By Ian McMurtry
Replacing Air Jamaica: The Island’s Overhaul of Service
Formed in 1968, the government-backed Air Jamaica was the Caribbean island’s attempt at creating a flag carrier that would expand the island nation’s presence in the global aviation scene and allow for growth of the island nation for leisure travelers and Jamaican business travelers. Under government ownership, Air Jamaica would expand in various avenues over the years to achieve growth, at one point offering both Air Jamaica Express service between cities on the island and even pursuing Airbus A340s to launch London service, both the underwhelming statistics. However, Air Jamaica the route maps the airline had built were American-focused, with Airbus A320s, A321s and alone A319 making the north to south run consistently over the years.
Air Jamaica had built a route map by 2008 that balanced its Kingston and Montego Bay hubs, with fights from the capital servicing Miami, New York-JFK, Toronto-Pearson, Nassau, Curacao, Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, and Havana while Montego Bay would serve the same cities as well as Atlanta, Los Angeles, Baltimore/Washington, Philadelphia and Chicago O’Hare. While the airline had built an extensive route map, it was heavily indebted and the government was ready to cleanse itself of the cost burden that Air Jamaica had become, especially as other airlines had stepped up in Jamaica.
Fueled by Air Jamaica and the plethora of American carriers interested in the Caribbean, the 1990s and 2000s had seemed to achieve passenger numbers and growth for the island, with 2.9 million passengers between Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport and Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport in 1992 ballooning to 5.1 million passengers in 2008. Montego Bay had become the cornerstone to success for the island, with the airport quickly doubling Kingston’s traffic numbers over that period. These two airports would serve as the primary commercial airports, with occasional service to Ocho Rios’s Ian Fleming International Airport coming and going but the airport focuses on private traffic.
By 2011, Air Jamaica had retracted its route map as the fleet of Airbus A320s had trickled down to just four A320s, a single A321 and a single A319. The route map had had now existed of Montego Bay service to Ft. Lauderdale, Nassau, Philadelphia and New York-JFK while Kingston recorded flights to New York-JFK, Toronto-Pearson, and Nassau. The airline had also considered leasing a Boeing 777 to restore London service, but these plans were ultimately dropped.
These cuts were coming at the cost of Kingston, whose passenger count dropped from 1.7 million passengers to 1.4 million in 2011, however, the American and European obsession with Montego Bay meant that passenger numbers nearly offset Air Jamaica cuts, with 4.99 million passengers becoming 4.83 million in the same timeframe.
The integration into Caribbean Airlines would occur in 2011 and fleet simplicity would occur as Air Jamaica shed its all-Airbus fleet to focus on Boeing 737-800s in a new livery. The Caribbean would downsize Air Jamaica’s role at Kingston, removing overcapacity and cost-cutting as the fleet was overhauled. As a result, Norman Manley Airport would record a -0.8% passenger growth for 2011-2012 yet the Caribbean would maintain its role as the largest carrier for the airport at 49% of total traffic. Caribbean Airlines would attempt to make Air Jamaica more Florida-focused, with Kingston-Miami and Kingston-Miami but the second route would not make it past its first year of operations.
Over the next five years, Caribbean would continue to strip away services to Kingston and Montego Bay as the airline was restructuring its own difficult financial situation. Faced with government harassment with flying Trinidad and Tobago’s flag and registration on an Air Jamaica livery plane and the collapse of Air Jamaica’s fleet to just three Boeing 737-800s, Caribbean made the decision in 2015 to retire the Jamaican brand and move forward with a single Caribbean name. By this time Caribbean and Air Jamaica failed to break into the top 5 largest carriers at Montego Bay and were being rivaled by JetBlue for the largest airline at Kingston.
Despite Caribbean’s divestment from Jamaica, other airlines were there to offset capacity reductions. Passenger traffic at Kingston would bottom out in 2013/14 for the capital at 1.37 million passengers, climbing back to 1.58 million by 2016/17. Meanwhile, Montego Bay would climb from 3.34 million in 2011/12 to 3.86 million by 2015/16.
The notable increase in Montego Bay was fueled by external airlines and increased capacity from foreign operators on existing routes. The airport authority noted that new market growth prevented any slowdowns like the arrival and expansion of Southwest, increased service from American, JetBlue and the growth of European destinations. During this time the northern shore airport would welcome Eurowings and Thomas Cook Scandinavia. The other notable event of early 2013 was the arrival of Fly Jamaica Airways, which would operate a Boeing 757 from Kingston to Toronto-Pearson and New York-JFK and by 2015 would take up 5% of the Kingston passenger traffic.
However, the years following the dissolving of Air Jamaica would see continued growth at Jamaican airports. By 2018, passenger traffic at Montego Bay had ballooned to 4.5 million passengers per year while Kingston has recorded a smaller increase to 1.6 million.
Seeing the increasing returns of the public-private partnership being operated in Montego Bay and the underwhelming growth of Kingston, the Cabinet of Jamaica created a committee in 2016 to begin looking into a similar structure for the nation’s capital.
Taking about the reason for this change, Chairman of the Enterprise Team of NMIA’s privatization Paul Scott noted, “Governments worldwide, including in Jamaica, have turned to Public-Private Partnerships to design, finance, build and operate infrastructure projects. Our most recent successfully completed PPP concession was the Kingston Container Terminal transaction. PPPs are an excellent vehicle for unlocking the value of assets, reducing debt and mobilizing local and foreign direct investment in the economy and we look forward to the improvements to come at the NMIA.
Mexico’s Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico SAB, who also had a majority stake in Montego Bay and had overseen its transformation since 2003, won the bid in 2018 and would take over the Norman Manley International Airport in October 2019, placing it under the operator’s name PAC Kingston Airport Limited. Since the creation of the abbreviated PACKAL group, the first large investment project has been undertaken. What was originally planned to be a $100 million investment for Kingston has transformed into a $200 million project for the two primary airports and Ocho Rios. The initial plan was stalled out due to COVID-19, but the next project has been given the green light which includes projects slated to take place between 2022 and 2025 including runway extension projects.
On the airline side, the pandemic has reshuffled the airline listing for Kingston. Although Caribbean Airlines has not removed any routes in the recent past from either Kingston, service disruptions and government blockages have prevented the airline at 2019-levels. By 2021, Caribbean was the 6th largest airline at Kingston by aircraft movements and passengers. Kingston noted that 94% of its traffic originated or terminated in the United States, which would fuel the American airlines of American, JetBlue, Delta, Southwest and United taking the top five slots in the airport for passenger count and aircraft movement.
Caribbean’s route map at Kingston currently serves Antigua, Barbados, Ft. Lauderdale, Grand Cayman, Miami, Nassau, New York-JFK, Port of Spain, St. Maarten, Toronto-Pearson and seasonal flights to Orlando. Montego Bay has been stripped back to just New York-JFK and Ft. Lauderdale. Fly Jamaica, on the other hand, collapsed in March 2019 as a crash of their lone Boeing 757 four months prior left the airline with to scramble to find a Boeing 767 that in the end was not offsetting its cost to operate.
Now looking forward, with Caribbean Airlines finding its happy medium for the island of Jamaica, the airports of the island now brace for continued improvements in air service from American airlines as post-pandemic commercial service in the island recovers. Most notably, American is adding Ocho Rios back to the commercial world, launching November flights to Miami on Embraer E175s. American is also flying the E175 to Montego Bay, where it will connect Austin, Texas for the first time.
Ultra-low-cost carriers are also getting in on the action, with Spirit and Frontier adding Philadelphia and Miami, respectively, this May. As a result of change and investments from other airlines, Air Jamaica’s former destinations remain mostly connected to the island, with the lone exceptions being Curacao and Los Angeles. Talk of another Jamaican flagged carrier is in the works as well, with Fly Oriole considering an ultra-low-cost model that could begin in the coming years starting with inter-island operations and expanding outside the island within months of their initial start.