As I approach my 52nd year involved in the tourism industry, I have been privileged to work either directly or indirectly with two persons who I consider pioneers of the airline sector in modern times. The first, Max Ward of the Canadian carrier Wardair Canada Limited (later Wardair International), where part of my job was to help build new routes with innovative marketing ideas, and second, the late Sir Freddy Laker of Laker Airways and Skytrain who operated one of their B707 aircraft in International Caribbean Airways colours, with the Barbadian flag on the fuselage, initially from Luxembourg and then Gatwick to Barbados up to twice a week. We used to joke about it at the time as being the only airline to fly east to travel west.
At that time Luxembourg was infamous for its low oil, aviation spirit, diesel and petrol prices.
Years later in our British tour operator days we used to divert several of our luxury Kassbohrer Setra coaches via Luxembourg to fill up at the renowned Gasoline (Martelange) Alley on the border with Belgium, saving thousands of Dollars each year in fuel costs.
Whether or not the attraction was cheaper fuel or securing in those days, the monopolistic and virtually impossible traffic rights for fledgling airlines, I probably will never know, but the first large group (72 persons) I personally escorted to Barbados in the nineteen seventies was with Caribbean Airways via Luxembourg.
The other modern day airline hero for me is Sir Richard Branson and while I have never met the Knight of the realm, it seems the only thing we seem to have in common is the same year of birth, albeit the Virgin boss is four months my junior.
Like ours, Sir Richard’s fascination with the Caribbean started decades ago and a common misconception is that the name Virgin came from the British Virgin Islands. In fact, its origin came from one of his earlier music enterprises, when an employee suggested the name, because they were ‘new at business’ or as Sir Richard stated years later ‘I was a bit inexperienced at the time’.
Few other entrepreneurs have contributed so much to growing tourism within our region with the indisputable benefits they have brought us all. So it was with great sadness that I read of Sir Richard’s sale of a substantial percentage of Virgin Atlantic’s shares resulting in the loss of a controlling interest. Especially as it appears to have been acquired by what, he would deem legacy carriers, Air France and KLM in association with Delta.
He has spent almost a lifetime fighting against all airlines protective policies and in many cases frequent Government or more accurately, taxpayer subsidies.
Perhaps the negative effect of Brexit and subsequent fall in the value of Sterling has played a critical role in this decision and we can only hope that the new majority owners will not intensify their interests in other geographical areas to the detriment of the Caribbean.
Neither of these Continental European based airlines currently fly non-stop services to Barbados and during our protracted in-and-out-love affair with Delta servicing Atlanta and New York routes where both have proven unsustainable without massive marketing support.
It is therefore absolutely critical that everything is done to protect existing Virgin routes into the Caribbean and somehow convince these new majority owners that the aircraft cannot be used more profitably elsewhere.