There was a time when air travel for Guyanese didn’t offer many choices, and even jetways were scarce ‒ on my first trip outside, Toronto didn’t have them; it was come off the plane in sub-zero weather and walk to the terminal ‒ in my case, run. In those early Tradewinds years, one of the problems for Caribbean folks was no genuine pepper sauce available on the aircraft, so we usually travelled with our own. Indeed, we often ran out because passengers sitting near us, alerted by the smell, would plead for some; one insistent passenger even offered money for a taste.
The choices, too, are better. Early on, it was mainly BWIA and despite the frequent jokes ‒Britain’s Worst Investment Abroad – our experience with BWEE was largely positive; we rarely encountered delays and the in-flight service from the mostly Trini staff was superb, but if BWEE was full you stayed home. Now, for a Toronto traveller like me, there are three direct choices: the former BWIA, now Caribbean Airlines, Fly Jamaica and Copa Airlines, with the latter, going through Panama where there are jetways.
In 50 years or so that the band has been criss-crossing the Caribbean and North America, we haven’t experienced many major incidents. One was having to circle over Dominica for quite a while because, as the pilot apologised on the intercom, “goats were grazing near the runway”. Another not so comical one was being on a plane coming from Vancouver to Toronto where there was a bomb scare report. The pilot told us it was likely a hoax, but we would be landing in Edmonton to check it out; that hour or so it took for us get to Edmonton seemed like forever. The plane went very quiet; nobody was asleep. As we landed, the airport was ablaze with lights and there were scores of vehicles, including taxis, lining the runway. We came to a stop, far from the terminal, and as we exited the plane Air Canada staff on the ground was yelling at us, “Get away from plane, now.” It was white knuckle time. Indeed our Vincentian keyboard player at the time was the late Brian Anderson; always afraid of flying, he quit the band after that experience. He was white as a sheet coming off the plane in Edmonton. Sitting in the terminal, he told me, “Dave, I can’t take this.” I assumed he would calm down afterward, but I was wrong.
Airline travel, however, does have its moments. I recall being in the check-in line at Miami airport and a Trinidadian fellow in front of me was carrying a motor-cycle tyre on each shoulder. As his turn came, the BWIA check-in lady told him, pointing to the tyres, “Where you going with those?” He replied, “That’s my carry-on.” Only a Trini or a Jamaican would come up with such a line. The lady was not amused. “Sir, you have to check those.” On another occasion, I was on a cross-Canada flight, where a man with mental problems went berserk en route. He had apparently broken up with his girlfriend and there was a girl in the plane who looked like her and that had triggered his reaction. He kept unbuckling his seat belt to get at the girl. The male cabin attendants had to get help from the navigator to restrain him; they were actually sitting on the man holding him down in his seat and the police came and took him off when we landed.
In Caribbean travel, one can also see the unusual. On one flight, leaving St Maarten, a Jamaican haggler came on board with over a dozen hats, for sale obviously, stacked one on top the other, on her head; she had to stoop to get in the aircraft. I could not figure out how she passed through security. I also sat next to a chap in St Vincent who had a bag of crabs under the seat in front of him; only in the Caribbean.
I’ve been flying mainly with BWIA in the early years, but on a recent trip to Toronto I went with Copa. It may be because the airline’s planes are all new, but the ones I travelled on were the cleanest I have ever seen; they were spotless. I mentioned it to a Copa official who said the newness was part of it, but they also emphasised clean-up, even on a very short turnaround as they have in Guyana. The in-flight meals could be better (I complained, and an official told me they’re working on it) but the flights were on time, baggage arrived pronto, and the Panama airport is a shopper’s dream – a range of sparkling, high-quality stores, and English spoken everywhere – with a brand-new terminal in the making. Panama City itself, not far from the airport (Guyanese travellers must overnight there when southbound) is a very impressive place sporting an amazing array of skyscrapers – there must be at least 30 of them – dotting the skyline.
Of course, these days, with the various security concerns, and the high demand for seats, travel can be a taxing experience. The recent increase in security regulations by the US, means that Guyanese are now being strongly advised to get to Timehri at least three hours ahead of departure to ensure catching their flight. That’s part of modern travel, as are the screening delays, and the “no gateway available” situations in major cities where we have to sit on the tarmac, sometimes for as long as hour. On the other hand, we can take some small comfort in the genuine pepper sauce being available on board.