April 18, 2007 A new airline, operating out of Christiansted announced service to begin Thursday between St. Thomas and St. Croix, according to DLR Aviation manager Don Lewis.
Though the airline ran an ads in the print newspapers Wednesday, one of which features a float seaplane, Lewis said the airplanes will be touching down on land for the time being.
"When the V.I. Port Authority made a contract with the owners of Seaborne Airlines 10 years ago, to entice them, they provided them with an exclusive monopoly. Nobody else can land, except at the airport."
Lewis said eventually the airline called DLR Aviation in its ad, and SeaFlight Virgin Islands when answering the phone will operate out of the harbor in Christiansted.
He said the ad wasn't misleading because "it shows a picture of a seaplane, but no language that says 'seaplane.'"
The airline advertises a $60 one-way fare "with air-conditioned comfort and large seats." Lewis said the Cessna Caravan aircraft is luxurious. "The seats are large, almost equal to Boeing jet seats. The two aircraft are much newer models than Cape Air's," Lewis said, "and the speed is greater than Seaborne (Airlines)."
The planes are single engine and operate with one pilot.
Lewis said the airline will run on an "on-demand" basis, with eight flights a day, starting out of St. Croix at 7 a.m. He said there are no counters at either airport, but an agent will meet the passengers and take them to the aircraft.
On St. Thomas, the flights will land across from the Cyril E. King Airport, in the general aviation area. To make reservations, call 714-3000.
Lewis is no stranger to V.I. seaplane operations. He was a partner in the V.I. Seaplane Shuttle, which began operating in 1982, after the first seaplane airline, Antilles Airboats, went out of business in 1981.
Robert Mikesh, in a January 2001 Airways magazine article, recalled Lewis' previous V.I. career: "Lewis became disenchanted with his partners sold his interest, and began a competing seaplane shuttle between St. Thomas and St. Croix using a de Havilland Canada Twin Otter 300 on floats." Mikesh went on: "Seajet began service in October 1984, with a $20 fare, compared to the Shuttle's $29 fare. It operated from floating docks, located closer to the downtown area on both islands.
"It ended operations a year later, after its certificate was revoked by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for operating and maintenance violations."
On Wednesday, Lewis said of Seajet's demise: "There were accusations of FAA violations, which turned out not to be true, but unlike normal jurisprudence, you have to prove you're innocent before you can get back in business."
The airline now operates under a Part 135 airline certificate for on-demand airline operations, Lewis said.
In 1997, Lewis again tried to initiate downtown-to-downtown service with a four-passenger "Flare Craft" between St. Thomas and St. Croix. According to a Daily News story from January 23, 1997, Lewis brought his proposal to the V.I. Port Authority. The planes would take off outside the buoys at the mouth of each harbor, and nose into a small floating mooring and be tied to the seawall, Lewis told VIPA. However, the VIPA board sent the proposal back, voicing concerns about traffic congestion being a problem on St. Thomas, according to the story.
Contacted Wednesday afternoon, Seaborne Airlines President and CEO Omer ErSelcuk said, "We have spoken with the folks at DLR to see about the possibility of a partnership. While we kept the door open, we decided against proceeding at this time."
He continued, "We felt at this time, it is in the best interest of our customers, employees and shareholders to make Seaborne a better company by improving our operation and adding more aircraft to our fleet.
"Basically," ErSelcuk said, "there has been all sorts of competition in the Virgin Islands. Essentially what has shaken down is that the market over the past 10 years has proven that it is only large enough to support one land-based airline, one seaplane airline and one inter-island ferry operation."
He continued, "We compete on a professional basis, and there is only enough traffic for one in each niche. Anything more than that will destabilize the market. We don't believe adding another competitor into one of these niches is sustainable."
The territory has a long history of failed carriers. There have been at least a dozen ferry operations between St. Thomas and St. Croix over the past four decades, including hydrofoils, but none have been able to sustain service, largely because of rough seas.
Although the number of failed air carriers is slightly smaller, few, with the exception of Seaborne, have been able to offer sustained service.
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