By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamian domestic airlines have “paid the price” for the recent Omicron-led COVID case surge with a 15-20 percent drop in passenger numbers, an industry executive has revealed.
Anthony K Hamilton, president of the Bahamas Association of Air Transport Operators, told Tribune Business that the explosion in infection numbers that began over the Christmas/New Year period had been “painful” for local operators yet they were not “discouraged” by the two-year hammering inflicted by the pandemic.
He added that pilots, in particular, had shown “their willingness to sacrifice” to keep airlines and the Family Island economies they support going, but “right now staying in the business is a major thing” with survival the top priority for many.
“How should I put that? It was meaningful,” Mr Hamilton replied, when asked by this newspaper how the Omicron surge has impacted Bahamian-owned airlines. “I would say we probably got a 15-20 percent hit as a result of that.
“We paid the price for it, but one thing I can say about the operators is that they’re not discouraged. It’s painful but they’re hopeful things are going to turn around. That’s why we all need to get together and determine how best to come out of it.
“From a socio-economic standpoint it’s not only Nassau that’s impacted; it’s the Family Islands, too. I’m encouraged by the spirit of the operators in not giving up. That’s important,” he continued.
“One thing you find from the domestic operators is that their pilots love the industry. The willingness to sacrifice for the recovery is endemic among them; that exuberance, the confidence for the turnaround.”
Mr Hamilton said that while domestic aviation was clearly “still trailing” pre-COVID business volumes and passenger numbers, it was impossible to determine the gap or how fa the industry has to go to a full recovery due to the lack of data.
“That’s another segment to the sector, having the statistical data, which is a national thing that has plagued us,” he added. “That’s another lesson to be learned from this exercise - that we capture quality data so we can make scientific decisions.”
Determining a “proper valuation of the aviation sector” in terms of its gross domestic product (GDP) contribution was critical, Mr Hamilton added, given that Family Island economies depended on the tourism, commercial and transportation links that it provides. Such data was also critical to developing a “proper national plan for Bahamian aviation”.
“The fight is real,” he added. “This is a real situation for us. Why do I say that? During the course of the pandemic it was very challenging for domestic operators because we rely on break bulk from the tourism industry. This is forcing us to take a look at ourselves. Decisions have to be made to stay alive in the midst of this.”
Mr Hamilton explained that domestic operators were struggling to earn “new money” from current of future passengers, as they were seeing many persons who had previously postponed trips - but already paid for them and left the airlines holding that money - start to rebook as the economy revived.
“For the domestic operators bookings are challenged because people had cancelled,” he said. ‘We’re seeing the back end of this. People are cancelling and trying to rebook. It’s old money, and costs have already been incurred along the way. Persons who booked previously, we gave them leeway with that.
“It’s old passenger money that we’ve been spending. It’s a challenge having to generate new money, new revenue to come in. Right now staying in the business is a major thing.”
Mr Hamilton said Bahamian-owned airlines had seen their “fair share” of staff isolations and quarantines due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, with persons either testing positive or deemed close contacts. As a result, companies had been forced to “scale down” their operations according to the number of employees deemed fit and healthy to work.
Reiterating previous calls for a national aviation plan, he added: “We need to look at the sector and the way forward. This is a golden opportunity for us to sit down and have engagement to determine the best way to go forward.
“That’s the most critical thing to come out of this; taking responsibility for the sector collectively and pushing the sector forward. A lot of us are learning some things, and it’s forcing us to be creative in this process. It’s a great teacher. I’m looking forward to sitting down and charting a proper course for the aviation industry going forward.”