Conversation with Air Gumbo CEO Ralston Champagnie

Michael Garko, Fly Guys Blog

In the heart of cajun country, a unique and ambitious plan is starting to take flight as proposed airline Air Gumbo works to change air passenger travel to the state of Louisiana.

While carriers struggle to find a balance between customer service and maintaining profitability in the current downturn of the economy, CEO and founder Ralston Champagnie continues to work towards a unique and unprecedented goal of building an airline that takes Louisiana’s culture to the skies.

Founded in 1998, little has been heard from Air Gumbo headquarters in Lafayette, Louisiana since 2006, but the tiny airline has gained alot of momentum in recent months.  According to Champagnie, the low level of publicity in recent years for his airline is part of a strategic plan.

Ralston Champgnie, CEO and founder of Air Gumbo, first came up with the concept of a one-frill airline in the summer of 1997 while in graduate school.  Champagnie has over 15 years of well-rounded airline operation experience serving industrial giants such as British Airways, Lufthansa, and Air Canada.  He credits American Airlines for peaking his interest in flight dispatch.  He has worked with both scheduled and charter airlines around the globe. Mr. Champagnie holds both FAA pilot and FAA airline dispatcher licenses. He also holds an MBA from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where his focus centered on integrating design and management principles as a tool for leading a company towards a sustainable competitive advantage.

“Right now we are hoping to finish our DOT certification this year” said Champagnie in the almost hour long interview.  “We think within the next three months we can submit our application to the Department of Transportation.  This is why we have shied away from any publicity.  We realize it will be best right now to have something that is concrete before promoting the Air Gumbo brand to the traveling public.”

In 1998, Champagnie proposed his concept to Lafayette Regional Airport with a unique twist.  In a world of proclaimed no-frill airlines, Champagnie introduced the concept of a “one-frill airline” to help differentiate itself from other airlines.  This one key ingrediant of Champagnie’s plan would be to serve a fresh, authentic Gumbo meal on every flight. “Research shows that travelers come to New Orleans for two things: the food, and its culture.  We wanted to be different than the other airlines who usually serve just peanuts.  They immediately gave me a resolution of support right on the spot.  So then I was stuck.  Afer that, I had to follow through.”

Even though Air Gumbo has yet to fly a revenue flight, Champagnie is quick to point out that his business has already withstood the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina’s devastation to the Gulf Coast region, and a bleak fuel cost outlook.

“One of the things we had planned in our business plan was recognition of what happened in New Orleans with Katrina could possibly happen.”  Had Air Gumbo been flying at the time, the airline had a secondary airport, Shreveport Regional Airport, picked out as an emergency relief to New Orleans.  “It really showed that our business plan is realistic,” exclaimed Champagnie.

When asked about Air Gumbo’s scope of service, Champagnie stated that most people who travel through New Orleans originate from the southern region of the United States, and that initial service will reflect that.

Air Gumbo’s business plan includes having secondary focus cities in Baton Rouge and Shreveport.  “Both of these cities, especially Shreveport, are growing so tremendously”.

Shreveport Regional Airport, located in Northwest Louisiana, is looking to lure a low-cost carrier with regular service.  In April, Shreveport was ranked the third most over priced airport in the country by the New York Times.

ARCHIVES: Shreveport Airport loses out on $700,000 grant

The CEO has ambitious international growth plans, which includes the proposition of flights to Europe, Asia, and South America from Louis Armstrong International in New Orleans.  “New Orleans is an international city without much international service.  We are first and foremost an international airline, not a domestic airline.  New Orleans is central to a lot of international destinations.  In order to create an international airline, you will need feeders.  The way to create those feeders, is to create a domestic portion of the airline.”

Champagnie’s international route plans are not the only aggressive part of his business plan.  The CEO has been looking into using Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner or Airbus’ A330 widebody aircraft for his international long-haul routes.  Champgnie expects to launch operations with several domestic routes, while shifting focus to international expansion after the initial 12 to 18 months of service.

Initial plans included using this gumbo inspired livery on  Boeing 737s

Prior to 2003, Air Gumbo was focused on using the Boeing 737 to launch domestic operations, but those plans changed when the New Orleans Aviation Board passed landing fee increases to airlines utilizing Boeing 737 series aircraft.  “By New Orleans doing that at that time, it became virtually impossible to compete with Southwest and their 737s.”

That same year, Air Gumbo began to build a relationship with aircraft manufacturer Bombardier.  “We have been developing a relationship with Bombardier since 2003, and now have an excellent reltionship with them.  When we met with them, and looked at their jets.  That’s when we realized the (CRJ)900 series is perfect for service from New Orleans.”  Champagnie went on to explain that discussions have taken place for the CRJ700 and CRJ1000 series aircraft as well.  “The smaller aircraft would be perfect for service to (Louisiana) cities Monroe, Lake Charles, and even Alexandria.”

Optimism has been, and will continue to be, the key driving force for Air Gumbo over the years.  With low cost airlines like Skybus and Independence Air having been unable to withstand the economic downturn, the passionate CEO looks to capitalize on key lessons learned from those airlines.  Champagnie will be hoping that it will be clearer skies ahead for Air Gumbo, as his airline works to push previous delays behind them, and work towards certification with the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration.  With hopes of an inaugural flight in 2012, the next twelve months will be instrumental to whether or not Air Gumbo will go “wheels up”.

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