Caribbean turbulence

By Gay Nagle Myers
Caribbean TurbulenceMartien W.A. van der Valk's recent trip from Bonaire to St. Kitts required four flights on three airlines over a 12-hour timespan, much of it spent perusing food courts in airport terminals.

Despite that, he was in remarkably good spirits on the evening of his arrival into St. Kitts.

"My final flight was only 10 minutes late," said van der Valk, vice president of the supervisory board of directors for Tourism Corporation Bonaire. "I'm grateful for that."

His itinerary, typical of intraisland travel in the Caribbean, had him aboard Divi Divi Air from Bonaire to Curacao, followed by Dutch Antilles Express from Curacao to St. Maarten, Liat from St. Maarten to Antigua, followed by the final leg on a second Liat flight into St. Kitts.

Van der Valk had left his home in Bonaire at 7 a.m. When he checked in to the Marriott resort on St. Kitts, the clock read 9:20 p.m.

"I could have flown nonstop from Aruba to Amsterdam in half that time, including the puddle-jump hop on InselAir from Bonaire to Aruba," he said.

Brian Been, senior product development officer on Grand Turk for the Turks and Caicos Tourism Board, logged even more hours on his journey to St. Kitts than van der Valk had.

Been's routing took him from Grand Turk to Providenciales aboard Air Turks & Caicos. There he waited to board an American Airlines flight to Miami, but because American's one daily flight (and the only nonstop service) to St. Kitts had long since departed, he had to overnight in Miami and catch the late-morning flight to St. Kitts the next day.

Likewise, flying from St. Thomas to St. Kitts for Richard Doumeng, president of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA), took the greater part of a day, requiring a 35-minute American Eagle flight to San Juan, a six-hour wait and then a 69-minute American Eagle flight to St. Kitts.

"Travel within this region is a real problem," said Doumeng, who travels frequently as CHTA head. "Fifty years ago, they were talking about airlift problems in this region, and we're still talking about it today."

Clearly, air travel within the region remains a problem, and the lack of convenient or frequent service stymies tourism opportunities for Caribbean nationals and foreign visitors alike, tourism experts in the region said.

"We're trying to make it easier for intraregional travel so that Caribbean people can visit each other on different islands," Doumeng said. "Intra-Caribbean tourism is down by 40% in the last five years. Make air travel more accessible -- Get rid of the visa regulations, make it cheaper -- and more people will travel. It changes the equation."

Adrian Harrison, a marketing officer for the Jamaica Tourist Board, agreed.

"Sometimes it is easier for travelers in the Caribbean to go to New York rather than a neighboring Caribbean country, and we need to fix that," he said.

RedJetSimilarly, Hugh Riley, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), said, "There's something wrong with that. Caribbean people are longing for a service that is convenient, affordable and reliable. The volume of intraregional visitors generated among our 33 member countries was close to 1.5 million in 2011. That number is decreasing, and it is a major concern to all of us."

Data show that the number of arrivals in 2011 was below 2007, when more than 1.5 million were recorded.

The arrival of Barbados-based budget carrier RedJet in May 2011 offered a glimmer of hope, albeit short-lived, not only for discounted air travel within the Eastern Caribbean but also for increased flights between islands.

The upstart carrier lasted less than a year and was constantly dogged by regulatory delays, snafus over safety concerns and technical issues with government regulations on various islands. Ian Burns, CEO at the time, specifically cited political and regulatory actions that were beyond his control and pointed out that RedJet "does not receive any assistance, unlike the heavily subsidized airlines that serve the region."

Solutions remain elusive

RedJet's short-lived stint in the region reflects the realities and difficulties of operating within the Caribbean.

Ricky Skerritt, minister of tourism and international transport for St. Kitts and Nevis, is in complete agreement with Burns.

"We cannot afford for our own domestic travel market to be stifled any further, as our smaller hotels and guesthouses are hurting badly from the slowdown in intra-Caribbean business," Skerritt told delegates at the recent CTO conference in St. Kitts. "We owe it to all travel consumers to provide the means to travel across our region as frequently and as cost-effectively as possible."

That goal, however, remains elusive.

Tourism officials point to fairly obvious reasons for the decline in intra-Caribbean air travel: the global economic downturn, high airfares, poor interline connectivity, immigration barriers, and service inconsistencies on the part of both airlines and airports.

Then, Skerritt adds, there's the "overzealous obsession by our security officials to check and recheck our own Caribbean people to the point of what can sometimes be described as willful harassment."

All these factors, he said, "provide understandable excuses for prospective travelers, whether within the Caribbean or coming to the Caribbean, to stay home or go elsewhere."

The challenges of Caribbean airlift, or lack of it, have been on the table for years, and the lack of solutions has cost the region financially.

"Lack of air access inhibits growth," said Colin Piper, Dominica's director of tourism.

With American Eagle's termination of its San Juan flights next March (see related report, "Smaller isles to feel pinch of American Eagle's move"), air service to and from many of the islands falls to several smaller lines, including Cape Air, Liat, BVI, Air Sunshine, Seaborne and Coastal Air.

BVI AirwaysHowever, their fleets are small and their planes have limited range. A mechanical breakdown on a single aircraft often shuts down entire operations.

Travelers trying to get from the U.S. to Dominica in the same day, for example, often cannot.

If travelers have to overnight en route, "they go elsewhere," Piper said. "Why would someone with just a one-week vacation waste a whole day and a night trying to get to Dominica when there are many other destinations with great lift and easy access?"

Piper is now trying to arrange more ferry service from nearby Guadeloupe and Martinique.

"Butts in seats, heads in beds is what we all want," he said.

Piper convened an Airlift Access Conference in September, which brought representatives of six small carriers to Dominica for strategy sessions.

"We were trying to figure out how to increase frequency, cut travel time and get visitors to Dominica faster and with fewer hassles and connections," he said.

"We all understand the facts of life regarding airline guarantees and the shared risk that those guarantees carry. This will take time, but I am hopeful."

Piper's goal is to bring 82,000 visitors a year to Dominica by 2015. Over the past five years, annual figures have hovered around 75,000. Visitor numbers peaked at 84,000 in 2006.

It's the small carriers that come to the rescue with flights, but they puddle-jump from island to island, trying to economically serve as many islands as possible on the same flight plan.

Creative scheduling is key for these carriers. Mustique Airways, for example, the oldest airline operating in the Grenadines, announced that its flights from Barbados to Union Island Airport (the arrival point for the 20-minute boat trip to the private island of Petit St. Vincent) will wait for late-arriving aircraft coming into Barbados.

Union Island is the only stop on this run. If takeoff from Barbados is delayed until after the Union Island Airport closes at sunset (there are no night landings permitted), the flight alternative is to land at lighted Canouan Airport, a 45-minute boat ride from Petit St. Vincent.

Mustique Airways operates six-passenger Norman Islander and four-passenger Rockwell Aero Commander aircraft, but the Union Island flight does not come cheap: Roundtrip fare from Barbados is $600.?In the case of St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Maarten-based Winair recently resumed its scheduled flights from St. Maarten to St. Kitts after a three-year gap and introduced a domestic air service between St. Kitts and Nevis on Oct. 29.

That was good news for Nevis, whose passengers had only sea ferries and private charter aircraft up until now from St. Kitts.

Flights are few and expensive

The issue of regional transportation within the Caribbean seems to come up at every industry conference, and the most recent State of the Industry confab in St. Kitts, sponsored by the CTO, was no exception.

Ian Bertrand, former CEO of BWIA, the former national carrier of Trinidad and Tobago that was subsumed into the operations of Caribbean Airlines at the end of 2006, urged the region to place priority on the domestic air market.

"There is a need for Caribbean tourism players to understand the intraregional market and to collect, analyze and distribute data," he said.

WinairBertrand pointed out the difficulty in grasping the full potential of the intraregional market "because of lengthy layovers and making connections."

It's also expensive. For example, roundtrip fares from Grenada to St. Lucia, a distance of 143 miles, start at $386. The trip takes more than four hours and includes a stop en route.

Moreover, many Caribbean destinations are locked in a battle with each other to secure more international airlift, especially from the U.S., at the same time that they are trying to cooperate to get more regional lift.

At the recent Jamaica Product Exchange event in Ocho Rios, Jamaica Tourism Minister Wykeham McNeill pointed out that "Jamaica has adequate airlift to enable us to achieve our performance targets, but we continue with negotiations that will further improve our level of comfort in this regard."

McNeill was not speaking about island-to-island lift but about acquiring additional flights out of New York, Charlotte and Fort Lauderdale.

But resolving airlift issues for just a few islands at a time, and never for the region as a whole, means that solutions are always piecemeal at best.

Liat, an island-hopping carrier whose turboprop planes link smaller islands to jet-carrying hubs, is a cash-strapped Caribbean workhorse, often maligned for its lost baggage, late arrivals and canceled flights.

The airline operates intraregional Caribbean routes as far north as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic and as far south as Trinidad, Tobago and Guyana, as well as the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, serving 21 destinations on 112 daily flights.

At the moment, Liat, based in Antigua, is owned by the governments of Barbados; Antigua and Barbuda; and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Dominica is scheduled to join soon as a fourth shareholder, with a cash investment of $2.9 million.

Liat recently introduced two flights to accommodate night landings in Dominica, enabling passengers to take advantage of late connections from North America and Europe.

To further shore up its financial base, a Liat delegation recently held talks with the St. Lucia government, urging an investment in the airline.

The Liat delegation, headed by Chairman Jean Holder, former secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, and recently appointed Liat CEO Ian Brunton (the former CEO of Caribbean Airlines), discussed several matters with St. Lucia Prime Minister Kenny Anthony, including the recent reduction of flights to several locations.

The carrier dropped its Grenada-Barbados daily flights in October because of a "significant drop in demand for seats in that market," Holder said.

Brunton recently described more than 35% of the airline's 112 daily flights as "social (uneconomic) routes, and we cannot continue to meet the cost of these social routes."

Seaborne AirlinesWithout saying which markets are uneconomical, Brunton said the routes are in and out of eight countries.

"We intend to approach those markets to provide support on the uneconomic routes," he said.

Covering the costs of uneconomical routes is not Liat's only problem. High operating costs, industry fees and taxes, tough regulations and security challenges, competition and a 20% falloff in intraregional travel over the last five years as a result of the international recession are significant challenges facing Liat as well as other regional carriers.

Airport fees and other forms of taxation -- 66 in all, according to Brunton -- account for 30% to 50% of the fare, he said.

Liat is also implementing a business plan to reposition the carrier financially "that includes moving this airline from losses to profitability, and we particularly want to improve the efficiency and customer service of the regional carrier," Brunton said. "What we want to do is offer the kind of service in air transportation that this region needs and has not had for a long time. Caribbean governments ought to find innovative ways to increase the volume of passengers rather than imposing high fees and charges."

Safety issues remain

The recent grounding of Fly Montserrat serving Antigua and Nevis by the Eastern Caribbean Civil Aviation Authority again revived the question of safety among these small regional carriers.

The Montserrat-based carrier had a serious crash on Oct. 6 at the Antigua airport that killed a pilot and two passengers.

On Oct. 16, a twin-engine Britten-Norman Islander plane skidded off the runway at John Osborne Airport in Montserrat, stopping just short of a cliff.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines Airline (SVG Air) stepped in to increase the number of its flights to Montserrat.

Another option for travelers headed for Montserrat from Antigua is going by ferry. The crossing takes two hours each way.

It's clear, however, that while the airlift issue within the Caribbean has been under discussion, evaluation and scrutiny for years, as Doumeng said, the solution is not yet at hand.

For Caribbean and Mexico news, follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly. 
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