The recent launch of Cayman Airways service from Grand Cayman to Denver represents a new push by the small Caribbean country to increase visitation from the Western U.S.
Cayman Airways made its first arrival in Denver on March 2 and will operate the route twice weekly through August before resuming seasonal service in December.
It's the carrier's first route west of Texas, but others could be in the offing. According to the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, Cayman Airways is also exploring West Coast markets.
Wholly owned by the Cayman Islands government, Cayman Airways follows an unusual business model in which it works closely with the tourism department in selecting new routes. The goal of the collaboration, said the department's U.S. general manager, Tom Ludington, is to identify markets in which Cayman Airways service can spur tourism demand to the islands.
Growing tourist arrivals is no small matter in the Caymans. According to the CIA World Factbook, tourism accounts for approximately 70% of the country's gross domestic product. What's more, the U.S. accounted for more than 83% of the Cayman Islands' 463,000 overnight visitors in 2018.
Along with Denver, other U.S. destinations served by Cayman Airways are Chicago, Miami, Tampa and New York. U.S. carriers offer Cayman service from 11 other destinations.
Until the launching of the new flight, Denver, the source of more than 250 people traveling to the Caymans in an average week, was the country's largest U.S. feeder market without nonstop air service, according to Cayman Airways. Cayman Islands demand in Denver is driven to a large degree by Colorado's surprising status as the U.S. state with the sixth-largest population of scuba divers.
"We expect perhaps to double the number of visitors from Denver to the Cayman Islands as a result of this flight," said Laura Jackson, Denver Airport's vice president of air service development.
Denver last had direct Caribbean service in 2015, when Frontier had a route between the city and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, as part of the airline's transformation from a traditional hub-and-spoke carrier based in Denver to an ultralow-cost carrier with a point-to-point route network.
Jackson said Denver Airport would like Cayman Airways to stay in the market for the long term. However, remaining in particular markets isn't necessarily the goal of the carrier, Ludington said. He said Cayman Airways does maintain core routes from Grand Cayman to Miami, Chicago and New York despite the presence of other carriers in those markets. But with other destinations, the tourism department and the airline are ready to move out of a market if there's competition from a U.S. carrier.
"We want to have someone flying that route," Ludington said of Denver. "That's the goal of the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism."
Once another airline is serving the Caymans from an emerging market, Ludington said, "We can take equipment and move it elsewhere."
Texas offers two examples in which Cayman Airways has done just that. The carrier began Dallas service in 2012. Three years later, according to the airline industry analytics company OAG, American began flying from Dallas to Grand Cayman. By 2018, Cayman Airways had pulled out of the market, and American was offering 160 annual frequencies, up from the mere 30 flights Cayman Airways flew on the route in 2014.
In 1996, Cayman Airways began service to Houston Bush. Continental joined that market in 2003. Five years later, Cayman Airways pulled out of Houston. In 2018, Continental's successor, United, was joined on the Cayman-Houston route by Southwest, which flies out of Houston Hobby.
The airline is subsidized by the Cayman Islands government. It did not respond to requests to reveal the 2018 subsidy amount.
Service launched with the 737 Max 8
Cayman Airways launched its Denver route with the first of four Boeing 737 Max 8s it expected to take delivery of through the summer of 2020. But the carrier was one of the first to ground the Max in the wake of the March 10 Ethiopian Airlines crash. Since then, the airline has serviced the route with a Boeing 737-300 from its fleet and by using the charter carrier Eastern Airlines, which has flown Grand Cayman-Denver with a Boeing 767-300 widebody. Using the 737-300 can require a refueling stop, depending upon weather conditions, Cayman Airways said in a press release.
"Passengers on our Denver flights can rest assured that their flights will continue to operate as planned, either with our own Boeing 737-300 aircraft or with substitute aircraft provided by a contracted carrier meeting our safety and regulatory requirements," the airline said.
If Cayman Airways is to make a foray into California, it will need the 737 Max back in the skies. The longer range of the Max compared with the airline's 737-300 planes would open the door to West Coast service.