MY VERO: Regular airline service still a pipe dream

Commercial commuter flights won’t be returning to Vero Beach Municipal Airport any time soon.

Simply put: There’s not enough guaranteed, year-round business for the airlines to make such an investment in our small, seaside community, especially with larger, commercial airports nearby in Melbourne, Orlando and West Palm Beach.

So what’s the next-best option for local folks who want the convenience of non-stop, jet service connecting Vero Beach to New York, Boston and Chicago but don’t want the weighty expense of owning and maintaining a private aircraft?

Former Air Force pilot Paul Rancatore, who now flies for American Airlines, spent much of the past year researching the possibilities, talking with top brass from commuter carriers, aircraft manufacturers and fractional-jet operators, such as NetJets and Flexjet.

And the 12-year, Bermuda Bay resident came up with a promising answer.

Unfortunately, most of his barrier island neighbors – particularly those who travel regularly to the aforementioned, major-market destinations and possess the financial means necessary to cover the steep costs – haven’t heard it.

“People are either comfortable with what they have, or they haven’t gotten the word,” Rancatore said. “I think there’s been a lack of communication.”

Rancatore said he put together a proposal involving Atlanta-based Jet Senters Aviation in January and passed it along in February to the general managers of the island’s upper-tier communities and clubs, including Windsor, John’s Island, Quail Valley and The Moorings, as well as Grand Harbor on the mainland.

He’s still waiting for a response.

“I know there have been a lot of attempts that went nowhere in the past, but this is a realistic effort,” Rancatore said. “I think there’s a real demand for something like this.”

Something like what?

Rancatore said Jet Senters initially would offer exclusive, executive-type shuttle service between Vero Beach and White Plains, NY. The size of the jet – and, ultimately, the price of a seat – would depend on the demand.

“It’s not a fractional ownership deal like NetJets; the people here wouldn’t own shares of the aircraft,” Rancatore said. “They would pay a flat fee to travel, selecting one of three pricing plans based on whether they fly once a week, once a month or a spot price if they don’t fly on a regular basis.”

Starting out, at least, Rancatore projected round-trip flights would be offered twice per week, probably on Mondays and Thursdays. He estimated the cost of a round-trip ticket at between $4,000 and $8,000, with those who fly weekly paying less per flight than those who fly monthly. Single-trip buyers would pay the most per flight.

Though the price sounds ridiculously high when compared to the cost of flying commercially – even in a first-class seat – Rancatore said the shuttle service would be far less expensive than the $30,000 it costs to travel from Vero Beach to New York using a private or chartered jet.

“Why pay $30,000 when you pay $5,000?” he said.

For those wondering: Rancatore said he has no financial stake in pursuing executive-type shuttle service for Vero Beach.

“I’m doing this on my own time, and I do have a life,” Rancatore said. “But I believe this is something that would help and enhance our community.”

That’s why, he said, he embraced the opportunity to use his vast airline experience and aviation contacts to spearhead a community effort to investigate the matter.

It was more than a year ago that Rancatore joined with 30-plus local leaders – among them were Indian River County Chamber of Commerce president Penny Chandler; the general managers of several island communities, clubs and hotels; and prominent realtors – to form a group to explore whether there was a market for, and way to provide, such a service.

More than 1,000 people responded to an internet survey of both full-time and seasonal residents conducted from April through May 2013 by the Chamber of Commerce. More than 850 respondents said they would choose flights based on the proximity of the airport. More than 900 said they have guests who require air travel to visit here.

Nearly 450 said they wanted flights to and from the New York area.

Those numbers, Rancatore said, were encouraging – so much so that they prompted him to launch the latest effort into returning passenger service to the local airport, which offered commercial commuter flights from the mid-1930s through the mid-1990s.

Commercial service ended in 1996, when American Eagle canceled its route between Vero Beach and Miami. And it’s unlikely to return in the foreseeable future.

“One of the study group’s members wanted us to first look into bringing in a commercial carrier, but airlines want guarantees,” Rancatore said. “We want to do something, but we want this to be a private venture. We don’t want to involve any public funding.”

So Rancatore then explored fractional ownership, which is offered by companies such as NetJets and Flexjet, and executive shuttle service.

Executive shuttles, he concluded, would provide the desired service and amenities with more options to more potential travelers. In fact, Bombardier Inc., which he said has ties to our community, was interested in serving the Vero Beach airport with one of its Flexjet jets.

“But in September, just as I was prepared to make a presentation to the group, the Bombardier people called and said they had sold their Flexjet operation,” Rancatore said. “We were left high and dry.”

It was then that Rancatore decided to phone a friend, Lisa Senters McDermott, a former NetJets/Marquis Jet senior vice president who had left to start her own private aviation company.

He pitched the possibility of Jet Senters putting a jet in Vero Beach, and she was intrigued.

“She said she could do it,” Rancatore said. “We put together a proposal similar to what we were going to do with Flexjet, and I sent it along to the general managers, so they could share it with all the members of their communities.

“The thinking was: Once people saw what we wanted to do, they’d be all for it and we’d put it before the whole group.”

But …

“There was no response,” he said.

The deal isn’t dead, but Rancatore has done his part. He believes a 16- or 20-seat executive shuttle to White Plains twice per week is still possible. He believes the service would grow in popularity, which would create a demand for more seats, more flights and more destinations.

“In two years, I think we’d be up to 50 seats,” he said. “And I could see service expanding to Chicago, maybe Boston. We could even have a three-legged route from Vero Beach to New York to Chicago, and back to Vero Beach.”

He paused briefly, the continued: “This isn’t All Aboard Florida. We wouldn’t see any benefit from that. But if we can provide this kind of connectivity to the outside world via air, we could enhance our local economy without damaging the Rockwellian quality of life in our community.”

Rancatore concedes that these executive shuttles aren’t for everyone.

Not yet, anyway.

“Not with 16 seats, or even 50 seats,” he said. “But if we could get to 90 seats – 20 or so in first class, the rest in coach – and the price dropped to $500 or $600 for a coach seat, I think it would be very popular.

“It would be more than you’d pay to fly commercial out of Orlando or West Palm Beach or Melbourne, but you’d save on gas and parking and drive time. And you’d fly direct.”

That ought to draw at least some interest from his barrier island neighbors.

Now that they know.

Leave a Comment