Although Missoula-based Neptune Aviation is primarily known for its firefighting aircraft, the company wants to gauge market interest in the community for consistent private charter service to places like Billings, Boise and Seattle.
Speaking at an investor breakfast hosted by the Missoula Economic Partnership in the company’s hangar near Missoula International Airport on Wednesday, Neptune CEO Ron Hooper outlined his vision for a membership-based, twice-weekly roundtrip flight to Billings.
“We took a scenario of providing service of a day trip to Billings, which would cost us about $4,000 roundtrip and require passengers to be here 15 minutes before the flight to get their coffee and be comfortable,” he said. “If you bring five people along, that’s $800 per person roundtrip. Depending on how this plays out, we can add locations, we can add frequency and we can add aircraft if need be.”
Hooper said the company’s plan calls for a one-time startup fee of $750 per person to offset the cost of ramping up the program. Customers would then pay a monthly membership fee for charter service, starting at $750 depending on the number of flights they wanted to take.
Flights would depart Missoula at 7 a.m. and arrive in Billings or Boise at 8:15 a.m.; return trips would leave Billings/Boise at 4:30 p.m. and arrive back in Missoula at 6 p.m.
Hooper hopes to launch the service by Aug. 1.
Customers would travel on either a King Air B-100 twin turboprop, which Hooper described as a “workhorse,” or a Falcon 50EX super-midsize corporate jet that seats nine and can reach Hawaii and Mexico.
If there are unused seats, members can bring along guests for $750 per person.
“I want to announce to you that Neptune Aviation wants to enhance our charter service to respond to in-state needs for air service,” Hooper told the crowd. “We’re going to roll it out in phases, and phase 1 is our current operations. You can come out anytime in the next five months and charter this aircraft.”
Phase 2, Hooper said, is to work with the local business community to determine what people want.
“We want to work with you, the business community, to determine exactly what your needs are,” he said. “Is our scenario accurate? Two flights a week to Billings roundtrip? Or do we need something more frequent than that, or a different destination – Boise, Seattle – wherever that might be.”
Hooper said phase 3 is going to depend on the response from the community.
“Phase 3 is looking into the future and depends on what the response is from the marketplace,” he explained. “We’ve got the capability to grow our charter service in terms of adding aircraft and adding flight crews. We can do that if the market demands.”
Neptune Aviation currently operates under a 135 certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration, which permits a commercial aircraft operator to perform air-taxi operations. It constrains the company from taking reservations from customers for specific seats on flights on an established schedule.
“We have the opportunity to operate within a 121 certificate, and operate like the airlines do and have a reservation desk out here that you would call and actually buy a seat on an airline for a specific date and time to a specific location on an established schedule,” Hooper said.
The charter flight portion of Neptune’s business is growing, Hooper added.
“Neptune operates a quality charter program out of its Missoula, Montana, facility,” he said. “The program has attracted an established clientele that calls upon Neptune on a regular basis. The backbone of the charter program is its fleet of Falcon 50EX and King Air B-100 aircraft. The charter program continues to grow and be an integral part of Neptune Aviation Services.”
The investor breakfast also included presentations by Missoula Economic Partnership CEO James Grunke, MEP board chair Jeff Fee, RegionalCare Hospital Partners CEO Marty Rash, Blackstone LaunchPad director Paul Gladen, and MEP director of entrepreneurship and special projects Jenn Ewan.
Last year was the year of the startup in Missoula, and this year will be the year of expansion, according to Grunke, who said $190 million worth of new development is currently in the works in the Missoula area.
Grunke said that although Missoula County’s unemployment rate of 4 percent is good for those who have jobs, it is going to be a challenge for businesses to find qualified workers as the labor pool constricts.
“Workforce development and in-migration are going to be key to our economic activities,” he said. “We’re very concerned that we’re going to have the available workforce to meet the needs of not only our existing employers but those who want to start up and those who are attracted to our area.”
He said residential home sales are ticking up, and hinted that Providence St. Patrick Hospital is going to make an announcement soon on “major activities.”