Off the northwest coast of Michigan, you will find Beaver Island, home to over 700 residents and the most remote inhabited island in the Great Lakes. Having a regular air service to the mainland is a necessity. Transit time by ferry is upwards of two hours from the mainland town of Charlevoix Michigan to Beaver Island, but it is just 15 minutes by air. Island Airways is privately owned and operated by Angel LeFevre-Welke and her husband, Paul Welke, an island family. Beyond daily delivery of USPS mail, they transport passengers, UPS, FedEx, and other essential freight. They also play a critical role in Beaver Island’s medical services. Not only do they transport islanders’ prescriptions, EMS relief crews, and visiting specialists, they are also an “Air Ambulance” certified by the FAA for medical evacuation to mainland. On busy summer days, “Island Airways” can fly upwards of 35 flights a day with their four Britten Norman Islander aircraft.
Air service to Beaver Island started out of necessity. Primarily, getting mail to the Island during winter months when Lake Michigan froze over was the reason why, in 1945, Joe McPhillips started McPhillips Flying Service.
Separately, in the 1960s, the Welke family came to Beaver Island and bought an old Island homestead. They converted the farm fields to a small, private airport, and they began to fly their own aircraft to the mainland. Growing accustomed to running mainland errands for neighbors, in 1975, the family decided to start a small flying service, Welke Aviation. In the early 1980s, McPhillips Flying Service and Welke Aviation merged to form “Island Airways” as the company is known today.
Over the years, as Beaver Island grew and became a tourism-based economy, Island Airways upgraded from one twin engine four seat Apache aircraft to the twin engine nine passenger Britten Norman Islanders. The current fleet at Island Airways includes four Islanders, one Piper Aztec, and Piper Apache. The Pipers are used for local airport transfers (within 50 miles) and charters all over the Midwest. Beaver Island has the longest, continuous, airmail contract in the continental United State (1945-present).
HOW IT WORKS
Island Airways’ home base is Beaver Island where they have an operations and maintenance facility staffed by seven pilots, six mechanics and four ground support crew. Owner and manager Angel LeFevre-Welke explains “as owners, we live on the island we serve. We are an on-demand (unscheduled air carrier) and fill our flights based on our customer travel needs.” The US mail contract to Beaver Island requires a daily 8:30 a.m. flight.
During the busier months, they will offer flights every hour from 8 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m. Angel detailed their operational philosophy, “When these flights fill, we add a second plane and pilot (what they call “doubling” the flight). On busy days this will continue until we have added all four Islanders and four pilots.”
They aim to fly 365 days a year (even on Christmas, offering one flight to get stragglers home). In a typical year there are 25-30 days when weather causes flight delays and 5-10 days when they do not fly at all.
This is a business with a stiff cash flow headwind. “The average price for a gallon of avgas (aviation fuel for our aircraft) is about $3.50 and in 2020 we used over 57,000 gallons of fuel in our operation— $200,000 in fuel alone.” Other operational costs include: payroll, aircraft maintenance, lease-hold (airport, hangar, office space) costs, insurance (aircraft, property, workers compensation), telephones, computers, and supplies.
In today’s market it takes a significant investment to start an island air service.
The Britten Norman Islander plane is used by many island airlines because of its size, fuel efficiency, runway requirements and load capacity. A new Islander costs over $1 million, and a used one starts at $400,000. According to Angel, “To have a similar fleet of aircraft like Island Airways would cost between $2 million and $3 million. Then add on start up costs that include FAA certification, manuals, buildings, staffing, support vehicles, and tools”
Q&A WITH ANGEL LEFEVRE-WELKE, BEAVER ISLAND’S AIR SERVICE OWNER/MANAGER
What advice would you give someone who wanted to start an air service to a remote community?
Visit other air services who are doing the same thing. There are many of us in the United States as well as all over the world. Paul and I find ourselves drawn to islands on vacation and ALWAYS end up at an airport. We have formed great friendships with other operators and we stay in touch with each other. The common question is “How do you handle ______” whether it is an aircraft question, paperwork issue, or local something. We are all doing the same thing in different locations. It is great to have a network of folks who understand what you are experiencing. Ask questions! Do not rush into anything. Starting and operating an airline is an interesting and fulfilling undertaking but it also has it challenges.
What is the seasonal shift in income?
During the busy summer season on Beaver Island (May to November) Island Airways does about 12-16 flights per day. Several weekends a year (July 4th, festivals, large events, Memorial Day, Labor Day) it is not uncommon to have 30-35 flights. This involves all four Islanders flying in 10-minute staggered intervals. The record number of passengers transported in one day was in July 2018 with 345 passengers in 41 flights. The remainder of the year (December to April) Island Airways operates approximately 5-10 flights per day and hauls more freight after the ferry stops running in December. A typical day in the winter is about 30-40 passengers and 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of freight
How do companies balance the seasonal income fluctuations?
We have contracts to haul the US Postal Service, FedEx, UPS, and local freight such as the restaurants and grocery store in the winter when the ferry does not run. Additionally, we have a contract with the Beaver Island Community School to provide all transportation services for students and personnel. In an average year Island Airways hauls approximately 30,000 passengers and 1.6 million pounds of freight. Based solely on passenger boarding data, Welke Airport on Beaver Island is the 13th busiest airport in the state of Michigan.
Do you have a scheduled reduction in flights/service?
During the quieter season we do a minimum of five flights per day. If there is more passenger demand, we will add flights daily to accommodate passengers and freight as needed. Typically, we do 7-8 flights daily from November to April.
What’s it like interacting with the communities you serve?
As (co-owner) Paul Welke says, “After doing this for 50 years, no two days are the same.” One of the most unique (and my favorite) things we do at Island Airways is fly the school kids and sports teams to their away games and their opponents to the island for games. It is so much fun putting the kids on the plane and hearing about the games when they get back. A few years ago, the Beaver Islanders won a soccer tournament, and I think the entire island including the fire department with all the vehicles lit up were at the airport to welcome them home and celebrate. That is simply one of the many things that makes island life so very special.
The interview above has been edited for clarity and length.