Estimated reading time 14 minutes, 18 seconds.
Steve Christiansen is president, chief pilot, and owner of Halifax-based Maritime Air Charter Ltd., but he’s not in it for the money.
In fact, he says his on-demand private charter operation was born out of necessity. A forest engineer by trade, Christiansen found himself driving up to 120,000 kilometres every year to fulfil a number of different maintenance contracts for power companies in Atlantic Canada.
“I bought a Mooney a long time ago and started flying to those locations as a private pilot,” Christiansen told Skies. “Twenty-seven years ago, I started Maritime Air with one PA-31 Piper Navajo out of Halifax. It grew to three Navajos and a King Air 100.”
Back in 1996 when the company first got rolling, airline tickets were expensive. Maritime Air was busy, offering competitively-priced travel that allowed passengers to skip the hassles of flying commercial. Then, over time, things changed.
“I remember that 25 years ago, a last-minute ticket from Halifax to St. John’s would be $1,000 or more,” recalled Christiansen. “About five years ago, you could fly there for $250. We were not competitive anymore.”
In response, Maritime Air shrunk from four planes to one — a Beechcraft Super King Air B200. Today, the company is seeing a market rebound, with its single aircraft flying about 400 hours annually. In addition, customers who want to fly on a jet can charter an IAI Astra SPX flown by Maritime Air pilots through a partnership arrangement.
Speaking of pilots, several have come and gone over the years, with Christiansen remaining the only constant. He said the company’s current structure as a small boutique operation is by design.
“I don’t want to be that company that has a bunch of aircraft and several pilots I don’t really know,” he said.
“We have a small group of seven very qualified pilots and we don’t really have turnover. It’s a different quality of life we offer. More important than anything, I don’t do this for financial gain. My core business is working for power companies. I do this for my own enjoyment and customer satisfaction.”
Indeed, Maritime Air is a bit of an anomaly in the aviation world. The company relies entirely on word of mouth and does zero advertising.
“When we get someone in the aircraft, they generally will never go anywhere else afterwards,” reflected Christiansen. “I really enjoy working with our clients. A lot of times, they become close friends.”
In fact, that level of customer care — in terms of both service and safety — is what he considers to be Maritime Air’s secret to success.
Kathleen Legge, Maritime Air’s director of flight operations and safety officer, is exactly where she wants to be.
A former Royal Canadian Air Cadet who stayed “as long as the program would have me,” Legge finished her private pilot licence with Air Cadets the summer before she was due to start at Acadia University.
“It changed my life,” she said. “I withdrew from university and went to pilot training at Moncton Flight College.”
After finishing school in 2012, she worked as a flight dispatcher, skydive pilot, Cessna Caravan pilot and — following a layoff in the fall of 2015 — as a waitress. One day, Legge heard that Maritime Air was looking for a King Air captain.
“I decided to take a shot and it turned out to be the best thing!” she recounted. “I can fly an airplane from point A to point B — that’s the easy thing — but my real specialty is customer service. That’s my strong suit.”
With just over 4,000 hours in her logbook today, Legge has held a series of progressive positions at Maritime Air. Today, she is the company’s only full-time office employee and a line pilot, in addition to wearing many other hats.
“It’s definitely a dream job,” she told Skies. “For me, it’s about meeting people and providing a level of service I’d otherwise never have the opportunity to provide.”
When a private charter customer calls Maritime Air, it’s usually Legge who answers the phone. From that first contact, she plans their entire trip and is often the pilot who is waiting to welcome them onboard. Sometimes, she is there to greet a high-profile passenger — the likes of David Letterman, Bryan Adams, and well-known NHL hockey players have all flown with Maritime Air.
“These are people I never expected to meet,” admitted Legge, “but in fact, these are the ones who have allowed me to name them. Otherwise, our entire staff does all they can to ensure the anonymity that our clients appreciate. We never ask for photographs or autographs — it’s our discretion that sets us apart.”
It’s also about the little things. Legge keeps a list of customer preferences on her phone. She makes sure to stock the aircraft with whatever clients ask for — she’s even been known to stop at Tim Hortons to pick up coffee on the way to the airport.
One of Maritime Air’s most popular destinations is the Fogo Island Inn, a luxurious specialty hotel perched on tiny Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland. Legge credited innkeeper Zita Cobb’s saying — “Hospitality is rooted in the love of a stranger” — as being one of her customer service inspirations.
Aside from passenger charters, Maritime Air also transports inbound human organs destined for transplantation at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax. The same level of care and attention applies here, too. In fact, Legge will drive kidneys, tissues, livers, hearts, and lungs to the hospital in her own car when required.
“I’ve built quite a great relationship with the hospital,” she said. “I’ve even gone into the OR to observe a surgery, and they came and flew with me. It’s all about building relationships. It’s taking people in and making them your family as quick as you can.”
She said that approach is paying off in word-of-mouth referrals.
“The last two years have been our busiest ever, and we’ve put zero dollars into chasing marketing or sales,” said Legge. “It’s been exceptionally busy. I think it’s an influx of post-pandemic pent-up travel. We’ve retained a lot of our pandemic-era business because people find it more convenient. It comes at a premium, but it’s so efficient.”
Aside from Maritime Air’s charter services, Christiansen and a business partner in the seafood business decided to open Gateway Facilities in 2010. Today, the operation is a conduit for Atlantic Canada lobster that is destined for dinner plates all over the world.
“We handle 500 to 800 tonnes of seafood products every week and ship it worldwide,” explained Christiansen. “At the time we built Gateway, FedEx was changing from Boeing 727s to 757s and needed a new home for their aircraft. We agreed to build a facility that focused 25 per cent on FedEx, 25 per cent on air freight, and 50 per cent on general aviation FBO services.”
Gateway Facilities provides a full-range of aircraft handling and fuelling services, and is the only supplier of avgas at Halifax Stanfield International Airport (YHZ).
Christiansen is determined to support general aviation at the airfield.
“I come from a general aviation background, so I said to our staff that everyone gets a red carpet,” he told Skies. “If they arrive in an old Cessna 152, they get a red carpet on the ramp — and they can’t believe it. We will never be the company that doesn’t welcome them.”
He envisions a new hangar being added to Gateway Facilities to accommodate corporate and personal aircraft. At the same time, there is some discussion about growing the Maritime Air charter fleet with another King Air 200 or a larger King Air 350. In both cases, the demand is there.
“Our clients that come to Gateway are the same as Maritime Air,” laughed Christiansen. “When we get them in the building, they don’t want to leave.”
It’s the same story at the third arm of the business, Global Aviation Services. The aircraft maintenance provider is based at Gateway Facilities and offers service to all YHZ operators, with the exceptions of Air Canada and WestJet.
Global Aviation Services can accommodate aircraft up to a Boeing 767 and works in conjunction with Gateway Facilities to load and service aircraft before sending them on their way.
All together, the three arms of the business — Maritime Air Charter, Gateway Facilities, and Global Aviation Services — employ about 50 people.
“Steve (Christiansen) is very selective in who works for him,” said Kathleen Legge. “He’s hand-picked a good group of people. He’s done an impressive job of building up general aviation in Halifax.”
People-centric by design
Christiansen himself lives the people-first approach. According to Legge, he loves showing the King Air to curious families at the airport.
One woman who was deathly afraid of flying chartered Maritime Air to help her get over her fear. After taxiing in the King Air, she was unable to continue. Christiansen offered to take her flying in his private plane free of charge, and the woman was eventually able to fly commercially.
“For me, I think in the whole operation — from the hangar and maintenance, to airside and charter — it’s the people who really make the difference,” concluded Legge.
“The red carpet is a great example. We always greet our charter passengers and FBO guests with the red carpet. It’s used for every single customer, no matter what aircraft they are flying in. They are greeted with a smile and a welcome.”
With files from Tivoli Films