Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Chief Secretary Farley Augustine has made a passionate plea for more to be done to attract other airlines to service the local airbridge.
He has even asked if Tobago should find money to lease and operate its own planes.
Augustine’s call comes amid complaints by Tobagonians of challenges they continuously face on the air and seabridge.
Two weekends ago, thousands of domestic and international passengers suffered disruptions with their flights after over 93 Caribbean Airlines pilots called in sick.
And, last Wednesday, many passengers on board the Cabo Star were left stranded at sea for 18 hours due to a fire onboard the vessel.
Speaking during a town hall meeting on inter-island transportation and connectivity at the Mount Irvin Bay Hotel yesterday, Augustine suggested an integrated agency be created to have oversight of all air, sea and ground transportation between the islands.
He believes the time has come for Tobagonians to have more options for travel, other than CAL.
“Find some solutions outside of Caribbean Airlines and force the Government’s hand...Given the inclinations of CAL and those with powers over CAL, it might be worth our while, this morning, to consider solutions that are beyond Caribbean Airlines and beyond cursing across the waters,” Augustine said.
He questioned if the time had even come for Tobago to lease its own planes.
“We also should discuss if there are strategies we can employ outside of Cabinet, outside of Caribbean Airlines, to fix this. Should we find the money and lease some planes? Should we find every imaginable airline that we can find and have them come here directly?”
Augustine also acknowledged any airline joining the route would be at a disadvantage in terms of their ticket prices, since CAL’s services on the air bridge are subsidised.
However, he believes there are ways to work around this.
As such, the Chief Secretary suggested that assistance be given to these airlines to purchase their fuel. He said there can also be other incentives.
Augustine also voiced his disapproval of CAL’s decision to cut the number of daily flights from 24 to 12 between Trinidad and Tobago due to their non-profitability.
Referencing international transportation entities, he said many were not making a profit but still provided transportation.
“I don’t know how much money the New York Subway makes, and if it makes profit. It is very old and dirty, and the trains are creaking, and it feels as if you are falling into potholes ever so often. But I don’t know how profitable it is to them,” Augustine added.
During the meeting, stakeholders and residents also expressed their dissatisfaction with both the air and seabridge. Many people said they were fed-up with facing challenges when traversing between Trinidad and Tobago.
Some of the issues included vendors who travel to Trinidad weekly but are often left with wilted vegetables when they are stranded due to vessel delays, as well as pensioners who visit Trinidad often for medical care but end up stuck at the port, further comprising their health.
‘No need to reinvent the wheel’
But responding to the Chief Secretary’s comments yesterday, Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan said the Government has always been open to having other airlines work on the airbridge.
In a telephone interview, Sinanan said, “Any airline is free to come into Port-of-Spain once they meet the requirements and they abide by the Civil Aviation Authority’s requirements. We always go out and encourage airlines to come to Trinidad and Tobago.”
“There are private companies that offer private service between Trinidad and Tobago, between Trinidad and Guyana, St Lucia, throughout the Caribbean so that’s nothing new that Farley is speaking about. It’s whether it will be attractive for them to come and operate commercially in that sphere,” the minister added.
Asked whether the cost of flights with other airlines could be subsided, Sinanan said he could not comment further on the matter, as that fell under the remit of the Ministry of Finance.
But chairman of the Tobago Business Chamber Martin George was of the opinion there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Instead of having new airlines, he suggested CAL get its act together.
“It’s something that on paper sounds good. But, in reality, it may not be that easy to put into effect. So, I think rather than focusing on that, I think we need to bring pressure on Caribbean Airlines, bring pressure on the Government and get them to provide the type and quality of services that we need in Trinidad and Tobago. “Why go and try to reinvent the wheel when you already have a wheel? It’s not working properly, but you need to just fix the wheel,” George said in a phone interview.
Only last week, Tobago West MP Shamfa Cudjoe said the average person will not be able to afford travel between the islands if another airline enters. She said another airline would not be heavily subsidised like CAL and a ticket could cost as much as $1,000.