Those who doubt the cyclical nature of the airline industry should consider the following. Last year’s increase in aircraft sales — though slight — was due, in large part, to skyrocketing orders for turboprop aircraft.
First successfully flown in 1945 and a fixture in many commercial carriers’ fleets until the 1990s when low fuel prices coupled with the rise of regional jets brought about its demise, the turboprop is making a comeback. Continued high fuel prices and tightening environmental regulations have propelled the aircraft into the spotlight yet again.
At the same time, most aircraft manufacturers have ceased production of 50-seat regional jets and sales of 70- to 90-seat aircraft are also dropping. In fact, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration forecasts regional jets with fewer than 40 seats will disappear from fleets by 2015, and the number of larger turboprops will double in the next decade.
Despite resurgence in popularity, turboprops carry somewhat of a stigma for those who remember the aircraft of the last decade. Passengers often describe them as noisy, rickety and uncomfortable — certainly not up to the standards of the jet age.
Proud To Fly Turboprops
Silver Airways promotes its turboprop operation in two very distinct ways: its logo gives the appearance of spinning propeller blades, and its aircraft presents facts and statistics about the fuel efficiency of turboprops versus jets on the fuschia-colored engine cowlings.
However, the turboprop aircraft of the 21st century are changing those perceptions. In addition to their fuel efficiency and lower operation and maintenance costs, today’s turboprops have modern, fully equipped cockpits and cabins and employ noise and vibration suppression technology previously unavailable.
Progressive airlines such as Silver Airways are not only utilizing turboprops, they are building entire operations based solely on the aircraft type. Headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Silver Airways launched service in December 2011 after Victory Park Capital, a Chicago-based investment firm, acquired select assets of the former Gulfstream International Airlines, which had filed for bankruptcy a year earlier.
Victory Park Capital rebranded Gulfstream to Silver Airways and moved to a new independent brand all its own. The regional carrier’s logo, derived from the image of spinning propeller blades, proudly promotes its turboprop operations. Facts and statistics regarding the fuel efficiency of turboprops versus jets are written on the fuschia-colored engine cowlings, which are visible to passengers from inside the cabin.
One of the carrier’s first major business decisions was to replace the majority of its existing fleet of smaller Beechcraft 1900D aircraft with larger Saab 340Bplus turboprops, providing an incremental 87 percent increase in seats with only a moderate incremental increase in trip costs.
The airline further solidified its commitment to its operations by opening a 61,000 square-foot state-of-the-art maintenance facility at Florida’s Gainesville Regional Airport in April 2012 to service its turboprop fleet.
From the beginning, Silver Airways’ objective was simple and straightforward — to be the premier provider of turboprop service in the United States. In support of this goal, the carrier created a targeted business plan centered on two specific areas that distinguish it from other regional airlines.
First, similar to regional airlines of the 1980s, Silver Airways executives decided to build and retain an individual, independent brand based on the core values of professionalism, quality, vibrancy and trust, without complete reliance on larger traditional carriers to succeed.
“Everywhere we fly, Silver Airways flies as Silver Airways,” said Matthew Ray, chairman of the board for Silver Airways. “We have valued codeshare and interline partners, but our customers get to know and trust our brand on the basis of the value and service that we provide. In a sense, we are attempting to reinvent regional aviation by taking it back to its roots.”
In the past, turboprops had a bad reputation for being noisy, rickety and uncomfortable. However, the newer models, with their fully equipped cockpits, noise and vibration suppression technology and myriad other enhancements, have helped change those perceptions.
Maintaining brand independence is also key to building a sense of pride among the airline’s employees that fosters a unique corporate culture and enables them to deliver unmatched customer service. It also makes good business sense.
“Traditionally, regional airlines would adopt the brand and livery of its major carrier partners, effectively taking on all of the financial and operational risk of flying for another airline without realizing any brand extension benefits,” said Ray. “Operating as its own unique brand, Silver Airways has greater control over its destiny, a critical factor in our success.”
The second part of the business plan focuses on distribution and the airline’s acquisition of its own, independent customer reservations system.
“We recently made a large investment with Sabre Airline Solutions® to make this essential goal a reality in 2013,” said Ray. “We have designed Silver Airways to guide its own destiny, a stark contrast to recent trends in regional aviation.”
Silver Airways’ codeshare partners include United Airlines and Copa Airlines, and it has a close interline agreement with Delta Air Lines as well. To ensure a seamless passenger experience between the airlines and retain its own identity, Silver Airways is implementing SabreSonic® Customer Sales & Service technology this year.
“Acquiring and employing the best technology is essential to our success,” Ray continued. “This is true in our choice of aircraft. It’s also true in our system operations control center, which is powered by Sabre Airline Solutions to keep our entire operation running smoothly. The implementation of cutting-edge reservations and product distribution technology represents the essential next step in our continuing development.”
Despite early challenges finding and acquiring the right aircraft type and obtaining necessary operational clearances, the airline expanded rapidly in 2012 and continues to do so with minimal disruption.
“New turboprops fitting a class and size to support our business plan are not being built,” Ray said. “But we were fortunate to have a great partner in Saab Aircraft Leasing to meet our needs with the Saab 340Bplus.”
Recruiting and retaining a specific type of professional, especially flight crews, to further develop the airline’s business plan also presented a challenge.
Silver’s New Maintenance Facility
Silver Airways needed to move its maintenance facility at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida to make way for a runway expansion. As a result, it opened a new 61,000-square-foot maintenance facility at Florida’s Gainsville Regional Airport last year. The carrier’s planes are on a rigorous maintenance schedule with varying degrees of service based on flight hours, starting with a simple line inspection every three days to a complete teardown about every two years.
“We had a distinct vision for a level of in-flight service that was a cut above customer expectations,” Ray said. “We wanted our passengers to feel like VIPs, so we looked for flight attendants with private jet experience.”
Backed by a modern turboprop fleet, cutting-edge technology, innovative business tactics and secure financial investors, Silver Airways did the unthinkable, doubling the size of its route network in its first year of operation, while also solidifying its brand and its place in the market.
New hubs were opened in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Georgia, to better serve mid-Atlantic and Gulf States, respectively. Silver Airways also strengthened its leadership position in The Bahamas and now offers more flights to the islands than any other U.S. carrier. The addition of intra-state flights in Florida secured the carrier’s position as the state’s “hometown airline.”
To date, the carrier operates more than 200 daily flights to 45 cities in Florida, The Bahamas, Georgia, Montana, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Alabama, Washington D.C. and West Virginia.
“Our success is fueled by our expansion program, yielding passenger growth of approximately 150 percent based on monthly year-over-year results,” Ray said. “While our expansion is worth noting, it is the calls, queries and feedback we receive from our customers that really let us know we’re doing something special.”
By all appearances, Silver Airways has found its niche in the marketplace. With cost-cutting still a major focus of the airline industry, smaller communities with regional airports serviced by short-haul flights have suffered the greatest reduction in air service across the United States.
“Silver Airways is proud to invest in these markets,” Ray said, “providing a nice boost to developing regional economies by better connecting them to the rest of the world.”
Silver Airways, though, has no plans to restrict future operations to flying essential air services routes or intrastate destinations. In support of its growth plan, the carrier expanded its fleet of Saab 340Bplus from the current 17 to 25 aircraft during the first quarter.
“Our philosophy is, ‘If you’re not growing, you’re dying,’” said Ray. “Throughout 2012, we set a strong foundation for future growth, acquiring an entirely new fleet of class-leading aircraft, establishing a new state-of-the-art maintenance facility, implementing the very best systems technology and, most importantly, attracting and nurturing the very best industry talent.
“We fully intend to build upon this foundation in 2013 and beyond, further strengthening our company in line with our innovative business model.
“The economics of providing jet service to many smaller communities will continue to prove untenable for larger legacy carriers. This will open up new markets and partnerships for us, fueling our expansion for years to come.”