When the earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, leaving a million homeless, 300,000 injured and as many as 230,000 dead, Thompson Reuters news agency wanted to get into Haiti.
So they called Winter Park-based Stratos Jet Charters, which was able to get the four-man news crew and their satellite gear to the Dominican Republic while they waited for the Port-au-Prince airport to reopen.
"They were the first news crew to be on location," said Snowden S. Hernandez-Burckhart, Stratos’ director of sales. "We did that again for another news agency — two flights within a day and a half."
In addition to Reuters and NBC, Stratos was able to get a Lutheran church organization into Haiti, who brought with them eight 40-foot-long containers filled with medical equipment, tents, bottled water and other relief supplies.
"It's amazing what they've [the church] been doing with this effort," said Mark Bergau, Stratos employee. "They had so much stuff, they were putting it in storage."
It's not what you would call routine for the company, which generally charters flights for businesses. On Feb. 10, for example, they flew a man from Altlanta to Hartford, Conn., for a meeting and then from Hartford to Cleveland and back again to Atlanta — all in the same day.
But weather, specifically inclement weather, has always played a factor in their business, said Joel Thomas, Stratos’ president. When weather in the Northeast U.S. gets bad, they charter people from New York to Florida, and they've helped a family in Galveston, Texas, avoid a hurricane that destroyed their home.
But Haiti was a different story.
"We saw a need for it immediately," Thomas said, speaking over the sound of departing planes at the executive airport. "We knew with the disaster there were a ton of people interested in helping out and whatnot. … We've definitely been around for these disaster flights, hurricanes, earthquakes."
Still, chartering a flight to Haiti isn't cheap. It cost Reuters about $15,500 to get to the Dominican Republic and another $9,000 to shuttle them to Port-au-Prince. And then things got more expensive when they restricted the time a plane can be on the ground in the Port-au-Prince airport.
That means that whoever's flying in has to pay for the plane's return flight, and the plane has to be big enough and carry sufficient fuel to get to Haiti from another island.
"You don't see a lot of churches buying charter flights," Thomas said of the Lutheran church, which paid full price for its Haiti trip.
Thomas said he founded Stratos to glorify God. He said he wants to bring integrity to an industry where he sees flaws.
"There's a lot of agents in this industry that are deceptive, dishonest," Thomas said. "All they care about is making money. They'll put them on a piston prop (a type of plane) with a guy that has 50 hours of flight time. They don't care; they just want to get the money.
"That's not our reputation; that's not what we want," Thomas said.