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CommutAir Celebrates 30th Anniversary

Jesse King
CommutAir celebrated its 30th anniversary with a picnic at its maintenance hub in Albany, New York.

With strong ties to Albany International Airport, CommutAir is celebrating its 30th anniversary. 

CommutAir Co-founder and Executive Chairman John Sullivan says the United Express carrier officially took off on August 1, 1989, with a Beech 1900 departing from Plattsburgh, New York. Now stocked with Embraer 145 jets, Sullivan says the carrier has grown exponentially in 30 years.  

“You know, from two aircraft to – it’ll be 40 aircraft by the end of this year," says Sullivan. "And the size of the aircraft has changed a lot, because the first ones had 19 passenger seats, no bathrooms, no flight attendants. And of course now we have these nice jets with 50 seats, a lavatory, and a flight attendant.”

Credit CommutAir
CommutAir officially launched in 1989, flying out of Plattsburgh, New York.

CommutAir initially flew under U.S. Airways, but switched to Continental Airlines in 2000. Soon after, Albany International Airport became a “micro-hub” for CommutAir, with up to 54 flights a day travelling to cities like Rochester, Hartford, and Boston in 2005. Unfortunately, Sullivan says it wasn’t meant to be.

“We got the call from Continental that they wanted us to serve their Cleveland hub, and so we had to start moving aircraft out there because they wanted every aircraft we could possibly provide to serve the Cleveland hub," he explained. 

Once United Airlines merged with Continental, CommutAir came back to Albany in 2014 to host its maintenance base on Sicker Road. And it’s not the only notable airline partnering with the airport for that reason – Piedmont Airlines opened a new 37,000-square foot hangar in May. CommutAir currently employs 150 people at its space, and Airport CEO John O’Donnell says partnerships like these help get the airport’s name out there.

“And also it gives us an opportunity to increase our air traffic by adding flights. Because if they’re flying in here for maintenance, there’s a good likelihood that they’ll use this airport to fly to new cities," explains O'Donnell. "So we’re always looking to grow the airport, add cities, partner with them. It’s just a great airport initiative.”

O’Donnell, who announced in July he will step down after 20 years, says the Albany County Airport Authority recently acquired a cul-de-sac to expand aircraft parking at the CommutAir hangar. And the 30th anniversary comes at a time when the airport is undergoing massive updates to its terminal, parking garage, and nearby roadways. At the Piedmont opening in May, New York State Department of Transportation Executive Deputy Commissioner Ron Epstein said the state wants to make the airport easier to get to.

“We’re making a $50 million commitment, and we’re constructing new ramps and access points to the airport so that it is much easier in providing direct access to the airport," said Epstein. 

Credit CommutAir
A route map depicts flight from CommutAir's micro-hub in Albany in 2003.

CommutAir’s Sullivan says the carrier is currently focusing on expanding its route structure from hubs at Newark and Washington-Dulles international airports. He adds the regional airline industry has changed significantly since 1989, growing and shrinking at the same time. 

“Back in 1975, there were 250 regional airlines, commuter airlines we called them back then, in the United States – and now there’s 21," he notes. "But back then, collectively we carried 6.8 million passengers, and last year we carried 150 million passengers.”

CommutAir flies exclusively for United Airlines, which owns 40 percent of the company. CommutAir flies to 52 cities and 22 states across the U.S. The carrier says it expects to serve 2.4 million passengers in 2019. 

Jesse King is the host of "51%" and a producer for WAMC's afternoon news programs. She also produces the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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