Stewart pulls stake out of Air Jamaica


NEW YORK -- Caribbean all-inclusive resort kingpin Gordon "Butch" Stewart, along with his Air Jamaica Acquisition Group (AJAG), has pulled out of Jamaican flag carrier Air Jamaica.

The government of Jamaica has assumed sole ownership and management of the carrier, which accounts for 51% of air traffic into the island; private partners, including AJAG, had controlled about 78% of Air Jamaica stock.

All AJAG members of the board of directors and Air Jamaica Holdings -- including chairman Stewart and chief executive and deputy chairman Chris Zacca -- stepped down Dec. 23.

A new 10-member interim board appointed by the government to serve through June 30 includes Paul Pennicook, executive director of the Jamaica Tourist Board in Kingston.

In an internal memo to airline staff, Stewart said "ongoing turbulence" in the airline industry had "imposed tremendous strain" on AJAG resources for 10 years, rendering its continued involvement "untenable."

But Jamaican minister of finance Omar Davies said Stewart -- who financed most of the $27 million AJAG paid for a stake in Air Jamaica in a 1994 privatization -- agreed to invest another $20 million in the struggling airline for working capital and to write down debt.

Davies also said the Jamaican government will back $25 million in loans to Air Jamaica to finance restructuring, with an eye toward attracting "equity capital from private investors."

The minister added that the government "has no desire to retain permanent ownership and control of Air Jamaica."

Jamaican media reported that Air Jamaica has debts totaling $560 million and would require an additional $270 million in funding to weather the next five years. At press time, neither Stewart nor AJAG officials were available for further comment.

In a statement, Davies said there will be no disruptions in service or operations at Air Jamaica in the wake of Stewarts departure.

"I wish to reassure the country, the traveling public, the airlines travel partners, the tourism sector and Air Jamaica staff members that the administration is committed to a viable national airline which will serve as a major catalyst for the economy," he added.

Meanwhile, Air Jamaica Vacations, a wholly owned subsidiary of Air Jamaica, also remains unaffected by developments, according to a spokesman.

"All is status quo in terms of operations of both entities," he said.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Kenneth Kiesnoski at [email protected]

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