Is It Time For The Caribbean To Have An Airline Of Its Own?

The region’s continued cry for more airlift calls for an innovative approach

For what seems like the millionth time, Caribbean tourism officials are bemoaning the lack of airlift to the region and yet again convening a task force to explore the problem. 

Where is David Neeleman when you need him? Too busy creating his latest aviation success story, Azul in Brazil, I guess. 

Or Richard Branson? Sure, his Virgin Atlantic brings in seats to the region, but he seems more focused on bringing innovation to space travel than to Caribbean aviation.

There must be other smart, entrepreneurial types out there with the vision to figure out this conundrum that never seems to find a good solution.

Everyone knows it’s hard to fill hotels and drive tourism-fueled economies when you can’t get enough capacity coming to your destination. And if you can’t get those seats to be attractively priced, tourists will readily find destinations that can be accessed more affordably.

The current approach seems focused on continuing to subsidize and provide guarantees to the legacy carriers, a “solution” that is now estimated to tally in excess of $45 million annually across the region. But the legacy airlines will always shift their capacity to wherever they can make the most money, and their motives are rightly around generating profits, not necessarily bettering the region.

So what is the Caribbean to do?

It seems to me it needs to think about new approaches, including how it solicits solutions to the airlift challenge.

A committee of the same familiar faces, same attitudes, same legacies isn’t going to solve this decades-old problem. Rather than form a task force of people with other full-time jobs and only a limited ability to solve this critical problem, perhaps the region should seek out and fund a professional take on a solution. There’s no shortage of capable firms with global experience to call upon, including Boeing and Airbus, both of whom run consulting units that specialize in helping to create start-up airlines.

Better yet, the region should hold an open competition that encourages innovation and solicits proposals on how to improve lift in the region—against a defined set of goals and objectives. It’s an approach that has yielded great results across a variety of disciplines and industries—like the environment, automotive and education. NASA created a $1.6 million Green Flight Challenge in pursuit of successful ideas for new and innovative ideas to aviation. The Progressive Automobile X Prize awarded a $5 million grand prize to surface solutions that are completely reimagining the idea of how an automobile can be constructed. 

If the governments of the Caribbean are handing tens of millions to the airlines, surely they can find an extra million or two to find ways to yield a better return on their aviation investments. 

Here’s a chance to harness a world of possibilities and work toward finding an innovative and viable concept that factors in the Caribbean’s political, economic and business realities and defines the kind of support and regulations that would be required from countries across the region to make the idea work. 

The ensuing debate can then start from a point of potential viability, free of the political compromise that may ultimately be required once governments and special interest groups bring their weight to bear on any idea.

As those of us who have been part of previous attempts through the years to solve this issue can tell you, the discussions are never easy. When the people charged with finding a solution each have their own perspective and self-interests, the conversation too often starts with a focus on the details, ensuring that innovation and progress are stymied. Things tend to quickly get bogged down by the expected questions. Who owns the underlying solution or business? Should governments of the region each participate? Where should hubs be located? How do you determine frequency of flights to key- demand destinations? Since all countries don’t have the same demand intra-regionally, how does one determine capacity, equipment, schedules, frequency, etc?

No one is saying that finding the answers is going to be easy. Aviation might be the toughest and most cruel business there is, with fuel costs always on edge, increasingly unpredictable weather, forever- rising equipment costs and margins forever shrinking. As Warren Buffet famously proclaimed, How do you become a millionaire? Make a billion dollars and then buy an airline.”

If ever there was a time to rethink an approach to the business of aviation and bring more capacity to the region it would be now, but it’s going to take a level of skill, cooperation and vision like never before. 

So, let’s stop the perennial cries about needing airlift and let’s start inviting answers.

Perhaps the question isn’t, “Is it time for the Caribbean to finally have an airline of its own?” but rather, how?

Tags: airlines, travel
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4 comments about "Is It Time For The Caribbean To Have An Airline Of Its Own? ".
  1. Ryan Bifulco from Travel Spike , November 5, 2012 at 12:01 p.m.
    Gary, great article and glad you are raising the awareness to help flush out solutions to help the region. I have always felt that there are so many amazing beaches in the Caribbean. But what sets a destination apart is their air lift and of course a little marketing magic.
  2. Henry Harteveldt from Atmosphere Research Group , November 5, 2012 at 12:07 p.m.
    Gary, an interesting thought. But we've been down this road (runway?) several times already. Caribbean based "legacy" airlines -- BWIA, ALM, Air Jamaica, and others -- have failed (LIAT may be the last of the "long-time" airlines that is still around). Redjet burst onto the scene in 2011 and faded in 2012. Caribbean Airways, which replaced BWIA and Air Jamaica, is flying though is not exactly the most reliable. From the US, JetBlue and Spirit have been increasing service into the region, and JetBlue has been adding some intra-Caribbean service from San Juan. The business and marketing challenges are no different than in any other business -- finding unmet needs and then filling them. You're correct in saying that whatever is done going forward needs to be approached in a very different manner. However, airlines are highly visible businesses, and inevitably get caught up in politics whether they want to or not. It would be helpful for Caribbean tourism and commerce to see either an existing airline like JetBlue do more in this region (if profitably for them) or for an enterprising, visionary, market-focused entrepreneur to enter this space, whether with a start-up or by taking over an existing airline.
  3. Gary Leopold from ISM , November 5, 2012 at 2:32 p.m.
    Henry, thanks for the feedback. Despite the article's title, my real hope was to bring more thought to how people are thinking about and attacking the problem. I totally agree it's been a road well traveled and that it's littered with casualties. Further proof that it needs a fresh and visionary perspective, which could certainly embrace carries like JetBlue or reimagine things in a new way.
  4. Gary Leopold from ISM , November 6, 2012 at 12:05 p.m.
    Thanks Jim. I appreciate your input and willingness to participate in the conversation. I encourage others to share as openly and with equal passion because I think we both agree it's a vitally important debate.