Flying from the Tampa Bay area to the Panhandle or the Florida Keys these days can be a jarring experience.
Gone are the sleek regional jets. The only choice left are 19-seat turboprops, among the smallest planes in commercial aviation. There's no flight attendant or bathroom. Passengers can look into the cockpit and see pilots handling the controls.
Even the airline's name is unfamiliar: Gulfstream International.
The little Fort Lauderdale carrier that flies as the Continental Connection has taken on a more prominent role at Tampa International Airport as bigger competitors retreat from less-profitable Florida destinations.
Gulfstream has been the only airline flying directly between Tampa and Tallahassee since Oct. 1, when Delta Air Lines dropped the route. The carrier also has a monopoly on flights from Tampa to Pensacola, Key West and Fort Walton Beach — all routes Delta previously abandoned.
"We've always tried to do what the bigger airlines can't," says Gulfstream CEO David Hackett.
The company's rising profile has come with some controversy, including questions about the way it trains pilots and allegations from a former pilot that Gulfstream cut corners on maintenance and flight safety.
Hackett called the claims "nonsense."
"We run a good airline," he said.
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Just the sight of propellers on a tiny plane is enough to turn off many travelers
Customers much preferred Delta's 50-seat regional jets to Gulfstream's slower, noisier, bumpier Beechcraft 1900 turboprops, Hackett admits. But they no longer make economic sense flying between most Florida cities.
The jets guzzle 600 gallons of fuel per hour. That's about four times as much as a turboprop, with jet engines that turn propellers instead of fan blades. Jets fly twice as fast at cruise altitude. But they don't pay off on short flights with too few passengers to spread out the additional costs.
"When gas was $1 a gallon, you could use them to poach passengers from other carriers," says John Cox of St. Petersburg, a retired US Airways pilot who owns an airline safety consulting firm. "But not at $3 or $4 a gallon."
Gulfstream has nearly 700 employees and makes about 200 daily flights, most within Florida and connecting South Florida with the Bahamas. The carrier pays Continental Airlines to handle its reservations, ticketing and revenue accounting. Gulfstream flies customers connecting from Continental flights to their final destinations.
Its parent, Gulfstream International Group, went public in December after 20 years of private ownership. The company lost $3-million on revenue of $112-million in 2007.
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One of the company's other businesses has raised eyebrows in the pilot community.
It runs an academy that trains pilots as first officers. Students with commercial aviation licenses pay $29,900 for the six-month program that includes flying 250 hours in the right seat of a Gulfstream cockpit.
Airlines typically require applicants to fly a minimum number of hours on specific types of planes just to get an interview, said Cox, who chaired safety committees for the Air Line Pilots Association International and its US Airways branch.
"The pay-for-fly operations as a general rule have less-experienced first officers than traditional operations," he says.
Students fly on 15 to 20 percent of Gulfstream flights, Hackett said. All come to the academy with commercial, instrument and multi-engine proficiency ratings from the Federal Aviation Administration and fly beside experienced captains. Ninety-nine percent of graduates pass training courses and earn jobs at their first airline, Gulfstream says.
The company also faces a whistle-blower complaint filed in December by a former Gulfstream captain. Kenny Edwards tried to cancel a flight from Tampa to West Palm Beach that he considered too hazardous. A device in the cockpit that warns pilots of potential mid-air collisions wasn't working, he said. Edwards worried about flying the plane through thick clouds over an area of South Florida crowded with student pilots.
Supervisors told him the plane was legal to fly without a working collision-avoidance device and ordered him to fly back to West Palm Beach. When Edwards refused, they found another captain to make the trip. Edwards was fired the next day.
"They like to say if it's legal, you've got to go," says Edwards, now working at a restaurant near his home in Phoenix. "I think passengers would rather have the captain decide if it's not good to go. But it's not like that."
He also told investigators that Gulfstream managers tried to intimidate pilots into flying beyond FAA duty-time limits and mechanics sign off on aircraft inspections they never performed. The agency concluded in February that Gulfstream hadn't broken any safety rules.
But officials reopened the investigation two months later after Edwards took his complaints to staffers of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The panel was investigating maintenance deficiencies at major airlines.
Hackett points to a U.S. Labor Department investigation that found the airline was within its rights to fire Edwards. Gulfstream has won the FAA's Diamond Award for maintenance training and is certified by the Defense Department to carry military personnel.
The FAA has completed its investigation of the allegations but is still reviewing the results, said spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.
Who's flying to Florida cities from TIA
(number of daily flights)
To Fort Lauderdale: Southwest (9); Spirit (2); Gulfstream (2)
To Fort Walton Beach: Gulfstream (3)
To Jacksonville: Southwest (3)
To Key West: Gulfstream (3)
To Miami: American (5); Gulfstream (4)
To Pensacola: Gulfstream (4)
To Tallahassee: Gulfstream (5)
To West Palm Beach: Southwest (4)