Aviation Tribune talks to Linda Markham, President of Cape Air and one of only two women in the United States to head a regional airline.
Cape Air’s name evokes sand dunes and cool sea breezes, lobsters and lazy summer afternoons.
But while the regional carrier traces its roots to such idyllic settings, its aircraft are just as likely to be found shuttling medical patients from Sydney, Mont. to Billings, Mont., or businessmen from Owensboro, Ky. to St. Louis for business meetings.
Or, one of its planes might be shuttling passengers between Saipan and Guam.
Those are only some of the destinations the regional carrier currently serves. President Linda Markham hopes over the next five to 10 years to see the airline grow in each of those markets, as well as expand into other unexpected areas, such as seaplane service.
Markham, one of only two women in the United States to head a regional airline (the other is at Air Wisconsin), came to Cape Air in 2002 to head the company’s human resources department.
Not a pilot herself, she acknowledges that originally her passion was dealing with people.
Since then, she’s developed a passion for aviation as well.
“The whole experience of being able to get on an airplane and go anywhere across the country and around the world is really fascinating,” she said. “For me, the whole journey has been extraordinary.”
Cape Air was founded in 1988 by Craig Wilson, Dan Wolf (the airline’s current CEO) and investor Grant Wilson. It initially provided service between Boston and Provincetown, Mass., before adding routes to other communities in southeastern New England.
In 1994, Cape Air merged with Nantucket Airlines and the two added service between Nantucket and Hyannis, Mass.
Today, Markham oversees an airline that includes 84 Cessna 402 seven-passenger aircraft, as well two ATR-42, a 46-seat aircraft that operates as United Express in Micronesia and four Britten-Norman Islanders, specifically designed to operate on islands with short runways in the Caribbean.
The airline, headquartered in Barnstable, Mass., has over 1,100 employees. In 2016, it operated more than 117,000 flights and carried more than 673,000 passengers. With one exception, the airline has been profitable for the last 16 years.
Boston remains the airline’s primary hub, followed by San Juan, P.R.
Markham said that about 35 percent of Cape Air’s current business comes from Essential Air Service (EAS) contracts – subsidies provided by the Department of Transportation to airlines to provide services to communities too small to sustain air service on their own.
But Markham said the airline “absolutely” could prosper without EAS subsidies.
“We’re well-positioned to take the fleet and go into other areas,” she said. “Based on our route structure, we could simply put more capacity on some of the routes we’re serving now.”
While on the lookout for other opportunities that EAS service might provide, Markham said the carrier thinks long and hard before it considers bidding on a contract to provide such service.
“We do an assessment of that route and decide if we want to make a bid,” she said. “A lot of that has to do with staffing, the aircraft, how long the flight is supposed to be,” she noted.
While Markham sees opportunities for growth in the three major market segments the airlines currently serves – EAS, legacy routes, such as Hyannis to Nantucket, and the leisure market, such as its current service in the Caribbean – the carrier is actively considering expanding in some unexpected directions, such as seaplane shuttle service between Boston and New York.
While New York currently has an active seaplane facility located near the city’s financial district, the challenge, Markham said, is to find a suitable spot for a similar facility in the already crowded Boston Harbor.
Markham said Cape Air is working with state and local authorities, as well as Massport, which operates Logan International Airport, to work out the details. She envisions a time when travelers could conveniently fly out of their respective cities while avoiding airport congestion, conduct a day’s business and return home at night.
Perhaps reflecting her background in human resources, Markham noted that Cape Air offers an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) that Wolf introduced in 1998. The carrier is currently about 30 percent employee-owned.
“It’s part of our culture. We empower people to make the right decision on behalf of the customer,” she said. “We empower our employees to feel like owners here.”
Markham said that Cape Air also offers a profit-sharing program, something unusual for an ESOP. “We truly believe in shared prosperity.”
Markham also credits Wolf with founding a company that emphasizes diversity in its labor force.
“On our senior team alone, we have three female vice presidents,” she noted. “We also have a high percentage of female pilots.
“As far as Dan [Wolf] is concerned, gender doesn’t matter. What matters is if you have the qualifications and skill set and the desire and attitude to succeed. We’re a very diverse organization,” she said.
Supporting a diverse workforce and creating opportunities for women in the aviation industry is also a priority for Markham.
“The airline industry tends to be a male-dominated industry, and I think there are a lot of really brilliant, talented female leaders in the industry today that certainly have the capability of moving into senior-level positions,” she said.
“As a female leader of an airline, my hope would be that in the next ten years we’re going to see many, many more female leaders running airlines and being a bigger part of the industry,” she added.
“I was the first female chair at the Regional Airline Association after 30 years,” she said. “I can’t stress enough that there are so many talented women in the industry and I know many of them,” she said.
“I’m certainly not saying there’s a problem with gender at the top, but I would like to see more women taking on leadership roles and in board rooms and a lot more females in leadership positions in organizations,” she said. “We do a good job here at Cape Air promoting and supporting women.”
We thank Cape Air and Ms. Linda Markham for their help in facilitating this interview.