The glory days of Caribbean air travel are clearly in the past - soon there will not be a single Caribbean carrier operating Western widebody aircraft.
Air Jamaica has decided to drop its only long-haul destination, London Heathrow, from the end of October. This follows a decision earlier this year by BWIA successor Caribbean Airlines to drop its Heathrow service.
Caribbean Airlines recently returned its only widebodies, two Airbus A340s, making it an all narrowbody-operator with six Boeing 737-800s. Air Jamaica's two A340s (one of which is pictured above) will also now be returned, leaving it an all narrowbody-operator with 14 Airbus A320 family aircraft.
Cubana will be left as the only Caribbean carrier operating long-haul services. But it only uses Russian aircraft on its long-haul routes, including two new Ilyushin Il-96 widebodies and 11 ageing Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-62 narrowbodies.
Air Jamaica has been flying to London since 1986 while BWIA began serving London back in 1960. "We are really disappointed that this decision has had to be made to close the route," says Air Jamaica general manager of UK and Europe Anne Deamer. "Air Jamaica has been flying from London to Jamaica for 11 years and acknowledges in particular the importance of the Jamaican community in the UK who will be affected by the closure. However, there is over-capacity on the route, and unfortunately we cannot justify retaining the service, as the high costs and low yields make it unsustainable."
Caribbean Airlines continues to serve London through a codeshare with British Airways while Air Jamaica will replace its daily London service with a Virgin Atlantic codeshare. Virgin, which launched two weekly flights from Gatwick to Montego Bay last year, will add at the end of October two weekly flights from Gatwick to Kingston. BA at the beginning of the summer season launched three weekly flights from Gatwick to Caribbean Airlines' hub in Port of Spain via Barbados.
As part of the new codeshare deals BA and Virgin have acquired the Heathrow slots held by Caribbean Airlines and Air Jamaica, giving the two Caribbean carriers much needed cash to help offset losses and restructure. Air Jamaica says it will focus on services within the Caribbean as well as to Canada and the USA. Caribbean Airlines has adopted a similar strategy and smaller Cayman Airways already focuses on short and medium-haul services with 737-200/300s. The region's other major player, the newly merged Caribbean Star and Liat, focus only on intra-Caribbean routes with an all-turboprop fleet.
Caribbean Airlines chief executive Peter Davies in March floated the idea of forming one carrier for the entire Caribbean. Perhaps this is the only way a Caribbean carrier can be profitable over the long-term.
Caribbean carriers simply cannot compete these days against major European legacy and leisure players on long-haul routes. Competition with US carriers on US routes is also fierce and perhaps unsustainable. Air Jamaica and Caribbean have already dropped some US routes such as Boston and Washington. Routes within the Caribbean may be more sustainable but only if capacity is coordinated. It's a bitter pill to swallow but Davies' solution may be the only way to prevent Caribbean governments from having to again dig into their pockets to keep their local carriers afloat.