Business

South Florida’s Tropic Ocean Airways and Silver are flying to the post-storm rescue

The catastrophic damage Hurricane Dorian left in its wake throughout the Bahamas has also put a spotlight on two small, South Florida-based airlines that are key service providers for the islands. Both are stepping up to provide relief as they resume service to the devastated region. Here are snapshots of each company:

TROPIC OCEAN AIRWAYS

Even before Hurricane Dorian made landfall on the Abaco islands of the Bahamas, Tropic Ocean Airways was preparing to deploy.

Rob Ceravolo, the former U.S. Navy fighter pilot who founded the seaplane airline, had already participated in rescue and aid missions during hurricanes Joaquin, Matthew and Irma.

Late last year, he reached out to Blue Tide Marine, a company founded by retired Navy SEALS specializing in disaster response, aerial cargo delivery and maritime services. The two teams devised a first-responder plan, pooling their mutual resources, to be able to launch aid and assistance at a moment’s notice.

“The minute we saw this hurricane coming, we put our plan in motion,” said Ceravolo. “Our company is 30 to 40 percent ex-military personnel, so we can create a risk assessment, put controls into place along with the government and communicate directly with FEMA.”

Dorian cleared out of the northern Bahamas early Wednesday. By Thursday morning, Tropic had deployed eight amphibious Cessna Commander planes to the Bahamas loaded with food, water, medicine, tarps, ropes, generators and other supplies.

The planes also carried inflatable boats, overland vehicles and former Navy SEALs who will begin to install a WiFi information network to facilitate official communications in and out of the islands.

As of Thursday afternoon, the airline had devoted all its resources to its aid efforts and had not yet resumed normal services.

It’s a big effort for the small charter airline that operates exclusively with seaplanes, flying 13 of them out of Fort Lauderdale International Airport and the Miami Seaplane base with flights to the Bahamas, the Keys and Palm Beach County. It hopes to create another seaplane base near the Rickenbacker Causeway.

Life after the Navy

The seaplane airline was founded in 2009 by Ceravolo, who was desperate to return to the water and flight after his 14-year career in the Navy. The twice-deployed pilot started Tropic Ocean to blend his greatest passions.

“I was like, screw it, I’m going to start a company. I’m going to start a seaplane company because again, I love flying, I love the water and you bring them both together,” Ceravolo said.

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Rob Ceravolo, CEO of Tropic Ocean Airways, displays a tattoo with the logo of his company while standing in front of a plane at the Miami Seaplane Base in Watson Island on Thursday June 20, 2019. The company was founded in 2009 and is providing first-class private charter and scheduled service flights throughout Florida and The Bahamas. PEDRO PORTAL pportal@miamiherald.com

The charter seaplane company has been running for 10 years and served 35,000 guests in 2018, according to Ceravolo. Although some former pilots have complained about its practices, it has a good reputation with experts. And the company is growing 30-40 percent year over year in revenue, Ceravolo said.

Tropic Ocean offers service to several destinations in the Bahamas, including Bimini, Great Harbour Cay and Fresh Creek Andros. But customers looking to spend a little extra cash to fly in style can also charter a plane for the day, and choose to land on the water, on land, on a dock, or on a private yacht.

Travel aboard Tropic’s eight-person seaplanes is usually more expensive than other methods, but customers seem willing to pay the price and consistently give Tropic five-star reviews.

“If you want to fly JetBlue to Nassau, fly JetBlue to Nassau in the main terminal,” Ceravolo said. “If you want to charter an airplane and go direct private to private which saves a little time, you fly us.”

To get Tropic started, Ceravolo and his business partner (now vice president) Nick Veltre bootstrapped the company with friend and family contributions. He started raising capital for the company in 2014.

“I remember selling a kayak for a part on the plane,” Ceravolo said.

While Ceravolo is dedicated to using small, 250-mile seaplanes, he says he runs the company like an airline, not a tourist novelty. And as with all airlines, he has to navigate the nationwide pilot shortage.

Ceravolo prides himself on hiring pilots with “zero” seaplane experience and teaching them to become seaplane captains. Some, like other Navy vets who join the company, just want the thrill of flying seaplanes and end up staying with the company long-term.

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Tropic Ocean Airways company planes ready to depart at the Miami Seaplane Base in Watson Island. PEDRO PORTAL pportal@miamiherald.com

But others join Tropic Ocean to build the hours necessary to work for the big airlines. To that end, Tropic Ocean has a deal with Delta Endeavors, which gives Tropic pilots conditional employment offers for when they exit seaplanes with enough hours to enter the regional airline space.

The pilots take about six to eight months to build “from the ground up,” Ceravolo said. That costs the company about $60-80 thousand in training per employee. And Ceravolo isn’t willing to watch other seaplane companies capitalize on his investment.

“What’s happening in the industry right now is that companies are not willing to spend that kind of time and money,” Ceravolo said. “They wouldn’t hire [pilots] when we would hire them; we would take them at zero experience, develop them. They would wait a year and a half until we spent all this time and money and then say oh, I want to hire that guy.”

Non-compete contracts

Tropic Ocean implements two-year non-compete contracts, specific to the seaplane industry. Former employees are free to go work for commercial airlines or for seaplanes in Alaska.

Some former Tropic pilots who asked not to be identified said they were unhappy with the non-compete policy. But Ceravolo defended the need and said that he wouldn’t be able to afford to continue to invest in his training program if he didn’t have the non-compete contracts.

“No one in the seaplane world does what we do,” he said. “That’s why we have a non-compete.”

On pilot forums, posters who say they’re former Tropic pilots have complained of long hours and little pay. Shem Malmquist, a B-777 captain and air safety and accident investigator, said that’s typical for an airline of Tropic’s size. Seaplane flying, he said, is another way for young pilots to build hours to move to regional airlines.

Ceravolo said he considers his pay to be competitive.

And some pilots are fine with the pay, including Brian Silver and Carl Grooms. Silver said that while younger pilots may need to find a roommate or a second job, that’s typical for the industry while pilots cut their teeth.

Grooms, a first officer, said there’s more to the job than the paycheck for him.

“There’s a reward system that’s more complex than just what the check says at the end of the day,” Grooms said. “It’s just a lot of personal reward. I love it when I come back from my work day and I’m encrusted in salt and sand and I’m tired and I know that I put in a great day.”

Ceravolo said that while the company is profitable, he puts all of the money it makes into continued expansion and growth. Tropic is looking to expand its reach in the Bahamas from its current 20 offerings and eventually start servicing flights to Puerto Rico. Ceravolo also wants to expand service to the Keys and the Northeast, in places like Boston, which Ceravolo said has a lot of potential.

But already, Tropic is one of the most significant seaplane operators in the world, said Steven McCaughey, executive director of the Seaplane Association.

“They’re kind of our banner children,” McCaughey said. “They’re a very aggressive, growing seaplane company.”

TROPIC OCEAN AIRWAYS

Founder and CEO: Rob Ceravolo

Employees: 105

Founded: 2009; started flying 2011

Based: South Florida

Customers: 35,000 in 2018

Website: flytropic.com

SILVER AIRWAYS

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One of Silver Airways’ signature pink planes prepares for departure from the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on June 28, 2019. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

If you fly out of Fort Lauderdale or into the Bahamas, you’ve likely seen the bright pink Silver Airways planes. Those who have lived in South Florida for a decade or more may recall the airline under its former name, Gulfstream International, which was founded almost 30 years ago.

A Chicago investment company, Victory Park Capital Advisors, purchased Gulfstream after it went bankrupt and rebranded as Silver Airways in 2011, according to Airline Geeks.

The new owners wanted to see rapid growth from the regional airline. And that, CEO Steve Rossum said, is where Silver hit a major snag.

“The airline — although it was popular with customers — it was growing too fast, making too many changes too fast,” Rossum said. He said the airline struggled to put out an “operational product,” and made some bad decisions, like a big push into Cuban operations.

The result: Consistently low online reviews, with most customers citing constant delays and cancellations with little to no communication about the causes. According to OAG, which tracks on-time performance, Silver Airways flights between June 2018 and May 2019 were on time 68.5 percent of the time.

But the company hopes it is now on the upswing. It’s too soon to tell what the long-term impact of Hurricane Dorian will be, but we have served the Bahamas for a very long time,” said Misty Stoller, spokesperson for Silver Airlines. “We offer more flights within the state of Florida, and between Florida and the Bahamas, than any other airline. We’re committed to that market. It’s what we’ve served for a very long time and will continue to do so.”

Like many other companies whose businesses are based in the region, Silver is pitching in post-Dorian. “We are collecting urgently needed items from our Florida team members to take on our flights. And we are recommending folks to donate supplies to a disaster relief organization(s) who are best equipped to transport and distribute items the quickest,” said Silver.

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The flight crew goes through their pre-flight check on board a Silver Airways plane on the tarmac at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

In 2016, the Philadelphia-based private equity firm Versa Capital Management LLC acquired Silver, Rossum said. And new funding meant new goals for the airline.

New goals

“Our goal is to significantly improve the airline in terms of the operational performance,” Rossum said. He said that the airline has seen a boost in the amount of flights it actually completes. And the company is upgrading its current SAAB fleet for up to 50 new ATR-600 series aircraft.

“It’s like going from a 25-year-old car to a brand new car,” Rossum said of the transaction, which is valued at up to $1.1 billion. The new planes have 46 seats, 12 more than the older planes.

Silver currently serves routes in the Southeast, Northeast, the Bahamas and the rest of the Caribbean. Customers can reach destinations such as Pensacola, Tallahassee, Key West and Destin in Florida. They can also travel to destinations like Huntsville, Boston, and Treasure Cay, Bahamas.

Expansion into the southeast U.S. and further into the Caribbean to destinations they don’t currently serve are under consideration, Rossum said.

The company took in $150 million in revenue last year, which Rossum said is an increase from past years.

“I’m really proud of the employees at Silver. I think it’s a great place to work,” Rossum said. “I love the fact that we’re winning our customers back.”

But whether all of Silver’s customers will remain loyal to the airline as changes unfold remains to be seen. The airline has a 2-star average review on TripAdvisor. Most customers who leave negative reviews complain of chronic delays and cancellations. Those who leave positive reviews rave about the customer service.

The delays can often be attributed to South Florida weather, Rossum said. Since Silver’s planes are smaller than those used by national and international airlines, they’re more susceptible to cancellations due to rain and other storms.

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A Silver Airways plane is reflected in the sunglasses of Katie Loughlin, a manager for Silver Airways, on June 28, 2019. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Rossum said that while the company still has work to do, they’ve significantly reduced the number of customer complaints. Rodney Johnson, a chief pilot who started with Silver in 2012 as his first professional pilot position, wants to see those numbers continue to improve.

“We as pilots, we want the customers to get what they paid for. We want to provide an on-time, safe experience for them, and meet their expectations or exceed them,” Johnson said.

Including Johnson, Silver employs about 170 pilots, Rossum said. The pilots are unionized and are currently in contract negotiations with Silver. A nationwide pilot shortage has made it more imperative than ever for airlines to attract quality pilots.

Retention troubles

Airline Professionals Association currently is negotiating with the company on behalf of its pilots. Pay is cited as one of the issues.

Malmquist, the aviation expert, said that low pay at a small, regional airline like Silver is typical. He said that airlines like Silver are typically “stepping stones” to careers with major carriers.

“They can get away with paying very little because people want to get the flight time to move up in their career,” Malmquist said.

Johnson said that he thinks the pay is fair as is, but that it still needs to improve because of the cost of living and education expenses. But he loves his job with Silver.

“I grew up in a family business and I wanted to go to work for a family airline,” Johnson said. “I felt like this was the place.”

SILVER AIRWAYS

CEO: Steve Rossum

Employees: 650 at Silver; 900 including Seaborne Airlines, acquired in 2018

Founded: 1990 as Gulfstream International Airlines; 2011 as Silver Airways

Based: Fort Lauderdale

Revenue: $150 million in 2018

Website: silverairways.com

Miami Herald staff writer Rene Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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