Sunday, January 14, 1996
The no-frills, no-whine tale of Sunair

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jim Williams says he hates whiners, and I believe him.

He's the retired Delta pilot who started a little company, Sunair, that promised cheap flights to Florida. I don't know about you, but for $69 to Orlando I started thinking maybe I might spend part of my winter with Mickey and Minnie.

I also had the unworthy thought that perhaps Sunair might give Delta Air Lines, shall we say, some incentive to quit charging Cincinnati an arm and a leg for the privilege of flying out of this hub.

The classic mistake

Doors were locked Wednesday at the Sunair office downtown, while Jim made a last try to get somebody with money to invest in his company. No one did. ''I made the classic business mistake,'' he says. ''I was undercapitalized.''

The capital he had was $527,000 in personal money, plus some modest investments from family and friends. He says he ''dipped into his retirement.'' It wasn't enough, and it's gone. He says he'll probably go back to Florida, where he lived until a year ago, and ''look for another job.'' He says he'll pay all his debts. ''I will never walk away from a bill in this town.''

And I believe that, too.

Of course, you notice that nobody put me in charge of venture capital funds and the banks have not been begging me to be a loan officer. What do I know? Not much, as usual. So sue me. I liked this guy.

He was a pilot for Delta for 34 years and says he used to walk up and down the aisles talking to passengers when he could. I'll bet if you were on one of those flights, you'd feel pretty good about having him in the ''left seat,'' as he calls the captain's flight position. White hair and nice eyes. Strong features. He looks like a successful businessman. Competent.

So, what happened?

''I knew that January, February, March and April would be good months for Florida,'' he says. ''I just didn't realize how many people bought their tickets in advance to get the best fares.''

I think guiltily of the non-refundable ticket at home in my underwear drawer, purchased a month or so ago, during a full moon, not to be used on weekends or between the hours of 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. And if, for any reason, I need to change the time, well that is just tough noogies.

You can get your money back on Sunair tickets by calling 1-800-SUN-AIR6. Technically a public charter company, not an airline, Sunair has to keep your money in an escrow account until two days after you've used your ticket.

Sunair began service out of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport on Dec. 8, suspended flights on Wednesday, and Friday called it quits.

Who's the bad guy?

''Nobody did us in,'' Jim Williams says. ''I've heard people say maybe Delta ran us out of business. Nothing could be further from the truth. Delta was handling our ground service.''

He speaks affectionately of his old company, which he left only because he had reached the mandatory retirement age of 60. He tried fishing and just hanging out and became ''bored and grumpy.''

While he was flying for Delta, he had his finger in several small pies, a restaurant, office buildings, even a company that pumped out septic tanks. He laughs about that company's logo and motto printed on the sides of company trucks - a skunk holding a rose and the promise that ''we're number one in the number two business.''

There's room here - he's sure of it - for low-cost, no-frills air travel. And for competition for the big airlines. It'll keep them on their toes. It's inevitable. He says maybe he was just a little early. He wishes he had more time and more money. ''I gave it my best, but I just didn't make it.''

He lost his money. Not taxpayer money. Not investor money. His. He had visions of a family business. Maybe one of the six grandkids might be interested some day. He worked hard, long hours to make this company go. So did his wife, Ruth, and his son, Scott.

He looked pretty tired. And sad. But he didn't whine. Not even a whimper.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.