One day after LIAT airline fell out of the Caribbean’s skies, I landed at V.C. Bird International Airport in host-country Antigua & Barbuda on a regional flight that told a telling tale about the true state of inter-island air travel, at the start of 2024.
Half-a-century ago, the Leeward Islands Air Transport became LIAT 1974 Ltd. and flew its way into an airspace then dominated by Trinidad & Tobago’s British West Indian Airlines (BWIA), the UK’s British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), as well as European airlines like Holland’s KLM, Air France and several predecessors of American Airlines.
Back then air travel was affordable, but soon came the world oil crises that sent aviation fuel and flying ticket costs soaring sky-high and grounded the average Caribbean citizen.
The last 20 years saw the LIAT progressively climb-down on a slow-and-steady descent from successive failures engineered by high costs and low loads, fuelled by deeper indebtedness from downsizing, increasing outstanding pay to laid-off staff – and incessant problems with pilots and staff unions.
Some shareholder governments also backed competing privately-owned airlines, giving accommodations to fly-by-night foreign investors like the disgraced Alan Stanford, whose Caribbean Sun airline effectively accelerated LIAT’s descent to its permanent grounding on the last day of the first month of 2024.
Trinidad & Tobago’s Caribbean Airlines is still soaring high-enough alongside wider-winged competitors like British Airways (BA), American Airlines (AA), Air Canada, Virgin Atlantic, TUI and Jet Blue.
LIAT’s departure came after Inter-Caribbean landed as the new kid on the regional airline block, out of whose window I watched the LIAT aircraft parked beyond the tarmac at V.C. Bird International and asked myself whether it’ll ever fly again (as LIAT).
Inter-Caribbean, originating from Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI), has strengthened the northern Caribbean market with flights to Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Turks & Caicos Islands, (British, French and Dutch) Virgin Islands and southward through the Leeward and Windward Islands (Antigua-Barbuda, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, down to Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana.
Each landing from Havana at Providenciales (Turks& Caicos Islands), V.C. Bird International and Grantley Adams International in Barbados featured window-shots of Inter-Caribbean planes dominating the regional airlines’ tarmac parking space.
Inter-Caribbean has a fast-growing fleet and the company is smartly flashing its latest new aircraft’s green credentials to attract passengers.
But Caribbean Airlines also flies to-and-from higher-paying destinations in and across Canada and the US, Central and South America, including Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela, where Inter-Caribbean planes are yet to land.
Inter-Caribbean’s growth has surpassed the best expectations of traditional regional airline business analysts.
However, like with every new airline, it’s also still experiencing birth pains – like on its route from Cuba without Spanish-speaking cabin crew – and only water on offer all-the-way.
Mine wasn’t the usual fight – in a wheelchair, on four planes, across five islands – but I landed home at George F.L. Charles in Castries safe-and-sound, on-schedule, 12 hours after take-off from Cuba’s Jose Marti International.
The cabin staff tried (assisted by willing bilingual passengers and ground staff) and Cuban and Caribbean passengers were adjusting to new features – not deplaning in TCI and Antigua, ticket-stubs and immigration forms handled on-board and no-longer having to submit immigration forms on landing.
But eliminating use of paper on flights also proves very challenging to the many passengers still not grounded in Wi-Fi or IT – and the new online processes can backfire, take much-longer and flow into tomorrow.
Passengers still complain of costs, but thank their high heavens for still being able to fly.
Ticket costs remain highly unaffordable and keep climbing for average Caribbean citizens and airlines also overbook on lucrative holiday seasons, leaving travellers stranded at regional airports and offered one-night hotel rooms until flights become available.
Airlines that can, do offer higher-cost longer flights to normally-short destinations – like to airports in North America to get to and from neighbouring Caribbean islands at given times – and tickets can also have to be purchased from two airlines to fly to-and-from one destination.
Inter-Caribbean has found the ways to continue flying at higher altitudes despite the increasing spirals in fuel prices and predictions they will continue rising.
But while the region was previously boxed into unavoidable and inescapable higher fuel and energy costs imposed by the external oil market players, this can change in current global circumstances facing Latin America and the Caribbean.
Guyana’s entry into the global energy market, Trinidad & Tobago’s joint venture with Venezuela to develop the new Dragon oilfields, and other recent developments, all open new vistas for possible regional cooperation in aviation fuel development.
Guyana-Venezuela tensions have simmered and talk of war has given way to thoughts of cooperation in energy, agriculture, fishing and other forms of neighbourly economic development across borders.
Trinidad & Tobago has rich experiences in natural gas development, Guyana is concentrating on maximum production and Venezuela sits forever on the world’s largest undisturbed oil reserves.
Caribbean travel urgently needs the boosts that can come with strategic thinking to give life to age-old and new plans and aims for restoration of regional travel within the hassle-free scopes long-talked-about and yet-again promised for 2024.
With these factors, regional airlines and governments can start looking at new production strategies to reduce fuel costs through appropriate less-competitive and more-people-friendly mechanisms, charted along neighbourly lines, to yield benefit to all.
I have high hopes for then…
But I still don’t like that I can fly to Beijing comparatively faster on a direct flight on any day, from the UK or USA, than from Jose Marti to V.C. Bird, Grantley Adams and George F.L. Charles airports.
By the way (BTW), one sweet note: On my fight to Havana on Caribbean Airlines in January, I felt so-nice being served packets of brown ‘Guyana cane sugar’ that I twice-ordered my usual ‘Cuppa Coffee – Black, Strong and Sweet’!