Cayman Airways is re-evaluating what new aircraft it will acquire to service Cayman Brac because of the aviation fuel crisis.
Although it had been just recently announced that the national airline was to acquire two 50 seat turbo-prop aircraft (Saab 2000s) to link Cayman Brac with South Florida by year’s end, Cayman Airways is now looking into the feasibility of acquiring small jet aircraft instead, said Minister of Tourism Charles Clifford.
A 50- to 70-seater jet aircraft could provide for – not just improving service to the Brac – the flexibility to access more markets in the US in an aviation climate in which many US airlines are cutting domestic service and therefore access flights to Cayman’s main gateways.
The issue came up in Finance Committee on Wednesday afternoon.
In an interview with the Caymanian Compass later, Mr. Clifford noted how so many commercial airlines in the US are reducing domestic service. ‘The issue that has for us is that any reduction in domestic service affects the feeder service into our gateways and by extension to Grand Cayman, and we are concerned about that.
‘Because we had set out on this course to enhance service to Cayman Brac, and given the current environment, if we look at these smaller jets, it gives us the ability, not just to improve service to the Brac, but also the flexibility to access more markets in the US, to ensure that those individuals who have the desire to visit our destination, that that desire is not hampered by lack of air access.’
He added, ‘There is going to be a need for us, when looking at our primary markets, to give them the ability to access the Cayman Islands directly.’
Examples of cutbacks by airlines include American Airlines’ 50 per cent reduction in AA service out of San Juan Puerto Rico, which will affect Eastern Caribbean tourism. Also, Continental Airlines is to cut 3,000 staff and retire 67 planes, while United Airlines plans to take 70 jets out of service.
All the various options of aircraft are being looked into, the Minister said, and it is the intention to still have additional aircraft into the fleet toward the end of this year for the winter season. ‘Exactly what type of aircraft that’s going to be, we don’t know at this point, but we are looking, as an example, at the smaller jets in the region of the 50 to 70-seaters which will compliment the 737 jets that we currently have.’
Minister Clifford said the 50 to 70-seater jets would have a greater range than the turbo prop and would provide a more efficient and attractive service from and to some medium haul routes.
In the government’s discussions recently with the private sector and airlines that service Grand Cayman directly from US gateways, the indications are that the summer is looking much better than anticipated, said the Minister.
‘So it seems like our mitigation strategies have been working – there’s clearly awareness and desire for the destination out there and that’s reflected in the advance bookings.
‘Our concern of course is that because of these reductions and the airline crisis, that individuals who wish to come to Cayman may not necessarily have access to Cayman, may not be able to get flights.
‘And for that reason, and we’ve looked at a number of primary gateways in the US, gateways that are not currently served, and looking at the numbers coming out of some of those gateways it seems to us that a 50 to 70-seater jet would be ideal for some of those secondary markets.’
Minister Clifford declined to identify these markets.
The turbo prop Saab 2000s are still available, the Minister noted, and negotiations are still open on them, but other aircraft types are now being investigated.
The minister added that there are more 50 to 70-seater jets available for lease than there are in the Saab category, which is not necessarily a lease arrangement. ‘We would prefer to go with a lease arrangement at this point,’ he said.
During Finance Committee, Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush asked if it didn’t make more sense to create a runway in Little Cayman long enough to accommodate Boeing 737-300 aircraft and then increase Cayman Airway’s fleet of those aircraft by one to service all destinations. Mr. Bush said that by doing it that way, Cayman Airways would not have to keep spare parts for three different types of aircraft and it would not have to undertake costly cross-training of pilots to teach them to fly all the various aircraft.
Mr. Clifford explained that there were not sufficient numbers of travellers coming from some of Cayman’s primary tourist markets to justify a 737-300 flying there regularly, and that it would be more cost efficient to use a smaller jet. In addition, smaller jets would open up the possibility of new gateways for Cayman Airways, he said.
The decision on a choice of aircraft to service Cayman Brac is a priority for CAL, he said, and as soon as the CAL management team has made a recommendation to the board, the recommendation will be brought for Government’s consideration and then the decision presented before the Legislative Assembly for whatever the additional funding is going to be. There is no funding in the 2008/09 budget for the planes as the decision to buy them was taken after the budget was prepared.
The twin otter aircraft serving the Sister Islands would continue to be used for probably two years, until the new runway in Little Cayman is built, said the Minister