Commercial Aviation in Caribbean Still Has Its Hurdles

 - June 28, 2021, 12:18 PM
Speaking at the 5th annual Caribavia conference earlier this month, InterCaribbean Airways CEO Trevor Sadler described the challenges faced by commercial aviation in the Caribbean in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic. (Photo: AIN/Curt Epstein)

For a region highly dependent upon tourism as the Caribbean, air connectivity between islands can still be very difficult, according to Trevor Sadler, CEO of Turks & Caicos-based InterCaribbean Airways. Speaking earlier this month at the 5th annual Caribavia Conference, Sadler noted that a trip on a legacy airline from Turks & Caicos to St. Maarten, such as he took to reach the conference, involved flying from Providenciales to Miami, and then on to Charlotte, in order to reach to St. Maarten. While airlines such as Jet Blue, Frontier, and Air Belgium have begun expanding their service into the region, small regional carriers such as InterCaribbean and Winnair are working to bridge those gaps and eliminate the need for U.S. connections through interline agreements with major airlines. Sadler noted that when the airline began nearly three decades ago, it carried mainly Caribbean residents, but now given his company’s exposure worldwide, tourists from as far away as Australia can account for half the passengers on a given flight.

Another hurdle faced by the region is in the patchwork of regulations and taxes imposed by the various island governments. A short connecting flight from the Dominican Republic to Jamaica via Turks and Caicos can add nearly $300 to the price of the trip in taxes and tariffs alone, aside from the cost of the ticket. Sadler noted that the distance of that trip was comparable to a flight from Miami to Orlando, which would result in approximately one-tenth of the tax add-ons.  “How do we develop greater airlift?” asked Sadler. “You make it affordable; but what is affordable if the customer sees only the bottom line of the price on the ticket?” Those increases over the base ticket price have served to inhibit the growth of interisland air travel in a region that is overwhelmingly reliant on leisure travel, as the Covid pandemic starkly underlined. He added that discussions over reducing departure taxes across the region have gone on for years, ebbing and flowing with the change of local governments. However, only a few countries including St. Vincent have followed through with meaningful reductions. Sadler is currently attempting to negotiate what he describes as “stop-over fares” with several countries to share the taxation between them on a multi-island itinerary and encourage interisland trips without having to pass along onerous taxes to the passengers. Meanwhile, having certain countries agree to “no visa in transit” policies allows for increased routing through connecting flights.

Sadler also addressed the economics of aircraft operations in the Caribbean. “With a few exceptions, we don’t have populations of millions across most of these islands, so it is that your available base of potential travelers is quite small, so the aircraft you operate across the region simply has to be able to meet the particular demand,” he said. With that in mind, InterCaribbean flies a mixed fleet of EMB-120s (which will soon be supplanted by larger ATR-42s) and ERJ145s, along with Twin Otter turboprops. “As we hear people trying to compare the aircraft we operate with how much the operating cost of a 737 or an A320 is, that’s nonsense because we can’t fill up 737s and A320s between most island points,” insisted Sadler.

The upheaval in the commercial air passenger industry caused by the pandemic has been well documented, and Sadler told the audience that despite not having a single revenue flight between March 28 and July 22 last year, which forced a 50 percent reduction in the company’s payroll, the airline “has not received one penny of support from any government.” He said that in the company’s home of Turks & Caicos, hotel workers laid off due to the tourism downturn received some short-term benefits, “but if you were an airline or airport worker, nothing for you.”

In terms of staffing, Sadler explained that pre-Covid, the airline engaged in perpetual hiring because pilots were constantly looking for their next opportunity. That changed after the pandemic, however, as mainline airliner pilots continue to search for jobs. The company also has an onboarding first officer program with a major airline, which gives them what he called vital, hands-on flying experience.

One new development that could aid aviation travel in the area is the "homeporting" of cruise ships at certain islands for the first time. While such ships typically had departed on their Caribbean circuits from Miami and other ports in Florida, due to the Covid pandemic and its resulting travel restrictions and regulations several cruise lines have decided to base ships at Antigua, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and St. Maarten instead. While the cruise lines intend for the measure to last until the end of the summer vacation season, aviation stakeholders such as Sadler hope it will stick. “For the first time, the Caribbean has the possibility of embarking cruise passengers without having to go to the U.S.,” he told the audience, adding that will enable further long-haul flying into those markets, where passengers could choose to extend their on-island stays around the cruise, and even take short flights to visit other nearby islands. “I really see that’s the most wonderful thing Covid has delivered for our region,” Sadler said.