Milwaukee businesses use charter flights to maximize productivity

Cover Story

Gavin Leake of Spring City Aviation poses with one of the company’s charter aircraft at Lawrence J. Timmerman Airport.

When you think of private business jets or charter flights, what do you picture? Big wigs at top tier companies with cash to burn?

Not so fast. Just 3 percent of U.S. business aircraft are flown by Fortune 500 companies, according to the National Business Aviation Association. In many cases, it makes more economic sense for a small- or medium-sized business to book a charter flight to move people to a destination as efficiently as possible, without wasting valuable productivity or keeping a customer waiting. And usually, it’s not the CEO, but several specialized employees making the trip.

Gavin Leake of Spring City Aviation poses with one of the company’s charter aircraft at Lawrence J. Timmerman Airport.
Gavin Leake of Spring City Aviation poses with one of the company’s charter aircraft at Lawrence J. Timmerman Airport.

A number of companies operate charter flights out of southeastern Wisconsin’s regional airports, catering most frequently to business customers.

Direct-to-destination

There are approximately 5,000 public-use airports in the U.S. accessible to charter flight operators. That’s about 10 times the number of airports reached by commercial airlines, according to the NBAA.

There is no direct commercial flight to Norfolk, Nebraska. In fact, the nearest major airport is about two hours away, in Omaha.

But John Uttech has to travel to Norfolk regularly for his work as senior vice president at Watertown-based Wis-Pak Inc., which itself is about an hour away from General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee.

Wis-Pak, which has 240 employees in Watertown, manufactures and distributes Pepsi-Cola and other soft drinks. The company has eight plants scattered throughout the central U.S. Its Watertown plant alone makes about 25 million cases of soft drinks per year.

In many cases, it makes sense for a group of Wis-Pak employees to book a charter flight from the nearby Watertown Municipal Airport directly to the Norfolk Regional Airport, which is so close to the Wis-Pak plant you can see it from the runway, Uttech said. It’s a three-and-a-half hour flight, which costs about $5,676.

Wis-Pak books 10 to 12 charter flights per year.

“It’s not something we do on a regular basis, but we do have multiple plants and our business is spread out across a number of states,” Uttech said. “The charter offers a lot more convenience of travel. If we need to move a team of people, it gives us a lot more flexibility because many of our locations are located in small, rural areas.”

If a production line goes down, getting it back up and running is of critical importance to the business. A charter flight can also be helpful in this situation.

“We have used charter flights to move critical spare parts between facilities, things like that, but generally it’s to move people,” Uttech said.

Germantown-based Kesslers Diamonds opened its first out-of-state store in Grand Rapids, Michigan in November 2015. For half the year, employees can take the Lake Express ferry from Milwaukee to Michigan to check in on the store. During the winter months, employees often use charter flights to get there, said owner Richard Kessler.

“To drive there is a good four to five hours depending on Chicago traffic and it’s a pain in the rump and basically, you lose a full day,” Kessler said. “There’s five of us in the plane, so I think it’s very cost efficient.

“I did look at commercial first, but for Grand Rapids you would have to go through Chicago or through Detroit, so it would still be the same amount of time as if I drove.”

With a direct flight through Spring City Aviation, the employees can get to Grand Rapids and back in the same day, eliminating the need for a hotel room for each of them. The 45-minute charter flight from the Waukesha County Airport to Gerald Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids costs about $1,700 round trip, and includes snacks, soft drinks and even wine.

Kessler is evaluating opening a second Grand Rapids store, so he recently took a charter flight with the builder and architect to inspect the site, and brought along his head jewelry buyer and chief diamond buyer.

“If it was just me going, I might be a little reluctant to just do it by myself. I would rather have some people I can amortize the cost over,” Kessler said.

Flying charter also means the employees have flexibility to arrive and leave when they’re ready, versus on a particular flight schedule. A few minutes after they drive up to the airport, they can be in the air.

“It’s just so much more convenient,” Kessler said. “You don’t have all the TSA stuff, you don’t have parking issues. You can go when you want to go. You have control of everything.”

Some charter services are on call 24 hours a day, for situations such as transporting organ transplant teams or helping insurance adjusters immediately reach the site of a tragedy such as a tornado.

“We’ve had cases where customers have called us up and said ‘Get your fastest airplane and stand next to it,’” said Jeff Baum, president of Wisconsin Aviation, which provides the charter flight service Wis-Pak uses in Watertown.

Time savings

One of the advantages of flying charter is time savings.

“People just don’t know what’s available to them and I think a lot of people have a misconception that it’s horribly expensive and it’s only for the rich and famous,” Baum said.

Jeff Baum of Wisconsin Aviation sits in the cockpit of a plane the company uses for charter flights at the Watertown Municipal Airport.
Jeff Baum of Wisconsin Aviation sits in the cockpit of a plane the company uses for charter flights at the Watertown Municipal Airport.

Most of Wisconsin Aviation’s travelers are heading out on business, but just 15 percent of them are C-suite executives. The company has 20 charter planes and runs about 2,000 charter flights per year.

A trip to Rochester, Minnesota from Milwaukee would take four-plus hours by car. If there are five people from the same company in that car, the lost productivity of the trip adds up, Baum said.

On the other hand, the company could purchase a commercial plane ticket for each of those five people. The timing of the meeting may require travel to occur the day before and the day after the business event, which means two hotel nights and many meals and expenses, as well as two days of lost productivity.

But via charter flight, all five travelers can reach the destination in an hour-and-a-half for about $2,000, and could fly back by dinner the same day, Baum said.

“We don’t try to compare ticket prices—we try to compare travel cost,” he said. “What is your personnel cost?”

Often, companies are not able to book a flight commercially and there is an important business need to travel anyway, said Dan Morrison, director of sales at SC Aviation, which is based out of Janesville and frequently flies from Milwaukee-area airports.

“Southwest (or another commercial airline) doesn’t service the city they need to go to or doesn’t offer the range of times and dates that they need to travel,” Morrison said. “It really just comes down to scheduling. They need to go somewhere and they need to get there now.”

Spring City Aviation, which is based out of Waukesha County Airport, took over the fixed-base operations at Lawrence J. Timmerman Airport in December. It has three airplanes it uses for charter flights. As a fixed-base operator, like many companies offering charter flights, it also maintains private planes owned by companies and individuals, runs a flight school and maintains and fuels all the aircraft on-site, said Gavin Leake, general manager at Spring City Aviation’s Timmerman location.

Most local charter operators have a few different options for travelers, from propeller-driven aircraft with two passenger seats to jets that seat nine or more passengers. They charge by the size of plane and the number of hours, and pilot flying and waiting time, as well as food, are sometimes added to that rate.

A charter flight can make it possible for a team of professionals to get to three in-person meetings around the country in one day, while also holding meetings during travel time, without worrying about discussing sensitive business information in a public place, Leake said.

“On the airplane, you’re in an environment where you can speak freely,” said Laurie Stein, who co-owns Stein’s Aircraft Services in Kenosha with her husband, Mike Stein.

Charter flights are about 10 percent of Stein’s business, but that is changing, Laurie said.

“We have seen as aviation continues to evolve, I do believe there is a growing demand for charter service,” she said. “As a whole, aviation tends to serve manufacturing probably more than any other industry just because they have the need to move people. The other reason I think charter is going to become much more of a player in business is because everybody keeps talking about the people shortage. If you look at the airplane as a tool for making the people productive, it’s very reasonable at that point.”

Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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