making air transport a priority
AS Caricom leaders prepare for the organisation's 33rd Heads of Government Conference, scheduled for St Lucia from July 4, regional air transport would likely be high on their agenda. Travel in the 15-nation community is probably a fixed item at the annual summit. But this year it is of special significance given certain recent developments.
Last week, the premier inter-island carrier, LIAT, suffered huge losses, estimated at EC$35 million from a fire at its Antigua base. The OECS-owned airline lost one Dash 8-300 aircraft, a hangar and two office buildings. This is yet another blow to the financially beleaguered LIAT, which posted losses in 2010 and 2011, and would now need another bailout from its shareholder governments.
The week before that, the Barbados-based privately owned REDjet filed for bankruptcy protection. REDjet, which entered the inter-island market just over a year ago as a low-fare alternative to LIAT and CAL, had ceased operations last March. For regular commuters who had looked forward to cheaper travel in the Caribbean, its closure is a big disappointment.
And last Thursday, CAL resumed flying the Trinidad-London route that its predecessor, BWIA, had given up back in 2007. The airline reported 60 per cent passenger-bookings on the day before its wet leased Boeing 767-300 left for Gatwick. Even as the airline returns to trans-Atlantic flying, questions hover over its earlier plans to expand services to the Caribbean with the acquisition of nine French turbo-prop ATR aircraft. CAL, which paid US$19 million for the first ATR, is said to be reconsidering expenditure on the new aircraft, and by extension, a new focus on servicing the islands.
In the run-up to the Caricom meeting, this year's host, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony, said last week that the summit would be "modest but dignified". He was quoted in the Barbados Nation as saying, "This is a very difficult time for all the economies of Caricom and there is really no room for extravagance of any kind."
Dr Anthony was realistic in his pronouncement. However, one reason for the economic difficulties facing Caribbean nations is a decline in tourism, which, for most of the smaller islands, is the life-blood of their economies. In our case, Tobago has been howling over an almost precipitous drop in tourist arrivals over the past few years. The THA, which runs Tobago's affairs, has complained bitterly about CAL not servicing the island adequately to help stimulate tourism from its main markets, Europe and North America.
That is not the whole truth about Tobago's tourism woes. Its hotels, such as they are, have priced themselves out of the market, even by Caribbean standards. Service, too, has not improved. And generally, what is on offer can hardly compare with other exciting destinations where tourists get value for money.
That said, tourism experts have long touted the idea of vastly improved inter-island air transport that would allow several destinations to share in the tourist dollars. Easier travel would encourage tourists to enjoy the unique characters of multiple islands during week long or ten-day trips.
For this ideal to bear fruit, LIAT and CAL, the two main carriers in the region, would have to enhance their services, and even their aging fleets. Their Dash-8s have been reliable workhorses for decades. But can they cope with the demands of today's tourists, with increased flying hours? Would it make sense to have CAL purchase the ATRs, with Caricom countries guaranteeing certain rights and maybe even sharing the cost of the new fleet?
We do not have all the answers. We know that several Caribbean countries have "seats agreements" with international carriers whereby they guarantee payment for specific numbers of seats if they are not sold. Can they not extend such arrangement to CAL (and Air Jamaica) for the mutual benefit of the region as a whole?
If Caricom is seen as an instrument for regional cooperation and economic development, the issue of enhanced inter-island connectivity must be a priority. We trust that the Heads would address this item with urgency.