Interviews

For a Small Commuter, the Sky’s the Limit

Charles "Chick" Gregg - Air Unlimited
Charles "Chick" Gregg | Air Unlimited

Even American, the world’s biggest airline, had to start somewhere. In the case of tiny Air Unlimited, it can trace its roots to a hangar at Orlando Sanford International Airport in July 2013.

Air Unlimited may be small, with only four aircraft and struggling to reach a national audience, but the commuter carrier fulfills the dreams of one of its founders, Charles “Chick” Gregg.

“I sold my [housing development] business in 2005 and retired for about four or five years,” Gregg said in a telephone interview. But a conversation with friend and current business partner Mark Neubauer would change both their lives.

“I said ‘I’m kind of bored, I’m looking for something interesting. I love aviation and would love to find something we can do,’” Gregg recalled. Neubauer, who possessed a Federal Aviation Administration FAR 135 certificate that allowed him to operate a charter airline, said he used to work for a company that did charter service to the Bahamas.

“We decided to get into the business,” Gregg recalled.

Neubauer, Gregg and Gregg’s wife, Lisa, became partners in the airline. None had ever worked for a commercial airline.

“Both [Neubauer and I] came from production home building. I’m a structural engineer and my partner was with another company in production home building. He was the marketing director for another company and I was the chief operating officer and president of my company,” Gregg said.

But aviation was always his passion.

“My dad was a pilot in World War II – he flew B-17s in Europe. We always had airplanes and I flew with him when I was about 5 or 6 years old. And I always loved flying,“ he said.

The carrier offers scheduled service from Sanford to Marsh Harbour and Treasure Cay, both on the Abacos, a 120-mile-long chain of islands in the Bahamas.

The three launched the carrier using two Cessna 421 planes, but within two years, changed to [Beechcraft] King Air 200s.

The airline currently has about 20 employees, including pilots, office staff and mechanics.

Air Unlimited also has one Citation CJ3 jet aircraft and one Beechcraft Barron. The jet is used exclusively for charter operations, while the Baron is used “if we only get a couple people for local-type transportation,” Gregg said. 

But it’s the King Airs and the scheduled service that are the heart-and-soul, not to mention the bread-and-butter, of Air Unlimited’s operation.

“We fly the King Airs about 800 hours a year each. We fly the jet 200-250 hours a year,” Gregg said.

In fact, Gregg said, the firm will only accept charter work that does not conflict with their scheduled service.

“Our whole intent was to build a scheduled [airline],” Gregg said. “It makes up about 85 to 90 percent of our work.”

“We’ll do about 1,200 passengers this month strictly to Marsh Harbour and Treasure Cay on scheduled service. We’ll probably do between 6,000 and 7,000 passengers this year,” Gregg said.

The King Airs are the heart-and-soul of Air Unlimited’s operation | Air Unlimited

About 55 percent of those passengers travel to Marsh Harbour, with the rest heading for Treasure Cay, according to Gregg.

Gregg said what sets his airline apart from better known competitors is his commitment to never cancel a flight except for weather-related causes.

“When we started, we said we’re not going to cancel flights like other airlines do,” he said. 

Many of Air Unlimited’s passengers are families with children who travel during the summer when their children are out of school.

“The last thing we want to do is have them come and say, ‘Sorry, we only have three people booked so we’re not flying today,’” Gregg said. “We have never canceled a flight for that reason.”

That commitment can sometimes be difficult to maintain, with their load factor varying according to tourist seasons. 

“We’ve done a lot of flights where we go out with four or five passengers and come back with none,” Gregg said. “Of course, we’d like to avoid it, but that’s just part of the game.”

Gregg believes that their commitment to scheduled service, along with convenience and other amenities, will keep existing customers coming back and help attract new passengers.

King Air 200 Cabin | Air Unlimited

“We depart out of our hanger office here [in Sanford],” he said. “We have no TSA (Transportation Security Administration) checks because of the size of the aircraft we fly. It’s not required because we’re a 135 commuter. 

“[Passengers] arrive here about 45 minutes before the flight. We check their passports, make sure they have all their paperwork, weigh their bags and load them on the plane, and [passengers are] on the plane in 20 minutes. We’re off and they’re in the islands within an hour and 15 minutes. 

“People love that … it’s got the advantages of an executive charter, and as we say, every seat is a window seat – because that’s all there is. The seats are first class and people really, really appreciate that. 

“They park their car out front, we help them with their bags. We valet their car to a secure area of the airport. There’s no charge for parking or valet,” Gregg noted.

“When they come back, their cars are parked by the hangar door and there are two bottles of cold water waiting inside. We load their bags and escort them out the security gate,” he said.

Gregg also noted that Air Unlimited welcomes pets onboard and allows them to fly with passengers rather than as cargo. And at a time when most airlines charge extra for checked bags, the commuter carrier touts its policy that the first 40 pounds of luggage are free.

Fares in Air Unlimited are competitive with other carriers. A non-stop round-trip flight departing from Sanford on July 20 to Marsh Harbour and returning on July 27 costs $684 compared to $713 on larger competitor Silver Airways, which operates out of Orlando International Airport.

Some might see a disadvantage of being based at a secondary airport such as Sanford, where ultra low-cost carrier Allegiant is the dominant carrier. But Gregg sees operating out of Sanford as a plus.

“One reason we’re in Sanford is that both Neubauer and I have always had hangers here,” he said. “Both of us live nearby. But another reason is that Sanford is easy in, easy out. You can park close by. And another reason for us is fuel, which is very reasonably priced compared to anywhere else in the Orlando market.”

Gregg acknowledges that his airline faces two major challenges. One is finding additional routes to counter the seasonal nature of its current two destinations.

“We would like to find another niche market like [Marsh Harbour and Treasure Cay] because they’re very seasonal,” he said. “We’re just covered up for about three to four months – which starts in April and ends in August – and the rest of the time it slows way down.”

But expansion brings its own problems. 

“We tried Key West, but it has so much competition and so many people going to Key West are really bargain-hunters,” he said. “They’re very price sensitive and we found the price point had just no elasticity whatsoever so we decided not to continue that.” 

“We’re looking at Charleston, South Carolina for a domestic market from here. We get a lot of passengers out of Charleston, as well as Charlotte and Florence, North Carolina,” he said.

They’re also considering other destinations in the Bahamas that are major resort destinations.

The biggest obstacle to the airline’s growth, however, is “just getting the word out,” Gregg said. 

Its flights currently do not appear on travel search engine sites such as Kayak and Expedia. For right now, the airline is relying on social media and word of mouth. Gregg hopes that problem will soon be solved. “We’re about to go with a new booking engine that will get us to Expedia and other sites within about four weeks,” he said.


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