By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamian aviation operators yesterday warned "the fight is still on for survival" despite the Government's move to re-open inter-island commercial air travel from tomorrow.
Anthony K Hamilton, president of the Bahamas Association of Air Transport Operators, told Tribune Business that the re-opening made little business sense for the industry given the continuing COVID-19 14-day quarantine imposed on all passengers travelling between different islands.
Suggesting that this will continue to deter persons from flying unless for emergencies or essential business/medical trips, Mr Hamilton said the reduced passenger load factors and revenues would inevitably cause further losses for domestic airlines.
Suggesting it might make more sense to remain grounded in these circumstances, he added that the continuing requirement for all persons travelling from New Providence to obtain a negative COVID-19 PCR test represented a further impediment and expense for consumers in the industry's largest and most critical market.
"You're spot on," he replied, when asked by Tribune Business whether it made sense to re-open commercial inter-island air travel amid the continuing presence of these restrictions. "Just as you were calling I was pondering that right now.
"How does it make sense to work? We are struggling right now. Basic economics: Supply and demand. If there's no traffic to move, it makes no sense. It doesn't make sense for the sector to be flying with one or two passengers. I hate to say that because we have to strike a delicate balance between health and commerce. We're prepared to work with them [the Government] but we need to talk."
The resumption of inter-island commercial air travel in the Bahamas from tomorrow was announced yesterday by both Dr Hubert Minnis, the Prime Minister, and Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation.
"Hearing the minister of tourism make his statement about the domestic aviation sector was the first time in all this that I'd heard him make definitive statement. That was so telling," Mr Hamilton added of the restart confirmation.
"All the communications have been so challenging. I'm not certain what will take place and we're sitting on the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens. There needs to be further clarity brought to this, but this is a wait and see situation.
"We're taking our lead from the national flag carrier. That's the best gamble we can take. The communication [from government during COVID-19] has been like you were gambling and it was high stakes. The information has not been flowing, and we're relying on Bahamasair's response based on the information they have," he continued.
"I have an appreciation for what the Government is trying to achieve, but this will be a serious challenge for the business sector of aviation to generate any meaningful from this. An individual who flies to Nassau has to pay additional expenses to get a COVID-19 PCR test for his return and quarantine for 14 days. We understand the health and safety aspects but this really is a challenge."
The domestic aviation industry, supposed to be reserved for Bahamian-owned companies only, is just one of many sectors hit hard by COVID-19. Commercial flights were again halted in August to stop COVID-19's spread, leaving operators earning revenue in just two of the last six months since the mid-March 2020 border closure.
While some have provided emergency flights, Mr Hamilton told Tribune Business that despite tomorrow's re-opening "the fight is still on for survival" among both industry operators and employees to preserve both companies and jobs.
"We're not unique in that many other sectors are also feeling the pinch of this," he said. "I hate to say there will be more casualties, but it's almost inevitable primarily because the bills never stop even though the planes have not been moving. There are financial commitments that have to be met.
"It's not necessarily just the owners only but the staff and support personnel of these operators and their families, and what's happening for them. Not being able to carry a full load of passengers is a very challenging situation. You're now dug deep into the hole. We've been in this for six months."
While Bahamian carriers could fly between Family Islands to avoid the COVID-19 PCR test requirement still imposed on New Providence, Mr Hamilton said this would deprive the industry of its "central hub" and main passenger hub.
"It's a challenge to come in and quarantine for 14 days and take a test behind that," he added. "Very few people will pursue that. It would be better to stay at home and, rather than travel to New Providence, have a courier do business for you.
"Physical movement is a serious challenge. It's a tough call and I sympathise with the Government, but it's not making much sense for the aviation business community. Critical in the midst of this is proper dialogue. There must be engagement and inclusivity. The decisions must not be made in isolation; they shouldn't be made in isolation."
Tommy Turnquest, Bahamasair's chairman, yesterday also indicated that the continuing COVID-19 restrictions would likely dampen demand for inter-island travel despite the industry's resumption of flying tomorrow.
He also confirmed Tribune Business's previous revelations that Bahamasair had under-estimated its monthly cash burn rate by 50 percent, as the actual costs it has had to cover in the absence of zero revenue are $7m - a sum double or 100 percent greater than the previously-cited $3.5m.
Denying that there was any attempt to "massage the figures", Mr Turnquest said the latter figure just covered the already loss-making national flag carrier's wage bill and did not include airport fees, leases and insurances. He added that the revision, previously announced by Mr D'Aguilar, had resulted from a "deeper dive" into the financials.