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A London bridge

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In 2006, the board of directors and management of BWIA implemented a decision to stop flying to London and to sell the landing slots the airline held there. This was a controversial decision even then, when the airline was in an apparent death spiral of losses, and the airline industry was itself in a tailspin after the turn-of-the-century double whammy of reduced travel following the 9/11 disaster and the new, no-frills airlines that touted attractive prices over the romance of flying.

Recently, the new chairman of Caribbean Airlines, the successor company that took over and significantly revamped BWIA’s business, announced that the airline would be planning a return to London’s Heathrow on a timeframe that quickly stretched from months to most of a year. Returning to Heathrow, as it turns out, is more complicated than returning to the Savannah for Carnival and the enormity of what was surrendered for $50 million has prompted Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to ask Attorney General Anand Ramlogan to launch a probe into the sale of the Heathrow landing slots.

The probe announcement drew an immediate response from former Minister of Works and Transport Colm Imbert who expressed support for the probe. Landing slots are the right of an airline to schedule the space and resources of an airport for the use of their aircraft. Heathrow is one of four Level 3 co-ordinated airports in the UK, according to IATA guidelines. Since it was opened in 1946, it has grown into a major hub for passengers travelling to and from Europe and is home to British Airways and Virgin Airlines. The airport accommodates a flow of 67 million passengers annually, and just 11 per cent of them are UK bound.

Heathrow is one of the four busiest airports in the world and is currently running at almost 20 per cent over capacity for its planned passenger loads. It’s big enough to have its own press corps. BWIA had a long history with Heathrow, reaching almost back to the founding of the airport itself, but the CAL board will find, if they haven’t already, that the history of this country’s aviation involvement with the UK is now just that—a record that will offer little advantage in any future negotiations in a highly competitive aviation environment. Landing slots are a precious asset at Heathrow, and British Midlands International, which owns 11 per cent of the slots at the airport, took a decision in 2008 to fly nearly empty planes to keep its landing slots under the use-it-or-lose-it rule.

While the planned probe into the sale of the valuable Heathrow landing slots may be dismissed as political sniping or armchair quarterbacking by the ruling government, Colm Imbert’s enthusiasm for the probe is eminently supportable because it will offer the public a chance to understand the thinking that went into the 2006 sale of the slots as well as to evaluate the advisability of a return to the London airport. While it’s tempting to think of the landing slots at Heathrow in terms of national pride, that would be a mistake if CAL is expected to operate as a commercial airline with an expectation of profitability and a mandate not to become the drain on the public purse that BWIA represented for far too long.

It’s quite likely that the demise of the London route was the result of decades of lackluster marketing to the European tourist market, particularly in the face of Barbados’ more successful efforts to appeal to that segment of recreational travel. It was no secret, for instance, that most travellers on BWIA’s London route boarded and deplaned in Barbados. The Government is urged to host a brisk, transparent probe into the matter in the interests of public information and discussion so that the plan to return to Heathrow might be more thoroughly informed by the business planning and financial realities that led to the sale of the landing slots in the first place.


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