2008-12-04 / Business Profiles

Naples Air takes off from humble beginnings

BY BILL CORNWELL news@floridaweekly.com

Almost seven years ago, Catherine and Jon Fay faced a decision: Should they abandon financial security and a comfortable lifestyle in a place they loved (Vermont) in order to buy a charter airline company in Naples that consisted of what Cahterine called "one tiny, ratty airplane."

NAPLES AIR PHOTO On the tarmac: Orlando Macias, Catherine and Jon Fay, and Rich Lytle. NAPLES AIR PHOTO On the tarmac: Orlando Macias, Catherine and Jon Fay, and Rich Lytle. They wrestled with the pros and cons. The safe thing was to remain in the green hills of Vermont. But that isn't the Fays' style, so they headed south.

"Jon and I weren't married at the time, we weren't living together and we hadn't worked together," Mrs. Fay recalls. "But we decided to do it anyway."

It was one of the smartest moves that the Fays, who married in 2003 (the ceremony took place in an airplane, naturally), ever made. Naples Air, Inc., at 200 Aviation Drive North at Naples Municipal Airport, and its co-owners have prospered.

For Mr. Fay, who is 63 and has piloted aircraft for more than 40 years, the transition was a natural. But not so for Mrs. Fay.

"I was in radio broadcast sales in Vermont," she says. "I had been successful, and I had a substantial income. What did I know about flying? Nothing."

Aeronautical knowledge was not needed. Mr. Fay handles that end, and his considerable skill as a pilot soon became well known across Southwest Florida. That left Mrs. Fay to work the business side — and she works it quite well.

From that humble and precarious beginning, Naples Air now boasts four airplanes (the original craft has been sold), and has added another pilot to assist Mr. Fay and a mechanic.

Business and pleasure travelers who are making short-to-intermediate trips — within Florida or to points in the Southeast or Midwest, for example — can hire one of the company's planes and a pilot. That's the most elemental aspect of the business.

"We'll have people who want to go to Disney World for an outing," Mrs. Fay says. "They hire us. We fly them up. The pilot stays overnight, which is cheaper than flying the plane back here. And the next morning or a day later or whenever, everyone returns. During the summer, we fly a lot of people to the mountains in the Carolinas. We fly often to the Keys. We take people where they need to go. Pretty simple."

A substantial portion of the business travel involves quick trips to Tallahassee, which is notoriously difficult to reach via commercial airlines and often involves dreaded plane changes in Atlanta.

For those traveling greater distances, Mrs. Fay uses her contacts within the industry to broker flights provided by other charter outfits that specialize in longer hauls. Brokering is an important aspect of Naples Air's operations, and Mrs. Fay says that it now comprises about a third of the company's overall business.

"There are days when we might have five airplanes going, and only two actually belong to me," Mrs. Fay notes. "We've had as many as six airplanes going at a time."

The first five calendar months are the busiest time for Naples Air as snowbirds move back and forth. This also is the period of greatest activity for air ambulance services, which Mrs. Fay also brokers.

The economic downturn has adversely affected their business, she says, but not to the degree that other companies have been hit. Without providing specific numbers, she says brokering is down about 30 percent, but other revenues, while slightly diminished, remain fairly steady.

"The air ambulance business has been hit, no doubt," she says. "Let's say you want to hire an air ambulance to go back to California for a weekend to visit your doctor. That's going to cost about $26,000. That's a lot of money. I mean, you really have to want to see that doctor to pay that."

Naples Air also has added an opencockpit biplane that provides barnstorming and sight-seeing flights across Southwest Florida.

Mrs. Fay says the business' rewards far outweigh the long hours that are required to keep it going.

"I answer the phone 24 hours, seven days a week," she says.

Her dedication to customers was cemented by an incident that took place about six months after she and her husband bought the business. Mrs. Fay received a call late one evening from a young couple who needed to get to Jacksonville as quickly as possible. Their 2-year-old child had fallen into a swimming pool in Jacksonville and was in critical condition. Mrs. Fay quickly brokered a flight, met the distraught parents at the airport and personally escorted them aboard their plane.

Later, she talked to the father.

"He told me that his son didn't make it," she says with a catch in her voice. "But he said that they got there in time to be with him when he died. I made a vow then that I was always going to answer that phone. Always."

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