Business

Caribbean Aviation aims to boost domestic air travel

Flight school expands to fill void in domestic air travel, help pilots

By Julian Richardson Assistant Business Co-ordinator richardsonj@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, February 07, 2014    

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Caribbean Aviation Training Centre (CATC) has expanded into providing regular charter service, a move aimed at procuring a share of the domestic travel market while providing much-needed flight experience to young pilots in the airline industry.

The popular Tinson Pen-based flight school, spearheaded by pilot and former Jamaica Defence Force official Captain Errol Stewart, will offer on-demand shuttle services into five airports on the island -- the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, Montego Bay-based Sangster International, Port Antonio's Ken Jones, the Ian Flemming International Airport in Boscobel and the Negril Aerodrome.

Stewart told Caribbean Business Report that the move was influenced by both the need to fill a void for domestic airline services as well as a huge gap in flight hours for young pilots seeking jobs in an industry that is now demanding up to 10 times the amount of flight hours needed to get a commercial pilot license.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made a ruling last year that raised to 1,500 the minimum flight hours required by first officers for air carriers.

"It leaves a gap because you get your commercial license in the States with 150 hours and in Jamaica at 190 hours, meaning you are now marketable but not qualified for airlines until 1,500 hours," Stewart told the newspaper on Wednesday.

"The demand for pilots has grown tremendously, so much now that some airlines have now had to ground their aircraft due to lack of pilots with experience," he noted. "We have to fill the gap for them."

CATC since inception in 2001 has graduated more than 850 pilots, many of whom are making their mark all over the world, and are to be found especially in countries in the Middle East and in the US, where they have grasped opportunities in the commercial airline industry and the military. The flight school is just one of 300 worldwide that have been set up by the Cessna aircraft company, and is guided by both the FAA and the Jamaica Civil Aviation regulations.

While the flight school — which has had a charter licence since inception — provided charter service on the odd occasion in the past, it was lured to begin offering regular services partly due to a void left in the domestic air travel market following exits by carriers such as Air Jamaica Express and more recently Jamaica Air Shuttle.

"We saw a gap when there was no regular commercial domestic transport within the island, so we talked to our investor, leased an aircraft and we are going to be moving people on demand and at the same time giving the younger pilots time-building," said Stewart, who reckons that through employment at CATC, pilots could be ready within two years to meet regulation requirements for the wider airline industry.

Indeed, the flight school recently acquired a Baron 58 twin-engined aircraft in a lease purchase contract for the venture.

The Baron 58, its tail painted in the Jamaican colours, has four executive seats and is available along with CATC's pre-existing three Cessna 172 airplanes to do the on-demand charters.

"The Baron was brought in because the regulation doesn't allow for night flying of single-engine aircraft in a commercial capacity," said Stewart.

"One of the passion that we have is that we want to sell Jamaica, and the Jamaican colours is our brand that we put on the tail of our aircraft," he noted, adding "We are restoring that beauty in the sky that flies."

CATC, which has a staff complement of 24, has so far hired six pilots for the service expansion. Stewart said the number of workers will grow with demand and the medium term plan is to add another two planes to the fleet.

While the CATC founder did not state specifically how much money has been invested in the venture so far, he hinted that it has been substantial.

"We have dwindled down our bank account to zero to start," Stewart joked.

He is undaunted by a domestic air travel industry that has not been kind to operators in recent years. Jamaica Air Shuttle, which offered domestic and regional flights and employed around 35 persons, grounded its aircraft last year, the carrier blaming difficult market conditions and a confluence of shocks -- including the debt exchange, the general election and the Tivoli incursion -- for its decision.

"I don't sell what I can't sustain, I have confidence because of the business model I have taken," Stewart assured. "Small profit and volumes sustain the business. We want a sustainable product that doesn't just come up today and die tomorrow due to lack of proper planning."

He identified luxury coach service provider Knutsford Express as CATC's major competitor, from which it wants to take back market share that went to the bus company amid the fallout in domestic airline service.

Knutsford, which recently raised $100 million on the Jamaica Stock Exchange, operates a fleet of more than 14 luxury buses, ranging from 31 to 45 seats, and has control over Jamaica's two major corridors for ground travel. It emerged in June 2006, Air Jamaica Express' last year in operation, and has capitalised over the years on growing demand from cross-island commuters seeking a better value proposition than driving their own cars.

Stewart explained that CATC's value proposition is "for those who want to cut time" significantly in travelling cross country, in a comfortable setting with top notch customer service.

"Three hours versus half an hour, and we go into all the five airports in Jamaica," the former army man said.

"We can take three people to Montego Bay for US$700 and, if they are going to do their business within an hour or two, we will wait on them and bring them back," he added, noting that the service is price-competitive as well.

Stewart's confidence is strengthened by what he said is the current strong leadership atop the local aviation industry.

"We now have people with integrity leading the industry. There were issues of questionable integrity of people at the top making decisions in the past," Stewart said.

"Now, you have a situation at the top where people are leading with the industry operators in mind and the camaraderie that is there is stronger than it has ever been," he continued. "Investors can feel more comfortable that their needs will be met and can be achieved because of the support of the regulators."

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