Friday, September 22, 2017

Cape Air battered by uncertainty

HYANNIS — The rain and wind from Tropical Storm Jose all but shut down transportation by air and sea on the Cape and Islands this week — but for Cape Air, the bigger transit woes remain centered in the Caribbean.

Just days after taking to the skies again following Hurricane Irma, the airline was shut down by Hurricane Maria and remains grounded in its substantial Caribbean operations until at least Sunday.

“We are really going through some challenging times for our organization,” Cape Air president Linda Markham said during a Thursday gathering of employees.

Company spokeswoman Trish Lorino said the airline’s Caribbean operations, with a hub in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had just resumed Sept. 15 to allow inter-island transport for the first time since Irma knocked out services to much of the region.

“We were coming around and trying to resume a more regularly scheduled operations” when Maria hit, she said.

The damage was more concentrated in Puerto Rico than it was for Irma, she said. Reports from Cape Air staff in the region indicate that the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport was “relatively unscathed,” Lorino said, but the surrounding areas have sustained significant damage.

Markham said she spoke with the company’s regional director in San Juan, who said there was “lots of devastation.”

On Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker met with company founder and CEO Daniel Wolf, a former state senator and 2014 gubernatorial candidate. The governor’s public schedule highlighted that Cape Air has been an employee-owned small business in Massachusetts since 1989.

After their private, 20-minute discussion, Baker was welcomed with applause by nearly 150 Cape Air employees in the company’s hangar, which was filled with its fleet aircraft to ride out the remnants of Jose.

What should have been a celebratory occasion, however, was tinged with anxiety and uncertainty about the status of the company’s employees in the Caribbean, many of whom have not been heard from in the storm’s aftermath.

Before the storm, most of Cape Air’s Caribbean fleet was moved out of harm’s way and flown to Curacao, but the crews and pilots remained. Cape Air offered seats on the planes for its employees to evacuate, but most opted to stay.

Managers in the region have been provided with satellite phones, Lorino said, and Cape Air shipped 20 generators and 50 boxes of clothing and supplies ahead of the storm to help its staff members get back on their feet. Employees are also able to donate to a fund via payroll deductions to help Cape Air employees in times of need.

“All of our hearts are with them,” Wolf said.

Cape Air serves eight cities in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands. Lorino said during the peak season, Cape Air has about 100 flights a day in the region; during this typically slower period, that is down to around 65 a day.

“Even though we’re headquartered here, this is a huge operation for us in the Caribbean,” she said.

A companywide conference call is planned for Friday to assess operations in the Caribbean. Wolf said he plans to visit in the next few weeks, but not sooner because he does not “want to show up and be part of the problem.”

“Their safety and security is our priority,” Markham said of their Caribbean employees. 

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