CommutAir Celebrates 30 Years

LARA’s Kathryn B. Creedy was invited to the recent celebrations held by CommutAir, where the airline is getting back to its roots. 

“One of my fondest memories was having summer picnics for our employees,” said CommutAir chairman John Sullivan, who keynoted the anniversary celebrations. “In the summer months it was a fun environment with a whole bunch of aviators doing different things with aircraft.”

So, it was fitting that CommutAir’s 30th Anniversary Celebrations in Albany, New York, its maintenance base, Cleveland, Ohio, its headquarters, its two main hubs at Newark and Dulles as well as its Cincinnati training centre featured grand summer picnics for its 1,100 employees. The recent celebrations, complete with barbecue, coleslaw and corn bread and, of course, giant birthday cakes, were a throwback to those earlier times.

“We envisioned that we would operate for one major carrier with a single type of aircraft,” Sullivan said of the plan he and founding partners Jim Drollette and Tony Von Elbe cooked up in 1989. “At that time, we operated in a small geographic area, serving New England, New York and Pennsylvania. Today we operate from Canada to Florida and the Atlantic Coast to Missouri.”

The history of CommutAir is a perfect illustration of the old saying: the more things change the more they stay the same. Since its inception, it has survived numerous changes within the US airline industry and seen its aircraft cycle through the paint shop multiple times as its partnerships changed. Its history reflects the many mergers in the industry and its evolving code-sharing partnerships including USAir Express, Continental Commuter and, most recently, United Express. It has flown the Beech 1900, Bombardier’s 37-seat Q200 and 50-seat Q300. But, now with the Embraer ERJ 145, it is now back to operating a single fleet type for a single major airline.

new family tree

Source: CommutAir. CommutAir’s family tree extends back decades.

Sullivan, Drollette and Von Elbe were already airline veterans having taken three airlines – Air North, Clinton Aero and Crown Airways – to form Brockway Air, which later operated as a Piedmont Commuter and USAir Express. Its parent company, Brockway Inc was a Fortune 500 glass company After Brockway was acquired by Owens Illinois the aviation division was put up for sale.

Sullivan, Drollette and Von Elbe put in a bid to buy Brockway Air but lost to Texas-based Metro Air, so they partnered to develop a brand-new airline – CommutAir – headquartered in Plattsburgh, New York. CommutAir took flight on 1 August 1989 with USAir Express as the livery for its two Beech 1900s, after winning back the USAir Express franchise they had served successfully for so long.

CommutAir resigned its USAir partnership in the early 2000s, transforming into a Continental Connection, upgrading its fleet to 37-seat Bombardier Q200s and moving its headquarters to support Continental’s hub at Cleveland. Following the Continental merger with United Airlines, CommutAir flew as a United Express partner and upgraded its fleet to 50-seat Bombardiers in 2007.

A new agreement was reached with United Airlines in 2015, with CommutAir transitioning to Embraer 145 jets supporting United operations at Cleveland, Dulles and Newark. To facilitate the conversion to a jet fleet, United purchased a 40% ownership stake in CommutAir stock in 2016 and the airline now flies exclusively as a United Express carrier, using an all-jet fleet of nearly 40 aircraft to serve one-third of the United States. CommutAir operates more than 1,000 weekly flights to more than 50 cities.

“Future is pretty bright now we have the solid foundation with the 145 jets and the growth we’ve been experiencing,” said COO Joel Raymond during the Albany event. “Really, the sky’s the limit. That may be a cliché but as we continue to grow and focus on great service to customers and great environment for employees, we want to make sure that growth is meaningful and rewarding for our people.”

And it was clear from the many employees and civic leaders in attendance at its anniversary celebrations, they are looking forward to the next 30 years.