The Story Of Cape Air – The US Airline That Operates Tiny Planes

While Cape Air sounds as though it should be a South African airline, it is, in fact, an American commercial airline. Born on Cape Cod, a hook-shaped peninsula belonging to the state of Massachusetts, the airline operates a fleet of tiny planes serving destinations not served by larger airlines.

Cape Air is based in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Photo: Cape Air

What sets this unique airline apart from the competition is that it likes to operate tiny planes to obscure parts of the country that other larger airlines are not interested in. By targeting communities that may not have air service otherwise, Cape Air can take advantage of U.S. federal government subsidies for the Essential Air Services.

What is defined as an Essential Air Service?

The Essential Air Service (EAS) is a U.S. government program brought about to guarantee that small communities in the United States have access to commercial air service. This came about after the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978. The way the program works is that the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) subsidizes airlines to serve communities in rural areas of the country that would not prove profitable for airlines to fly. The subsidized flights aim to connect small towns to larger cities such as Chicago and Boston.

Essential Air Service example route

Using a Cape Air routes as an example, the JetBlue codeshare partner operates a flight from St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL) to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD) with a stopover at Quincy Regional Airport (UIN) in Illinois.

Despite having a population of around 40,000 people, Quincy is too small a town to entice larger airlines or their regional affiliates. This leaves Cape Air a niche market to capture. Because of the Cape Air flight, residents of Quincy can now connect through either St. Louis or Boston to other destinations in the United States or around the world.

Cape Air started by flying various routes from Cape Cod. Photo: Cape Air

About Cape Air

Headquartered at Barnstable Municipal Airport in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Cape Air operates a sizeable fleet of 88 nine-passenger non-pressurized twin-engine Cessna 402s. Designed to be inexpensive to fly and usable for both cargo and passengers, the Cessna 402 is the workhorse of Cape Air.

Cape Air provides high frequency service and reasonably priced fares in smaller aircraft, whereas most airlines would eventually migrate to larger aircraft. Over the years, Cape Air has concluded that what matters to the public is not the size of the plane but the frequency of flights and the service the airline can provide.

Cape Air has a large fleet of Cessna 402s. Photo: Cape Air

With its mini-hub business plan operating out of places like Saint Louis (Missouri), Billings (Montana), Albany (New York), and Boston (Massachusetts), Cape Air is forever looking for opportunities where it can make money anywhere around the country.

If you have never flown in a small aircraft like the Cessna 402, it is a vast difference from being in a big jet. While perhaps a little cramped and noisy, it is a terrific experience for those of us who like to fly.

To learn a little bit more about what it is like to fly with Cape Air, check out a trip report from Noel Philips below.