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  • ANALYSIS: Caribbean carriers adjust to post-storms slump

ANALYSIS: Caribbean carriers adjust to post-storms slump

Four years of airline industry growth in the Caribbean came to sudden halt in October, when capacity trends turned negative after hurricanes ravaged islands throughout the West Indies and forced weeks-long airport closures.

The region's airlines moved aircraft and operations away from approaching storms, then returned with relief flights carrying food, water and medicine to the most-ravaged communities.

They repeated the procedures days later, responding to a one-two-three punch of triple hurricanes that roared through the Caribbean, one after another, in September.

The storms took lives, damaged airports and cost airlines millions of dollars. They knocked out communications and computer systems, forcing employees to revert to manual procedures.

Many of those same employees faced similar challenges at home, such as lack of electricity.

Capacity is markedly down. According to FlightGlobal schedules data, airlines will carry 5.6% fewer seats to Caribbean airports year-over-year in October, the first such downturn since October 2013.

With the hurricane season now ending, carriers are getting back on their feet, exuding optimism, stressing unity and insisting the Caribbean remains a great place to visit.

"These storms were particularly destructive," says Dionne Ligoure, head of corporate communications at Trinidad and Tobago-based Caribbean Airlines. "These storms may end up reshaping life in the Caribbean…. In the years to come, people will think of the Caribbean in terms of pre-Irma and post-Irma."

Though some islands suffered mightily – Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Saint Croix, Saint Thomas Barbuda and Dominica, among them – Ligoure notes many escaped unscathed.

"There is a perception that the entire Caribbean has been affected. That is incorrect," she says. "The Caribbean is open for business."

LIAT's manager of corporate communications Shavar Maloney states: "It's been one storm after the next. This has been, especially in the last 10 years… the worst that the network has been impacted."

TC Cowan, vice-president of airport services for Cape Air, which bases its Caribbean operation from San Juan, adds: "I couldn’t communicate with anyone. We couldn’t get status of any of our employees for a while. It was pretty scary.

"Everybody survived it physically. A lot of people lost their houses," he says, adding that some employees had been "sleeping on the floor".

SEASON STARTS

The Atlantic hurricane season, which officially starts on 1 June, kicked into gear when Tropical Storm Bret formed on 19 June off the northern coast of South America.

Bret came relatively early and affected areas further south than do many tropical storms, says Maloney.

Bret impacted places like Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Bonaire, Curacao, Aruba and Venezuela, according to the US National Hurricane Center.

Those same Leeward Antilles islands felt impacts from Tropical Storm Don in July and from Tropical Storm Harvey (before Harvey strengthened to a hurricane) in August.

Then came Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm that pummeled Barbuda on 6 September with maximum sustained winds of 161kt (298km/h), according to the National Weather Service.

Irma then hammered Saint Martin, damaging infrastructure and forcing closure of Saint Martin's Princess Juliana International airport, a facility to which aviation enthusiasts flock to catch up-close views of low-flying aircraft arriving over the water.

Princess Juliana airport remained closed to commercial flights for about one month, reopening around 10 October with a temporary departure hall and baggage claim area, and a relocated customs and immigration checkpoint, the airport has said.

Some 2,200 flights typically would have departed during the closed period, according to FlightGlobal schedules data.

The "insurance phase" of the rebuilding process at the airport is now being completed, and the government intends to make repairs that enable the facility to withstand a Category 5 storm "as much as that is possible", says Saint Martin's minister of tourism, economic affairs, traffic and telecommunication Mellissa Arrindell-Doncher in a 10 November statement.

"In the meantime, larger temporary structures will be put in place to offer the most comfortable possible service to visitors and residents as they arrive and depart the airport," the statement says. "Runway lights are also expected to be installed shortly."

Water damaged "all areas" of the airport, and some areas suffered "physical damages resulting from flying objects and parts of the falling ceiling throughout the terminal building", the statement says.

The airport could not be reached for comment, and reports say phone lines remain down.

After leaving Saint Martin, Irma damaged places like Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Saint Thomas, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, the Turks and Caicos, some of the Bahamas' southern islands, the Florida Keys and Florida's west coast, according to the Hurricane Center.

The Leeward Islands had just three days' reprieve before Category 4 Hurricane Jose, with 126kt winds, came barreling up a similar path. Though further north, heavy seas and strong winds lashed many of the same islands.

Then on 16 September Tropical Storm Maria became a hurricane east of Barbados, strengthening to Category 5 with 139kt winds when it roared across Dominica, causing what that country's prime minister called "pure devastation".

Maria weakened slightly as it crossed the Caribbean Sea, but took direct aim at Puerto Rico, slamming into that island with 100kt winds on 20 September, according to the Hurricane Center.

Hurricane Maria caused widespread damage, killed dozens of people and knocked out all of Puerto Rico's electricity and 95% of its cellular phone service, according to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Maria also forced closure of airports throughout the region, including those serving Mayaguez and Vieques, and San Juan Luis Munoz Marin International airport.

Cape Air cancelled at least 1,950 flights due to hurricanes this year, says Cowan.

"We had to move the airplanes twice within a week," he says, noting that the company repositioned 11 Cessna 402s to Curacao. "Typically, it's once if we do it at all."

The San Juan airport opened a few days after Maria, but "the other airports didn’t come into play for a couple of weeks", Cowan says.

With phones down, Cape Air sent satellite phones to all station managers, and those same managers visited employees at their homes to make sure they were safe, says Cowan. The company also sent some employees generators, but fuel quickly became sparse, so Cape Air also sent gas cans, Cowan says.

Cape Air began relief flights on 2 October from San Juan to Mayaguez, Vieques, Saint Thomas and Tortola.

As of early November, Cape Air had resumed about 60% of its scheduled flying, and the customer base had shifted from vacationers to property owners and service workers such as plumbers and carpenters, he says.

LIAT moved its operations and call centres from Antigua to Barbados to escape Irma, then moved the operations centre further south to Trinidad to keep away from Maria, Maloney says.

"The impact of Maria, I think, was most significant because of how wide Maria was," he states.

Following the storms, LIAT operated 64 relief flights carrying some 1,200 passengers and some 5,900kg of food, medicine and other supplies, according to Maloney.

Between June and early November, LIAT cancelled about 408 flights, compared with 67 cancellations during the same period in 2016, according to the airline.

LIAT's most-affected markets include Dominica, Saint Martin, the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, which collectively account for 30% of LIAT's flights and 35% of revenue, Maloney says.

LIAT estimates flight disruptions caused by this year's storms will cost $6.5 million, an impact that LIAT estimates will push it to a full-year 2017 loss of $13.25 million, Maloney says. The impact will continue into next year, he adds, noting operations might take nine to 12 months to return to normal.

In response, LIAT is seeking a $7 million loan from the Caribbean Development Bank, he adds.

Hurricane-induced economic impacts will continue for months, Maloney says, noting that one year might pass before operations to some communities return to normalcy.

"We are going to lose money on the routes that we operate. Even though there is a demand, there are operational challenges," he says.

Caribbean Airlines worked with LIAT to deliver about 12 tonnes of relief supplies to Tortola, Dominica and Saint Martin, says Ligoure.

"In the aftermath, what you saw, really, was a bonding together of Caribbean people," she says.

The storms impacted carriers elsewhere, too.

American Airlines, for instance, cancelled more than 8,000 flights and shut 30 stations during the storms, pushing down pre-tax earnings by $75 million, American's president Robert Isom said during the carrier's third-quarter earnings call.

Likewise, JetBlue Airways cancelled 2,500 flights during hurricanes Irma and Maria – 3% of its schedule, its chief executive Robin Hayes said during a recent earnings call.

LASTING IMPACT

The Caribbean's commercial aviation industry has seen steady capacity growth in recent years, with available seats to Caribbean airports increasing annually every year since 2012, according to FlightGlobal data.

Both intra-Caribbean air capacity and capacity from other regions to the islands had increased in recent years, data shows.

In the first nine months of 2017, the number of available seats at Caribbean airports increased about 4% year-over-year.

But capacity turned negative year-over-year in October, and the declines are set to continue into 2018.

Though schedules change, available data shows that total seats to Caribbean airports during the upcoming December-through-March winter travel season will be down 7% year-over-year.

Caribbean-based airlines (including Cape Air, which has a San Juan hub) will carry 11% fewer seats in the region during winter, data shows. LIAT will carry 27% fewer seats this winter, while InselAir, which has faced financial challenges unrelated to hurricanes, will carry 46% fewer seats to Caribbean airports.

Carriers based in North America will carry about 8% fewer seats to the Caribbean year-over-year in the winter period, according to schedules data. Delta Air Lines has trimmed Caribbean capacity 14% during the upcoming December-March period, while United Airlines' seats to the region are set to decline 23% year-over-year, FlightGlobal schedules data shows.

Latin American-based airlines, however, are scheduled to carry 6% more seats to the Caribbean between December and March 2018, and Europe-based airlines will carry 8% more seats, FlightGlobal schedules data shows.

Some airports will suffer the brunt of the declines.

Seats to Saint Martin are down 62% year-over-year this winter season, and seats to Dominica will decline 66%. Likewise, airlines have scheduled 15% fewer seats to San Juan.

Despite challenging times ahead, however, Caribbean carriers and governments have vowed to rebuild and unite, and they continue to seek new visitors.

Hard-hit Dominica has working airports and is open to "volunteer tourism" – tourists who also help rebuild, says the country's ministry of tourism Robert Tonge.

"We are working… tirelessly," says Tonge. "Although it is a different landscape, it is beautiful."

Caribbean Airlines' Ligoure thinks the severity of the storms can bring together a region composed of numerous governments and cultures.

"The absolute biggest lesson for us as Caribbean people is to rediscover ourselves and each other as one Caribbean nation and one Caribbean people," she says. "Suffering knows no national boundaries. With all its challenges, 2018 will no doubt require us to collaborate even more closely."

Luis Felipe de Oliveira, the executive director of industry association ALTA, praises the work the region's airlines have done to help the recovery effort: "The airlines themselves are really brave to help in these conditions... to help these communities to recover after the disaster".

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