The Strange and Crowded World of Really Small Airlines

A few months ago, we did a report on the 10 Best Airlines You've Never Flown. Most were smaller than the giant lines—that's one of the reasons you probably haven't flown them. But six lines here in the U.S. are much smaller than those 10. If you live in their home base cities, you've probably at least heard of them, but if you only occasionally fly to one of those areas, you may be missing a good option.

Public Charters: a Mixed Bag

All six operate as "public charters," which means they're paper airlines that manage the flight schedules and the business matters but outsource the actual flying to airlines that specialize in flying charters. For the most part, you don't care: The difference is in the way the government views them. But you do potentially care about two critical public charter factors:

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  • Operators can cancel a flight up to 10 days before departure for any reason. You can get a refund, but the operator has no responsibility to make alternate arrangements. Within 10 days, the operator can cancel only if it is physically incapable of flying the flight.
  • Operators can change the schedule—but not the dates or origin/destination cities—and increase the price by as much as 10 percent without your right to cancel or get a refund. Also, a charter flight must be delayed more than 48 hours before you have the right to a full refund.

The Current Crop

Despite these potential pitfalls, some pretty big airline operations have at least started out as public charters. And they're often your only practical alternative. Here's the current crop:

  • Air Sunshine flies from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to a bunch of nearby island tourist hotspots. Its biggest plane is a 30-seat Saab 340 turboprop; some flights are in 19- and 10-seat planes. Sample one-way fares: $125 San Juan-St. Maarten, $125 San Juan- St. Thomas. Air Sunshine has been around since 1982, so it has a track record—more than some of the lines on this list.  
  • Lakeshore Express flies between Chicago/Midway and Pellston, Michigan, serving the Little Traverse Bay and Petoskey area. Flights operate three days per week; sample fares start at $300 round-trip. Flights are on 30-seat Saab 340 turboprops. According to the airline, its one-hour flight avoids a six-hour drive—probably an accurate claim.
  • MetJet flies from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Orlando at least once weekly, increasing in peak seasons; plus once weekly to Fort Myers. Flights are on Sun Country 737s. Sample fares for February are $220 each way. The main surprise here is that Allegiant, which specializes in this kind of trip, has so far ignored Green Bay.
  • MVP flies scheduled trips to Las Vegas from Oxnard and San Diego. Flights operate three days a week. A sample round-trip from Oxnard in December is $225. Flights use 30-passenger Saab turboprops. Apparently, this is just "sort of" scheduled. Flights are actually listed as "on demand," which seems to mean, "Yes, we'll take you if enough other folks sign up for the trip."
  • PublicCharters posts flights from Chicago/Midway to Manistee Michigan, on the east shore of Lake Michigan, northwest of Grand Rapids. Trips operate four times weekly. A current sample fare is $120 round-trip. Although the site doesn't specify, flights are likely to be on 30-passenger Dornier 328 turboprops. In addition, the website lists trips from Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Antonio to Mazatlan, but does not allow online booking and does not display fares. The website also displays what appear to be flights offered through Ultimate Air Shuttle (see next listing).
  • Ultimate Air Shuttle operates nonstop from Cincinnati/Lunken Field to Charlotte, Chicago/Midway, and Morristown, New Jersey, for the New York City area, and between Columbus, Indiana, and Detroit/Willow Run (Ypsalanti). Trips use 30-passenger Dornier turboprops. Flights operate four days a week on the Charlotte, Chicago, and Morristown routes, and twice weekly on the Columbus-Detroit trips. Fares are high for this kind of service, at $695 round-trip between Cincinnati and Morristown, including full meal service no-fee parking. Lunken Field is on the Ohio side of the Ohio River, and a tad more accessible than the main airport. Willow Run seems an odd choice for Detroit: It served as Detroit's main airport for 10 years prior to the development of the much closer Wayne Major Field, after which the airlines abandoned it—it's a really long schlep to the city.

Wannabe, Maybe, and Sort-of Operations

Small public charter programs are apt to have a shorter half-life than larger lines, and they also tend to slip in and out of scheduled operations, either seasonally or because of varying demands.

  • Branson Air Express seasonally links (surprise) Branson with Austin, Texas, and Smyrna, Georgia, (near Atlanta). Service was suspended last August, with no information available on summer 2013 flights or fares.
  • Bahamas Express posts a website showing lots of flights from Florida cities to various destinations in the Bahamas, but the airline has currently suspended scheduled operations. Maybe later.

A few airlines listed in the current government public charter summary have already folded, notably Streamline Air, which formerly connected Bedford, Massachusetts (for Boston), with Trenton/Mercer Airport in New Jersey.

The government listing also includes quite a few public charter operations that support large-scale tour packages:

  • Apple Vacations and FunJet Vacations operate hundreds of charter-air vacation packages from Chicago and other Midwestern points to a wide range of beach destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico.
  • A handful of specialized operators list extensive packages to Cuba—mainly Florida to Havana—that are not openly available to ordinary vacation travelers.
  • In addition, Mauiva AirCruise, as the name implies, operates five- and six-night inclusive air cruises in three areas: Eastern, from New York to Niagara Falls, Harrisburg, and Washington, D.C.; Western, from Los Angeles to Monterey/Carmel, San Francisco, Merced/Yosemite, Cedar City/Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas; and "Sun and Fun," from Orlando to Grand Bahama, Grand Cayman, and Cancun. Rates, currently on sale, are $1,319 in the East and $1,599 in the West, per-person double occupancy, for "comprehensive" cruises that include air, hotels, meals, and sightseeing. Regular list prices, all per person double occupancy, range from $1,019 for just airfare and hotels to $1,799 for comprehensive options. As noted in an earlier report, Mauiva aircruises sometime show up on discounted coupon offers. Flights are in 30-passenger Embraer Brasilia turboprops,

All in all, these very small public charter operations seem to be a bit iffier than ordinary airline trips. But they serve routes bigger lines don't fly, and they offer the added advantage of small planes. Many also operate out of fixed-base operator terminals rather than major terminals, meaning almost no lines, no hassles, and often easy parking right next to the gate. 

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