By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Sky Bahamas' principal last night challenged aviation regulators to clarify whether they want "to shut us down" as the airline "could be at the point of not coming back".
Captain Randy Butler told Tribune Business that legal action was among the options he is considering after the carrier remained grounded for a 16th day following Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) orders that it not fly given that a key permit has expired.
And he called on Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, and the Prime Minister, to intervene given that another Bahamian-owned company and its 63 employees were now perilously close to going out of business.
Captain Butler argued that there was "no reason why we should not have a renewed Air Operator Certificate (AOC)", which is the permit required for an airline to carry fare-paying passengers. The previous certificate expired on June 29, and the sector regulator sent Sky Bahamas a letter on July 8 warning that it should not continue flying without the AOC.
The Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority revealed at a meeting on July 9 that concerns had been raised by the findings of a recent safety inspection conducted on Sky Bahamas, but Captain Butler is challenging both the conclusions and processes followed by the regulator.
Alleging that the situation represented both a "personal and political" attack on him and Sky Bahamas, Captain disclosed last night that the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority had also failed to renew the AOC for Butler's Aviation, a charter company he also owns and operates.
Documents seen by Tribune Business show that the AOC for Butler's Aviation was renewed for three months in February 2019, instead of the normal 12-month extension usually granted to airline operators. With Butler's Aviation having "not operated in over a year", and still waiting for a new AOC, Captain Butler questioned whether the same problems he is now experiencing at Sky Bahamas were "a coincidence".
Asked by this newspaper whether he and Sky Bahamas would resort to legal action if the AOC situation is not soon resolved, he replied: "I will. Yes sir. We have a staff to make decisions on now as we have to pay them on the 30th and don't have the money because we are not operating.
"These people have to pay mortgages, food, electricity and gas. We are still being billed by the Government for Business Licence and everything else connected day-to-day that we do. Most of the employees are not coming in. We have a skeleton crew that is paying attention to the regulatory areas and dealing with customer calls.
"It's only because of my goodwill and resources that I've kept us going, and that's not translated into dollars and cents. At this point, and if they delay their response and everything, it could at the point of not coming back."
Captain Charles Beneby, the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority’s director-general, told Tribune Business earlier this week that he had not refused to renew Sky Bahamas' AOC and that the regulator was conducting a review to determine if it would be renewed.
But Captain Butler argued that "if he has not refused to renew the AOC, why has he not issued a new one". He added that the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority had also gone against normal protocol, which is for the previous AOC to remain in effect until the new one was granted provided it was not “suspended, revoked or terminated”, by ordering Sky Bahamas to suspend all services until the renewal was issued.
"The director-general is simply saying: 'Go home'," the Sky Bahamas chief added. "It would be better if they say to me: 'We've decided to shut you down. We don't want you in the business any more'. That would save time and we can get on with the business at haND.
"There's no reason why we should not have had a renewal of the AOC... I'm hoping the minister is considering the situation, and I'm hoping the Prime Minister already recognises that people may lose their jobs and another Bahamian company is going out of business."
Captain Butler, though, conceded that Mr D'Aguilar had previously told him to "sit with Civil Aviation and work this out", implying that he is - for the moment at least - not intending to intervene. "I said to him: 'I can't afford not to work this out'," he added.
Disclosing that the AOC wait at Butler's Aviation had cost him "hundreds of thousands of dollars", Captain Butler said his accountant was still "tallying" the financial fall-out for Sky Bahamas. That is likely to run into "a lot of money", he admitted, while the airline's competitors are "having a field day".
Captain Butler reiterated that he is still unable to properly address the regulator's concerns as it has not set out the reasons in writing for rejecting its AOC application, as required by the Civil Aviation Act 2016’s section 73.
And he questioned why Sky Bahamas was allowed to continue flying for a month following the safety inspection if the findings were so severe. Captain Butler said the inspection was conducted in May, and Sky Bahamas responded to the findings the same month, which he added largely dealt with flight crew records, licences and medical certificates.
Sky Bahamas and other airlines are also subject to constant surveillance year-round by the Bahamas Civil Aviation Authority, with inspectors going on flights and attending training programmes. Captain Butler queried why no issues that could affect the AOC renewal were raised during that time, and why concerns were suddenly appearing now.
Sky Bahamas currently possesses two planes that operated routes to Exuma, Abaco and Cat Island. The airline has in recent months been battling a $500,000 damages award against it by the Supreme Court in favour of rival Southern Air, following a tarmac collision between their planes.
While the Court of Appeal restored Sky Bahamas' appeal against that award, it emerged last year that the airline owed the Nassau Airport Development Company (NAD) some $454,000 in passenger facility and security fees it collects from ticket prices on NAD's behalf.
Captain Butler at the time branded NAD's threat to terminate the airline's airport operating licence as "a non-issue", adding that the debt owed had been reduced and that such a situation was not uncommon with other airlines.
Tribune Business also reported this week that Captain Butler confirmed Sky Bahamas has been seeking a "strategic partner" to help take its business forward.