"They were called test pilots. And no one knew their names," - The Right Stuff So begins the story of…
Interview: Marianas Southern Airways, America’s Newest Airline
Those that have read my stories and interviews know that I love out-of-the-way or unique airlines, especially the smaller ones that still fly propeller-driven aircraft. So, I was very excited to hear that there would be another airline and brand that I could fly and use a relatively new aircraft type, the Italian-made Tecnam P2012.
Marianas Southern Airways will have a route network within the Commonwealth of the North Mariana Islands, or CNMI for short, and will fly four routes using a new aircraft type for the airline. AirlineGeeks once again had the pleasure of talking to Keith Sisson, the Chief Marketing Officer of Southern Airways Express, about their newest brand and the continual expansion of the Southern Airways name.
AirlineGeeks (AG): You will be the first major commuter airline to serve most of these routes since Cape Air ended its ATR service back in 2018. What led SAE to announce service to these destinations and start a new base so far away from current operations?
Keith Sisson (KS): The only airline providing service throughout The Marianas abruptly ceased operations for a brief time in December of last year. This caused a great deal of panic and concern throughout the island chain. As a result, a group of local business and community leaders started looking for alternative solutions. One of the business leaders has been developing a plan to bring 757 passenger services to Saipan from large Asian and Pacific markets. His group pivoted from those plans in hopes of first finding a solution to the inter-island air service problem. They wanted a partner that had the resources to start immediately, as well as a partner with experience operating within island communities. They noticed what we were doing with our Mokulele brand in Hawaii and reached out. Upon hearing their pitch and then visiting the region, we felt this was a natural fit for our operation.
(AG): Why did you select the Tecnam P2012 for these new operations?
(KS): We looked at several aircraft types, including the Cessna Grand Caravan which operates an overwhelming majority of our routes. Ultimately, however, we decided that the Tecnam P2012 Traveller is the best fit for this particular mission due to its ability to efficiently operate on very short routes. Also, we felt very strongly that it was important to operate the flights in this region on new aircraft, and Tecnam had several new Travellers available for immediate purchase.
(AG): Tinian is a route that was never flown by Cape Air, how do you plan on accommodating this island/destination in a way that Cape Air couldn’t?
(KS): We see this as being very similar to our Molokai market in Hawaii. Quite a few airlines have tried and failed to operate service from Molokai in the last 10-12 years, most recently, Ohana by Hawaiian. The driving factor is gauge. There are simply not enough people, and there is not enough demand, to run large aircraft in these markets. Cape’s ATR service was simply too much lift for Tinian. Operating 9-seat aircraft allows us the flexibility to scale-up service during peak travel times and pull back service when there is little demand. This is the key to being successful in the CNMI, we will get high load factors by adjusting frequency on an as-needed basis.
(AG): A lot of those routes will be used by locals commuting throughout the islands, will you be starting a frequent flyer program for these individuals?
(KS): We will extend our “21st Century e-Ticket book” concept to this market that we have deployed in New England and Hawaii. This allows for frequent travelers to pay in advance and receive a discount based on the amount they place on deposit. Members who participate in this program also receive other benefits like free change fees and free bags.
(AG): What will be the daily frequency for each route?
(KS): Initially, we will be offering 66 weekly departures [within the Marianas Islands], with at least double-daily service on most routes. Some routes will start with three or four departures. Ultimately, we intend to grow to over 120 weekly departures, based on demand, of course.
(AG): Being so far from your other current destinations you’ll have to open a new base, where will this be located?
(KS): Our local headquarters for the region will be in Saipan, while dispatch will be based at our Regional Operations Center in Kona, and crew/aircraft scheduling at our Global Operations Center in Palm Beach.
(AG): Will flights here be sterile (TSA) or non-sterile (no TSA)?
(KS): All flights will be operated non-sterile, just like in Hawaii.
(AG): You currently are partners with United Airlines and they operate a hub in Guam, will you offer UA interline/codeshares on routes throughout the commonwealth?
(KS): This is very exciting…Yes! This is a very big deal for locals and visitors alike. Currently, when you fly into Guam, you must stay overnight before you can continue to the CNMI. The same-day connections will be very popular!
As a side note, since this interview took place, United Airlines announced they would begin flights from Tokyo-Narita to Saipan on Sept. 2, 2022. This means passengers heading to/from Tinian can now get to Asia with just a single stop in Saipan on a single itinerary between the two airlines.
(AG): So, this brand will be part of the Southern Airways Express family?
(KS): Yes, we are unveiling a new brand for this region. Very much like Mokulele is a unique brand under the Southern umbrella in Hawaii, the brand in this region will be ‘Marianas Southern Airways’. We felt it very important to include the local name and local icons in the branding. The colors and tail logo will be similar to Southern/Mokulele.
(AG): So, with operations in the Marianas Islands, Hawaii, and every time zone on the mainland United States, this means the sun will never set on Southern Airways operations (i.e. 24hrs a day). Will this pose any challenges operationally or logistically?
(KS): You bring up a great point! The CNMI is located on the other side of the international dateline. This means that the first departure each day from American soil will begin with Sothern’s Marianas-branded departure from Saipan AND that the very last flight landing each day on American soil may very well be Southern’s Mokulele-branded flight, which will land just before midnight Hawaii Standard Time. America’s flight day will begin and end with Southern Airways!
As far as operational challenges, our customer service center is already a 24-hour operation. We have dispatch offices, maintenance hotline responders, and company leadership in both the Eastern and Hawaii time zones. Because of this, we are already a round-the-clock operation. By the time I am going to sleep in Kona, Hawaii, Stan Little, Southern’s CEO, is waking up in Palm Beach!
(AG): When will flights on each route begin?
(KS): We haven’t announced an official start date yet, but it will be in the month of July.
(AG): The Tecnam isn’t a large aircraft made for long-haul flights, how will you be getting the aircraft out to Guam and the Commonwealth?
(KS): The Tecnams will be flying a world tour! They will leave Italy already painted with our livery and cross the Atlantic, eventually arriving at our Lancaster, Pennsylvania maintenance facility to undergo FAA conformity. Then, the aircraft will travel across the country to our LAX hub, ferry to Hawaii, and then on to Saipan.
Since the time of this interview was conducted, the first Tecnam P2012 Traveller wearing the Marianas Southern Airways livery was ferried across the Atlantic Ocean between June 20 and 23, 2022. The route it took was Aberdeen (ABZ) to Reykjavik (RKV) to Narsarsuaq (UAK) to Goose Bay (YYR) to Bangor (BGR) and finally to Lancaster (LNS). The aircraft carries the registration of N503SA.
(AG): Your expansion into the Rockies and now this, what will this bring your total number of Southern Airways operated destinations and daily flights up to?
(KS): Including our acquisition of Air Choice One, our new EAS contract in Jackson, Tennessee, our new EAS contract in Show Low, Arizona, and this new expansion to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, we will be serving 48 cities with over 250 peak-day departures.
With this newest expansion, they will become the largest commuter airline in the United States, surpassing Cape Air in both number of daily departures and number of destinations served. In addition, with the expansion across the international dateline, this means the sun will never set on Southern Airways operations, another thing no commuter airline has accomplished since Cape Air served the CNMI back in 2018.
I would once again like to thank Keith Sisson for talking with me about their newest airline brand, and I am sure we will have another interview in the future.
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