Editorial | Air Jamaica? Forget it!
It is easy to romanticise about the good old days of Air Jamaica as a letter writer did recently while calling for a rebirth of the “little piece of Jamaica that flies”.
Indeed, this little airline brokered a pride in its citizenry that is hard to match. For instance, any gathering of people in the diaspora today is bound to come around to the demand for a new Air Jamaica. They mostly loved the fact that the island’s vibrant culture and the nuances of the Jamaican persona were on full display on these flights – whether in the twirl of its love birds-turned-model or in the imaginative meals that were served.
The demand for a national airline soars whenever there is a crisis that disrupts airlifts to the island. Currently, the COVID-19 crisis, which forced the closure of our borders, is one such occasion that gives rise to the renewed clamour for an Air Jamaica. Jamaicans stranded abroad seemingly have notions of Air Jamaica coming to rescue them, many of them not fully understanding the enormous costs involved in operating these aircraft.
Operating an airline is a tough business, with its high fixed and varied costs, which make it hard to turn a profit. You may save on fuel, but you still have obligations like labour costs, rent, and financial commitments. Countries with tourism-driven economies sometimes support airlines because they feel that if they stop them flying, no other airline would fill the gap. So unprofitable airlines continue to be propped up by governments that will offer them bailouts as soon as they falter.
In the case of the heavily subsidised Air Jamaica, poor management decisions, fierce competition by discount no-frills airlines, and alleged abuse by government operatives and staff, together with inordinate delays, led to its demise. In private hands, it did worse as not even the magic of Sandals hotel magnate Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart could turn things around. He did, however, create colourful livery, which started a worldwide trend.
Many post-mortem examinations of Air Jamaica have taken place. For example, while the airline was the flag carrier of Jamaica, it was not wholly supported by government employees, for example, who were not mandated to use the airline for business travel, so they took their business to the competitors.
Few of these perspectives fail to also mention the selfishness of Jamaicans who thought nothing about smuggling drugs on the airline, setting up Air Jamaica for huge fines, increased security costs, and a shredded reputation. In the end, the Government of the day was relieved to salvage a 16 per cent stake after hiving it off to Caribbean Airlines.
Today, the aviation industry is one of the hardest hit in the global pandemic. Many will not survive. It is estimated that it will take up to US$5 trillion to patch up the industry. Jamaica could not absorb these losses were Air Jamaica still around. We acknowledge that it is very important for visitors to get to the island in support of tourism, and currently, Jamaica is served by a number of international carriers that are likely to survive the pandemic.
So the next time someone raises sentimental arguments about resuscitating Air Jamaica, they would do well to acknowledge that for 40 years, Air Jamaica was in the red. It is a wonder that it lasted for 42 years.