Jamaica and Trinidad are at it again. This time the people and the politicians are squabbling over their respective airlines and the services provided to their own islands.
Once again they are making a sandwich of the Eastern Caribbean countries, with Jamaica on the top, Trinidad on the bottom, and the smaller English speaking islands in the middle.
This time the two sides are sniping at each other over the collapse of Air Jamaica and the takeover by Trinidad & Tobago based Caribbean Airlines.
The sniping is not unlike the time of the original West Indies Federation when Jamaica – one of the original ten members of the federation – opted out of the agreement after Alexander Bustamante and his Jamaica Labour Party replaced Norman Manley’s People’s National Party. Manley had originally signed on to the deal. Bustamante wanted out.
Trinidad & Tobago Prime Minister, Eric Williams famously declared that “one from ten leaves nought” and so Trinidad & Tobago was out of the federation as well. They both wrongly saw the smaller eastern islands as liabilities. Neither of our so-called “big islands” proved to be reliable partners at that time and, over the years, have turned out to be fair weather friends.
This time, the “small islands”, which are the meat in the sandwich, are not as severely affected but there will be some effects from the airline bickering. So it might be useful to review recent events.
In 2011 Air Jamaica was shut down under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Caribbean Airlines emerged as the favoured (perhaps only) airline operation willing to take over the Air Jamaica brand.
For the last year most of air Jamaica’s remaining routes to the United States were operated by what was left of the Air Jamaica staff using CAL aircraft carrying a small Air Jamaica logo on the nose of the aircraft.
This arrangement limped along until this year when the last of the Air Jamaica staff, including the remaining 37 pilots, were laid off. It is not clear whether or not this was part of the original agreement but the shutdown of the Air Jamaica brand infuriated the Jamaicans.
Meanwhile, CAL continues to have its challenges despite a generous fuel subsidy from the government and fictional forecasts of profitability. One of the latest is the resignation of Chairman and CEO George Nicholas who set in motion purchases of new French aircraft for use on shorter Caribbean routes and the lease of two used Boeing 767’s for a London route. This service had been long abandoned by CAL and its predecessor BWIA as unprofitable.
As part of the meat in this sandwich, Antigua and Barbuda has to be watching with great interest while our fickle Caribbean “big island” partners sort out who takes up the airline service slack in Jamaica and what CAL’s plans for the eastern Caribbean might be.
We venture to say that as long as the politicians insist on total control of any airline operations in our islands, the more certain it is to be a financial failure. Recent CAL experience illustrated this well when an experienced American Airlines executive became available to take over the CEO position but shied away when he realised that he would not be allowed to bring the team he felt he needed to turn around the fortunes of the airline.
This xenophobic attitude to skills and management from outside permeates all our islands. We seem to feel that it is better to fail with our own limited pool of talent than to succeed with the help of foreign expertise.
The airline industry is a tough one and requires a kind of management that is in short supply. Most important is that these managers be given a clear mandate and then be left alone to accomplish it.
In Antigua & Barbuda we have always shown support for the international air services provided by Air Jamaica and Caribbean Airlines. We have also been part of numerous trade and economic agreements which are dominated by the “big islands” whom we continue to look up to.
This is fine as long as we accept that we will continue to be some of the meat in the Caribbean sandwich.