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Fasttrack

At the age of 19, Laurence Balter first mapped out his business plan to run a charter plane company. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” said the 29-year-old president of Sunshine Airlines Inc. “There is still a little bit of a boy in me that loves watching planes take off.” It may have come from years of ditching classes to hang out at the Van Nuys Airport as a youngster, watching a generation of charter-plane businesses come and go. Balter learned quickly what worked best. “I wanted to drop out of school and open this business, but my parents convinced me to stay in college,” he said from his office inside a hanger at the Van Nuys Airport. While earning a physics degree, Balter did a brief stint with Hawaiian Airlines. In 1992, he opened Sunshine Airlines out of his bedroom at his parents’ Northridge home. That first year, Balter piloted a rented Cessna to charter his clients to the Grand Canyon, and the company made $65,000 in sales. Three years later, he bought his first aircraft. Now, Balter has a fleet of 11 Cessna 402s, 28 employees, and $4 million in revenues. “This is not your typical paper-pushing job,” Balter said. “There is an enormous amount of detail, from the maintenance of the craft, to the pilots, equipment, hiring and client relations.” Although a licensed pilot since 17, Balter rarely flies his own planes and instead relies on a crew of 15 pilots. Some are semi-retired airline pilots; others include a dentist and a mortgage broker, who work part-time, and a military reserve pilot. There are also a handful of pilots fulfilling flying time requirements in order to move up to piloting commuter aircraft, which require more training than the smaller Cessnas. The Cessna 402 seats 10, including a single pilot. Sunshine makes the four-hour, roundtrip flight to the Grand Canyon once a day, leaving at 9 a.m. and returning at 6 p.m. Last year, Sunshine Airlines made 1,560 flights. Balter works with a network of travel agencies around the country to market his flights focusing especially on a large Japanese clientele. “Sunshine started a trend when they began to target the Japanese market about three years ago,” said Ron Toyota, an agent with Meitetau Travel USA Corp. of Inglewood. “The Japanese like Sunshine because they can go to the Grand Canyon and be back the same day.” For Japanese tourists, time is key when exploring the United States. “Japanese are not the type to sit by a pool for eight hours,” Toyota said. “They want to go to at least two states.” It took years to develop a network of travel agents for this foreign market. And it has meant taking extra steps like translating the company’s brochure into six languages. “But now it is at the point where we get people knocking on our door,” Balter said. That includes the recent booking of a 30-person group from France, and other international bookings, which Balter makes by working with travel agents on the Internet. Balter is attracting a more local crowd with his standby seating program, which is advertised in local newspapers for as low as $99. He can usually tell customers whether there will be seating available a day in advance. “The arrangement has worked out fine and has enhanced our business by filling every seat on a flight,” Balter said. Sunshine Airlines has been hit hard by El Ni & #324;o. Although the spring months are notoriously slow, Balter said the wet weather has led to a high number of cancellations. As a result, business is down about 10 percent. But Balter expects things to pick up in August and September, when a good month can bring in as much as 200 flights and about 1,400 passengers. Right now business is about half that, Balter said. Although the Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, “you can only fly so many people there,” Balter said. So he has set about expanding his business. On the East Coast, he has begun leasing aircraft from others and chartering flights to Niagara Falls and the Bahamas. More recently, Balter has expanded his business into the aircraft leasing market. He buys small aircraft that are no longer manufactured and leases them to small, East Coast charter businesses just starting out. (Balter says he’s keeping the West Coast market to himself.) Balter recognized the market for leasing small aircraft when he was forced to pay a 50 percent down payment for his first Cessna in 1995 because banks wouldn’t loan him the money to purchase it. “It was boot-strap financing,” Balter said. “It is the plight of small, niche operators. So leasing to other small operators makes good financial sense for us and for them,” Balter said. Sunshine Airlines Inc. Year Founded: 1992 Headquarters: Van Nuys Core Business: Charter airline service Revenues in 1992: $65,000 Revenues in 1997: $4 million Employees in 1992: 5 Employees in 1998: 28 Top Executive: Laurence Balter, president Goal: To make $10 million in revenues in five years Driving Force: The expanding number of markets and routes for charter travel.

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