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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 February 2007, 12:40 GMT
Caribbean airlines hit turbulence
By Robert Plummer
Business reporter, BBC News

As cricket-lovers prepare to converge on the Caribbean for the start of the sport's World Cup in March, airlines in the region are undergoing their biggest shake-up in years.

Caribbean Airlines' new livery (Photo: Caribbean Airlines)
Caribbean Airlines operates fewer routes than its predecessor

After 66 years in service, the old state-owned national airline of Trinidad and Tobago - BWIA West Indies Airways - shut down at the end of 2006, having run up a deficit of $50m for the year.

It has been replaced by Caribbean Airlines - a slimmed-down company employing about a third of the old staff.

Another ailing carrier, Leeward Islands Air Transports (Liat), which has the governments of Barbados, Antigua and St Vincent as its main shareholders, is merging with its smaller, privately-owned rival, Caribbean Star.

The changes are making the other main national flag-carrier in the region, Air Jamaica, look vulnerable.

The Jamaican government retook control of the airline just over two years ago, but restructuring efforts have failed to stem huge losses.

Hasty transition

Caribbean Airlines was created with a $250m cash injection from the government of Trinidad and Tobago, which held 97% of BWIA's shares.

It has between 500 and 700 staff on its payroll, compared the 1,800 employed by BWIA before it closed.

Signs of the hasty transition are evident. The old steelpan drum livery of BWIA's fleet has given way to a new logo featuring the humming-bird, the national symbol of Trinidad and Tobago. But most of the planes have yet to be repainted.

The airline says it aims to offer increased consistency and a higher quality of service on its trimmed-down network.

Caribbean Star plane
Caribbean Star's head-to-head battle with Liat is over

That should come as welcome news to those passengers who remember BWIA for its often unpredictable time-keeping.

According to one joke, the airline's initials stood for "But Will It Arrive?"

As for Liat, the first stage in its merger with Caribbean Star began on 1 February, when the two airlines started operating a combined schedule.

The link-up has ended a mutually destructive battle in which the two loss-making firms operated services on the same routes, often flying within five minutes of each other.

Even Liat's chairman, Jean Holder, has described that old policy as "an absolutely suicidal form of behaviour".

New priorities

With the airline industry as a whole facing greater pressure because of security problems, higher costs and greater competition, weaning the Caribbean's state-owned carriers off their addiction to taxpayers' money was never going to be easy.

The absence of an agreed policy has made a complete mess of regional air transportation
Sir Ronald Sanders

But with eight Caribbean nations hosting the Cricket World Cup from 11 March to 28 April, the timing of this upheaval is tricky.

Fears are growing that just when the region needs reliable and efficient air transport to satisfy visiting cricket fans, routes are being cut back and services are in jeopardy.

The highest-profile casualty is the old BWIA service linking Trinidad's Piarco airport with London's Heathrow.

From 28 March, this will be replaced by three direct flights a week to and from Gatwick airport, which will be operated by British Airways under a "code-sharing" agreement.

Caribbean Airlines' shifting priorities are clear from the latest edition of its Caribbean Beat in-flight magazine.

While the carrier's UK services are being hived off, its flights to New York get a promotional boost, with an ad showing the humming-bird from the airline's new logo drilling through a symbolic Big Apple at high speed.

Caribbean Airlines has defended its decision to cut back routes. "As one prunes a tree to make it bear fruit, the airline had to make these cuts to come back stronger," a spokeswoman told the BBC.

Flying fish

In another controversial move, Caribbean Airlines is also ending direct non-stop services from Barbados to New York, Miami and Toronto, prompting anger in the Bajan press.

"Through the single stroke of a parochial Port-of-Spain pen, Barbados will lose 75% of the service it got from BWIA," thundered an editorial in a leading Barbados paper, the Nation.

BWIA plane and logo
BWIA had a history of heavy financial losses

"While Caribbean Airlines seems to want to fly on the wings of a Caribbean identity, it is in reality the airline of Trinidad and Tobago."

To some extent, such remarks merely represent the latest bone of contention between the two nations, which have a history of rivalry in a number of areas.

Last month, for instance, talks reopened in an effort to resolve a long-running fishing dispute, which began when Trinidad and Tobago accused Bajan fishermen of heading into its territorial waters in pursuit of flying fish - a national speciality in Barbados.

However, since the start of 2006, both countries have been part of the Caribbean Community Single Market (CSM), a free-trade zone that is meant to promote regional integration.

Many observers feel that as part of that process, the Caribbean needs a genuine regional airline - not a handful of national players competing on unprofitable routes while bigger foreign carriers capture the lion's share of the international traffic.

'Complete mess'

"The absence of an agreed policy has made a complete mess of regional air transportation," says Sir Ronald Sanders, a Guyanese-born former diplomat turned business consultant who writes a regular column published on the BBC's Caribbean service website.

"Neither tourism to the region nor Caribbean travellers within the region can feel secure... In the name of national pride or national control, the gains that could result from regional co-operation go by the wayside."

So with all this in mind, how are the Caribbean's revamped airlines measuring up to the challenge of the Cricket World Cup?

ICC Cricket World Cup 2007 logo
Eight Caribbean countries are jointly hosting the event

Well, some countries are already voicing concern that ticket sales for the initial matches have been poor.

Only one-third of tickets available for Group C matches in St Lucia have been sold, for example, although the semi-final to be played there on 25 April has sold out.

However, many travellers trying to book flights to the Caribbean during the tournament are finding that few seats are on offer - so cricket fans making a last-minute decision to follow their team risk being unable to get there in the first place.

The Cricket World Cup may prove to be an impressive sporting showcase. But as an advertisement for Caribbean infrastructure, it could end up being an embarrassment.

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