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Contrail blazer

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  • | 6:52 a.m. August 23, 2013
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Could Fort Myers become an international travel hub?

MetJet, a Wisconsin-based tour operator, says Fort Myers could become a hub for Midwesterners on their way to the Caribbean or Mexico. The company's business plan includes selling franchises to investors in the Midwest that would include Fort Myers as a focus city where passengers would transit through customs.

For Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, the benefits include pioneering new international routes and giving local residents an alternative to driving to airports in Fort Lauderdale, Miami or Tampa that offer nonstop flights.

Already, MetJet plans to start a weekly nonstop flight from Fort Myers to Cancun, Mexico, starting Dec. 7 on a Boeing 737-800 chartered with Sun Country Airlines. The Saturday flights to Cancun will be the continuation of a flight that originates in Green Bay, Wisc.

At the helm of the company is Michael Heisman, 36. The young CEO and founder has navigated challenges such as the need to raise more capital than he anticipated and problems with credit-card processing that delayed the start of operations for months last year.

On a recent visit to Fort Myers to announce the service to Cancun, Heisman says he initially planned to raise $500,000 to start MetJet. Investors who bought 1,000 shares got two free first-class tickets, he promised. “We reserve our first class for our investors,” says Heisman.

But a snafu with credit card processing delayed the operator's launch last year. “We underestimated what it would take to get off the ground. We had to issue more shares to stay alive,” Heisman says. Another two rounds of financing netted $1 million, mostly from Green Bay-area investors who are tired of driving to more distant airports to catch flights to Fort Myers and want the operator to succeed.

Heisman says the company's early setback hasn't affected operations lately, including flights from Green Bay to Fort Myers and Orlando that have been flying 96% full. “Our flights to Fort Myers are full,” he says.

But Heisman has much bigger ambitions for MetJet. “We want to duplicate what we did in Green Bay and we want to duplicate it in other cities in the Midwest,” he says.

For example, MetJet could sell a franchise to investors in an underserved market in Michigan who would charter air service to Fort Myers where passengers could continue to Mexico or the Caribbean on another MetJet flight. Additional destinations might include Costa Rica, Jamaica or the Bahamas.

“Fort Myers would become a focal point for all the cities,” Heisman says. “You can use the word hub.”

Heisman says franchise documents are currently being drafted, but he says a MetJet franchise would cost $2 million to start. “We really want to grow Fort Myers from other markets in the Midwest,” he says.

Heisman says Fort Myers airport executives have been more supportive of MetJet than other Florida airports. “I love what the Fort Myers airport does for us. They treat us like they treat everybody,” he says. Besides, Heisman adds, “A lot of our investors live here.”

MetJet selected Cancun as a destination because Heisman says he's hoping to pick up passengers in Fort Myers, even though no other airline flies that route today. “What Cancun does for us is it helps offset the imbalance we see on the Fort Myers leg,” he says.

That's because flights from Green Bay to Fort Myers often come back empty at the beginning of the winter season as seasonal residents fly one way. Heisman hopes more round-trip travelers such as families and Fort Myers residents book the Cancun leg. “I think we'll develop a following here,” he says.



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