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Caribbean Airlines 9Y-CAL undergoing safety checks at the Piarco International.

Geisha Kowlessar-Alonzo

[email protected]

KEY POINTS

* Fewer flight coming to T&T a year after borders reopened

* Jet Blue, West Jet, Suriname Airlines impacted

* Domestic Airbridge also hurt be less airlift

* Tourism Minister says search on for additional airlines to come to T&T

It’s been just over one year since the country’s borders were reopened following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic which has crippled the travel and airline sectors, globally.

And while travel has resumed the local airline industry continues to slowly recover as reflected in statistics provided from the Tourism Ministry.

It showed that total flights into Trinidad from July 2018 to June 2019 was 15, 992.

However, that figure drastically decreased as from July 2021 to June 2022 there were 7, 197 flights; a difference of about 55 per cent.

Flights into Tobago also took a hit as from July 2018 to June 2019 there were 381 compared to July 2021 to June 2022 where only 112 were recorded; a reduction of 71 per cent.

Additionally, flights from Trinidad were also negatively affected.

From July 2018 to June 2019 there were 15, 364 flights from Trinidad compared to 7, 243 for July 2021 to June 2022.

There was also a marked difference in flights from Tobago as from July 2018 to June 2019 that figure was 366 as opposed to 111 for July 2021 to June 2022.

However, Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell remains positive as he told the Sunday Business Guardian that upon the reopening of borders in July 2021, airlines have signalled their intention to resume flights to T&T.

He noted, there was the sustained resumption in flights from carries like Air Canada, American Airlines, British Airways, Copa Airlines and Jet Blue.

In addition, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines restarted its service in October 2021 after an absence of almost 30 years and so far has been recording load factors in the neighbourhood of 75 per cent, the minister said.

The route is currently shared with St Maarten however, when it was first launched, the service was shared with Barbados, Mitchell explained.

Tobago also saw the return of Virgin Atlantic out of London via Antigua and British Airways also from London via Antigua.

But the Tourism Minister also noted some airlines left T&T.

For instance, Canadian airline WestJet has temporarily suspended flights to Trinidad along with JetBlue (Fort Lauderdale-Trinidad route) and United Airlines (Newark-Trinidad route) until further notice.

Suriname Airways also decided to suspend its services after 29 years due to organisational changes and restructuring.

The Sunday Business Guardian sent several questions to JetBlue including whether T&T remains a feasible option for the airline at this time.

JetBlue’s corporate communications team said, “As part of ongoing refinements to our schedule, JetBlue is suspending routes and making adjustments to help reduce flying that does not make as much sense in the current environment of significantly higher fuel prices.

“JetBlue will suspend operations between Port-of-Spain, T&T and Fort Lauderdale, Florida from October-December. These adjustments help support operational reliability and improve schedules elsewhere in our network, ensuring we get our customers where they need to go.”

Suriname Airways also officially suspended its services to Trinidad on May 23.

“The departure from Port-of-Spain as any other restructuring and organisation development process, is a difficult decision for us to suspend operations to Trinidad market after 29 years servicing the people of this beautiful island.

“Our heart is saddened that we have to separate from the over three decades of relationship with our general sales agent (GSA), loyal staff, committed people, travel agents, and authorities of this destination,” Suriname Airways had said.

Mitchell said all of these disruptions are, presumably, as a consequence of the pandemic but added that the travel and tourism industry is slowly reorganising its resources to perform with greatest efficiencies.

He also noted that although Condor Airlines did not immediately decide to restart, its service will resume the Frankfurt to Tobago route on November 20, 2022.

On whether he was satisfied with the current number of airlines currently coming to Trinidad the Tourism Minister said, “The number of airlines is not of too much concern but rather the number of quality routes, passenger traffic, and connections into the destination.”

He said attracting the right airline and the right type of traffic is a very strategic activity that will give T&T the “right type of visitor, with the right type of spend at the right volume.”

This, the Tourism Minister emphasised, will positively impact measures such as visitor receipts, hotel revenue and the tourism sector’s overall contribution to GDP.

Caribbean Airlines also continues to recover as globally, air passenger volumes are still below pre-pandemic 2019 levels, said Dionne Ligoure CAL’s corporate communications Head.

“Seasonally, there is movement because July/August is typically an active time for travel based on the fact that in many parts of the world it is an off-season for schools and families travel more.

‘The industry experts coming out of the removal of restrictions did predict that travel would not really return to pre-COVID levels until 2023/2024 which is why 2022 is being guarded as a year of recovery,” Ligoure explained.

However, she said CAL’s focus has been to “Reset Expectations,” adding that a major element was its fleet renewal, which was completed in July.

The entire jet fleet now comprises, the Boeing 737-8 aircraft, offering a wide range of benefits to customers and the environment, Ligoure added.

The Tourism minister also outlined that as part of the overall strategy to facilitate the recovery of the sector, Tourism Trinidad Ltd along with Airports Authority will be participating in the 27th World Routes Development Forum to meet decision-makers and airline executives.

Mitchell said markets key to the sector have been identified, adding that the event has also been critical in securing increased services on additional routes and also attracting new airlines.

He said the decision by airlines to open routes to the island—WestJet and KLM—would have been prompted by talks between the Airport Authority, Tourism Trinidad and airline stakeholders at similar past travel and tourism events.

“We are looking at improving links into T&T in time for summer 2023. Both islands are in need of expansion of its European service based on the performance of British Airways and KLM into Port-of-Spain,” the minister said.

Mitchell identified North America as of great importance as it currently accounts for almost 45 per cent of visitor traffic, in particular the “visiting friends and relatives segment,” largely made-up of the diaspora.

Noting that the T&T diaspora is an untapped market, Mitchell said Tourism Trinidad in its marketing efforts will be responsible for leveraging these valuable familial connections to drive more traffic to the destination.

Regarding plans to boost the airline capacity and grow visitor arrivals Mitchell said his ministry will continue to engage passenger airlines and charter services to strategically package and sell the destination.

He added charters will provide more flexibility, giving destinations direct access to targeted catchment areas with non-stop connections.

Tobago is also instrumental in attracting arrivals.

Mitchell said although Tobago attracts a different type of visitor, the thinking is the same.

“The Tobago market is based heavily on leisure therefore, these markets must be targeted to drive demand and bookings for what Tobago has to offer. The direct flight from New York to Tobago, the new airport terminal, and the soon to be completed Comfort Inn Suites and the construction of the Marriott at Rocky Bay should drive demand for the destination,” the Tourism minister explained.

Additionally, he said the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts will continue to support the Division of Tourism, Culture, Antiquities and Transportation in facilitating the ease of travel to Tobago.

“To this end, we would have met with all agencies to discuss smoothening out the transit process between T&T particularly since airlines such as KLM and British Airways fly from key markets in Europe and act as a hub for other parts of Europe,” Mitchell said.

He added that Caribbean Airlines was also part of the discussions as its cooperation is necessary in providing access from Trinidad to Tobago at convenient travel times to ensure passengers get the most out of their stay in Tobago.