By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Sky Bahamas’ principal yesterday said the airline and its 63 employees are fighting for its survival following a two-week long grounding due to delays in a key permit’s renewal.
Captain Randy Butler, the airline’s chief executive, told Tribune Business that the private Bahamian-owned carrier had been told by the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority, the industry regulator, to “discontinue” commercial passenger services from July 8.
While Sky Bahamas’ air operator certificate (AOC), the approval required for an airline to carry fare-paying passengers, had expired on June 29, 2019, Captain Butler said normal protocol was for the previous licence to remain in effect until the new one was granted provided it was not “suspended, revoked or terminated”.
Producing a copy of Sky Bahamas’ just-expired licence to show it contains such a clause, Captain Butler revealed that he was called to a July 9 meeting at The Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority where the regulator “came up with some ridiculous findings” in relation to a recent safety inspection conducted on the airline.
Challenging both the regulator’s findings and procedures, the Sky Bahamas chief said several executives at the meeting appeared unaware that the airline had sent its response to the Authority addressing all issues some 30 days previously.
But, despite leaving that meeting confident that Sky Bahamas’ AOC would be renewed, Captain Butler said this has yet to happen in the subsequent two weeks. As a result, besides being unable to earn any revenue due to its two planes effectively being grounded, the carrier has also had to rebook passengers with other carriers.
Sky Bahamas is still counting the mounting losses, and Captain Butler said the airline has now reached a “critical” point where it needs to have its AOC licence by tomorrow otherwise it may be unable to survive financially.
“We’re in a position where there’s not a lot to pull from any more,” he told Tribune Business. “It’s critical. We had a run on the bank last week when word got out and everybody was calling.
“We had a meeting and we said if we don’t get it today we will have to make some hard decisions tomorrow. It’s critical now. We’re there right now. I met with my folks today to tell them we need to get the air operator certificate today or tomorrow. That’s how critical it is. We are right there. We are there.”
Captain Butler added that Sky Bahamas had been able to keep some departments, such as maintenance, working during a period when its two aircraft are unable to offer commercial services on the carrier’s established routes to Abaco, Exuma and Cat Island.
He conceded, though, that “this pay period would be affected” because the airline’s inability to fly means it is earning no revenue income to meet salaries. Captain Butler said he and others had gone without pay to ensure other staff received their due salaries on July 15, with the next payment date falling on July 30.
“We can’t continue like this,” he added. “We are paying for insurance for the planes, insurance for the hangar; everything is going on. We still have to pay rent for Abaco and Exuma, and pay for the phones and Internet. We had to do refunds for people who couldn’t fly, and we had to rebook and accommodate people.”
Captain Charles Beneby, the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority’s director-general, last night confirmed to Tribune Business that the regulator was still reviewing whether or not to approve Sky Bahamas’ air operator certificate.
He argued, though, that the Authority “didn’t ground Sky Bahamas”, and said: “Sky Bahamas’ AOC has expired so we are in the process of going through our due diligence to ensure it is a licence or certificate we would want to renew.
“That activity goes on. Sky is responsible for its own operations. It wasn’t because of any action by the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority that caused Sky to be able to fly or not be able to fly. Until such time as [the AOC] is renewed, they would not be able to operate.”
Captain Beneby added that the regulator “conducts ongoing surveillance” of licensed operators regularly throughout the year, and they are often given the chance to “fix” any issues that arise.
He declined, though, to comment on the “safety findings” in relation to Sky Bahamas, saying: “This is an investigation that is being conducted internally. I’m really loathe to get into any details.”
“I don’t expect it to be too long from the authority standpoint,” Captain Beneby said of a decision on the airline’s AOC. “We try to get these things turned around as quickly as possible. It depends on the company to some extent; how they respond to any outstanding issues.”
But Captain Butler, who said the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority had yesterday accused him of failing to co-operate or address the safety inspection findings, countered that it had taken the regulator some 21 days to respond to Sky Bahamas’ letters and e-mails over the air operator certificate.
Recalling the timeline of events, and how commercial airlines were typically allowed to keep operating on their expired certificates until the new application was either accepted or rejected, Captain Butler said the Authority “in this case wrote to us and said to discontinue service” on July 8.
The next day saw the meeting at which Captain Butler contested the safety inspection findings and pointed out that Sky Bahamas had already addressed the issues raised in a letter to the Authority.
“They never wrote to us and said they were not renewing the AOC because of this or that,” he told Tribune Business. “They said don’t fly because your certificate has expired. Normally there’s an extension until the minister decides ‘yes or no’.
“The whole thing should not have happened. When I was leaving the meeting on July 9, by the time I got back to my office I thought the AOC would have been renewed. The Independence holiday came and we did not get any renewal, and the 11th.
“I wrote to the director-general on the 11th asking if there was a reason why the AOC was not being renewed, and there was no response until today other than phone calls. If there’s an issue, write it in black and white so I can respond to it.”
Captain Butler argued that the Civil Aviation Act 2016’s section 73 required the regulator to set out its reasons in writing if it rejected an AOC application, which he argued it has not properly done. He added that the situation in The Bahamas had also affected the renewal of Sky Bahamas’ air operator certificate with the US aviation authorities.
“I have no idea what’s going on,” added Captain Butler. “I’ve written and get no response, not even an acknowledgement. I get a phone call and nothing happens. They say: Can we talk? I say: Send me in black and white what the position is, and I will send back a response in black and white and then talk, but I’m not doing a meeting until I get what’s going on.”
Captain Butler, meanwhile, also confirmed that Sky Bahamas is still seeking a “strategic partner” in the aviation industry with the contacts and knowledge to enhance its business, although that search may now face some interruption.