Alpine Air Express, which provides air cargo services to smaller communities in the western U.S. for customers such as FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service, said Monday it has acquired Omaha, Nebraska-based Suburban Air Freight to support growing demand for e-commerce services.
The deal positions Alpine Air Express, one of the largest regional air cargo carriers in the U.S., to begin flying for DHL Express and build on its expansion effort.
Alpine Air operates a fleet of 50 turboprop aircraft — 35 twin-engine Beechcraft 1900D, 14 smaller Beechcraft 99 and a King Air 200 — that transport mail packages and other time-sensitive cargo in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, California and Utah. It indirectly carries packages for Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) through contracts with UPS (NYSE: UPS) and the Postal Service and offers charter flights for automotive and other customers.
Operating from Atlanta, Suburban Air Freight provides feeder service for DHL to and from the Florida Gulf Coast with nine Beechcraft 1900Cs and one single-engine Cessna Caravan. The complementary fleet simplifies maintenance and operations for the combined company. Alpine said Suburban’s leadership team of Geoff Gallup and Jay Armstrong will remain with the company. A portion of Suburban’s deliveries include packages Amazon injects directly into the DHL network,
Alpine Air is pursuing a growth strategy with the backing of owner AE Industrial Partners, a private equity firm with extensive aerospace holdings. It launched a program 18 months ago to convert 25 Beechcraft 1900D passenger aircraft it acquired from Great Lakes Airlines to dedicated cargo configuration.
In an interview, CEO Michael Dancy said Alpine Air plans to fill in geographic coverage between the Plains and Southeastern states through additional acquisitions over the next couple of years and expansion of Suburban’s fleet.
The airline will likely add more Cessna Caravans to the fleet, which would also enable it to explore autonomous or remotely piloted aircraft, Dancy told FreightWaves. Companies such as Xwing and Reliable Robotics are building independent software stacks that can be integrated into Cessna flight control systems to allow regional aircraft to take off, maneuver and land without human involvement.
“Growing e-commerce activity, faster delivery requirements and supply chain complexity has increased the demand for large scale, reliable regional air cargo service providers,” said Jon Nemo, senior partner at AEI, in a press release. “We have invested significantly in Alpine, including this strategic addition of Suburban, to create a leading provider of critical air cargo infrastructure capable of meeting this growing demand.”
Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.
Suburban will “continue to operate as they do now. And then over time we’ll start figuring out the smart ways to integrate them. But we’re very similar in operations, our aircraft, our pilots, our training and tooling are the same. So it’s a completely natural fit for us,” Dancy said.
When Alpine completes overhauling the 1900D passenger aircraft, it will have 72 cargo planes in its fleet, not including those with Suburban Air.
Alpine engineered and designed the proprietary modification kit for converting the 1900D itself, rather than purchasing a certified design from a specialty aerospace firm as it has for other aircraft types. Changing the configuration enables operators to maximize the use of the available cargo volume. The process involves removing passenger seating and cabin sidewalls, blocking windows, and making modifications to structural, mechanical and electrical systems, including installing aluminum interior liners, netting and a cargo roller system. The supplemental type certificate incorporating these changes took four years to develop.
Dancy said the airline is using seven conversion centers, including Yingling Aviation in Wichita, Kansas, and even one in South Africa, to reconfigure the aircraft into cargo haulers. It takes about six months to refurbish an aircraft, but with all the production sites Alpine is pushing about one new aircraft per month onto its operating certificate. It takes 44 hours of flying, and several stops, to get the planes from South Africa back to Alpine’s headquarters in Provo, Utah.
The Alpine Super Freighter is the largest single-piloted freighter in the world, enabling more freight to be delivered at lower cost compared to other regional cargo aircraft. Alpine said it determined that the 1900D is the most efficient plane for hauling 700 to 900 cubic feet of cargo for distances under 500 miles because it allows planners to balance density with the maximum payload weight. The plane is capable of normal operations up to 1,279 nautical miles.