Shifting Strategies: How Empire Airlines Secured Its Future

FedEx Feeder ATR-42 aircraft, operated by Empire Airlines (Photo: airforcefe from Richmond - N912FX, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23929545)

When airlines look for evolving marketing strategies, it is rare to find a company that can completely change marketing strategies and suddenly be more successful than they previously were. However, Idaho-based Empire Airlines has thrived following its major mid-1990s marketing shift, and has made themselves a better asset than before.

The carrier traces its routes back to Orofino, Idaho and a small flying company called the Clearwater Flying Service. The company prioritized flying throughout the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s with DeHavilland Twin Otter aircraft operating contracts provided by the United States Forest Service. The airline expanded operations to include passenger operations in 1984 with the Fairchild Metro between Montana and Idaho.

Growth with New Aircraft

The airline continued to expand and added larger aircraft into the 1990s with the arrival of the Fokker 27 and BAe 146. The aircraft were then leased to Mahalo Air of Hawaii and Silver Wing Holidays of Vancouver, Canada. Unfortunately, the deal with Mahalo Air went south quickly as the carrier failed to fly, and as a result the Fokker 27s were brought back to the mainland and a deal was signed to fly FedEx Feeder flights in the Pacific Northwest.

Then in 1994 the decision was made to consolidate the carrier and focus on cargo only. The airline decided not to renew its fleet of BAe 146s and decided to no longer take part in any commercial or charter flying, choosing instead to focus on the deal with FedEx. With FedEx as the carrier’s lone deal, the carrier made an order for ATR 42Fs and ATR 72Fs to replace the fleet of Fokker 27s. The airline also moved from Orofino to Hayden, Idaho to reduce costs and increase hangar space for maintaining aircraft.

Feeder Operations for FedEx

Under contract with FedEx, Empire Airlines has become the transportation company’s major feeder operation in the western United States. The airline’s operations are based out of Spokane, Washington and operate FedEx flights to seven cities in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The airline also does feeder flights out of Oakland, CA to Vancouver and Sacramento, as well as flying out of Anchorage to Fairbanks, Homer, Juneau, Kenai, Kodiak and Sitka.

With Empire now operating a fleet of 11 ATR 42Fs and seven ATR 72Fs, the airline made the decision to restart commercial operations, this time working as a regional carrier for Hawaiian Airlines. The airline took hold of three ATR 42s in 2013 and started ‘Ohana by Hawaiian to operate to Honolulu, Molokai, Lanai, Kahului, Hilo, and Kailua-Kona.

Continued Success with Cargo

The carrier had struggled through the 1990s, even as the airline continued to find it’s footing in the charter and commercial market. Once the carrier had found its favorable deal with FedEx, its ability to consolidate operations and focus only on cargo meant success in the 2000s. To this day, the airline is still mostly a cargo operator, however, the deal with Hawaiian Airlines has allowed it to return to the commercial market after nearly 20 years of cargo-only service.

Empire’s struggles through the early 1990s was a key decision in its future plans. While changing from a commercial carrier to a cargo carrier was a large decision, it ensured the survival of Empire and allowed it to become one of FedEx’s most valuable resources to reach smaller Western U.S. towns. With the successful strategy change, Empire has returned to the commercial market, armed with years of experience of what it is like to find success.

Ian McMurtry

Ian McMurtry

Ian has been an avgeek since 2004 when he started spotting US Airways Express planes at Johnstown Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Wichita and enjoys spotting planes in Kansas City and Wichita as well as those flying at high altitudes over his home. He is a pilot with more than 40 hours of experience behind a Cessna 172, Diamond DA-20, and Piper PA-28. He flies Southwest Airlines on most of his domestic flights and Icelandair when flying to Europe. Ian’s route map spans from Iceland and Alaska in the north to St. Maarten in the south. He is a student at Wichita State University, where he will study aerospace and mechanical engineering.
Ian McMurtry