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Air Jamaica route closure threatens Europe ties

There is mounting concern among Jamaica’s tourism community that Air Jamaica’s cancellation of UK services could be detrimental to its travel trade with Europe.Air Jamaica pulled the plug on its Kingston-Montego Bay to London route the other week, after reporting $27 million losses last year. Virgin Atlantic will take over the route on October 30th through a codeshare deal.

Therefore, travellers from the UK and Europe will no longer be able to fly from Heathrow. There will also be less frequency from Gatwick, with only two flights per week replacing the daily flight. Passengers will soon have to change airport and airline, as well as departure and return dates.

“We are disappointed that Air Jamaica will no longer operate a non-stop daily service,” says Elizabeth Fox, regional director for UK & Northern Europe, Jamaica Tourist Board. 

“Over the last two years, we have experienced consistently increasing visitor numbers to the island. We are confident that the gap in service left by Air Jamaica will be soon filled to meet the growing demand.”

Voiced concern


A number of industry insiders are also concerned that the route closure could slash hotel occupancy levels.

“From a hotel standpoint this has an immediate impact on business already taken from November 1,” says Tom McNamara, managing director of group promotions for Couples and Sunset Resorts.

“There is a phenomenal increase in room inventory planned for Jamaica over the next three years. We have to find a new way to get our UK guests to the destination.” 

Couples and Sunset Resorts are among the many hotel operators that are making special offers to encourage affected passengers not to cancel their holidays.

“It is a great shame for the destination, Tony Cowles and his team at Air Jamaica have done a wonderful and sometimes very difficult job in building the service out of the UK over the last ten years.” McNamara explains.

Tony Cowles, who is now Managing Director, UK & Europe, Sandals & Beaches Resorts sees the cessation of the London route as “a sad loss that will affect all who have a business or family concern in Jamaica.” He explains: “Over the years, Air Jamaica earned a reputation for its charismatic and classically Jamaican style of hospitality”.

“The consumer demands choice and flexibility and dropping from a daily scheduled frequency on the Montego Bay route to just two flights a week will have an impact, especially as there will be no scheduled weekend departure over the important winter season.” He added: “However, Sandals continues to work with all of the our tour operator and airline partners servicing Jamaica to ensure that the impact is felt as little as possible for Sandals guests”

Josef Forstmayr who manages the upmarket Round Hill resort believes the absence of scheduled flights will be detrimental for the destination’s growth in Europe, as well as damage its appeal to the more exclusive traveller.

“I like our Virgin connections. However it does not have any connectivity into continental Europe, plus all flights will now depart from Gatwick. This is not beneficial for us to grow in Europe.”

Forstmayr is concerned that the growth in airlift out of Europe is not keeping up with the increasing investment in new rooms in Jamaica. “Much more effort and money must be spent to grow our European business and to move away from our over-dependency on the North American marketplace,” he explains.

An additional 15,000 rooms are planned by the end of the decade, with UK visitor numbers to the island growing by 27 percent year on year for 2006, according to the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB). Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport has also been expanded and Kingston airport has been renovated to cope with more arrivals.

Major losses and overcapacity

Air Jamaica has withdrawn UK flights due to a combination of major losses and overcapacity. Both scheduled and charter flights—including British Airways and Virgin—on the Kingston-London route - have boosted services.

According to Air Jamaica’s CEO, Michael Conway, the expense of operating out of London Heathrow, combined with the “unique nature of Air Jamaica’s long-haul operation” renders the London route “uneconomical”. He added that unless conditions were to change dramatically, it is unlikely that the London service will be resumed in the near future.

Furthermore, Conway does not foresee another Caribbean carrier stepping in: “Given the challenges of the route and the investment required, it is unlikely that any other carrier in the Caribbean region will embark on this type of long-haul service.”

Withdrawal of the London service is one of several initiatives that the state owned airline has embarked on in a bid to become financially independent by 2009.

Air Jamaica’s priority is to become a self-reliant entity that can grow and prosper without being dependent on government assistance,” explains Conway.

According to news reports, in recent months Air Jamaica has become a ‘major financial liability’ to the government, and the route in question is costing “an unjustifiable” $2.5 million in losses per month. 

Other cost-cutting measures undertaken by the struggling carrier include fleet rationalisation. Conway revealed that there are no other route closures planned at this time.

Virgin Atlantic, which will take over the route, will fly a Boeing 747 out of Gatwick and contribute 200,000 seats to the market.

“Because we are a long-haul only carrier our costs are very different to Air Jamaica. I think the key is also the frequency - there isn’t the demand to fly daily from Kingston,” says Paul Charles, director of communications for Virgin Atlantic.

“We are already a key player in the market so we will grow the market, we will bring in more passengers; we will go on offering an unrivalled service. We have flown 17,000 passengers to Montego Bay in half a year, so we have already had a dramatic impact on the economy.”

Commenting on the concern about Gatwick airport being the only choice for passengers, he says: “I use both airports regularly, and there isn’t much journey time between the two. There’s a very good train service between both airports and central London. I think Gatwick is just not as well known to Jamaican travellers but it has just as good benefits as Heathrow does.”

By Anna Gouldman

Air Jamaica has been nominated for ‘Caribbean’s Leading Airline’, ‘Caribbean’s Leading Business Class Airline’ and ‘Caribbean’s Leading Airline Website’ at this year’s World Travel Awards.