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JUST LIKE IT IS – Unfriendly skies?

Peter Simmons

JUST LIKE IT IS – Unfriendly skies?

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Years ago, a popular airline had a captivating advertisement inviting the travelling public to “fly the friendly skies”. Recent events left the Barbados-based REDjet grounded at Grantley Adams International Airport unable to fly into two primary target markets, Trinidad and Jamaica, where the skies suddenly seem less than friendly.
REDjet, the Caribbean’s first “budget airline”, hit the headlines last year offering fares from BDS$19.99 on a limited number of seats. The region’s long-suffering people, hostage to persistently high-cost inter-regional travel by LIAT and Trinidad’s BWIA (now Caribbean Airlines), breathed huge sighs of relief relishing visiting family and friends across the region at affordable prices.
But licensing a new airline is complex, time-consuming and demands high-level expertise. I recall two aviation cognoscenti warning when a start-up date was announced that it may prove premature since certain economic, technical and safety requirements had to be satisfied and it was doubtful Barbados had the requisite human resources in situ necessitating recruitment from abroad.
Not surprisingly, therefore, it took almost a year for Government authorities to make sure all the Is were dotted and Ts crossed before granting permission to begin operations. During that time, two aircraft were purchased and cockpit cabin and crew recruited to fly the friendly Caribbean skies at fares described by one airline magnate as the cost of a hamburger and hardly sustainable.
For eons, complaining travellers were told the major reason for high fares were punitive government taxes, high landing fees and fuel costs. Once Barbados cleared REDjet for take-off, out of the clear blue sky and facing even higher fuel prices, LIAT’s fares tumbled on the always in-demand, lucrative Barbados/Trinidad route.
Marketplace competition worked dramatically in consumers’ favour, with Barbados/Trinidad return $670 fares falling 59 per cent to $276. Painfully noteworthy, however, Barbados/Antigua return on LIAT, the only carrier on that route, remains $780, a blatant monopolistic price-gouging.
There is no price parity between flying 320 miles to Antigua and 213 to Trinidad.
Caribbean Airlines fares also nosedived faced with REDjet competition. Daily full page advertisements recently hyped a Barbados/Trinidad return $364 fare down from $560. But REDjet is 66 per cent cheaper at $156. Lower fares are also being offered to Guyana and Jamaica challenged by bargain basement fares on the new carrier.  
But what at first sight looked like protectionism and government-induced turbulence rocked REDjet as Trinidad and Jamaica delayed, but hopefully not terminally denied, permission for flights into their airports. This is massively disappointing for hundreds booked to fly the new cheaper, friendlier skies by what is viewed as unfriendly actions by fraternal governments.
With the wider world embracing open skies policies, the region is left to ponder closed skies, the latest boot up Caricom’s battered derriere and yet another nail in the coffin of regional cooperation.
As Trinidad’s commercial tentacles continue to reach deep into the bosoms of Barbadian businesses and pockets – the latest, TriMart’s acquisition by Ansa McAl – the gate closed on REDjet.
With Trinidad and Tobago’s other major conglomerate, Neal & Massy, gobbling up Barbados Shipping & Trading after famously hearing that if the ink had not dried on the sale agreement by a certain date it would be politically aborted, ownership of our major supermarkets shifted to Port-of-Spain.
With last week’s finalization of Caribbean Airlines’ takeover of Air Jamaica presaging further territorial expansion into the Eastern Caribbean, challenging LIAT’s monopoly with its enhanced turboprop fleet, regional air hegemony is as unmistakable as the Scarlet Ibis, the distinctive national bird. 
Through time, reciprocity has been recognized as the bedrock of relations between countries.
Route rights are the preserve of governments and REDjet’s delay flying into Trinidad and Jamaica should not be viewed in isolation but against the background that for years BWIA was designated as a Barbados national carrier on certain routes, such as London in 1983, under the community of interest principle. So too, Air Jamaica.
After REDjet provided evidence of competence to operate and got an air operators’ certificate (AOC) from the Barbados Government clearing it for take-off, the manoeuvrings of two major Caricom states is seen in some circles as political and selfishly protectionist contrary to the bedrock principles of diplomatic practice, particularly among member states of the same regional group.
Planes sitting idle at Grantley Adams International Airport, with a full roster of staff on the payroll, are not financially sustainable indefinitely.
One hopes that delays are justified by overarching imperatives to ensure the relevant authorities (technical and regulatory, not political/ministerial) in the countries where Redjet is seeking landing rights are exercising nothing more sinister than the same scrupulous scrutiny as Barbados.
• Peter Simmons, a social scientist, is a former diplomat. Email [email protected]