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Interview: Southern Airways CEO on the Airline’s Newest Destination

The Part 135 operator is adding a new route to an offbeat airport in Indiana.

A Southern Airways Express Cessna 208 (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Palm Beach, Fla.-based Southern Airways Express has announced it will be adding a new city to its route map. But this isn’t just any city, it is West Lafayette, Ind. which is home to Purdue University, an airport that hasn’t been a part of the commercial air service network for almost 20 years, as the last airline to fly here was AmericanConnection back in February of 2004.

This is the second busiest airport in the state, despite not having any airline service currently, but is thanks to the university’s aviation program based at the airport, which is also why the airport is mostly referred to as Purdue University Airport.

AirlineGeeks had the opportunity to speak with the CEO of Surf Air Mobility, and founder of Southern Airways Express, Stan Little, about his airline’s plans to add the college town back to the list of commercially used airports in the country.

AirlineGeeks (AG): Why did you decide to start this non-Essential Air Service (EAS) community, when that is what the airline mostly operates to?

Stan Little (SL): We’ve always been looking for opportunities of places where we can fly, where we believe we will be able to fill up airplanes, but also where we’ll able to have community partners that choose to have skin in the game. And, growing up in the South and starting this airline in Memphis, and frankly being a football fan all of my life, I’ve always said if we have airline service that would go to some of these big universities, usually big state schools, but also some big private schools that are not urban and are sometimes located a couple of hours from the nearest airport, I think it would really work.

So we began taking a look several months ago at some schools and universities, one of our long-time executives Bruce Jacobs has been with the company since the beginning, is a Purdue grad, and he said that we need to talk to Purdue, he goes to every single football game and most of the basketball games, and he said that “we would love to have a way for my wife and I to get back and forth to West Lafayette” and so the discussions began, we took several moths to study the market. And so we said if Purdue is willing to come in, and we get some other local partners that are willing to come in and ensure the success of the service,  this is where we wanna launch it. We hope that this is the first of many similar situations with universities.

(AG): Out of all of the universities and college towns you could’ve started in, why and how did you end up choosing Purdue to be the first one?

(SL): Bruce really picked up the mantle and said “Let me run with this and see if there is some interest”. My co-founder at Southern [Airways Express] Keith Sission and I are both Ole Miss grads, and certainly, Oxford had not had air service commercially since the 1960s or 70s, and most of the schools we would play when we were in college [don’t have service either], Mississippi State, Auburn, University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, look at the size of that university and yet they don’t have commercial service at their airport. Look at the Georgia Bulldogs, they are two-time national champions in football and you can’t get to Athens [Georgia] unless you are on a bus. So, we think there are a lot of opportunities like this across the country, and we are going to be reaching out to some of these universities and hopefully, some of them will be reaching out to us.

(AG): Purdue is known for football and basketball as you said, but they also have a well-known aviation program. Does Southern Airways Express (SAE), plan on partnering with them for a pilot program of something of that nature?

(SL): Absolutely, and even aside from me jokingly saying we went there because one of our executives is a grad, in reality, it’s because Purdue is the perfect launch customer for this type of service because of that aviation program. They are producing pilots and we pride ourselves at SAE as being a major producer of pilots, so I would love to be able to get some of these students that are at Purdue that fly back and forth to their homes or their parent’s homes on SAE to eventually when they graduate, come to kickstart their career at SAE as a pilot.

Maybe give them an opportunity to stay in West LaFayette a little bit longer than they otherwise would after graduation. Even beyond the pilots, they are Producing the future of airline executives, they’re producing the future people who are running maintenance programs, and who are running software programs, and who are doing route planning, and all of those things that go into what we do every day here at SAE, are coming from places like Purdue. So, I hope that a couple years from now we’ve got dozens of Purdue grads working with us, more than we even have right now.

(AG): Purdue hasn’t had service for a while so they don’t have the normal infrastructure that most airports do in terms of TSA checkpoints and screening. Will Purdue service be sterile to start, or will it start out non-sterile and eventually switch?

(SL): That’s an excellent question, it depends on how quickly the airport is able to get TSA service there. We have seen that to be fairly fast in the past, when we took over Jackson, Tennessee service two June’s ago, they were able to secure TSA I think in four or five months with the help of many of their legislators in Washington D.C.. We are hoping that Purdue will be able to do the same thing. We have a great gate at O’Hare, it’s right in the middle of the main United Airlines terminal so we really want to be able to get those flights from west LaFayette into our terminal at [gate] F4, but obviously, we can’t do that until TSA is on site. I really hope that becomes an expedited process.

Southern Airways Express’ parking spot at F4 (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

(AG): Will you offer discounts or promotions for college students?

(SL): Yeah, and as you may have seen in so many of our cities, we do serve other college towns, we serve Morgantown, West Virginia, home of West Virginia University, and in fact Morgantown will set the record for the highest number of enplanements in the last decade, even pre-dating our service there. We love college towns and we think we are really good at providing that service, so we will have programs for students, for facility and staff, and we have programs for corporate individuals, businesses, and factories and [people at] headquarters that are there as well. The idea is to fill up airplanes and we’ve gotten pretty good at that.

(AG): Will you increase and decrease service based on college busy seasons like spring break and the end of semesters?

(SL): You know, we are going to have one line of flights that is generally dedicated to West LaFayette, and it will be based on how many flights we’re able to get on that single line. Not that we are going to have one airplane, there will be two separate crews. We will have the ability to toggle that up a little but, you may see days [like] the Friday after final exams you may see five departures instead of four, and between Christmas and New Year where there is low demand you may see two flights instead of four. So, there will be a little bit like that, but there won’t be the case where we can fully supply all the anticipated demand on those really peak times. You take a big football weekend, if Ohio State comes into town on Saturday afternoon, you probably won’t be able to get seats on Friday flights or Sunday flights, but we’re going to do our best.

(AG): Is Purdue going to be seasonal or year-round

(SL): This will be a year-round service, absolutely.

(AG): How will you split up your 24-weekly departures across the week?

(SL): We’ll do scheduling similar to what we do in a lot of our other cities. If you look generally across the airline industry, you see that Tuesdays and Saturdays are usually the two lowest days of the week. Mondays and Fridays are far busier, Wednesdays and Sundays are a close second behind those. We will take the 24 flights and spread them across the week so we have at least two flights every day of the week, and some other days you may see four and even sometimes perhaps five.

(AG): What interline and codeshares will Purdue passengers be able to enjoy out of Chicago O’Hare?

(SL): Out of Chicago we have the same interlines that we do systemwide, which are United, American, Alaska, and Hawaiian. Of course, Hawaiian doesn’t serve [Chicago] O’Hare, and the other two [American and United] both have hubs here. This is the reason that O’Hare is one of our most successful hubs systemwide because two of our partners have major hub operations there, unlike most of our others like Denver, or Dallas, or Washington Dulles where only one or the other have hubs there, in Chicago two of our partners have hubs. We anticipate a lot of connections there, and Alaska as well has a very nice presence at O’Hare, so if your looking to fly to the West Coast; San Francisco, Portland, or Seattle, you really have three choices to get there instead of one or two.

A small “Southern Airways” logo on the aircraft adjacent to the entry door (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

(AG): What type of plane will the new service to Purdue be on?

(SL): This will be on the Cessna Grand Caravan, which is the backbone of Southern’s fleet, it’s the most popular plane with all of our passengers, it’s the most reliable plane we have in the fleet, and most importantly it is the aircraft that we are serving all of our other cities with out of the Chicago hub. So, adding West Lafayette out of Chicago on the Caravan just gives us more scale in the region, which only serves to increase reliability.

(AG): What kind of funding or subsidiaries will you or have you gotten for this new route to Purdue?

(SL): We’ve not disclosed the details of our agreement with Purdue and with the community, but both of those parties have committed to be there to ensure the service is profitable and is viable in the long term.

(AG): As with many cities there is a trial period to start off and see if it will be profitable, what does Purdue’s trial period look like?

(SL): That’s an interesting question, cause obviously if something doesn’t work out no airline is going to commit to being there for two, or three, or four years, or whathaveyou. But, we are so confident in the ability of this service to work and our ability to provide a product that the local community embraces and wants to use, and the university and community’s ability to provide all of the support on a long-term basis that we are really not putting timelines on this, I anticipate that we are going to be in Purdue for the long haul.

(AG): How will their terminal construction and runway rehabilitation affect your operations there in Purdue?

(SL): We don’t foresee any bad effects from that, in fact, we are very excited with what they are doing to improve the airport, and the overall narrative they are trying to convey, it’s a new day at West Lafayette, at Purdue Airport, and at the University, cause this is going to make such a seamless experience. If you have someone that’s coming to give a speech at the university and they’re coming from London, guess what, it’s now one-stop service and you don’t ever have to leave the airport until you leave the airport at your destination and that’s such a transformative thing not just for Purdue, but someday for other universities that are non-urban that need that kind of connectivity to the world.

(AG): I know you mentioned other colleges and college towns are on your radar, if Purdue does as well as you expect it to, when might we see the airline start service to other non-urban college towns?

(SL): You know we are expecting to begin deliveries from Textron of our order of 100 brand new [Cessna Grand] Caravans in April of 2024, this coming spring. Right now the limiting factor in Southern’s and Surf Air’s expansion is, we just don’t have enough planes, and there are not enough airplanes on the worldwide market to go out and buy them, so we need planes straight from the factor to make that work. Those planes will begin delivery in April, it’s no coincidence that our service in Purdue is scheduled to begin shortly after that.

We also are going to be sending some of these new planes to our existing cities to improve reliability in those areas, but then once that happens we’re going to be looking for homes for the new aircraft as they’re delivered, some will be EAS, some may be in major markets that are ‘at-risk’ markets as we call them, and then some will be available to do expansions to some of these college towns that we talked about. Our big criteria for 2024 and 2025 as far as our route growth goes, is based on adding scale at hubs we already have a presence at. So, are you likely to see us open a hub in Seattle so that we can serve somewhere in Oregon or Washington… probably not in the near term. But, are you looking at cities maybe near Dallas,  Memphis, Atlanta, or Pittsburgh… quite possibly.

(AG): How has Chicago been doing operation-wise, especially being a smaller airline with small aircraft at a major airport like that?

(SL): It has been surprisingly better than expected frankly, we go into a lot of big airports. We go into LAX, DFW, and IAD among others, so we know our way around big airports, but we also know we are very often the small dog on the porch, and we may be the ones with the longest taxi times and the longer waits at the bigger airports than the bigger carriers with bigger planes. But, thanks in very large part to our partners at United Airlines, United has really helped us in Chicago and has paved the way and greased the skids, thanks to them we’ve received a very warm welcome at O’Hare and things have run remarkably smoothly as a result.

(AG): Final question to wrap things up, I know you mentioned the second quarter/April of 2024 for the start of Purdue, but what does the timeline look like for choosing a definitive start date and putting up ticket sales for Purdue?

(SL): We hope to have a firm timeline determined just after the holidays when we all get back in mid-to-late January is when we’re hoping to put a timeline on that. I want to get the firm delivery dates, what day in April are we going to start receiving our planes from Textron, then we’ll start allocating where those planes are going to go. And then of course we’ll want to coordinate with Purdue so we can make a big splash locally, and I’d like to get there before school is out and all the students leave if at all possible, but we’ll determine that in early Q1 (first quarter 2024).

A video version of this interview can be found here.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023 at 5:31 p.m. ET to correctly spell ‘Ole Miss.’

Joey Gerardi


  • Joey Gerardi

    Joe has always been interested in planes, for as long as he can remember. He grew up in Central New York during the early 2000s when US Airways Express turboprops ruled the skies. Being from a non-aviation family made it harder for him to be around planes and would only spend about three hours a month at the airport. He was so excited when he could drive by himself and the first thing he did with the license was get ice cream and go plane spotting for the entire day. When he has the time (and money) he likes to take spotting trips to any location worth a visit. He’s currently enrolled at Western Michigan University earning a degree in Aviation Management and Operations.

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