Maine-based charter airline Elite Airways is expanding its business model to include scheduled passenger service.
On Sept. 8, the airline will begin offering scheduled nonstop flights between Washington Dulles International Airport and Melbourne International Airport in Florida, with plans to add additional routes later in the fall, Elite President John Pearsall said Monday. The additional routes are likely to include service between Melbourne and Portland International Jetport, he said.
“The idea was always there,” Pearsall said about providing scheduled flights. “We just needed to find the right city pairs.”
Elite will start out with two scheduled round-trip flights per week, on Mondays and Thursdays. Pearsall described the flights as “scheduled charters,” although reservations will be open to anyone.
The reason they are considered charter flights is that Elite still does not have the necessary Federal Aviation Administration license to operate long-term, scheduled passenger service, Pearsall said. Elite expects to obtain the license by winter, he said, at which point the airline will expand its schedule to five-days-a-week service and add more destinations.
Reservations will open for the Dulles-to-Melbourne route in late August, he said, including on travel sites such as Expedia.com and Travelocity.com. Fares are expected to start at $199 one way, and Pearsall hopes that serving hot meals in flight and an absence of baggage fees will give it a competitive edge.
Founded in 2006, the airline operates a fleet of five Bombardier CRJ-200 aircraft, each of which holds 50 passengers. As part of the airline’s expansion, it plans to purchase a Boeing 757-200 jetliner, which seats 175 passengers.
Elite’s focus has been on providing charter service to professional and college sports teams, company executives, heads of state, the White House press corps and VIP tour groups throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America and the Caribbean. Pearsall said private charter service will remain a big part of the business.
The airline’s plans to expand into scheduled flights dates to at least 2012, when Pearsall said his intent was to break into the highly competitive market by connecting smaller New England cities with Florida destinations to capitalize on snowbird travelers.
Specifically, the airline targeted Florida’s Space Coast – the area around Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center – as its primary destination. Melbourne is roughly 25 miles from the space complex and a 45-minute drive from Orlando.
The company hoped to benefit from incentives offered by smaller regional airports, which are more likely than the large airport hubs to waive landing and terminal leasing fees, and to contribute toward marketing campaigns for smaller carriers.
Pearsall said Elite considers itself a Portland company despite its tagline as “Melbourne’s Hometown Airline.” Most of its 72 employees, 24 of whom are pilots, are local.
“Our dispatch and all of our operations folks are here in Portland,” he said.