The airline business has a long history of booms and busts.
If new discount airline Jet America becomes a winner, Steve Schoen of Tarpon Springs can claim one of the industry's better turnaround stories.
Chairman of the airline's parent company, Schoen filed for bankruptcy in November 2007 with more than $900,000 in debt. His only assets: a watch, his clothes, proceeds from a $1,500 Social Security check, his wedding ring and a 2004 Subaru.
His debt, mostly owed to credit card and finance companies, resulted from his role as an investor in failed Southeast Airlines based in Largo, says Bryan Glazer, a spokesman for Jet America. But in July 2008, two months after the bankruptcy case closed, Schoen was planning to launch an airline.
Jet America made a splash this week, announcing plans to start flying between Toledo and Newark July 13 with a single leased Boeing 737. The fledgling carrier will soon add flights to Lansing, Mich.; South Bend, Ind.; Minneapolis; and Melbourne on Florida's east coast.
Officials touted $9 fares for at least the first nine seats sold on each trip and charge a top fare of $199 one-way. Checking luggage, reserving a seat — even buying a ticket on the Web site — all incur extra charges.
The architect is Schoen, 67, an owner of Casino Airlink in the 1990s. The company sold vacation packages leaving from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International to Mississippi Gulf Coast casinos.
He was later an investor in Southeast, which abruptly closed days after Thanksgiving 2004, stranding passengers and leaving employees with worthless paychecks. Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, a Southeast destination, says it also got stiffed.
Schoen failed to make good on a personal guarantee to pay rent for the airline's ticket counter and office space, according to the airport's claim. The $50,000 debt, along with claims of other creditors, was wiped out in court.
Casinos also have hard feelings over how Schoen's airlines stranded customers, said Jeremiah Gerard, director of air service development and business at the airport. "Every time his name comes up, everybody cringes," he said.
Schoen incorporated a company in July 2008 called Sun America, which originally was to operate as Air Azul. The company changed the operating name to Jet America this month and dropped planned flights from Rockford, Ill., and Charleston, W.Va.
Schoen serves as chairman and has no money invested in the airline, says Glazer, the spokesman. He sold the business plan to investors who put up seed money. "You don't need money if you can convince someone to else to put up the money," says Glazer.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.