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Low fares not enough - Few takers as airlines open bookings for flights in May

Published:Wednesday | April 15, 2020 | 12:29 AMSteven Jackson/Senior Business Reporter
Jamaica’s largest airport Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay . The airport recorded a 46 per cent decline in passenger throughput in March.
Jamaica’s largest airport Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay . The airport recorded a 46 per cent decline in passenger throughput in March.

Air travel to Jamaica plunged by nearly 50 per cent through its largest and busiest airport in the month of March, equating to around 230,000 passengers.

April is also expected to follow that trajectory amid the travel ban, and as persons shelter in their countries and communities to mitigate the spread of the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus.

A number of major airlines are now taking bookings for early May, but have only been able to fill about 30 per cent of their seat capacity for flights to Jamaica, even with low fares.

For travellers, there are plenty of deals for round trips between Jamaica and American cities for under US$350, inclusive of taxes.

Tara Bradshaw, chief development officer at Trafalgar Travel, told the Financial Gleaner that the low passenger load factor was not surprising as confidence needs to re-enter the travel sector for persons to start flying again, and that discounted fares is just not enough to overcome their health fears.

“Confidence will return when we flatten the curve and start to get this virus under control. Then you will see businesses holding conferences again and people taking vacations,” said Bradshaw.

The Financial Gleaner checked the available seats of major airlines on the first week of their planned re-entry into Jamaica, starting May 1 – airlines such as JetBlue, American Airlines, Delta, Caribbean Airlines, WestJet, Air Canada and British Airways – and found that most of the flights were between 15 and 30 per cent filled, based on checks of the cabin which shows the assigned seating arrangement.

“The booking might rise closer to the time of departure,” Bradshaw said.

Pre-booked flights to New York and Florida are about 20 to 30 per cent cheaper in price, but those to Atlanta are not discounted, she said.

Atlanta is less affected by the coronavirus compared to New York, which holds the highest number of cases, and deaths, in the United States.

The bookings indicate that Caribbean Airlines flights from the John F. Kennedy Airport to Kingston, and Delta Airline flights from Atlanta to Montego Bay, had the highest passenger load factors of over 50 per cent, up to Tuesday. Bradshaw did not want to speculate on whether those flights which appeared half-full were carrying returning Jamaicans rather than tourists.

The bulk of the flights booked originate from tourist source destinations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, which Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett is taking as a positive sign.

“Indeed, these types of load factors would be in line with a phased resumption of the travel and tourist industry,” Bartlett told the Financial Gleaner, numbers that would improve over time, he added, based on how the pandemic is managed globally.

MBJ Airports Limited, which operates the largest airport in the Caribbean, Sangster International, did not immediately return calls for comment on what its projections are showing.

The travel ban implemented by Jamaica is in effect until April 18 but could be extended. Additionally, source nations have their own travel bans.

The flight bookings show the airlines expect to be back in the Jamaican skies by the start of May: including British Airways on May 1, Caribbean Airlines, Delta and JetBlue on May 2; Canadian budget carrier WestJet, which is taking bookings for flights on May 4 to Sangster Airport in Montego Bay; and American Airlines starting May 8 from JFK to Kingston, but no flights were booked up to Tuesday for Montego Bay through that airline. Air Canada direct flights to Jamaica are due to resume on June 1.

In March, some 261,400 air passengers arrived in Jamaica through Sangster International Airport and an additional 74,000 through the Norman Manley International Airport, according to data released this week by the Pacific Airport Group, GAP, which operates the two airports.

The numbers for Sangster represent a 46 per cent drop in arrivals relative to from the previous year, according to GAP. That equates to roughly 230,000 fewer passengers in the island in March than a year earlier. GAP did not disclose the fallout for NMIA.

“The airlines are consolidating with fewer flights, but travel will not stop,” Bradshaw reasoned about the future. She added that once travellers get more safety information from airlines and governments, then bookings will follow. Trafalgar recently launched its Guinep app to connect to potential customers online, with travel agent support on the back-end.

The decline in Jamaica reflects the global downturn in air travel.

On Tuesday, the International Air Transport Association, IATA, projected that the pandemic would see airline passenger revenues drop by US$314 billion in 2020, a 55 per cent decline compared to 2019. Additionally, the impact of reduced economic activity in second quarter is expected to result in a 8.0 per cent fall in passenger demand in the third quarter, IATA said.