Richard Browne, Business Reporter
Jamaica at one time boasted some 60 airstrips, many used by owners of their own airplanes.
The love of flying evolved out of war seven decades ago, in which about 10,000 Jamaicans were part of Britain's Royal Air Force. Back on home soil, the yen to fly persisted.
"Back then, to move around the island, it made sense to fly," said Dudley Beek, owner and operator of Dustair Limited.
But: "The 40 years of negative growth since Independence has meant aviation has declined with the decline in the economy," Beek said.
Some of those war talents were later commercialised. But outside of those in the business of selling aviation services, there is no known local registry of private airplane owners and operators.
Still, while few if any Jamaicans own aircraft for pleasure anymore, aviation industry sources tell the Financial Gleaner that there are at least eight owners/lessors of planes used by the corporate bosses of some of the larger and more well-established companies. But tracking them down was challenging.
They include, industry sources say, Digicel, Tank-Weld, the Hendricksons, Sandals, SuperClubs, Jamaica Broilers Group and MegaMart/Bashco and Gore Homes.
"It's something we don't discuss in the public eye," said Gary 'Butch' Hendrickson of the Hendrickson family of companies.
Mum on the matter
Similarly, a spokesman for MegaMart/ Bashco Chairman Gassan Assan said he would not participate in this story; SuperClubs Chairman John Issa's office said he would rather not be mentioned at this time; and the three representatives of Gore said to have the authority to speak were reportedly out of office and did not return calls for comment.
Beek says aviation in Jamaica is dying. There are only nine airstrips left around the country, and the local pool of pilots has shrivelled with, he said, "the demise" of Air Jamaica.
They are now living in far-flung locations, flying for airlines in places like Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, India and nearer to home in the United States, he said.
Air Jamaica was sold to Trinidad in 2010, but Jamaica retains ownership of the brand name.
Beek's own business, which services the agriculture industry, may soon go under, he said, while blaming the sector's ill-health.
Even the ganja planes have largely gone, said the aviator, as go-fast boats have proven to be far more economical and successful.
"Send out 10 go-fast boats, and you can be guaranteed that nine will meet their destination," he said.
Lt Cdr John McFarlane, senior director of operations at Airport Authority of Jamaica, acknowledges that information on private planes is tightly guarded.
"In the 1970s, owners had no problem in acknowledging that they had an aeroplane. But now there is a reluctance," he said.
Going through the Jamaican registry of civil aircraft is not an option.
"The challenge is that many Jamaican-owned corporate planes are registered in the US or Cayman Islands. They are registered abroad but are based here normally," McFarlane said.
"There are challenges to registering in Jamaica. If the plane is registered locally, the cost of insurance is significantly higher than if under US or Caymanian registry."
Shaun Schroeter, flight operations manager at Airways International, would not divulge the names of companies which operate corporate jets, but confirmed that there are now "eight jets in total, with 95 per cent of them based in Kingston and not Montego Bay.
"The majority of them, 99 per cent of them," he said for emphasis, "are leased. The companies normally lease them for five years and then renew and upgrade."
It is public knowledge that Digicel and Sandals Resorts International both operate corporate jets. Earlier this year, a government delegation led by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller flew to the funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on Digicel's jet. And back in 2010, Sandals flew then Prime Minister Bruce Golding to Haiti after that country's earthquake disaster.
Some of the companies with corporate planes have major businesses and markets abroad. Digicel is spread throughout the Caribbean and Central America, Sandals and SuperClubs have hotels throughout the Caribbean, and Jamaica Broilers has business in Haiti.
Digicel's founder Denis O'Brien also has his own personal jet.
Tank-Weld has its own small aircraft, a Cessna 206, which is single-propeller plane used daily for flights to an airstrip that the company leases beside its port at Rio Bueno in Trelawny.
"The flight takes half an hour as opposed to two and a half hours," said CEO Chris Bicknell, saving the company valuable time.
Not every company sees the necessity for a corporate jet. GraceKennedy, a large conglomerate with business in the Caribbean, North America, Europe and now Africa, says it has "no plans to have its own plane at this time."
Aviation sources say the range of Jamaican corporate planes includes Learjet and Cessna Citation aircraft.
Citations, which carry up to nine passengers, range in price from US$3.3 million to more than US$25 million (J$330m to J$2.5b) for a top-of-the-line jet. Learjets of a similar size can go for similar prices.
Those prices fade in comparison to a Bombadier Global Express jet, which has a listed price of around US$52 million (J$5.2 billion). One of these is owned by Michael Lee-Chin, majority owner and chairman of National Commercial Bank Jamaica.
In October 2011, Lee-Chin told Profit Guide, a Canadian business magazine, that his most prized possession was his high-speed jet, as it gives him greater flexibility and loosens his time constraints.
"Last week, in one week, I flew down to Mexico City and spent a day there. Then I went to Colombia, and spent three days there. From there, I flew directly to Trinidad at my leisure. Then I flew to the Dominican Republic, then to Jamaica. That would have been impossible if I'd had to fly commercial - for one thing, there is no direct flight from Colombia to Trinidad," Lee-Chin told the magazine.
"Without the jet, that trip would have taken two weeks, and I would have accomplished a lot less. It gives me an opportunity to be a lot more efficient."
Inside Jamaica, where the aviation industry includes several small commercial businesses that move people and cargo inter-island and overseas, there are 52 aircraft on the Jamaican Civil Aircraft Register of the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority for August.
Just 16 of them are registered as active, with 32 listed as inoperative, two as crashed, one in maintenance and another one which has deregistered.
None of the corporate planes are on the list.
In terms of companies that have registered their aircraft, Tara Couriers and TimAir are the largest with four each.
Airline International, an airline handler based at the Norman Manley International Airport (NMIA), services an average of three to four foreign corporate jets per day. But the company also has several Jamaican clients, according to representative Nicolas Duncan.
AJAS, another handling company, mainly caters to larger airlines, but says it does handle about one private jet per week.
Altogether, there are 3,000 movements of private aircraft per year, according to Airport Authority data. The data indicates that the number of private jets landing and taking off at NMIA is on the decline.
For the first seven months of this year, the movement of NMIA non-scheduled aircraft with capacity less than or equal to 30 passengers and which are not cargo flights or military flights, is down by 15 per cent over the same period last year.
There were 2,905 movements which fit the description of private aircraft up to the end of July, compared to 3,425 for the same period last year.
For all of 2012, there were 5,553 movements compared to a five-year high of 5,868 in 2010 - a reduction of 5.4 per cent.