If you’re Oracle Chief Executive Larry Ellison, you buy an airline that flies to your tropical paradise.
Ellison has been on a shopping spree lately, buying 98 percent of the island of Lanai in June from Los Angeles billionaire David Murdock and then, in November, buying a beachfront home in Malibu, Calif., from film and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
Ellison’s most risky acquisition may be Island Air, which he bought Wednesday through a holding company.
The exact purchase prices of Ellison’s recent deals have not been disclosed, but local observers value the 141-square-mile island at more than $500 million and the three-bedroom, three-bath Malibu pad at more than $3.65 million. The details of the airline deal were not announced.
Island Air, a regional carrier serving airports on all major Hawaiian islands, has 245 employees and three turboprop planes, with 224 weekly flights between the islands of Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kauai.
Lanai, the sixth-largest Hawaiian island, was once a pineapple plantation and is still sparsely inhabited. It includes two resort hotels and two golf courses with clubhouses, according to Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission.
But Ellison did not buy the airline just to get to and from his island, airline officials say.
He hopes to expand the businesses to serve locals visiting relatives on the islands and to fly mainland and foreign tourists throughout the island state, airline officials said. The airline plans to retire two 1980s-era planes and expand to four or five new ATR 72 turboprops by the end of the year.
But Ellison should not get his hopes up about pocketing big profits, says Ray Neidl, an aviation analyst for Nexa Capital Partners in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a high-risk situation with no significant margins, at least initially,” he said of owning an airline.
And if Ellison hopes to expand the business, he should expect to get some resistance from the big carrier on the island, Hawaiian Airlines, Neidl adds. “It really depends on what Hawaiian does.”
Island Air began in 1980 as Princeville Airways, carrying passengers from Kauai to Honolulu. The history of the carrier has not always been blue skies and soft landings.
“In our 30-plus years, we had our ups and downs, pardon the pun,” says Michael Rodyniuk, a senior consultant to the airline.
Like most airlines across the country, he says, Island Air struggled during the economic turmoil between 2008 and 2012 but expects to thrive with a surge in tourism that Hawaii has been enjoying in the past year or so.
The state welcomed a record 8 million visitors in 2012, surpassing the previous high of 7.6 million visitors in 2006.
“All major markets are up,” Rodyniuk says.
The previous owner of the airline, California businessman Charles Willis IV, had been looking for a buyer for the airline and had put all 245 employees on notice that layoffs could begin as soon as March 11 if a buyer was not found, he said. “So Mr. Ellison saved 245 jobs,” Rodyniuk says.
Forbes ranks Ellison as the third-richest American, with a net worth of $36 billion. He has cut big checks in the past on high-priced properties in Malibu, Lake Tahoe and other locations.
But unlike real estate, air carriers are an investment that can give investors nightmares.
Virgin America, a California-based airline partly owned by millionaire Richard Branson, has been operating for more than five years without recording a profitable year.
California Pacific Airlines is the brainchild of Encinitas, Calif., businessman Ted Vallas, who has already invested more than $6 million of his own money but has spent the last year trying to clear federal red tape so he can begin selling tickets.
And then there are the 11 other airlines — including American, Delta, United and US Airways — that have filed for bankruptcy since 2000.
“The profit margins on airlines, even though they are improving, are not that attractive,” Neidl says.
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