Air carrier’s cause: An uplifting journey
Melbourne-based Atom Airways caters to private contractors’ comfortable traveling to Afghanistan
The flight from the United States to Afghanistan is long and, more often than not, boring and uncomfortable.
Dan Carson, founder of Atom Airways LLC, aims to change that.
Next month he plans to offer weekly flights from Melbourne International Airport to Afghanistan, focusing on transporting private contractors to the war-torn country on an upgraded wide-body Boeing 767. Carson wants to tap into defense contractors in Brevard County and across the U.S just as they start to play a bigger role in security and rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan
The flights would leave Melbourne International, stop briefly in Bucharest, Romania, and travel into Afghanistan and land at one of four airports in that country. The goal is to pamper the passengers and ensure they’re well-rested and fresh when they land, because typically contractors go right to work after clearing security.
“There is a pent-up demand for this,” said Carson, 69, a longtime commercial pilot and Indialantic resident who since 2005 has flown private contractors into Iraq.
According to the Defense Department, there were 113,491 employees of defense contractors in Afghanistan in January. Of those, 25,287, or about 22 percent, were American citizens, according to a report earlier this year in the New York Times.
Most of the major defense contractors in Brevard County have employees in Afghanistan, though they prefer for security reasons not to mention locations or itineraries.
“Melbourne is an excellent airport to come into and fly out of,” Carson said. “While there is limited service here, you can fly into Orlando from anywhere in the United States and then make the short drive to Melbourne.”
The flight from Melbourne International to Bucharest takes 9½ hours. From Bucharest, it’s about another five hours to Afghanistan
The 24-year-old aircraft, last used by the Australian-based air carrier Qantas, has been modified to make traveling more comfortable. The jet’s 206 seats have been reduced to 150 seats to give the passengers in coach class more legroom.
Passengers also will be provided with pillows, blankets, iPads loaded with games, DVD players, movies and food from Chantilly, Va.-based Rudy’s Inflight Catering.
“They can sleep whenever they want and they can eat whenever they want,” Carson said. “They have a real nice comfortable ride, which is good for them.”
Atom’s jet is owned by EL Management LLC, a Miami-based private investment company that purchases and leases aircraft, and also sells parts for aircraft.
The first flight from Melbourne to Afghanistan is scheduled for Oct. 12. Carson won’t say how many people have booked flights but indicated its fewer than the 150 available seats. That’s partially on purpose, he said, so he and the flight staff can work out any kinks in the operation.
Marcie Hascall Clark, whose husband was a civilian contractor seriously wounded in Iraq, likes the idea behind Atom Airways. Clark operates a support group and website called “Civilian Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“It’s a long flight and most of the time you have to spend a couple of days in Dubai,” said Clark, who lives in Satellite Beach and blogs about civilian contracting issues.
“Contracting over there probably is going to stay lucrative for some years to come, so he should be in a good position to continue,” she said.
Carson, who previously ran flights for the U.S. State Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also hopes to fold a tourism charter business into Atom’s strategic plan, which would involve bringing Eastern Europeans to Central Florida and vice versa, since Bucharest is a key leg of the route.
In Melbourne, the company has 25 employees and plans to ramp up a sales and marketing and operations staff of 200 during the next two years and lease office space at Melbourne International.
Currently the most common way to get to Afghanistan on a non-military flight is to fly to Dubai on Delta Air Lines or United Airlines from a major U.S. airport. From there, a traveler usually has to choose from a list of foreign commercial carriers like Air Arabia or Pakistan International Airlines.
Atom’s round trip cost to Afghanistan is $3,850 for coach and $5,250 for business class. The fares are higher than other airlines but Carson said Atom allows modifications up to 48 hours prior to takeoff without penalties.
With the other airlines, those penalties can run into the thousands of dollars if last-minute scheduling changes are needed, Carson said.