still reeling two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We had a choice to make after two years of work and sinking everything into getting this started," says Sharon McGee, 53, president of the new Flamingo Express. "We could take it ourselves or just go back to what we were doing and just be satisfied with that. But we're not that kind of people.

"We figured that we had put in the work already, and that if it works, great. And if it doesn't, at least we gave it a try."

McGee and her partner David P. MacDonald, who created the original Flamingo Air, had been working with JetLink Express, a Denver company, on a new charter service that could lead to scheduled passenger service out of Lunken. That's something that has not happened with regularity since 1963 (there was a short-lived attempt by a small commuter carrier Midway Airlines in 1990).

Flamingo was started in 1991 after MacDonald, who has a pilot's license, noticed how many people would just sightsee at Lunken. That quickly included the romance flights, which were a success "even in stuffy, conservative Cincinnati," MacDonald, 57, says. The name came from the Villa Hills couple's penchant for collecting anything that has to do with the unique birds.

Then, before the Sept. 11 attacks, McGee and MacDonald say they came up with the idea of serving the business community, which was looking for cheaper, more efficient ways of traveling to key cities such as Chicago. The extensive security procedures that came along after the attacks made their case stronger.

Another such entrepreneur has seen a huge success with his charter venture, saying the issues are just as strong now as they were just after the attacks.

"The pricing and competition has widened the market well beyond those who could easily afford first-class seats," says Nate McElvey, president and chief executive officer of Charter Auction, a company he founded in 1999. "And people are still getting fed up with commercial (airline) service."

Overall, the charter industry has seen a rise in business, with even Delta Air Lines rebranding and refocusing its own charter offering.

Flamingo Express' original business plan was outlined last spring in a memo to Cincinnati City Council by City Manager Valerie Lemmie. It called for launch of charter service using 10- to 19-seat propeller planes, then growing to use of regional jets that seat up to 50 for scheduled service. That would require the city to change the certification of the airport with the Federal Aviation Administration.

But earlier this summer, JetLink's owner David Simo dropped out of the partnership. Efforts to reach Simo were not successful.

McGee and MacDonald now say they are limiting their goals to eventually flying a couple of 19-seat turboprops to key cities. They are actually brokering flights on a 10-seat Piper Chieftain - the same plane Comair used when it first started - on behalf of another company, Lunken-based Franklin Air.

They are also planning to organize biennial charters on larger jets to well-known scuba diving destinations; the activity is a passion for the couple.

"Eventually, we would like to be able to lease our own plane with our own pilot," MacDonald says. "But we are looking no bigger than 19 seats."

That is welcome news for both city officials and some local residents who were concerned about the prospect of more noise at Lunken.

Last month, City Council passed a resolution banning any major changes at the airport until a study of Lunken is completed.

Still, "we don't like what is officially on the record about their second phase (which includes larger jets), and we'll continue to fight it," says Mel Martin, former mayor of Madeira and a member of the Lunken Neighborhood Coalition, a grass-roots group concerned about noise at the airport.

McGee and MacDonald will not say how much they were making from the original Flamingo Air, but say it was enough to make a decent living. They have sunk just under $100,000 in preliminary market studies and preparations for the new venture.

And they say the research shows there is a definite demand for an alternative to commercial airlines out of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

One statistic they cite from their surveys is 32 percent of all air travelers from Greater Cincinnati drive to cities such as Louisville, Indianapolis and Dayton because of fares. The couple figure that's more than 1.7 million passengers annually.

"It would be great if we could get even 1 percent of that," says MacDonald, who will serve as operations manager for Flamingo Express.

A round trip to Chicago will cost $299 regardless of when it is booked; a one-way trip costs $169. Compare that with a last-minute full fare to Chicago of $535 on Delta from Cincinnati's main commercial airport.

"But we're really going to focus on the convenience factor with this more than price - we'll definitely get you there and back from a meeting in a lot less time than a conventional airline flight," McGee says.

McGee hopes that after the flights to Cleveland and Detroit are launched that the company will be able to add popular leisure destinations, such as Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. That could turn into a scheduled airline that would need little adjustment at the airport: It already has a passenger area with security equipment that meets federal standards for airlines offering flights of under 30 seats.

"I am definitely driven by taking a seemingly impossible situation and proving that it can work," MacDonald says. "We're rolling the dice here, for sure, but I've done that all my life, and this is just another step."

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com.



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