While commercial airlines make dubious headlines for things like dragging passengers off planes and allowing Wall Street profit-demands to take precedence over customer service, the private aviation sector is soaring in the opposite direction here in Westchester. Wondering what all the fuss is about?
A recent trip on a Tradewind Aviation shuttle flight from White Plains to Nantucket made it perfectly clear why so many travelers are ponying up the extra money to bypass the madness that is today’s commercial-aviation experience. Customers flying with Tradewind — which is headquartered in Oxford, CT and maintains operational bases at Westchester County Airport and San Juan International Airport in Puerto Rico — pull up to a private terminal entrance in a separate area of the White Plains airport, are greeted by workers who take your bags and park your car, and are then escorted into the lounge area (which smells of freshly baked cookies, by the way) for a short wait before your flight.
On the runway, Tradewind’s fleet of Pilatus PC-12 and Citation CJ3 jets wait at the ready. The comfy planes, which seat up to eight people, are flown by two pilots, and in the case of the Nantucket flight, get you to your destination in about an hour. Service is exceedingly friendly, there are free snacks and beverages, no long security lines, and the experience is entirely enjoyable — not a word used very often to describe flying commercial.
This stellar experience is exactly what private-aviation companies like Tradewind, founded in 2001 by Eric Zipkin, president, and operates both on-demand private charter and scheduled “shuttle” service throughout the US and the Caribbean, are banking on to grow their businesses.
“The airline experience continues to deteriorate, so people are looking for something better,” says Tradewind VP David Zipkin, who joined the company in 2003; the brothers both grew up in Bedford and learned to fly at an early age. “We’ve proven the idea that you don’t have to compete on price in aviation. People are, to the extent that they’re able to, happy to pay more for much better service.” (Tradewind’s rates for a one-way weekend shuttle trip from White Plains to Nantucket start at about $585, plus tax.)
Zipkin also explains that the shorter, regional routes that most private-aviation firms specialize in, like Tradewind’s service from New York to Nantucket; Boston; Stowe, VT; and Martha’s Vineyard, are really a sore spot for commercial airlines, who are continuing to get out of the short-distance business. “From a client’s perspective, short distances are really where they feel the pain of an airline more than anywhere because the ratio of time spent in the airport versus in the air is all off. People are looking for alternatives in that sort of flying,” he explains.
Providing that alternative has helped Tradewind experience strong growth — between 2010 and now, the firm went from owning eight airplanes to 21, and is now the second-largest operator of Pilatus aircraft in the US for civilian use. “We were very careful to grow in lock step with the demand,” Zipkin says, noting that the firm did not want to take outside investors and preferred the organic-growth route over the years.
The company has also made a lot of investments in infrastructure and safety, to support what is now a larger operation. “The type of flying that we do is tricky. We’re flying into small runways, maybe remote locations, especially on the private-charter side, and it takes a lot of experience to do that right and do it well,” says Zipkin, explaining that he sees this as one of Tradewind’s advantages in competing with a surge of newer entrants to the private-aviation market, like Wheels Up, ImagineAir, and startup Beacon Air, which made a big splash billing itself as “the Uber of private aviation” before going out of business last year.
Eric Zipkin (left), president; and David Zipkin, vice president
Many of these new concepts, Zipkin points out, are really marketing entities; they develop helpful apps for booking flights, but aren’t the ones operating the aircraft. “We operate our own fleet, so we are both a marketing vehicle and the aircraft flyers. It’s very difficult to provide a solid end-to-end experience if you’re not the one flying the plane,” he notes.
Zipkin also sees good times ahead with the expansion of the Westchester County Airport’s Million Air terminal, where Tradewind currently flies from. The new $70 million fixed-base operation facility, which includes a 54,000-square-foot hangar and 20,000-square-foot terminal, will span 23 acres and provide aviation firms with upgraded facilities. But Zipkin is clear that despite the larger facility, Tradewind is devoted to maintaining the intimate, family atmosphere it has cultivated through the years.
“I think one of the reasons for our success is that we are a family company — most of our regulars know Eric and I,” he says. “We get involved and help when there’s an issue, and they know they can always reach out to us, and I think that’s comforting to people. They know we’re taking care of them.”