Caribbean Airlines, formerly BWIA, has had a near monopoly on the Guyana air travel market for over a decade now. There had been competition from several other carriers since the closure of the Guyana Airways Corporation, but these waxed and waned, while Caribbean Airlines (CAL) remained a constant, ferrying Guyanese and visitors to destinations around the Caribbean, to the US (New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando and at one time DC), to Canada and formerly to the UK.
And Guyanese have been grateful for the service, rewarding CAL by overwhelmingly making it their airline of choice over the years, ever mindful of the fact that CAL does not run a charity and would not continue its Georgetown flights if they were completely unprofitable. Depending on how early (or late) one books, a person can pay anywhere between US$200 and upwards of US$350 for a one-week round trip to Port of Spain; US$370 to US$500+ for a similar trip to Barbados; a one-week round trip to New York runs to between US$700 and US$1,100+; the same trip to Toronto costs between US$800 and US$1,200+. These are based on current economy fares and dollar for dollar are the highest in the region.
Over the years, Guyanese have had rocky relations at times with Trinidad and Tobago’s flag carrier. Many of the criticisms reported by Georgetown passengers are universal to the airline industry – overbooking, left luggage, lost luggage, damaged luggage, flight delays and cancellations. Last week, that old grievance, discrimination, peculiar to CAL, at least as far as Georgetown passengers are concerned, raised its ugly head.
Meteorologists had predicted with some certainty towards the end of last month that Hurricane Irene was on course for a direct landing on the US East Coast. Fortunately, Irene began to lose strength while still in the Atlantic and by the time it touched the US had been downgraded to a tropical storm. There was some amount of damage – not as much as there would have been if Irene were full strength and if precautions were not taken by US officials.
Among the preparations made to weather the storm was the closure of US airports in its path. The John F Kennedy International was one such and the Port Authority shut it down for just over 24 hours from late in the night on Saturday, August 27 to 6 am on Monday, August 29. Thousands of flights and hundreds of thousands of passengers travelling from New York to countries around the world were affected; among them were a few hundred Guyanese outbound from JFK.
The travails of those passengers have been ventilated by this newspaper. Daily accounts were published online as events occurred; there was a feature article, written by passenger/journalist Iana Seales and published on Sunday last as well as a very moderate letter by another affected passenger, Milton Bruce, which was published on Monday.
The facts are clear. CAL first erred by not providing any information at all as regards cancelled and rescheduled flights to Guyana and then by giving it in a piecemeal fashion. It might have been just poor PR, but to the weary, unhappy passengers who had been checked in at varying times on Monday, August 29, 2011, removed from their scheduled flights and placed on the now infamous BW 3503, it felt like a slight. Thanks to technology, quite a few of those travellers had access to information on their cell phones, and apart from the uncertain guidelines given by CAL staff at JFK, there was a complete blackout on that flight. Instead, infuriatingly, at one point, CAL’s Facebook page was updated with an inane and insensitive status post about doubles and coffee, which has since been removed.
The waiting throng subsequently heard that BW 3503 was a North American Airlines charter that would fly directly to Georgetown; varying times were given for the departure of this aircraft. Salt was rubbed into the wounds of the Guyana-bound passengers as these times came and went along with several flights to Port of Spain; some to Kingston and Montego Bay as well as Grenada and Antigua; and at least one to Georgetown via Port of Spain, which some persons had previously been scheduled to travel on. Cries of discrimination arose.
What followed might well have been unprecedented in the modern airline industry – the blocking of the boarding of BW 3501 bound for Port of Spain, which CAL was then forced to rename BW 3503 and send to Georgetown. There was an ugliness that pervaded, which could have been largely avoided had the situation been handled differently. Of course the delays caused by the storm cannot be blamed on the airline. CAL’s blunder was in its lack of forthrightness about the entire situation, but more particularly about the unserviceable aircraft it had chartered, which occasioned the loss of dignity and feelings of degradation among some of its higher paying customers. There were several lessons that could have been learned and relearned from this incident if anyone was paying attention. The most important one is that there is strength in unity and the very basic one, the customer is always right.