By Jackie Thompson in London
Skip Barnette might have been expected to be planning a leisurely retirement in which to indulge his passion for fly fishing when he resigned as president of Delta Connection subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines in September after more than 35 years with the group
But instead he had just 15 minutes of freedom before taking over the top position at two small leisure carriers, Caribbean Star and Caribbean Sun.
The fishing will have to wait, because Barnette says he has found plenty of opportunities and a workforce responsive to change at the two airlines. They are each separate entities – Caribbean Sun, a US-certificated carrier headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, and Caribbean Star, an inter-island feeder based in Antigua, but Barnette mulls merging them at some point. He’d like to “turn the two airlines into the world’s best regional carrier”. Airline owner R. Allan Crawford, the Texas businessman who also controls island financial institutions and the Antiguan newspaper, has had lofty ambitions since founding Star five years ago and Sun three years after that.
Another consideration in any move to unite the two airlines is the fact that Caribbean Sun enjoys all the benefits of flying from a Category 1 nation, including a code share with US Airways. Caribbean Star though cannot carry the code of a US partner because the Federal Aviation Authority’s International Aviation Safety Assessment designates Antigua as a Category 2 nation. Bringing the two carriers into one with a US base would mean Category 1 status across the board.
The two airlines currently have separate operational management teams, and Barnette has created a third company to handle all IT, marketing and sales activities for both carriers. That will facilitate a future transition to a single carrier. Barnette has also outsourced both carriers’ reservation systems to Litton Industries subsidiary PRC starting in January 2006. A key feature will be the integration of their frequent-flyer programmes, which are completely independent of each other.
The carriers currently operate a fleet of Bombardier Dash 8 Q100/300s, but Barnette says he is “very seriously looking at jets”, in particular the Embraer 170 and 190, and the Bombardier CRJ-700. He’s also considering the Q400. He adds: “Service to the USA is key to bringing jets into the fleet”. He is also seeking alliances with US carriers to supplement their Caribbean services. These carriers would be likely be SkyTeam or Star Alliance members rather than members of oneworld, he says, in view of the large presence of oneworld’s American Eagle in the region.
He stresses he does not anticipate that the privately held carriers will become an all-jet operation, but is looking at a combination of jets and turboprops. High fuel costs are a consideration, he says, pointing out the Dash 8’s fuel efficiency. Runway lengths, often limited in this region, would be another factor in deciding whether to deploy jets or turboprops.
Barnette is clearly creating a model that will translate into a single airline without too much difficulty if he decided that is the way to go, but insists that he is still waiting and watching before making his move. “Some people wade straight into the water and start fishing straight away. I prefer to wait on the bank and see what the fish are doing,” he laughs.