Smaller isles to feel pinch of American Eagle's move

By Gay Nagle Myers
American EagleFor many years, American Eagle, the regional affiliate of American Airlines since 1989, was king of the San Juan hub, with a route network that spun out in all directions throughout the Caribbean, from Anguilla in the north to Trinidad in the south and west to Jamaica and Grand Cayman.

American's own flights, as well as those of other U.S. carriers, flew into San Juan from mainland gateways on morning flights, deboarding passengers at one terminal, where they seamlessly connected in the afternoon at a nearby terminal for Eagle's island flights.

But in the fall of 2010, American announced plans to reduce its flights between the U.S. mainland and San Juan, effective April 2011, to begin moving the bulk of its Caribbean operations to its Miami hub and to methodically cut back on American Eagle flights out of San Juan.

The carrier beefed up its nonstop service out of Miami to key Caribbean gateways with high visitor volume, such as Jamaica, Aruba, the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Maarten, Barbados, Dominican Republic and Grand Cayman.

Now it appears likely that American Eagle will be sold or spun off as a separate company after American emerges from bankruptcy protection in 2013, according to American Eagle Chairman and CEO Daniel Garton.

American Eagle will complete its pullout from its San Juan hub on March 31, leaving a lot of smaller islands in the lurch. Currently, the carrier still serves five destinations out of San Juan.

While American insists it remains committed to the region, operations will be centralized out of its Miami hub, where it currently serves 28 Caribbean destinations.

In fact, it plans to expand its Caribbean service through Miami, according to Art Torno, vice president for Mexico, Caribbean and Latin America.

"We are looking at and talking with other airlines to fill in for American Eagle from Miami and San Juan," Torno said. "We will not leave a void in those Caribbean destinations that are critically important to us and to our Caribbean partners."

Southwest's recent announcement that it will take over Air Tran's San Juan service from Orlando and Tampa on April 14 does not increase airlift to San Juan but is a carrier name change only. Nor does it alter the fact that lift out of San Juan to other islands remains unpredictable and limited.

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