CAL handled the crisis caused by Tropical Storm Irene well

Dear Editor,

I am always pleased when Guyanese are brought together for whatever reason to unite our diverse people.  But I am not in agreement with the full contents of the assertions made in ‘Caribbean Airlines brought Guyanese together‘ (SN, Sep 5).  I am not a defender of Caribbean Airlines (CAL) and I do empathize with my fellow Guyanese travellers.  But I have been using the airline (and its predecessor BWIA) for three decades travelling to and from the Caribbean (from New York) as well as intra-regionally.  I travelled on it a minimum six times a year for the last 15 years and with less frequency in the preceding years. At times, there were issues with its service, but these problems were no different from major carriers around the globe.  What I can attest to is CAL’s service has improved tremendously over the last year, and the staff treats people with greater respect and courtesy at reservation, check in, on board, landing, etc.

The writer, understandably, is angry with the treatment meted out to Guyanese travelling during the visit of Irene.  I am all for improved service and better treatment of all passengers at all times, and we must insist on the best quality service; as a consequence I applaud those who protested for respect. However, the discomfort suffered by Guyanese passengers as a result of Tropical Storm Irene was not deliberate, and Guyanese were not targeted.  Passengers around the globe coming to or travelling from the US East Coast were similarly affected and the treatment was pretty much the same or worse.  I travelled from Aruba on Sunday night, and Americans and other nationals were still stranded on the island for over a week unable to get home, and some have been rebooked up to ten days after their original flight. They have had to pay their own accommodation at hotels. Airports on the US East Coast were closed for two or three days disrupting thousands of flights and millions of passengers. All the airlines were overwhelmed with the problem and had a backlog of moving passengers to and from their destinations.  CAL was able to catch up with its passenger backlog in a matter of days, whereas other carriers are still trying to catch up.

Whenever I can’t get to my destinations on time, I too am frustrated and angry at the airlines vowing never to travel with them again.  But when I calm down and study the situation, I realize often it is not the airline’s fault.  An airline cannot be blamed for “poor service” because of a natural disaster. I think CAL did exceptionally well in light of the horror stories I heard from travellers over the last week.

As I understand the rule, airlines are not responsible for weather related disruptions but they still seek to accommodate passengers (at hotels) especially those who are stranded in distant locations unable to return home. Several times, I had to cater for my own accommodation and meals as a result of weather related problems in various parts of the globe.  Even when there were aircraft problems, I had to provide for myself. At times, the airlines offered meal vouchers and even hotel accommodation, and at times I was stuck at airports for long hours without meals.  Those were trying times that did indeed bring people together to have their rights enforced with meal vouchers – the aviation rules mandate meals after several hours of delays in which the carriers are at fault. No airline was at fault for the Irene mess. The writer complained about meal vouchers. Once, I travelled first class and my meal voucher was $12, and another time in economy class my voucher was $7 on other carriers.  So CAL was still better with its $8 voucher.

It is most regrettble that passengers were stuck at the airport for up to four days and I find that inexplicable.  However, from my own personal habit and experience in similar situations, I will not be surprised to find out that some passengers chose to remain at the airport for days, hoping to get on a flight, rather than follow directions from CAL’s staff and be rebooked. I saw emails in which CAL said it was rebooking passengers without any penalty.

CAL could not prepare ahead for Irene’s passengers.  No airline did. What the carriers did was to rebook passengers trying to move them according to their desired dates.  But understandably not everyone could get their desired or selected dates.  So the carriers assigned a date of travel and that is why some passengers are still stranded. Unfortunately, when a carrier misses a flight, stranded passengers don’t get first priority to travel as the airline, by established rule, has to move the passengers due to fly on the date of resumption of service, not those whose flights were cancelled. They are accommodated on later flights – that is the rule. I found myself in that situation on several occasions protesting but ignored by airline staff.

Unlike what the writer penned, CAL could not simply redirect flights.  Airlines are required to file flight plans and the licences of the plane and any change of service has to be approved.  CAL could not simply redirect a chartered North American plane bound for Piarco to Guyana. Its contract with NA would not allow it unless it was renegotiated and agreed upon for a changed flight plan which would require following a new set aviation rules for crew, etc.  Time did not allow for such change as the airline reported it moved all of its backlogged passengers within days.  CAL did better than most other carriers regarding Irene’s problems and I applaud CAL’s board and management for the way it handled the crisis with the caveat that there is always room for improvement.

Yours faithfully,
Vishnu Bisram

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