By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamasair yesterday said it is planning a 20 percent cut to its summer schedule after incurring $18.5m in revenue losses and unfunded costs due to the combination of Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19.
Tracy Cooper, the national flag carrier’s managing director, told Tribune Business that the nearly three-month pandemic lockdown had forced the airline to incur $10.5m worth of costs without a single cent of revenue income to fund this.
And, with Dorian's fall-out contributing to an $8m year-over-year revenue decline, Mr Cooper said Bahamasair (and its taxpayer financier) had suffered a significant hit for its 2019-2020 financial year as it bids once more to return to the skies with Monday's re-opening of domestic inter-island air travel.
He explained that the airline will offer a "truncated schedule" for two to three weeks while it obtains a better read on market demand, adding that all destinations apart from Freeport and Abaco will have "no more than one flight a day".
Mr Cooper said Bahamasair will then switch to a "summer schedule" that will be 20 percent reduced compared to normal given expectations that the air transportation sector will "not be as robust as last year" given the mass unemployment and reduced incomes affecting many Bahamians as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He added that it was impossible for Bahamasair, as with other airlines, to remove plane seats as means of enforcing social distancing because the reduced passenger load factor capacity would increase travel costs by 30-40 percent - an outcome that would put many in the industry out of business, as well as placing air travel beyond the financial reach of many consumers.
Pointing out that "a balance" must be struck between health and economic demands, Mr Cooper said: "Bahamasair is planning for bringing flights back. We're following in the Government's phased opening of the economy, and domestic travel is part of phase four, which starts on Monday.
"We have set out a schedule, a limited schedule, to come out in line with how we believe demand will increase. That's something we will monitor and adjust accordingly. We do intend to have flights on the line for Monday morning, and this will be in play for a two to three-week period where we have a truncated schedule.
"The truncated schedule, apart from Freeport and Abaco, all destinations will have no more than one flight a day. Some locations, Acklins, Crooked Island and Treasure Cay, will only have two flights per week. After that we will move into a summer schedule. Going into the summer schedule there will be a 20 percent reduction because air transportation is not as robust as last year. We've dropped the capacity for the summer by 20 percent."
Outlining COVID-19's costs to Bahamasair, Mr Cooper told Tribune Business: "The airline has had an estimated static expense to the tune of about $10.5m. We were losing through three-and-a-half months. April, May and most of March. Even though the COVID-19 lockdown went into effect from March 24, we were reducing flights drastically before that for almost a month."
And Hurricane Dorian produced an $8m year-over-year revenue loss. The Bahamasair chief said the Category Five storm's impact on The Bahamas' second and third largest population centres had reduced flights, routes and passenger volumes domestically as well as internationally, pointing to the impact on the national flag carrier's service to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, respectively, from Freeport and Abaco.
"The country went into a standstill. Nobody did any flying. The shell shock of Dorian suppressed the travel market immensely," Mr Cooper said. He added that its impact was felt by Bahamasair for a three to four-month period starting in September 2019, with passenger load factors to Haiti impacted by the storm's devastating effects on communities in Abaco.
Mr Cooper added that Bahamasair is following International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines, as well as Bahamian health protocols, is implementing on-plane COVID-19 measures. He said "social distancing on the aircraft itself is not really going to work" given the confined cabin space in which crew and passengers must operate.
With pressurised compartments and airflows that are regulated every two minutes, Mr Cooper said the "head to toe" flow of air conditioning systems meant air was taken "in a direction where it is not blowing on anyone else".
He added that even if so-called 'middle seats' were removed passengers would only be one feet to 16 inches from each other - a far cry from the six-feet distancing normally required. Instead, enforcing the wearing of protective masks by all passengers and application of hand sanitisers will be critical for the aviation industry's rebound.
"We don't expect planes to fly at full capacity in this COVID-19 environment, and we've dropped the capacity for the summer by 20 percent," Mr Cooper added, suggesting that wearing masks dropped the risk of spreading COVID-19 infection to around just 5 percent. For a "nominal fee", with taxes stripped out, he said passengers could also purchase the plane seat next to them for extra security.
"It's physically impossible to move the seats," the Bahamasair managing director told Tribune Business. "You have to pay for the expenses of the aircraft. The profit mandate for most airlines is based on the plane being 85-90 percent full.
"If we have to take out all those seats the cost of travel will go up significantly by 30-40 percent per person, and that's not what the market is looking for. You have to have a balance. You'll find most airlines are taking that approach."
Mr Cooper nevertheless said he was "very confident" that Bahamasair will rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that it "plays a vital role in Bahamian infrastructure" and is effectively "the transportation system if the country" in providing service to the Family Islands.
Anticipating that demand for routes into central and south Florida could rebound relatively quickly, he added that cost containment measures may also be needed "to make it all work".
Most of Bahamasair's office and administrative staff reported back to work yesterday, while operations personnel will return on Monday as flights resume.