Red Wing Regional Airport is a sleepy collection of aircraft hangars on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, three miles from the Goodhue County seat.
But inside the largest of those hangars is the headquarters for Red Wing Aeroplane Co., a growing airline charter service that counts captains of industry, Hollywood celebrities, sports stars and country western artists among its clientele.
It has gone from one to five eight-seat Cessna Citation jets since 2005 with plans for up to 15 more planes in the next three to five years, an expansion that would allow it to list Hawaii and far-flung Western Hemisphere locales as destination points.
In a flat industry, Red Wing Aeroplane is slowly building market share.
"Our service is the new first class for the airline industry. You can have anything you want but there's a cost involved and there's no free ride," said Wes Converse, who co-founded the original aircraft maintenance company of the same name with his dad, Bob, in 1990. "We're safe, reliable and on time."
These are not the strongest times for charter services and business aviation in general. When the economy tanks, so does business travel.
From the start of the Great Recession in 2008 until it officially ended in 2010, flight hours in the business travel industry were down 35 to 40 percent, said Dan Hubbard, senior vice president of the National Business Aviation Association. While business has improved, Hubbard said it's still 10 to 15 percent below the peak in 2007.
But Red Wing Aeroplane has developed a niche that is somewhat immune from the economy. That involves passengers who have the wherewithall to use a charter service and avoid the current-day hassles of commercial travel.
"This is a service industry and you have to set yourself apart from your competition," Converse said. "Passengers at the airport are miserable. They have to go through a security line and everyone accepts that and you'll probably be late. In our business it's always assumed you'll be on time, the aircraft will be clean and the crew hospitable."
In the charter business, operators get much of their traffic through brokers. A client calls a broker and says "I want to go from point A to point B" on a certain date. The broker posts that assignment on an electronic bulletin board and charter carriers bid on the trip. Sometimes the trips are planned in advance; sometimes they are last-minute.
One of the brokers that frequently uses Red Wing Aeroplane is New Flight Charters based in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
"We've been using them for at least six years," said New Flight's Nanette Poorman. "They're always available [to make a quote]. It's the smartest thing they do."
Converse said the Red Wing Aeroplane operations office is staffed from 7 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. seven days a week and that someone is always available to take calls after those hours.
Poorman said Red Wing Aeroplane's flight crews are generally experienced, with specialized training in mountain flying [think high-end ski resorts], inclement weather and short runways.
Converse is diligent about not identifying clients. But a Web page for New Flight Charters gives an idea of the types of people who fly charter. Among endorsements from dozens of satisfied New Flight customers is the office of former President Bill Clinton, the travel coordinator for former Mexican President Vicente Fox, an assistant to Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and comedian Kathy Griffin.
"We fly all kinds of people," Converse said. "We fly corporate executives, sports figures, celebrities, average people. Of the Who's Who, we've flown most of them."
Charter flights take Red Wing aircraft to both coasts, up and down the eastern seaboard, into the Caribbean and into South America and Canada.
Converse said Red Wing Aeroplane is "a floating fleet" that comes back to the headquarters hangar only for maintenance. "The whole idea is to not fly an airplane empty," he said.
Converse said Red Wing will cater to the needs or whims of its passengers. He said one regular traveler needs bottled Evian water on each trip, along with a New York Times. A country-and-western singer and his manager ordered $2,000 worth of liquor for a flight from Washington, D.C., to Nashville.
"Whatever they want, they'll get it, but they'll have to pay for it," Converse said.
According to aircharterguide .com, the hourly price for Red Wing's aircraft ranges from $2,000 to nearly $2,600.
Converse said a trip from Minneapolis to Miami would cost about $12,000. "That's more than a commercial ticket, but that's not my clientele," he said.
Converse and his 81-year-old dad, both of whom live in the Red Wing area, have more than 80 combined years in aviation.
Bob Converse was an Air Force flight mechanic who served in the Korean War and later spent 30 years as a mechanic for Braniff, Western and Delta Air Lines. Wes Converse also is an Air Force veteran and flew for Comair, a Delta regional carrier, and Evergreen International, a freight carrier.
In 1990, they created Red Wing Aeroplane as a maintenance facility and morphed into a charter service 15 years later.
Today, Red Wing has 40 employees, including nearly 20 pilots operating 120 to 150 flights a month.
The success of the company is not lost on Bob Converse, who still comes to work every day.
"We've been lucky," he said. "But it's been a lot of hard work."
David Phelps • 612-673-7269