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US snubs Air Jamaica deadline

Is America tightening the screws in 'Dudus' extradition dispute?

Thursday, April 08, 2010    

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THE United States Department of Transportation (DOT) has failed to grant a desperate request from Air Jamaica by April 5, 2010, that would have allowed the airline an easier transition to ownership by Trinidad-based Caribbean Airlines Limited (CAL).

At the same time, the Government has dispatched a team to Washington to try to convince the Department to renegotiate Jamaica's current Open Skies Agreement, giving Caribbean Airlines the right to operate on routes the Jamaican airline currently flies.

The technical team is also seeking to press the US to grant Air Jamaica's March 24 request to continue to operate on the terms of its existing authority during the six to 12 month transition period expected under the divestment with CAL. The Jamaicans had asked the US to respond by April 5.

Failing that permission, the airline is asking the Americans for an urgent waiver of the DOT's standard ownership and control policy in order for it to maintain services for the one-year period, under its Transitional Services Agreement (TSA) with Caribbean Airlines.

Apparently running well behind schedule now, Air Jamaica yesterday announced it was pushing back its previously publicised April 12, 2010 deadline for the TSA to April 30.

Last week, chief executive officer (CEO) of Air Jamaica Bruce Nobles confirmed contents of a letter from the airline's lawyer saying that Caribbean Airlines could not operate under Jamaica's current bilateral Open Skies Agreement without permission from the US and Canadian departments of transportation.

"Clearly, for Caribbean Airlines to take over the Air Jamaica routes they would have to have the authority from the countries we fly to be able to do so and Jamaica has an Open Skies Agreement that will have to be renegotiated," Nobles told the Observer.

That was not something the airline would get involved in because it was the purview of the Ministry of Transport and the air policy committee, he added.

Nobles explained that this would be part of the transition agreement and as such approval for Caribbean Airlines to operate the Jamaican routes would not happen in the initial stage.

"That is a political discussion that is going to transpire over a period of time," he said, noting that discussions about bilateral and legal authorities would be between the governments of Jamaica, Trinidad, US and Canada.

"That is way above my pay grade and it is really inappropriate and premature to speculate on these things," Nobles said when pressed as to whether there was anything that could prevent the granting of such permission.

Speculation was rife that with the extradition dispute over Jamaica's refusal to hand over Tivoli Gardens strongman Christopher 'Dudus' Coke -- to face charges of gun and drug trafficking -- the US would use the occasion to tighten the screws.

But yesterday, an upbeat Information Minister Daryl Vaz, while admitting that the April 5 deadline was not met, said the team currently in Washington was reporting that the negotiations were going well.

"Based on the report that came to Cabinet yesterday by Minister Henry, those discussions are going very well and we don't see any problems in terms of the transition between Caribbean Airlines and Air Jamaica," Vaz told journalists at yesterday's post-Cabinet press briefing at Jamaica House in Kingston.

Meanwhile, Vaz explained that Cabinet had approved an Open Skies policy for negotiation of future and renegotiation of the current air service agreement between Jamaica and other states.

"The Open Skies policy will allow for unfettered seven freedom traffic rights in relation to cargo. Seven freedom rights allow airlines to carry passengers or cargo between foreign countries without any continuing service to one's own country," he explained.

With respect to the route schedule, Vaz said there would be no restriction in regard to route and traffic rights, frequency of service or capacity.

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