Air Transport World

Catskill Airways content with being number one in Oneonta.

Catskill Airways content with being number one in Oneonta

Looking at Catskill Airways provides a glimpse in two directions at once. On one hand, Catskill represents the past and illustrates what the commuter industry once was; on the other, this small airline demonstrates where part of the commuter industry is headed.

According to popular theory, before the end of the decade, the airline industry will have dwindled down to just a few megacarriers and their subsidiaries, code-sharing regional affiliates and a handful of tiny origin & destination (O&D) operators. These small, independent O&D carriers shun outside alliances and focus their efforts on point-to-point service connecting the smallest cities with larger points. The difference between the mega-carriers and the tiny airlines may come down to one common characteristic--competition. Megas grow from the instinct to survive in a business climate of combative competition. The tiny operators survive thanks to that same competitive environment, which keeps the bigger airlines away from niche markets that provide the small commuter with sufficient revenue to stay in business. Conversely, the small carrier depends on its status as a niche airline, the sole carrier serving a given community or flying a particular route.

Catskill Airways survived 19 of the past 20 years flying one niche route with a one-airplane fleet. It started service in September 1966 with a Rockwell Aero Commander between Oneonta and LaGuardia. After deregulation of U.S. airlines 13 years later, nothing changed at founder Steve Low's little operation. In fact, if not for an opportunity growing out of another airline's absorption by a major, Catskill might still fly only its original route, instead of four routes connecting five cities.

But the little airline just ended its first year of multi-city services. Utica/Rome, N.Y., Boston and Newark were all added last year. The new cities were acquired after Piedmont Airlines' bought another New York carrier, Empire Airlines. Low explains, "Just before Piedmont's announcement, Empire pulled its Metros out of Utica/Rome. …

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