Columns

Air Jamaica, RIP - the pride, the lessons, the legacy

Franklin Johnston

Friday, May 07, 2010    

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The grief on the demise of Air Jamaica (JM) is palpable. May 1 is the day we broke up with this expensive mistress! The Lovebird was good for our psyche and self-image, not our pocket. It carried some 300k locals on repeat trips, two million of us never set foot on it but we are moved, as a relative or we knew someone who knew someone who worked there. JM was family! Please save me a memento - a poster, a check-in sign, a pilot's hat - "so me grand pickney dem" can see we had an airline and in time they may sell it for millions on eBay. Yes, the debt JM accumulated could have made all of us literate, but we loved the iron bird. Men have lost fortunes for love; we loved an airline! The unique ICAO mark "AJM" and IATA's "JM" will not be forgotten; but have we learnt how to craft industry development strategies or run a businesslike business? Not one bit!

Founded in 1968, JM belongs to the genre of vanity airlines set up by ex-colonies to thumb their noses at the British. With jet power and independence our politicians "faced down" the Empire - we were as good as Britain! Modelled on the Canadian carrier, part-owned by Canada, JM was class, success, jobs for children of the gentry and fresh-faced young women and men from town and country learnt a skill, and an iconic new industry was born. Would it grow? Why did it end with acrimony and shambles? Why, after decades could our aviation industry not absorb JM staff? Let's explore!

JM was the taxi for white tourists, had a white CEO at the start and at the bitter end. Our job was to cough up the taxes to pay for it. Nothing wrong here, but governments had no strategic vision for the airline or sector. It had a "minibus mentality", trained pilots and attendants (drivers and conductors) and in 50 years trained no top team; so in 2010 there was no cadre of local graduate CEOs and airline experts to give a JALPA bid business credibility. The flight-attendant class was driven by pulchritude - size zero, smart, well-mannered, pretty - JM does not do ugly! Trainee pilots were handsome apprentices suited to flying - JM was like a marriage website. The deportment and esprit de corps was tops and the crew "out of many one". They had a code of conduct and did us proud in the skies and on the ground. A few moved money, gems, drugs, goods - every job has deviants. JM was church, staff were believers and we admirers. We caught a glimpse of the elegant uniforms on the tarmac from the waving gallery! In the 1992 airshow, more than 1m locals saw their taxes at work - pilots and attendants up close; aircraft, airports and live aerobatics - the closest many ever got to air travel. People loved JM!

Some two decades ago higglers colonised JM and the era of the box travel arrived; heavy essence sat beside posh perfume; "Mavis, put da wan deh eena fi yu obahed, fi mi cyaan hol' no mor'!". Broad in the beam, vivacious, each was diva in style, scent, hair sculpture, bleach and sense of entitlement, "Nobaddy nuh betta dan me!" - vintage Yard! They kept JM afloat and recouped from customers. We paid up and got value from higglers, not from JM, as the Lovebird still could not make its payroll, so we paid up again.

JM did not fail because of the economy. This is its second divestment in a tale of serial insolvency. For 25 years we tried to divest it - God bless T&T! In this period over 900 airlines have failed, including Swissair, Pan Am, Aloha, Eastern, Air Wales, Air Gabon, LAB (Bolivia); some had long history, safety records, run by rich nations with rock-solid economies. Like those, JM did not fail as an airline. It failed as a business - good airline, bad business; good pilots, attendants, aircraft and safety record but can't pay its bills.

What then is the JM legacy? What do we learn? My dad taught me: "Never fall in love with anything you pay money for!" Love your dog, cat, people; but car, business, house, land you keep or dispose of on its performance! JM lasted long, given that our leaders failed to develop the aviation industry to buffer it. Still, it created value:

*A cadre of skilled pilots and customer care professionals - decades of HR investment.

*JM created the diaspora and remittances. Yes! those abroad saw there was value here.

*The Lovebird inspired the nation. But as there is no vacuum in tourist airlift - as Hawaii proved - we can now end the subsidy of package trips and we will earn more.

*We developed world-class airport infrastructure, civil-service expertise and contacts in treaties, law and negotiation. So, what's the downside? In sum, after decades we have no sustainable aviation industry and no back-up plan for the JM staff. Check this:

*Government had no industry vision; they employed no graduate interns and fostered no cadre of local executives and experts in airline affairs - no chiefs, just front-line workers.

*JM was a parasite on the executive talent of local firms. Many local, global and utility firms sent graduates abroad to understudy CEO and expert jobs. JM did not! The

work-permit guys and lazy trade unions did not insist on local counterparts - gross negligence! Where is our cadre of executives and experts in airline management and technology? Multinationals are forced to train local CEOs. JM was not and we are now twice losers! We lose the airline and lose the talent in which we invested much. Shame on you!

*Governments did not integrate and embed the industry- airline, avionics, airports, civil aviation - to create robust job and investment opportunities. When I was in the sector, Boscobel was a joint venture (Canada) idea; an all-weather, residential, full-service academy for pontoon, prop, jet craft to employ pilots, Air Traffic Control trainers - all fields and to market abroad. The aviation museum was moot too. Staff will soon disappear and US$28m redundancy too - skills and capital flight! After 50 years of JM "ketchy shubby" we have nothing to show for the billions of dollars we spent; no aviation industry to absorb staff and even now, not one move to do so! Yet the JM debt will be in our budget for years to come. The government failed us and the men and women of our national airline! It's the same old story - no vision, the people perish! Tragic! Stay conscious, my friend!

Q & A: Are we sending a team to help the US with the oil well disaster in the Gulf and in the process get some hands-on disaster management training? Answers please!

Dr Franklin Johnston is an interntional project manager with Teape-Johnston Consultants, currently on assignment in the UK.

franklinjohnston@hotmail.com

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