by Richard Coulson
Making international air travelers happy on arrival is clearly key to our tourism. It’s well performed by our Lynden Pindling International Airport, a government-owned public utility, not committed to the profits of an investor-owned enterprise.
But two commercial companies also play a major role: the “fixed based operations”, or FBOs, that cater to private and corporate aviation. Based at opposite ends of the airport but using its runways, Odyssey and Jet Aviation are intensely competitive firms that attract their own loyal customers, as can be seen by the sleek jets and prop-driven aircraft gracing their hangars and taxi-ways. Both are run by Bahamians, one with the support of US industrial giant General Dynamics, and provide high-grade employment in the local market.
FBOs are the choice of corporate travel departments as well as a growing number of individuals who can afford personal air service. While they will never replace scheduled airlines, FBOs attract any fliers who can afford to avoid the inevitable cattle-car conditions and rigid scheduling of our major carriers American, Jet Blue and Delta. There is enough wealth around the world to make private aviation a booming business, with FBOs now found at all international airports, including several in the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, our own airlines do not present such a rosy picture. Government-owned Bahamasair should have been put out of its misery years ago, as it struggles to serve a few US destinations and most airports scattered across our challenging archipelago, each year racking up a loss that demands an annual subsidy from the Bahamian people of about $20 million, paying for chronic featherbedding and lax business practices.
Bahamasair only exists because of our politicians’ conviction that our sovereign reputation demands a “national” flag carrier. Fine, we can have one—but it should be owned by our private sector, not by the State. We have plenty of well trained Bahamian pilots, air crew, mechanics, and terminal staff, working not only with Bahamasair but also with local companies like Western Air Services , Sky Bahamas, Pineapple Air, and many small charter companies.
Rather than propping up a Government company, our ministers should devote their energies to organizing all this local expertise into creating a major investor-owned enterprise. Western Air provides a good example. Organized by a fully-certified Bahamian pilot and led by him and his family, Western has expanded from its base in San Andros to operate throughout the country, with a major center in Freeport and careful additions to its aircraft fleet.
Although it will take time and careful planning, there is ample opportunity to unravel the present Bahamasair and replace it with the best of our extensive private abilities. We can seek consultation from American how they merged with US Air, or from Delta how it acquired Northwest. But the final result should be a non-Government airline owned and staffed by qualified Bahamians, serving the public interest under a regime reviewed by URCA, with all technical safety issues continued under regulation by our aviation authorities.
First published in The Tribune, July 11, 2019.
Mr. Coulson has had a long career in law, investment banking and private banking in New York, London, and Nassau, and now serves as director of several financial concerns and as a corporate financial consultant. He has recently released his autobiography, A Corkscrew Life: Adventures of a Travelling Financier.