Sept. 28, 2023
To the untrained eye, a business aircraft shuttle might appear as nothing more than an airline, minus the frequent flyer points. Certainly, an airline and a shuttle have a few similarities – like dedicated aircraft and crews as well as repeated deliveries of people and goods to the same destinations. But that’s where the similarities end.
An airline exists only to deliver passengers who buy a ticket, while a business aircraft shuttle focuses on the operating company’s employees.
“We’re not in the business of flying airplanes,” said Peter Bazin, manager of ConocoPhillips Alaska Global Aviation’s north-south shuttle. “We exist to get people, materials and equipment to work. For us, aviation is just another tool in the toolkit.”
Like business aviation itself, a business aircraft shuttle can operate on its own schedule and into less frequented non-hub airports.
Cost Savings and Control
There are a variety of reasons a company might create an internal shuttle. Shuttles offer significant cost savings, as well as near total control over the door-to-door logistics of moving those employees.
Lisa Swartzwelder, director of shuttle operations for a Midwestern manufacturing company, says it reduces the number of nights employees spend away from home and the associated expenses.
“We leverage the team at flight operations to support associated ground coach service, catering and the management of a shuttle reservation system to make every step of the process seamless,” said Swartzwelder, who also serves on NBAA’s shuttle working group. “Our employees can focus on their project or presentation, not about the rigors of travel.”
Fleets and Operations
Cummins Inc. – which manufactures engines, generators, power systems and components – inaugurated its shuttle in the early 1980s according to Manager, Corporate Shuttle Leland Blake. The company’s first aircraft was a Gulfstream G-159 configured for 14 passengers to make regular runs between its Columbus, IN, headquarters (BAK) and one of its major manufacturing sites in Jamestown, NY (JHW).
The Gulfstream also functioned as a business aircraft for Cummins and saw service until about the year 2000, when it was replaced with a Saab 340. That turboprop later evolved into a Dornier 328 jet and finally an Embraer regional jet outfitted with 30 seats that the company operates today. Cummins has eight pilots committed to the shuttle operation, and each flight also carries a flight attendant.
ConocoPhillips shuttles employees across the 600 miles of wilderness that separate its base in Anchorage and the Alpine, Kuparuk and Prudhoe Bay oil fields on the North Slope of Alaska. The shuttle fleet evolved from a Boeing 727 in 1982 through a series of other commercial transports, including a number of Boeing 737s, before recently converting to three Bombardier Aerospace de Havilland Dash 8 Q400s purchased from Horizon Airlines.
The Dash 8s each fly about 12-13 round trips weekly. The company also flies a Twin Otter and a CASA 212-300 for shorter trips. All Q400 trips also operate with two flight attendants.
ConocoPhillips’ aircraft carry approximately 85,000 passengers annually with all details handled from Anchorage. “We book all their travel on the North Slope,” Blake said. To ensure that everyone has equal access, “passengers can only book seats 60 days in advance.”
Destinations and flight frequency are prime drivers to any shuttle operation. At Cummins, its single ERJ flies a carefully choreographed schedule from Indiana to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Connecticut, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York and Texas, in addition to occasional trips to Mexico.
Cummins has a dedicated website where employees can make shuttle reservations themselves. In order to ensure that everyone has equal access to the flights, Blake said, “passengers can only book seats 60 days in advance.”
To make this work, the Cummins shuttle operates to and from each destination at various times and days during the week and at frequencies that vary during the month. Cummins has a dedicated website where employees can make shuttle reservations themselves.
A question that often surfaces about shuttles is which FAR will govern the operation, according to Kent Jackson, managing partner at JetLaw in Washington, DC.
“If you [the shuttle operator] did want to begin charging some people, perhaps from outside the company, for travel, they’d need to look at either Part 135 or Part 121,” said Jackson.
Some shuttles operate under Part 125, which applies to airplanes having a maximum seating capacity of 20 or more passengers or a maximum payload capacity of 6,000 pounds or more. Because certification under Part 125 demands considerable paperwork, some shuttles were able to earn letters of deviation (LODAs) from some of the more onerous sections of the rule. “The FAA made an effort to eliminate all of them [LODAs] about 15 years ago.” Jackson said.
A shuttle’s value is also demonstrated by how the operation copes with the challenges that can pop up during a regular workday. Operating into some of the most unforgiving territory in the world, Bazin detailed some of the challenges the ConocoPhillips shuttle has dealt with over the years.
For example, operating certain routes that included airfields with gravel runways was an obstacle until ConocoPhillips acquired its Q400s.
Other challenges for the company included supporting maintenance requirements for aircraft that were out-of-production and operating in extremely cold weather. ConocoPhillips operates above the Arctic Circle, where temperatures often drop to 40 below zero Fahrenheit. “We made it down to minus 45 a couple of years ago,” Bazin said.
Logistics, Flexibility and Capability
Because the oil fields also sit smack dab in the middle of the Colville River Basin, Bazin said “morning fog is a big challenge.” That often means aircraft, passengers and crew may need to sit on the ground in Anchorage until the nearby terrain heats up enough to burn off of the fog.
And if a drilling rig or production unit goes down for any reason, and the site requires a part, even on a weekend, “we’ll mobilize crew and aircraft to move the necessary parts on the Q400, Twin Otter or CASA on a dedicated freight flight to support that work activity,” Bazin said.
Bazin said the overall value of the shuttle to ConocoPhillips is measured in the logistics, flexibility and capability. “Our priorities are whatever the fields demand to run and optimize the business. Sometimes we call it the bus with wings or the bus to work,” Bazin said.
Bazin’s boss, Keith Nickles, manager, ConocoPhillips Global Aviation, summed it up this way: “If you look at aviation for ConocoPhillips, and Alaska, we are very much a business enabler. Without aviation, we’re simply not going to be able to do the things we do.”