Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Aerolineas Sosa building upon Grand Cayman-Honduras route

A Central American airline that established commercial passenger service between Honduras and Grand Cayman last summer has reported steady growth during recent months, including a sizeable jump in holiday traffic.

Bob Connor, a representative in the Cayman Islands for Aerolineas Sosa, said Monday the Honduras-based carrier had to bring in extra flights to support additional holiday travellers and their luggage. A pair of Wednesday flights were added – the first on 21 December, 2011, and the latter today (Wednesday, 4 January, 2012) – to complement the regularly scheduled flights offered by the airline on Fridays and Sundays since August.

Mr. Connor said Aerolineas Sosa, which offers twice-weekly roundtrip passenger service between its hub at Goloson International Airport in La Ceiba, Honduras and Owen Roberts International Airport in Grand Cayman, also had to fly in a cargo plane to help with excess holiday luggage. Aerolineas Sosa operates the route with a 50-seat Bombardier regional jet.

Though the addition of the Wednesday flights was a temporary response to increased holiday traffic and not scheduled for routine service, Mr. Connor said demand for the regular Friday and Sunday flights has grown steadily since August. He said further growth may lead to additional routine service, as is becoming the overwhelming trend for carriers throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

On 19 August, Aerolineas Sosa flew its inaugural flight between La Ceiba and Grand Cayman with fewer than 10 passengers.

“I would say it took a few months to build up to what it is now,” Mr. Connor said. “(Typical flights) now go out with about 30 passengers, maybe more.

“Holiday traffic was very busy with all of the flights fully booked (50 passengers) up through the holidays,” he said. “Flights are full coming back from Honduras until 13 January.”

On Fridays and Sundays, the plane regularly departs La Ceiba at 11am, Cayman time. Return flights are scheduled to leave Grand Cayman at 1pm. The flight takes about one hour. Single passenger roundtrip airfare is US$249.

“I would say the public has responded quite well,” Mr. Connor said. “We received several compliments from people about the low airfares allowing them to travel for the first time in years. (Airline ownership) is very pleased with the way things are going. Right now they have said they plan to stay with the Friday and Sunday flights. It just depends on demand to say whether they will pick up additional flights.”

Prior to August, only Cayman Airways had flown regularly scheduled commercial passenger flights between Honduras and Grand Cayman, offering the large Honduran national population and their relatives in Cayman direct air travel. In 2009, the national flag carrier of the Cayman Islands established service between La Ceiba and Grand Cayman after a string of other airlines failed to maintain reliable service along the route. Cayman Airways offers flights between the destinations on Mondays and Fridays.

In recent years, led by significant growth in Brazil and Panama, the Latin American and Caribbean air transport market has been a bright spot in the aviation world, witnessing the development of a new travelling middle class and vastly improved airline safety records.

Plans to tap the lucrative South American market have long been touted by Cayman government officials and tourism industry leaders, and again was at the heart of a public discussion led last month by government’s acting tourism chief Shomari Scott. Whether that means additional routes by government-owned Cayman Airways or the introduction of other Latin American carriers operating to and from Cayman remains unknown.

But the Latin American market is the only region in the world to generate aggregate profits for three consecutive years, leading airlines to desire a significant footprint in a region featuring robust growth. Strong economic growth, market liberalisation and industry consolidation have helped drive positive results, according to the Centre for Aviation, an aviation industry think tank. Rapid growth is expected to continue throughout the region.

“Economic growth is enabling the rise of a new travelling middle class,” said Airbus’ Rafael Alonso, vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean. “At a time when the global economy is trying to stabilise, Latin America’s GDP is growing faster than the world at an average annual rate of 5 per cent, while the region’s middle class is expected to surge 75 per cent in the next 20 years.”

Airbus and Boeing, the largest aircraft manufacturers in the world, both forecast significant continued growth in airline traffic and airframe demand throughout Latin America in the years to come.

And Cayman isn’t going without experiencing an uptick of its own.

Through October 2011, the most recent period for which figures have been released, air arrivals to the Cayman Islands have increased 14 consecutive months compared with the same time frame the previous year. While the overwhelming majority of passengers continue to arrive from the United States – roughly 80 per cent of all air arrivals – the largest percentage of growth during the past year has been seen in the upsurge in traffic from Canada.

Much of that increase is attributable to the introduction of service by low-cost Canadian carrier WestJet in November 2010, the last airline to bring commercial passenger service to Cayman before Aerolineas Sosa. WestJet flies non-stop three times a week between Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and Grand Cayman.

Overall, the Cayman Islands were on track to welcome more than 300,000 air arrival passengers in 2011. That figure is down from the total during the heyday of 1998 when Cayman welcomed more than 404,000 passengers, but better than the past two years when fewer than 300,000 arrived.

Maintaining the trend of increasing air traffic in the region, including to and from Cayman, will be met with challenges, not the least being continued global economic uncertainty and the necessity for airport facilities upgrades.

Canadian Commercial Corporation, an international firm specialising in primary contracting and procurement services, signed a nonbinding agreement with the Cayman Islands Airports Authority in August to explore the feasibility of potential upgrades at both Owen Roberts International Airport and Gerrard-Smith International Airport in Cayman Brac.

The airports authority has stated it will not discuss the status of findings between it and the Canadian firm before the expiration of the memorandum of understanding between the entities on 1 February, 2012.

“Looking around (Latin America and the Caribbean), it is clear that investment in runways and airport facilities has not kept pace with the region’s impressive traffic growth,” said Tony Tyler, chief executive officer and director general of the International Air Transport Association.

However, “Taking a long-term view of Latin American aviation, one can only be optimistic,” Mr. Tyler said.

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