Amid turmoil, American Airlines reassures Caribbean officials

By Gay Nagle Myers
BASSETERRE, St. Kitts — American Airlines remains committed to the Caribbean region and plans to strengthen and expand its service through its Miami hub in particular, according to Art Torno, vice president for Mexico, Caribbean and Latin America.

"The centerpiece of our strategic vision for the Caribbean is our Miami hub," Torno said during a presentation at the recent Caribbean Tourism Organization's annual State of the Industry conference here.

"This year, which has been a transitional year and a challenging one in regard to our restructuring process, which began 11 months ago, we increased service to 28 international destinations from Miami, including 12 in the Caribbean," he said.

The timing of the presentation, dubbed "What's Next for American Airlines," followed two weeks of widespread flight cancellations, cutbacks and delays related to the carrier's dispute with its pilots union. The actions, involving the Caribbean's most dominant carrier, clearly had the islands' government and tourism officials on edge earlier this month as they prepared for the conference.

But audience members, some of whom were directly and negatively affected by the brouhaha, appeared receptive to Torno and relieved to learn of American's strategies for maintaining loads and growth in the region.

Colin James, CEO of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, said, "American holds the key to continued growth in the region. It does have a strategic plan that, in the end, will benefit all of us."

St. Kitts, for one, already has reaped some rewards from American. Two additional weekly flights to the Robert Bradshaw Airport will launch on Nov. 16, just in time to impact the peak winter travel season.

The flights will operate from Miami on Fridays and Sundays, supplementing the carrier's existing daily nonstop service from Miami and enabling more connections from North American and international feeder markets.

Ricky Skerritt, St. Kitts' minister of tourism and international transport, said the addition of two rotations over critical weekend days from Miami "will meet the growth in demand that we anticipate in 2013." He added the lift was "ideally timed" for honeymoon and romance travelers and for meeting and incentive groups.

Nevis, 2.5 miles across the water from sister island St. Kitts, used to have daily service on American Eagle from San Juan.

That's history now and not likely to show up on an airport arrival/departure board again. American is expected to sell or spin off American Eagle, its regional affiliate, after it emerges from bankruptcy protection.

American Eagle will complete its pullout from its San Juan hub on March 31, which will leave a service void in several destinations. Nevis-bound travelers, for example, will either have to use the public ferry from St. Kitts ($8 one way for the 45-minute ride) or connect from neighboring islands on small regional carriers such as Winair and Liat.

(The Four Seasons Nevis has launched a speedier, more comfortable ferry transfer to its dock for $130 per person, roundtrip.)

During his presentation, Torno said: "Be assured that we are looking at and talking with other airlines to fill in for American Eagle from Miami and San Juan."

He reassured conference delegates that American "will not leave a void in those Caribbean destinations that are critically important to us and our Caribbean partners."

"We are in deep negotiations with other airlines to augment our route system in the Caribbean."

He forecasted a 60% growth in the Miami hub in 10 years, with much of that growth focused on the Caribbean as well as Mexico and Latin America.

American has served the Caribbean region since 1971 when it acquired Trans Caribbean Airlines; it purchased Eastern Airlines' Caribbean route system in 1989.

The carrier currently serves 33 Caribbean destinations: 28 from Miami and five from San Juan.

"Our growth in the Caribbean region has been a collaborative effort involving governments, industry and hotel associations and other public and private sector partners," Torno said.
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