It’s been 15 years since commercial air service left Vero Beach

Officials say it likely won’t return

By Ed Bierschenk
Saturday, January 21, 2012

VERO BEACH — West Palm Beach in 1932, unlike Vero Beach, did not offer air service, so notable figures including George Jessel, Norma Shearer and Wallace Beery were shuttled by car from Vero Beach to their final destination.

For the next four decades, Vero Beach offered regular commercial air service from Eastern Airlines before it closed shop and a series of other operators moved in with varying levels of success.
It’s been 80 years since commercial passenger service started in Vero Beach and just more than 15 years since the last regularly scheduled service took off from here.
Chances it will ever return are slim.
“I think it’s gone for good,” said Vice Mayor Craig Fletcher, who doesn’t think it would be economically feasible for such service to be offered at the Vero Beach airport again.

B.L. “Bud” Holman is viewed as the spark plug that ignited commercial air service locally by astutely recognizing an opportunity to make the Vero Beach facility attractive to pilots flying between Jacksonville and Miami.
Planes back in the late 1920s and early 1930s would sometimes need to refuel to make the jaunt between the two cities. Cocoa was seen as the halfway point for the trips, but the drawback at that city’s airport was that pilots had to gas up their own planes.
Holman acquired a portable fuel tank and hired an attendant to dispense the fuel.
By March 1930, the airport was designated an authorized refueling stop for Eastern Air Transport, soon to be renamed Eastern Airlines. Holman was rewarded by being hired as local manager for the airline for $5 per month. His pay doubled when in August 1932 regular air service began at the airport.
By 1950, the company had 15 employees at the airport and increased the number of passengers it carried daily from six to 141, with further growth anticipated. Five daily flights operated out of the airport in the early 1950s with connecting service “to points around the globe.”
Fletcher was about 13 or 14 years old when he flew in an Eastern Airline’s Convair 440 to Orlando to visit his uncle, T.W. Cobb, in the mid-1950s.
“It was such a short flight. You barely got to altitude before you got there,” said Fletcher.
But to a young boy taking his first flight, it was a big event.
Fletcher remembers his mother making sure he wore a suit coat and tie. That was a time, he remembers, when men and women dressed up when flying on airplanes.
There were even two flight attendants, then known as stewardesses, providing service on the short-haul flight.
“You can imagine what an impression it made on me,” said Fletcher. He remembers living it up by requesting a Coca-Cola that he finished at about the same time the plane landed.

The trip made a lasting impact on Fletcher, who credits it with spurring his interest in pursuing a career in the aeronautical industry. He also was inspired by his test pilot uncle, as he went on to become an aeronautical engineer and obtain his pilot’s license.
Downturn in commercial flights
In 1965, Eastern relocated to a new $15,000 terminal building, but by 1972 it had ceased operations locally. A reconstruction of that terminal building was completed in October 2008.
Assistant Airport Director Todd Scher believesthe reason behind Eastern’s decision to leave was its movement to an all-jet fleet. He didn’t think the airline saw it as economically feasible to fly in a 727, that seated 149 to 190 passengers, to a market the size of Vero Beach. In comparison, the Convair 440 held about 40 to 50 passengers.

Following Eastern, Vero Monmouth Airlines operated for about five years offering two daily round trips to Tampa and Miami, which was basically the type of service Eastern was offering right before it ceased operations. The 1970s also saw Florida Atlantic Airlines, Air South, Shawnee Airlines and Florida Airlines briefly offer service at the airport.
In 1979, Chautauqua Airlines commuter airline service instituted service between Orlando and Vero Beach, Lakeland and Ocala. Scher worked as a co-pilot and later captain for the commuter service.
Scher said Chautauqua, an Allegheny Commuter service, was affiliated with USAir and the majority of people traveling on the plane connected with other USAir flights in Orlando to their final destination. Once a passenger checked bags and got a ticket in Vero Beach, they didn’t have to worry about anything else but moving to the connecting flight in Orlando.

The cost to travel to Orlando without a connecting flight was not economical. For instance, the fares to and from Orlando were $56 each way, but it would only cost $8 to $15 each way if a passenger was connecting with another USAir flight, according to a 1987 Indian River County economic report.
According to that report, less than 5 percent of the nearly 17,000 passengers taking the commuter service in 1986 were traveling only to and from Orlando.

Jim McGinn did ticketing and screening for Chautauqua for several years. Baggage was handled by Vero Beach Airport Services, which eventually became Sun Jet Center, where McGinn works.
“It was a pretty busy airline,” remembers McGinn.
While there were some executives who took the service, McGinn said the majority of the passengers were probably older residents who took advantage of a senior citizen coupon booklet offered by the airline at the time.
Scher said the service was flexible enough that pilots were even willing to wait for some passengers going back to Vero Beach if their flight to Orlando was arriving late.
Economics factor in airlines’ loss
By the late 1980s, the service to Ocala and Lakeland had ended and an economic development report done at the time said Vero Beach passenger traffic had lost pace with the county’s growth. It also said it was losing traffic and airport revenues to Melbourne and Orlando and noted the lack of hotel accommodations within the airport grounds.

Scher said the official reason given for Chautauqua ending service at Vero Beach in 1991 was that the airline was getting some new larger, more expensive airplanes they didn’t think could be operated economically in the Vero Beach market.
The last commercial air service flying out of the airport was American Eagle, which lasted only about four months before ceasing operations in February 1996. Vero Beach Municipal Airport Director Eric Menger said they reportedly lost about $200,000 in that time.
Menger said the airline spent a lot in marketing, but was not able to attract the passenger load it needed. At least part of the problem may have been that instead of flying to Orlando for connecting flights, American Eagle flew to Miami where it had connecting flights. While passengers who took the service seemed to like it, Menger said it was difficult to convince some people to fly south to take a flight north.
McGinn said he doesn’t see commercial air service operating at the airport again.

He noted there is regular service available in Melbourne and even it seems to be having a tough time making it.
Scher said if there was a market the airlines thought they could be making money from “they would be calling us.”
Menger would not rule out the possibility of an airline looking to the airport in the future for commercial service, but not under the current conditions that include a high cost of staffing, a need to reconfigure the terminal for commercial service and meeting new, tougher security measures.
“Never rule it out, but the evolution of the regional airlines combined with a limited market in the area makes the chances for airline service to Vero Beach very unlikely in the near future,” he said. “Should airline service evolve to include smaller communities like ours, and the proposed air carrier can make a profit without taxpayer subsidies, then scheduled air service could return to Vero Beach.”

Scripps Lighthouse © 2012 Scripps Newspaper Group


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