Chris Kjelgaard reports on interCaribbean Airways’ efforts to grow a hub in the Turks and Caicos Islands providing convenient connections between many Caribbean countries – and on interCaribbean’s relief-flying and networkrebuilding activities in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria
COMMERCIAL INTERCARIBBEAN AIRWAYS
It might seem unlikely that an air taxi company operating a single Cessna light aircraft for on-demand services linking the three airports in the Turks and Caicos Islands could grow to become a vitally important regional carrier linking most countries in the northern, western and eastern parts of the Caribbean region. But in the space of 25 years a carrier that began flight operations on February 6, 1992 as InterIsland Airways and has subsequently seen two name changes – first to Air Turks and Caicos in 2003 and then in 2013 to interCaribbean Airways – has done just that.
Today the air taxi service founded in 1991 by Lyndon Gardiner, who remains interCaribbean Airways’ owner and chairman, is not only the national carrier of the Turks and Caicos Islands, the total population of which is about 35,000 people. In a month’s time the fast-growing regional airline will be serving 22 destinations in 12 countries in the western, northern and eastern Caribbean with a fleet of 13 turboprop regional aircraft and several regional jets. The largest aircraft in the fleet – and also interCaribbean’s main workhorse – is the Embraer EMB 120 Brasilia, of which the carrier operates seven in standard 30-seat airline configuration and one in 18-seat corporate charter configuration. It also operates two 19- seat de Havilland Canada Twin Otter 300s, one 15-seat Beech 99, one 10-seat Britten-Norman Islander and one seven-seat Beech 200 Super King Air.
Even though interCaribbean Airways’ network now extends from Havana in the west to Nassau to the north and Antigua to the east, connecting most major Caribbean nations and territories in between, the carrier is about to get a lot bigger in terms of both network reach and fleet size. At the Caribbean Aviation Meetup conference in Sint Maarten last June, interCaribbean’s CEO Trevor Sadler – who joined the airline in 2013 and with Gardiner instituted its latest rebranding and expanded regional focus – revealed that interCaribbean would soon announce five new destinations in the Eastern Caribbean and that, along with more Brasilias, it would begin adding 50-seat Embraer ERJ-145 regional jets to expand its fleet and network.
Sadler also revealed that interCaribbean Airways was in talks with eight airports in Florida and other states in the Southern United States with the aim of adding some or all of them as new destinations. While he declined to name any of these airports, Sadler later told AIR International, “What I can say is that we focus on cities that do not have Caribbean services but may support traffic to one or many Caribbean points.”
Should interCaribbean add any airports in Florida or other southern US states to its network, these would become the first destinations in the mainland United States served by the fast-growing regional carrier. (However, interCaribbean does already serve San Juan in the US dependency of Puerto Rico, the largest international gateway airport in the northern Caribbean.)
Irma and Maria disrupt interCaribbean’s plans
At the Caribbean Aviation Meetup, Sadler said interCaribbean’s short-term aim was to connect more of the Western Caribbean with the Eastern Caribbean. Although he didn’t name interCaribbean’s five planned new destinations at the event, Sadler subsequently revealed to AIR International that they were Dominica, Saint Lucia, Sint Maarten and the two largest islands in the US Virgin Islands, Saint Croix and Saint Thomas.
INTERCARIBBEAN AIRWAYS’ PLANNED DESTINATIONS AS OF FEBRUARY 2018
Antigua and Barbuda
Antigua: V.C. Bird International Airport
Nassau: Lynden Pindling International Airport
British Virgin Islands
Tortola: Terrance B. Lettsome International
Havana: José Martí International Airport
Santiago de Cuba: Antonio Maceo Airport
Puerto Plata: Gregorio Luperon International
Santiago de los Caballeros: Cibao International
Santo Domingo: Las Americas International
Cap-Haïtien: Cap-Haïtien International Airport
Port-au-Prince: Toussaint Louverture
Kingston: Norman Manley International Airport
Montego Bay: Sangster International Airport
San Juan: Luis Muñoz Marín International
Hewanorra International Airport
Saint Martin (containing Saint-Martin and Sint Maarten)
Sint Maarten: Princess Juliana International
Turks and Caicos Islands
Grand Turk Island: JAGS McCartney
Providenciales: Providenciales International
South Caicos: South Caicos Airport
US Virgin Islands
Saint Croix: Henry E. Rohlsen Airport
Saint Thomas: Cyril E. King International Airport
However, interCaribbean’s plans to launch service to the five destinations in the autumn of 2017 were dramatically disrupted when in September hurricanes Irma and Maria, two of the most powerful and catastrophic Atlantic hurricanes in history, whirled through much of the northern Caribbean, devastating many of the islands the carrier served – including the Turks and Caicos Islands, which is home to interCaribbean Airways.
“The hurricanes impacted our business, perhaps in a way like no other airline,” Sadler told AIR International. “Ten of the 22 destinations we were going to serve from November 1 were impacted by the back-to-back hurricanes. Perhaps it is unprecedented for an airline to see that 50% of its destinations could not be served. We are trying to rebuild back.”
By late November, interCaribbean’s main hub at Providenciales International Airport on Providenciales (commonly known as ‘Provo’ and the most-populated island in the Turks and Caicos) was back in business, but “there is some softening of the demand that is, in part, tied to the local point-to-point traffic”, said Sadler. He explained that “because of the hurricanes, many travellers or workers at resorts have been laid off for two to three months. This impacts the in-and-out demand in that slice of our business.” While “this is beginning to build back up for Provo, our domestic services are softer as a result of the decimation of personal homes and hotel resorts on Grand Turk and South Caicos islands.”
Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, a major destination for interCaribbean, saw terrible devastation and commercial air service to and from Tortola was suspended for several weeks. “Tortola was hit very badly,” said Sadler. “The airport was closed for about three weeks to commercial traffic, with the airport perimeter fence down, the terminal damaged and the tower damaged too. The impact was felt further in the basics – there was no power and no internet and no phones were working. The airport was rather off the grid.
In the early stages, our handling-company team [Platinumport] could only communicate with us from a phone in the town. With all scheduled flights cancelled, once there was communication we recognised there was a need for relief flights.”
InterCaribbean’s post-hurricane relief flying
What interCaribbean Airways then did to organize and operate relief flights to and from Tortola provides a dramatic tale of ingenuity, resourcefulness and government-agency cooperation in helping relief agencies get to Tortola to provide assistance and aiding tourists and newly homeless residents leave the British Virgin Islands.
“Relief flying was both in and out of Tortola,” said Sadler. “We provided a series of relief flights for various governments and relief agencies who came to the rescue to help in any they could. We recognised there was a need for flights for people in Tortola and the [British Virgin] islands wanting to leave, either tourists who had stayed during the hurricanes, or residents whose businesses or buildings were wiped out. Although the need was clear, there was no power, no internet and very little in the way of a working phone, and so the challenge was how to get the message out.”
However, “Where booking online, or calling on-island would not work and where visiting an agency was a limited option as they too had no power, we recognised that sometimes folks on-island were in touch with family and friends elsewhere. So the solution we put in place was to put those seats into distribution and our own system and use social media to get the word out, so that one-on-one communications with family or business could create the bookings.”
That said, there was a big ‘But’. “Because there was a need for permissions for landing, we could not operate on the basis of showing up and looking to fill up a flight,” noted Sadler. “We could not use our Tortola base to overnight as the crew accommodations were beyond use, so it was a matter of operating remotely and in conjunction with the staff of Platinumport. The airport and Platinumport asked if we could bring food for people to eat: There was a willingness to come to work, but due to the situation, people were hungry. We had to understand the basic human needs. We sent supplies and food on these flights, so operating a relief flight was not as simple as flying in and picking up passengers.”
The challenge was additionally complicated by the fact that “we operate also to countries that require APIS [Advance Passenger Information System] such as the United States, where APIS is not optional”, Sadler pointed out. “So we faced new challenges on how we were going to get passport data when there was no power, there were no phones working and there was no WiFi.”
WhatsApp to the rescue
How interCaribbean Airways managed to overcome these huge obstacles “is a testament to today’s technology – and a big thanks to WhatsApp,” said Sadler. “One of the staff members had a phone that worked while others did not. That phone had WhatsApp.
So what we did was to gather all passport data on paper, writing out all the details. Then the staff member with the phone would take photo images and a couple of people, including myself, would then manually enter the data into the [interCaribbean Airways] departure control system to verify if it was OK or not for a passenger to board.
“We used WhatsApp to pass messages back and forth to account for each person, their bags, their body weights for weight and balance and we completed clearing the flights this way. We operated numerous flights using this process to ensure regulatory compliance.”
Even more remarkably, Sadler noted that, “While we were supporting the British Virgin Islands from a distance via WhatsApp, we were doing so from our offices where we were running on generators for over three weeks to provide power and internet connectivity.”
Meanwhile, said Sadler, “The US government made some exceptions for some persons who otherwise could not enter the United States to be able to do so to connect directly on an international flight leaving there. In the period until some power was restored, there were numerous cases which required us to check in with the US Customs and Border Patrol to affirm on a case-by-case basis that a passenger was approved before we could board that person. We worked with the two travel agencies and our own direct sales staff in Tortola to manage existing bookings, and work with those who just came to the airport to buy tickets on available flights to leave. Now, power is restored at the airport and some internet is there.”
Network rebuilding and fleet growth
As much of the Caribbean focuses on rebuilding following the near-apocalyptic devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria, interCaribbean Airways has put off its plans to launch service to its five planned new destinations until February 1. It has done so “to give some time for the recovery effort and for on-island stakeholders to make public what facilities they have available”, according to Sadler.
From February 1, however, interCaribbean will serve its five new Caribbean destinations – plus any it decides to serve in the mainland United States in the foreseeable future – with a considerably enlarged fleet that will include additional Brasilias as well as ERJ-145 regional jets. Although serial production of the Brasilia ended in 2001, many Brasilias are still in commercial service and Sadler told AIR International that “we are currently adding some [Brasilias] to sustain the additional demand for service across the region and expect the aircraft [type] to be part of our operations for the next five to 10 years”.
The introduction of regional jets to interCaribbean Airways’ fleet – perhaps the biggest single step in the carrier’s 25- year history – was scheduled to occur in December, the airline agreeing with an unidentified leasing company to acquire two ERJ-145s initially. “It is a big step – but one we are ready for – in expanding our footprint, either by providing more capacity on existing services or contemplating the addition of longer-haul services and new destinations,” said Sadler, revealing that in the short term interCaribbean expects to operate from four to six ERJ-145s. “The reality is that we will very probably be able to increase that to 10 to 12 aircraft” over time, he added, noting that the need for additional aircraft will arise from “a combination of new routes and their sustainable demand, replacing [the Brasilia] on some routes either full-time or [to meet] seasonal demand, and some other factors it is premature to announce”
Pursuing passenger-service excellence
Despite the big changes jet operations are likely to bring interCaribbean Airways, the airline’s recent history shows it is very capable of coping with them successfully, whether they be operational challenges or political and regulatory hurdles which must be surmounted. Rapid growth is nothing new to interCaribbean. For instance, it launched service to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands in 2015 with three round-trips a week from San Juan. However, by December 2016, after “we applied our low cost carrier-type mindset to bringing lower fares to that market”, interCaribbean was operating 18 flights a week to Tortola, according to Sadler. “It’s a great market to be in and we have plans to grow in Tortola,” he added.
Similarly, having introduced Cuba to its network in 2016, interCaribbean now serves both Santiago de Cuba (near the island’s eastern end) and Havana (near the 780-milelong island’s western end), the country’s two largest cities. “We love Cuba,” said Sadler. So much does interCaribbean Airways love Cuba that it agreed its first codeshare deal with Cubana, the national carrier of the Republic of Cuba.
Its Cubana codeshare agreement is typical of the regional carrier’s determination to provide its customers with convenient booking, seamless travel for checked baggage and easy connections to partner airlines, viewing these capabilities as cornerstones of its passenger-service philosophy. Not only are interCaribbean’s services and fares contained in all three of the major global distribution systems, but the carrier is a participant in the US Airlines Reporting Corporation clearinghouse for settlement of multi-sector airline ticket sales. It also participates in bank settlement plans covering airline sales in 180 countries throughout the world and the Caribbean. In October interCaribbean launched two new payment options and was working on a third, to expand the different ways by which customers can complete their ticket purchases.
Additionally, interCaribbean has announced British Airways as its first major interline partner and Sadler said that as of last summer the carrier had four other interline agreements “in the works”, at least one of which has subsequently gone into effect. By then, interCaribbean Airways was working on interline deals with 11 carriers altogether, in addition to British Airways.
“The US carriers are potentially the most interesting” interline targets for interCaribbean, “but they seem to be the most distant in terms of potentially wanting to do so,” said Sadler. “Cooperation with them remains elusive, but the business and customer reasons make good sense. With our adding new routes and alternatives to what is connectable today, we are hopeful that in time these airlines will find the customerconvenience value in an interline and through-check-in with our company.”
However, interCaribbean is having no such problems in agreeing interline deals with the Caribbean’s two largest state-owned carriers, Caribbean Airlines and LIAT. “They’re government-owned: we don’t want to compete with them, said Sadler. “We have just launched the interline agreement with Caribbean Airlines, giving connections to a bit more of the Caribbean.” With LIAT, “We’re at the technical point of integration” of IT systems to allow seamless interlining.
Caribbean political arena
One area in which interCaribbean Airways has been fearless in promoting its growth agenda, both at home in the Turks and Caicos Islands and internationally throughout the Caribbean region, is in dealing actively with national governments at the topmost level. It seems to be doing so with a fair amount of success. At home, interCaribbean Airways needed to persuade the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) Government to make arrangements at Providenciales International Airport to facilitate quick and easy transfers to international connecting flights for transit passengers who arrive at the airport on flights from other nations and don’t have TCI entry visas.
So, explained Sadler, “interCaribbean met … with the TCI Government to share our vision for expansion and how we could well be the connecting hub of the western Caribbean. The vision of government was to establish the financial hub of the Caribbean. With all that entails, having connectivity not just from the north but also from the south was an imperative. We had subscribed to the vision as an airline, and in so doing had moved to build a connective schedule that prior to the full realization had also set a limited number of services to neighbouring islands.”
Additionally, “Building on the connective schedule had also provided greater opportunity for Latin America and the Caribbean to come to the Turks and Caicos any day of the week they choose, as we had now been able to achieve daily schedules to all of the major markets and in so doing typically could offer 10 to 12 connection points via Providenciales,” said Sadler.
“To support this we were successful in having government recognize that a nominal investment in carving out an intransit entrance with all requisite security elements” at the airport was vital, he said.
The TCI Government recognised that this made sense and quickly made the required modifications, creating an easytransit facility. “This meant the delays we [had] experienced as a consequence [of cumbersome transit arrangements] were over, and now we could offer seriously quick connections,” off cially of 30 minutes but in reality even less. “Our on time performance has since rocketed,” Sadler noted.
Internationally, interCaribbean has met with the presidents and prime ministers of various Caribbean national governments to discuss the ever-vexing issue of taxation of airfares between destinations within the region, which typically adds taxes of around 100% of the cost of the fare itself. In these meetings, interCaribbean promotes an initiative put forth by IATA to stimulate intra-Caribbean air traffic by reducing airfare taxes on intra-Caribbean flights.
“Our view and that of IATA is if we can find the support across the Caribbean to introduce a dual tax regime that applies a kinder level of taxation to the citizen or resident of the Caribbean, by supporting a tax that maybe is 50% of what is otherwise charged, those revenues would find their way back into government by way of increased travel [and] increased spend at other destinations,” said Sadler. “We firmly believe that the reductions in direct customer taxes will come back to their treasuries in a different manner. Our goal is to see the diminished taxation for all travel that begins and ends in another Caribbean country to be at no more than 50% of the … international taxes.”
Adds Sadler: “Unfortunately the traveller is paying such a high price that clearly the opportunity to travel for business or leisure is dampened significantly … Some of the region’s travel is 10 to 20 minutes of flying, and yet the taxation of such a journey is no different to [that for a] traveller coming from the mainland United States or Europe. The airlines of the region would be well placed to increase [service] frequency if the taxation levels were adjusted. Imagine flying from Miami to Orlando and paying $150 in taxes, as that distance is greater than most [Caribbean] island-to-island travel. Unless we can come together as one region and see ourselves as a single market, the connectivity craved by many will be unlikely to improve.”
But there does appear to be hope, according to Sadler. More than a third of the national governments with whose leaders interCaribbean has discussed the issue have expressed their support for reducing taxes on intra-Caribbean airfares. Should a quorum of Caribbean governments eventually vote for such a measure, then interCaribbean Airways’ growth could really take off.
“interCaribbean has announced British Arways as its first major interline partner.”