Sex sells, especially at an altitude of 5,280 feet. But if you ask Flamingo Air founder David MacDonald, he says the secret to his company's success is romance.
The Ohio pilot began offering what he calls Flights of Fancy--a private, one-hour plane ride for couples--in 1991 on a dare. Sitting around an airplane hanger, shooting the breeze with fellow pilots, he says the topic inevitably comes up. "I could sell that," he said to his buddies. They didn't believe him. "Not in this community, not in Cincinnati," they said.
But MacDonald says he's met no resistance. He describes his typical customers as between the ages of 35 and 65, mostly straight-laced and just looking for something unique. Customers come from other all over the world just for the experience.
It's all about the romance, MacDonald says, so he does his best to set the mood onboard Amelia, the tiny airplane used for the excursions. "It's cute as the dickens," says the 69-year-old entrepreneur when describing the curtained off, 6-foot by 4-foot space filled with fluffy pillows behind the cockpit. Couples are wooed with champagne, chocolates, and souvenirs such as a pilot wings key ring or pin. MacDonald also has T-shirts that say "Mile High Club Instructor," but only brings them out on request, lest they spoil the ambience.
In fact, he avoids using the phrase "mile high club" altogether. Flamingo Air doesn't do much marketing for Flights of Fancy--relying mostly on word-of-mouth. MacDonald thinks this sets him apart from a handful of competitors, including Love Cloud in Las Vegas, which took to the air in 2014 offering mile high flights in addition to dinner and wedding flights. Founder Andy Johnson says he checked out the competition during a trip to Ohio and feels confident his company offers a more modern experience--with a larger, newer airplane and music streaming capabilities. "I thought, 'If this is my competition, I'm really going above and beyond.'"
Johnson's swankier, Vegas experience does come at a higher price point--$799 for 30 minutes versus Flamingo Air's $495 for an hour--and despite plenty of eager fliers and the occasional media attention, Flights of Fancy don't pay the bills for Flamingo Air. MacDonald says they just keep "gas in the tank and pizza on the table" when times are tough. Over the last two decades, the novelty rides went from being a monster moneymaker to his least profitable offering.
The more lucrative of Flamingo Air's services include sightseeing tours, aircraft dispatcher training, and flight instruction. And with recent Federal Aviation Administration rules requiring drone operators to hold a special license, demand for those offerings--especially from law enforcement agencies--is "blowing the doors off," MacDonald says.
But Flights of Fancy are still on the menu because they appeal to MacDonald's personal philosophy: "If it's not fun, don't do it." Twenty-five years ago, when he was naming Flamingo Air--now a 10-person operation that includes MacDonald's wife and sister-in-law--he wanted something whimsical and fun that people would remember. After all, he says, "What's more fun than a flock of flamingos?"
The entrepreneur's sense of humor remains intact today--and, boy, does he have stories. He has not only been popped in the back of the head with a champagne cork, he has taken a high heel to his ear. "I could literally keep you on the phone for days with goofy stories," he says. "But let's just say, I'm the only pilot that really needs a cigarette after he lands."