In early July, FLOAT (FLy Over All Traffic) Shuttle acquired the FAR Part 121 operating certificates for PenAir and Corvus (formerly Era Aviation). Included in the asset purchase from the bankrupt Ravn Air Group were also six Dash 8s and a Saab 340. The package was sold to FLOAT privately, not at auction, after Ravn’s owners elected to go with the California company over a group of Alaskan investors which included Jim Jansen from Lynden (which owns Lynden Air Transport) and Rob Evert of Evert’s Air Cargo and Evert’s Air Alaska. Both Lynden Air Transport and Evert’s Air Cargo are longtime Part 121 operators.
FLOAT is part of a labyrinthian series of airline connections that also involves Mokulele Airlines, Sun Air Express, a past association with the now defunct SeaPort Airlines and, at the center of it all, Memphis, Tennessee-based Southern Airways Express. None of these companies have operated aircraft with more than nine seats and, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, prior to the Ravn sale, FLOAT did not hold any operating certificate at all. As explained by company executives in past interviews, FLOAT relies on Southern Airways for everything: pilots, aircraft, maintenance and thus all aspects of regulatory compliance and operational control. This is not a charter or commuter operation; it is a company that hires a charter and commuter operation to do the job it can not do.
Courtesy of the Ravn deal, FLOAT now holds two FAR Part 121 certificates and owns seven large aircraft. According to Alaska Public Media, FLOAT plans to be flying in Alaska in about a month, with chief operating officer Rob McKinney declaring recently, “Not only do we bring a depth of aviation knowledge, we feel confident that we’re Alaska-specific, as well.”
Separately, McKinney told ADN that “Dutch Harbor is probably at the top of our list” when service resumes. According to the FAA however, the company has been asked to provide a transition plan regarding the certificate acquisitions. Further, prior to the resumption of any operations, there will be FAA inspections to ensure safety and regulatory compliance.
Information on FAA-approved personnel for specific required positions (as per FAR Part 119) is pending.
FLOAT is less than one year old, incorporating in Delaware only last fall. McKinney, one of the company’s three co-founders, has an extensive background with Southern Airways, Mokulele and SeaPort — which, prior to its 2016 bankruptcy and liquidation, owned and operated Wings of Alaska in Juneau. The connections between the various companies are complex and involve operations and incorporations in multiple states. At their heart is a single-minded determination to pursue Essential Air Service (EAS) contracts and McKinney’s ability to move with ease from one company to another.
At various times in the past 15 years, McKinney served in an executive capacity with Mokulele, SeaPort and Southern. SeaPort, which purchased Wings of Alaska in 2008 and utilized its Part 135 operating certificate to expand into the Lower 48, was based in Portland, Oregon. McKinney was President and/or CEO from the beginning until his resignation on the day SeaPort filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February 2016. He was CEO when Southern Airways began operating SeaPort’s flights in late fall 2015 and also when Wings flight 202, en route from Juneau to Hoonah, crashed into a tree at the 1,250-foot level near Point Howard on July 17, 2015. The four passengers onboard the Cessna 207 were seriously injured and the pilot, who had 840 total flight hours and had been in Alaska less than two months, was killed.
The NTSB determined the accident’s probable cause was the pilot’s decision to fly under visual flight rules into instrument meteorological conditions. But the board also found contributing factors, specifically citing SeaPort’s “failure to follow its operational control and flight release procedures and its inadequate training and oversight of operational control personnel.”
Wings was a day-VFR-only commuter/air taxi whose operational control was maintained from SeaPort’s base in Portland, where the company president, chief pilot, director of maintenance and director of systems operation control (SOC) resided. The director of operations was based in Memphis. In an interview with the National Transportation Safety Board, the SOC director stated that “dispatchers in Portland were trained for Alaska-specific items, such as weather cameras, risk assessment forms, and unique weather patterns, but ‘at the end of the day, it’s still Caravans or Cessnas flying up a canal’.”
McKinney was actually in Hoonah on business at the time of the accident; he ultimately had to charter Coastal Helicopters to return to Juneau because of the conditions.
Three months after the crash, Seaport sold Wings of Alaska to Fjord Flying Services based in Gustavus. (It ceased operations in March 2017.) In a press release at the time of the sale, McKinney stated “Air service to rural Alaska communities has many unique challenges and aspects to it that contrast significantly with our Lower 48 operations.” At the same time, Southern began operating flights for SeaPort as the company struggled to survive. When it shifted into Chapter 7 liquidation in September 2016, Southern swiftly made a move for many of its EAS contracts and got them. Meanwhile, McKinney had been in Hawaii for months and was on to yet another company with Southern ties.
McKinney became President of Mokulele Airlines in Hawaii two months after resigning from SeaPort. The Hawaiian Part 135 carrier already had a relationship with Southern, through yet another company, the small Midwest commuter and multiple EAS recipient Sun Air Express. Mokulele provided aircraft and crews for some of Sun Air’s Lower 48 EAS contracts in 2015. Sun Air was subsequently purchased by Southern in 2016, which absorbed its routes, name and some degree of relationship with the Hawaiian company. McKinney remained with Mokulele until effecting a seamless transition to become President of Pacific Operations for Southern Airways after it purchased Mokulele in February 2019.
Southern Airways and Mokulele currently receive just under $25 million annually from the Department of Transportation for service to rural airports nationwide utilizing EAS contracts. While present in regions ranging from the Northeast to California and Hawaii, Southern has never had a foothold in the lucrative Alaska EAS market. There are about 60 EAS contracts in Alaska alone, far more than any other state, including McGrath and St. Paul Island, which were previously served by Ravn. Now, through its relationship with FLOAT, Southern has gained a potential foothold in this new arena.
Despite assertions from Ravn Attorney Jane Kim that the sale was “a way for us to do what we had hoped to do which is be able to resume Part 121 operations in the state of Alaska, and get employees rehired,” there is still an enormous amount of uncertainty surrounding this venture. While Ravn CEO and president Dave Pflieger extolled FLOAT’s employment promises, Alaskans should take heed of what happened to Mokulele one week after they were sold to Southern: 10% of the workforce was laid off. More significantly, even with the $31.6 million federal payroll support loan offered to Ravn’s successor, it is uncertain that, with FLOAT dependent on Southern Airways for all facets of its operation, it will be able to prove to the FAA that it is ready to safely operate a Part 121 carrier in Alaska’s challenging aviation environment.
This is particularly true of flights in and out of Unalaska, which has already captured Rob McKinney’s attention. Residents there know all too well the damage that can be inflicted by inexperienced pilots and a company abdicating its operational responsibilities. I imagine there are also several people in Hoonah who would like to weigh in on this topic as well.
As for McKinney himself, he has already added yet another title to his portfolio. The SeaPort/Wings of Alaska/Mokulele/Southern Airways/FLOAT executive is now listing himself on LinkedIn as CEO at “The New Ravn Alaska.”
Colleen Mondor is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska.” Find her at chasingray.com or on Twitter @chasingray.