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Tobago businesses concerned by limited flights

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Tobago businesses concerned by limited flights

The Easter long week has served as the bright light for much of the dark period Tobago’s tourism has endured during the COVID-19 pandemic. But almost a full year after most major restrictions enforced during the pandemic were lifted, business owners are still peeved that the number of flights on the airbridge has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

As a result, ahead of one of the busiest periods in their calendar, Tobago business stakeholders are already concerned that they are being shortchanged by the limited number of flights.

Two weeks ago, Caribbean Airlines Ltd (CAL) made an announcement ahead of the traditionally busy period that 192 flights will be operated by the airline for the week leading up to the Easter long weekend.

CAL said it will operate these flights from April 1 to 7 and will accommodate 2,646 passengers on these flights.

This week, the airline confirmed that from Good Friday to Easter Monday it has 118 flights scheduled. This would accommodate 8,024 seats, the airline confirmed.

Today, Holy Thursday CAL has scheduled 31 flights, 16 from Tobago and 15 from Trinidad are scheduled, according to the airline’s website.

When asked if there would be any additional flights added for the week, CAL’s communications manager Dionne Ligoure explained that such a decision would have to be made operationally, that is, a decision would have to be made on the day.

Business owner, and former president of the Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Diane Hadad, said Tobagonian business owners have not been pleased with the current flight availability between the islands.

“Based on the flights that we have been having since the restart of the island following the COVID-19 restrictions (being lifted) to now, we are not satisfied or happy with the number of flights that are being given to service the island. We are thinking that it should have gone back by now to the original schedule.”

Hadad, however, acknowledged that there were issues affecting the airline’s ability to operate, but ultimately Tobago still required greater accessibility via the airbridge.

“We know that there are factors affecting their decision making. However, at this stage, they need to pull it together. And by now we need answers that are more material than what has been going on,” she said.

Last month, the airline provided statistics concerning its operations on the airbridge from December 2022 to February 2023.

The statistics revealed that apart from December when flights were in high demand for the Christmas holiday period, on average about 3,000 seats per month were left unused.

Hadad said, however, currently there was uncertainty about the availability of inter-island flights.

“People are not certain to move. People are still cautious about how they move. Further to this, it doesn’t matter when you go on the system, it’s always reading full. So clearly after all of this, they need to address that situation. “

Hadad called for the return of the flight schedule that accommodated over 20 flights daily.

“Ideally, we would like to get back to the schedule we had under the People’s Partnership where the airport was running until 1:40 in the morning. That was our last flight out of here,” said Hadad.

Tobago Business Chamber chairman Martin George was also critical on the current service offered by the airline.

He said, “From the images, we have seen it appears pellucid that the allocation of flights and seats for the inter-island airlift between Trinidad and Tobago, particularly for this busy Easter weekend is woefully inadequate to cater for the volume of passengers seeking to travel. Every year this happens. Is it impossible for CAL to simply get something like this organised in a way that is sustainable and meaningful and beneficial for the travelling public between Trinidad and Tobago. “

George said various suggestions to address concerns about the cost of running the airbridge have largely been ignored, yet the airline has not made adjustments that allow for its service to meet the needs of the public.

“We’ve made several suggestions to them over the years, but they have routinely ignored same and continue doing the same thing over and over again, and yet seem to be expecting different results.

“And it is clear that they are failing each time in terms of their mandate to deliver an efficient and effective service for the travelling public in Trinidad and Tobago.

“We have suggested that they implement a fare-tier system whereby someone who wants to travel urgently can pay a higher return fare maybe $600 instead of the $400 that it now is and they get on the first available standby seat.

“We’ve suggested other things to try to make it easier for persons to be able to travel between Trinidad and Tobago. That’s all people want to do. Nobody wants to be spending four or five hours in an airport, waiting for a 15-minute flight,” said George.

More CAL pilots coming

To increase the number of flights, the airline likely would require more staff, and in recent months, it would appear that the airline is attempting to bolster its workforce.

Up to a few weeks ago, the airline had posted vacancies for pilots on its website.

Ligoure confirmed that the airline was indeed looking for pilots.

“Caribbean Airlines has recently advertised for pilots and is currently in the process of recruiting same,” she said.

In 2021, after months of suspended operations, the airline retrenched 280 members of staff.

The COVID-19 pandemic had proven to be a massive skid for the airline, which had been trending in the right direction before its arrival. The airline recorded profits of US$4 million in 2018 and US$18 million in 2019 after years of continuous losses. The airline then recorded a loss of $190 million in 2020 and $25 million in 2021 as pandemic restrictions locked the airline out of the international travel market.

The inter-island service has traditionally been operated by the airline at a loss despite the service being subsidised by the government.

In January 2023, the cost of flights on the airbridge was increased by $50 in a bid to reduce the losses incurred by the airline to provide this service.

In last September’s budget presentation, Finance Minister Colm Imbert said CAL would benefit from an extra $50 million per annum from the increase in airfare.

By: Peter Christopher

Guardian Newspaper Trinidad and Tobago

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