• Sector recovered to 45% of pre-COVID levels
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamian aviation now has “a golden opportunity” to chart a brighter future despite being just “45 percent recovered” from COVID, a leading industry operator has asserted.
Anthony K Hamilton, Southern Air’s director of administration, and president of the Bahamas Association of Air Transport Operators, told Tribune Business in a recent interview that the general election outcome has paved the way for the sector and newly-elected Davis administration to develop a model that “truly appreciates the value of aviation to our society”.
With the industry providing a vital commercial and transportation lifeline for many Family Island residents, he reiterated his call to develop a national aviation strategy that ties into the National Development Plan (NDP).
“I go to the fact that, for the Bahamian aviation sector, we need a proper plan in place that allows aviation in a broad sense to have the best fit for our society,” Mr Hamilton said. “The Bahamas is very unique. The conversation has to be had so that we arrive at a particular position for the sector, and not let it happen by chance or circumstance.
“We need to sit down, like everything else in our nation right now... we need to sit down and take a proper position. This ties into the National Development Plan. With the change in administrations it’s a golden opportunity to sit down so that the nation can benefit and be unified in the way forward.
“If we don’t do that, it leaves the nation exposed to serious mishaps, not just aviation but society at large. The situation not only demands but begs that we do that. The administration is young yet, but we are prepared to make the contribution given the opportunity. Once the opportunity is there, we’re surely prepared to seize it for the good of all of us.”
Aviation is among the sectors that have been especially hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which passenger testing and other protocols continuing to impact the desire to travel both inter-island and internationally long after lockdowns and other more restrictive measures were lifted.
The industry was grounded for much of 2020 and, when asked to estimate how far domestic aviation had rebounded since those days, Mr Hamilton said: “We’re still, as a percentage, maybe at 45 percent at this particular juncture.
“There’s some sacrifice being made on behalf of the operators to keep people engaged, and give them a reprieve until things turn around properly. It’s helping to feed into the Family Island economies and that’s a critical thing, trying to ensure everybody gets something.”
Returning to the need for a domestic aviation development strategy, Mr Hamilton added: “We need to establish targets: Where do we want to go, and then we can mobilise resources to go in a particular direction with a clear understanding of what we want to achieve and measures, as we go along, to benchmark our results so we get the kind of outcomes we desire.
“It’s a golden opportunity to do that. If we don’t do that, we’re going to mess up a lot of things and cannot deliver the results we want. One of the things definitely in the conversation is truly appreciating the value of aviation to our society. That really needs to be established.
“When we think of the archipelagic structure of our nation, and reflect on the Dorian and COVID experience, that makes us think we need a definitive position in going forward. The socio-economic impact of all this demands we sit down objectively so we have a pathway. It’s a must. The quicker we do it, we will all be better for it.”
Mr Hamilton did provide any details on what he would like to see in a national aviation strategy, although he added that it was key to “understand the expectations” of the Davis administration. Nor did he mention that a national aviation sector policy was tabled in Parliament by the former Minnis administration - one of the conditions for receiving a $40m Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) loan to reform the aviation industry.
Meanwhile, adding that he did not wish to “pre-judge the situation”, Mr Hamilton said it was vital that the Government cease taking aviation-related decisions in “isolation” and “in an arbitrary manner in the absence of stakeholders” because this “creates animosity” and breeds division.
As an example of this, Mr Hamilton said in July that the Bahamian aviation industry had been thrown “a curve ball” by the government’s tightening of COVID restrictions when it had regained just 40-50 percent of pre-pandemic business.
He added that the industry had “to roll with the punches” after the then-government reintroduced the PCR test requirement for all non-vaccinated travellers leaving New Providence, Grand Bahama and Eleuthera/Harbour Island.
Mr Hamilton said the measures, brought in to counter a spike in COVID-19 cases that was threatening to overwhelm the public health system, will “certainly have an impact” on domestic aviation operators and the wider industry through “minimising to some degree the traffic potential”.
The reintroduction of the COVID-19 PCR test requirement enhanced travel costs, and the associated bureaucracy and red tape, for non-vaccinated passengers and discouraged them from travelling. These measures were subsequently relaxed by the Davis administration.