Thursday 11th August, 2005

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Tobago delays will not do

The airbridge between Trinidad and Tobago provides a vital air transport link between the two-island nation state and, in some cases, there is little choice but to use an aircraft to travel between the two islands.

Tourism might not be classed as essential to the economy of Trinidad but it is one of the main employers and revenue earners in the Tobago economy.

There are thousands of people living in Trinidad who wish to spend a few days in the sister isle and there are foreigners whose flight connections mean that they land in Trinidad and then use the airbridge to get to Tobago.

Those who wish to support the Tobago tourism product should not be punished for it by spending two or three hours waiting in an airport.

The frustration that results from such a long waiting period is detrimental to Tobago’s tourism and therefore the island’s economy.

For much of this year, Tobago Express has been experiencing problems trying to keep all of its fleet in the air. The airline has been operating recently with two of its five aircraft because of repairs and routine maintenance.

The fleet problem has meant that, over the past week, the delays which plagued airbridge passengers earlier in the year have returned, with some of the delays lasting for hours.

Clearly, delays of this number or frequency are not completely acceptable to the travelling public for whatever reason they occur.

The problems are also occurring in the lead-up to the Tobago Jazz Festival, a grand affair which will showcase local and international stars. This is not the time for Tobago Express to be experiencing such severe problems.

GM George Bell has said the airline will not put aircraft into service once there is any possibility of danger. This is commendable as it is crucial that airlines pay great attention to the safety of their passengers. Safety, while being of utmost importance, is not the only factor.

Reliability of service is also key.

The problem is not just one of juggling aircraft. The Government needs to study whether the Tobago Express or airbridge model, as it now exists, makes sense.

Mr Bell and Tobago Express director Allan Clovis have said that Government’s subsidy of the airbridge does more harm than good. Government subsidises $100, or about 33 per cent of the ticket price but three or four months pass before that money is passed on to the airline. As Mr Clovis said, it is difficult to run a company with such severe cash-flow constraints.

That has implications for expenditure on recurrent items like repairs as well as capital expenditure like engine or aircraft replacement.

Government also has to consider whether the cost of a Tobago ticket is realistic. Maybe it is time to look at an increase in the price that would allow the company to operate properly and be adequately capitalised.

A higher price on the airbridge will surely be resisted by some but will probably by brought about by necessity. The public should also consider that now, unlike a few years ago, there are options. A trip on the Lynx is cheaper and can take just two hours. That service has also proven to be quite reliable.

If increasing the airfare to Tobago is deemed to be politically unacceptable, maybe Government should consider providing subsidies to other operators on the airbridge like Caribbean Star and LIAT.

That way, someone from Trinidad who wants to holiday in Tobago will be assured that there are more seats available.




©2004-2005 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

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