The first aircraft to fly charter and airline service were single engine aircraft like this four-passenger, Boeing model 40A. It was a different experience for the first brave passengers to board an aircraft and head out across the country. Not too far into the development of aviation, someone figured out that two engines (or more) is better than one. Especially when engines of the day had the propensity to quit running without much notice to the pilots.
In 1984, our company had the opportunity to add a single engine aircraft to our fleet – a six-seat Piper Lance. We thought it was a good idea at the time because it would allow us to service another market – customers who did not want to pay the rates on the jet and twin turbo-prop aircraft we already offered. It did not take us too long to figure out that the single engine aircraft being manufactured at that time worked poorly for passenger charter. Why? Because they were limited to operating only in daytime and in good weather conditions (Visual Flight Rules-VFR). Difficulties arose when a customer would schedule a trip two weeks beforehand. On the day of the trip, if the weather was bad, we could not fly it in the single engine aircraft; so, we had to either cancel the trip or we had to put the customer in a larger aircraft. Cancelling the trip made customers unhappy. Upgrading customers to a larger and more weather capable aircraft for the same price resulted in losses for us. Neither solution was workable; so, we ended our single engine charter experiment and made the decision to get out of that charter market and to only operate aircraft with two engines.
Fast forward 25 years and what has changed?
In the late 1990s, Cirrus Design in Duluth, Minnesota, came out with an innovative, new, four-seat, single engine aircraft called the Cirrus SR-20, followed quickly by the more powerful and capable Cirrus Sr-22. What really made this aircraft unique from other single engine aircraft was an on-board parachute system. In the event of engine failure or for any other serious emergency and in the absence of decent place to land the aircraft without engine power, the pilot of the Cirrus can pull an overhead handle, deploying a parachute that is attached to the airframe. At that point the aircraft becomes a passenger of the parachute system, floating to the ground and touching down at a speed which allows the pilot and passengers walk away safely. Time and trial have proven that the system works. Cirrus continued to innovate with the best of new generation avionics for the pilot, redundant power supplies to the cockpit, and anti-icing systems for the wing, stabilizers and propeller that were previously only available on jet aircraft. All of this capability eventually resulted in the FAA changing its rules about single engine charter aircraft. Instead of being restricted to VFR conditions, single engine charter aircraft could now fly in instrument flight rules (IFR) conditions while performing commercial charter flights.
So, after years of nothing happening in the single engine charter business, we are finally seeing its emergence into the market. At first, I was skeptical that the flying public would charter single engine aircraft, but the market has proven me wrong.
SATS Air, the single engine air taxi company, failed this past year but not because of the aircraft. Other small charter companies around the country are proving every day that small aircraft charter works as a business model and that it is safe. At our airport in the Middle Tennessee market, Harmony Air is off to a good start with the Cirrus SR-22 as its primary aircraft. Another similar success story is Fleet Aviation, located in White Plains, New York.
The business models of these companies differ from large aircraft charter operations. In addition to offering air charter services in the Cirrus aircraft, they also offer flight training through affiliated companies. I am sure they can tell you many stories where the charter customer enjoyed their experience so much that they decided to learn to fly and ended up buying or renting an aircraft to fly themselves.
In our industry, that is the ultimate success story. We grow and prosper when we take the business traveler who is looking for a better solution and convert them to a charter customer. Maybe we teach them to fly or maybe we don’t, but, either way, we turn them into an avid user of private aircraft. People discover the efficiency and enjoyment of traveling in small aircraft and many of them never go back to the airlines.
Thanks to the small aircraft charter companies and flight training facilities in this country for bringing in a whole new group of customers to our industry. General Aviation cannot prosper as an industry without these companies!