CARIBAVIA: New Services Make Caribbean More Accessible, Lower Cost

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The CARIBAVIA Summit and Retreat SXM Minister Of Tourism announced that the MAY arrivals from the United States through the Princess Juliana International Airport are through the roof and have surpassed MAY 2019 pre COVID. Imagine that. In the heart of COVID-19, record breaking arrivals for St. Maarten

by Kathryn Creedy, Indian Harbor, FL, USA

Trevor Sadler was forced into a circuitous routing to get from his base at Turks & Caicos to St. Maarten, but his experience is excruciatingly familiar to those traveling around the Caribbean. What made his experience more frustrating was the fact that Sadler is the CEO of interCaribbean Airways.

“I couldn’t get here on my own airline,” he told attendees at this year’s CARIBAVIA Summit. “I had a choice when I got to Miami. I could take a flight that left four hours after I arrived in the US and pay an extraordinary sum of money, or I could spend the night and leave at 6:00 a.m. the next morning. But that flight was a connection over Charlotte, NC. So, I had to fly to Charlotte in order to get to St. Maarten. That is a perfect example of what getting around the Caribbean is all about.”

Tropic Ocean Airways CEO Rob Ceravolo agrees saying it is faster to get from Miami to Singapore than around the Caribbean.

Sadler’s experience is exactly why CARIBAVIA Summit, designed to improve air lift in the Caribbean region, was created. Indeed, the new services described at this year’s CARIBAVIA, illustrate how thinking outside the box provides economic and service benefits.

Frontier Airlines and Air Belgium said their new flights are specifically designed, not only to improve connectivity but to bring down the price of Caribbean-bound travel by challenging higher cost airports and airlines that have kept travel costs prohibitive.

In addition, the Bahamian decision to add US mainland pre-clearance into the archipelago is opening up new markets for business investment and tourism and, once expanded beyond Fort Lauderdale to other points or even Latin America, new markets will skyrocket, according to CEO of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators & Developers Andy Ingraham. (See related story – Barriers to Improving Service)

Pre-clearance alone changes the dynamics of Caribbean demand as illustrated by Tropic Ocean Airways’ new markets.

One such market successfully opened on June 11 when Tropic Ocean flew from Fort Lauderdale to its new amphibian base in Nassau to support Jimmy Buffet’s latest Margaritaville resort, the first amphibious landing in 19 years in Nassau.

Many resorts are eyeing the acquisition of seaplanes for direct-to-resort service. Indeed, Tropic Ocean has already created direct-to-resort connections from its base in Fort Lauderdale, lending the critical expertise needed for safe operations. Tropic Ocean is in the middle of developing an operation in Antigua after having set up one in Panama.

Benefits of Inter-Caribbean Travel

Service to St. Maarten is definitely on Sadler’s radar and was, in fact, his reason for attending CARIBAVIA. He wants to explore how the airline, local governments and regional airlines can work together to improve service.

The airline’s 29 years in the Caribbean gives it the experience needed to grow its footprint in the region by improving inter-Caribbean connectivity.

In the last eight years, it has connected Havana in the North to Georgetown Guyana in the South. Its participation in global distribution systems and online travel agencies has increased interest in the region, and for interCaribbean increased traffic 300-400%. Now, half of passengers hail from around the world, including Australia.

“The development of service is tied to economic benefits which is a concern to governments and businesses across the region,” he told delegates. “By building our network, economies benefit. Building our cargo network created a new business for us. We are developing a Caribbean marketplace enabling entrepreneurs across the Caribbean to create a presence and sell their products across the region with inexpensive shipping. That is how we want to help the small businesses in the Caribbean.”

Aircraft Right Sizing

Sadler dispelled the myth you need narrowbodies for successful service, something pushed by local governments. In fact, the small aircraft used by regional airlines are perfectly sized for the markets. And they are accepted by the highest rollers coming into the region. A perfect example is St. Barth Commuter with its Cessna Caravans connect incoming private jet passengers to their properties and yachts on the nearby 10,000-resident island.

“Saying aircraft are too small, does not come from those living and working in the region,” said Sadler. “They know applying 737 economics to the region where a majority of flight times are under an hour won’t work. Aircraft choice cannot be dictated by artificial economics. We don’t have the population density for 737 service between islands so comparing aircraft size with a 737 has absolutely no value.”

He noted the region has only six countries with multi-million populations and a handful at about half a million.

“The rest of the islands have between 15,000 and 100,000 population,” he explained. “So, we have to consider the economy of each country and the potential to increase trade with neighbours. The opportunities that can be created are what matters.”

Innovation from Europe

Air Belgium Chief Commercial Officer Philippe Wilmart described how the airline has built its Caribbean network since launching operations from Brussels Charleroi Airport (CRL) in December 2018. The carrier flies to Martinique (FDF) and Guadeloupe (PTP) in a triangle pattern.

“Our flights are designed to be affordable, direct flights to the Caribbean,” he told delegates. “Some 20,000 Belgian tourists flew out of Paris to the Caribbean, and we wanted to offer more convenient service out of CRL which offers lower operating costs than either Paris or Amsterdam. Lower operating costs means lower fares. Our twice-weekly service was so successful, we expanded service from seasonal to year-round service.”

CRL is ideally situated within Europe and, said Wilmart, provides easier service for Caribbean islanders to get to Europe.

Belgium is known as the heart of Europe. CRL is literally the crossroads of many motorways attracting passengers from northern France, western Germany and Southern Netherlands which are all within an hour-and-a-half drive of the airport.

Wilmart reported 20% of passengers originated from France and, to Curacao, 20-30% originated from southern Netherlands.  

“We see a lot of potential in the Caribbean,” he said. “We can be very opportunistic to launch new destinations quickly as demand increases. St. Maarten is logical but the traffic – at 1,000 to 2,000 Belgian visitors – doesn’t warrant direct service at this point. We need to build the business case to devote two weekly flights year-round using an Airbus A340 with 265 seats. For that we need 40,000 one-way passengers per year to make it sustainable.”

In the meantime, the airline used the Covid shutdown to establish inter-Caribbean partnerships using local regional airlines to connect European passengers with islands like St. Lucia beyond its PTP and FDF gateways. While it continues to explore partnerships with other Caribbean regionals, it is now using Air Caraïbes for beyond service to St. Maarten and Curacao and between its two Caribbean gateways. It is also exploring connecting with other regionals for connections to Antigua and Aruba.

“The market share and presence of Air Caraïbes is very beneficial,” he told delegates. “It has increased the volume of passengers and the yields because the between-island service attracts business passengers thanks to the frequencies offered. There are not many connections between different national colonies such as Martinque and Curacao, for instance, and the addition of cargo service has stimulated new business between the islands.”

Wilmart noted 7,000 Belgians head to Curacao annually making the service to the Caribbean gateways from Belgium sustainable. However, the ultimate plan is to build the traffic using its regional partnerships to the point where both Curacao and St. Maarten gain their own direct service from Belgium. 

Wilmart also sees opportunities in connecting to cruises now that cruise lines home port around the Caribbean given Belgian interest in cruising. That is one reason to prioritize Martinique, he said, since it not only offers cruising but has the biggest marina to accommodate the growth in yachting.

Challenging High Fares

Frontier Airlines is following Air Belgium’s logic with its new Orlando-SXM service disrupting high-cost legacy airlines which charge fares approaching $1000.

With new service launching in July, Frontier will be offering $200-$300 fares roundtrip, according to Vice President Network & Operational Design Josh Flyr. (See related story.)

Like other ultra-low-cost airlines, Frontier’s major focus is pulling new flyers from cars and capturing their discretionary spending.

“Lowering fares stimulates the market,” he said. “Our job it to get people traveling who otherwise would not be. If we can lower the cost of travel, these trips are now affordable. We want to bring people to the destinations so they can spend money there not on exorbitant air fares.”

Seaplane Services Alleviate Gateway Congestion

Using seaplane or amphibious aircraft to create better access and ease of travel around the Caribbean is the mission of Tropic Ocean Airways.

“The Caribbean lacks the last-mile strategy – getting people around the Caribbean,” said CEO Rob Ceravolo. “Right now, Caribbean hubs are chokepoints. A 20-minute flight between islands is not worth it if you get stuck for an hour-and-a-half in customs and immigration processing.”

He noted the infrastructure can’t scale up for the connectivity needed around the region.

“Land is scarce and if you build a runway on Walker’s Key, for instance, you’ll take half the island away. What these islands don’t need is more development, they need preserving so the answer is not expanding runways to accommodate larger aircraft because these islands can’t support mass tourism.”

Ceravolo said many think the answer is Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOLs) aircraft now under development. “Yes, the answer is vertical lift,” he said. “Helicopters are phenomenal in providing last-mile solutions, but they are tough to scale because of the high cost.

“eVTOLs are exciting and promise the development of point-to-point air taxis,” he continued. “They are real and coming but they are not there yet because right now the aircraft are little more than flying batteries. The infrastructure is also not there and must be built to create a mass transit product. Finally, the Caribbean does not have the electric grid to support these operations yet.”

Fabrice Danet, general manager of Airport St. Barth and Bertrand Magras, managing partner & accountable manager, St. Barth Commuter agreed.

“eVTOL will change what the airspace will look like,” Danet explained. “Twenty to 30-minute flights are within the range of the batteries technology now.”

But Magras noted economics is why we see so few helicopter operations. “We are monitoring what is going on very closely but can’t say how it will turn out. It looks good on paper but there are many technical challenges needing to be resolved before we can do it.”

Instead, Ceravolo is expanding seaplane operations which are as economically beneficial but without the environmental impact and expense of creating new airports and runways.

“Seaplanes that can land on both water and runways is the immediate solution to inter-island service development,” he explained. “They are stable and reliable in both day and night and visual or instrument flight rules. They are more flexible offering 18,000 pounds payload on a 200-nautical-mile route at 160 knots. The cost structure is manageable and, with good maintenance practices so too is salt-water mitigation. Give me a dock or a beach and I’ll create air lift with minimal environmental impact.”

It is clear Caribbean service is complex and changing. More dramatic changes are on the horizon with eVTOL but these innovative carriers must be applauded for addressing some of its weaknesses to disrupt the high-cost status quo and making it easier to get there and get around.

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