PROVINCETOWN — Twenty-five years ago today, a 32-year-old Dan Wolf set off from Provincetown in a Cessna 402 and piloted it across Cape Cod Bay toward Boston.
Wolf, now a Mass. state senator, recalled his business partner Craig Stewart sitting shotgun, giving flight training to the young entrepreneur and aviation enthusiast while then-U.S. congressman Gerry Studds sat behind them bearing witness to the occasion.
When the airplane touched down at Logan International Airport about a half an hour later, Cape Air’s inaugural flight was complete.
“Needless to say, it was not a full flight,” said Wolf, laughing, the airline’s CEO and co-founder, and the current Cape & Islands’ state senator, remembering that morning trip in 1989.
In the decades since, the Hyannis-based airline has grown to become the largest independent regional carrier in the country, operating more than 500 flights a day and transporting more than 735,000 passengers a year to 44 locations around the world.
Today, Cape Air employs more than 1,100 people worldwide with nearly 400 based out of its Hyannis headquarters, making it the Cape’s second largest employer after Cape Cod Hospital, according to Trish Lorino, the company’s vice president of marketing and public relations.
Though the company’s scope has expanded, the Provincetown-Boston connection has remained its landmark and most iconic flight. Fittingly, the company chose Provincetown to celebrate its 25th anniversary in business last month.
“It’s the obvious place for us. Provincetown is where it all began and it’s still a huge part of what we’re all about,” Wolf said.
Looking back on Cape Air’s remarkable rise, one of the most notable aspects is that the company succeeded where many others failed. When Wolf took off from Provincetown Municipal Airport on Oct. 16, 1989, he was charting a route that had already been flown by a host of other small carriers in the wake of the airline industry’s deregulation in 1978.
By the early 1990s, however, bygone carriers like Provincetown-Boston Airlines, Gull Air, Spectrum Airways, Wills Air, Air New England and others had all either gone out of business or were swallowed up by larger operations that no longer saw the value in servicing the region. Only Cape Air remained.
Wolf attributes his company’s lasting success to its focus on integrating into the communities it serves, beginning with Cape Cod.
“We learned our lessons from watching other airlines come and go,” he said. “One of the reasons we survived when so many others didn’t is that we were really embedded in the community from the beginning.” As proof, Wolf points to his company’s year-round service to and from Provincetown, despite the fact that it can be a major money-losing endeavor in the off-season months, he said.
“I just feel like it’s a commitment to the community. If we’re going to be there to make money, we need to be there for the folks year-round,” he said.
Wolf himself first learned to fly on the Cape in 1978 and eventually became the manager of the Chatham Municipal Airport in 1982. Stewart, his founding business partner, was also embedded in the local aviation world, having served as the chief pilot for Gull Air until it went out of business in the mid-’80s.
Since gaining a foothold in Provincetown, Cape Air has embarked on a process of “cautious” and “steady” growth into 44 locations throughout the U.S., Caribbean and as far away as Micronesia.
Many of the places where the company now operates share a commonality that Wolf described as the “Cape Air niche.”
Similar to Provincetown, they are often high-frequency, short-haul destinations with a barrier to entry and a seasonal component, Wolf said.
“A lot of what we do can be traced back to P’town,” Wolf said. “It’s always been that way.”