Making regional air travel easier

A while ago I took a flight from the British Virgin Islands to Trinidad on LIAT, the Eastern Caribbean inter-regional carrier.  What was remarkable — apart from the time involved —was that having gone through one security check at Tortola’s Terrance B Lettsome International Airport and then another random check, some of my fellow travellers and I then found, when transiting Antigua onto to another LIAT flight but not entering the country, we had to undergo additional full security check to be able to proceed to different gate.

Whether this practice has now ended with opening of Antigua’s new terminal building I do not know, but for me it made the point that inter-regional travel, especially where it involves changing flights in a third country, is not only costly as a result of a range of taxes and airport fees, but is likely to test the patience of even the most laid-back visitor.

For this reason, many travellers will welcome the recent intervention by Hugh Riley, the Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), who has urged regional authorities to institute an ‘Open Skies’ policy and wherever possible eliminate secondary screening at Caribbean airports. Mr Riley also called for improved interline arrangements so that visitors transferring between different airlines in the region have a vastly enhanced baggage transfer and passenger experience.

By Open Skies, CTO’s Secretary General meant the abolition of the complex web of regulations that stand in the way of regional air carriers offering unlimited flights to all CARICOM member states; a move that would encourage competition, the development of new routes and one would hope, a reduction in air fares.

But just as importantly, Mr Riley recognised that the mystifying range and variation in security procedures across the region, especially when traversing multiple Caribbean destinations, has come to try the patience of regional travellers and visitors alike.

While to some extent what now happens mixes the requirements of US Homeland Security with domestic requirements, it is clear that the elimination of secondary screening on inter-regional flights would encourage travel and a greater demand for inter-island tourism.

Mr Riley, who was speaking at an airline route development forum, ‘World Routes 2015’, in Durban, South Africa, also made a plea for collaboration in a number of other travel-related security areas, including intelligence sharing making use of the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) that is used internationally, and pre-flight security processing.

“Cooperation in [all] these areas will encourage and facilitate greater investment by airlines into and across the Caribbean region. Better connectivity means greater economic benefits,” he said.

Mr Riley might also have mentioned, as he has on other occasions, the need to standardise embarkation/disembarkation forms and for consideration to be given to a flexible variant on the short lived experiment that established a Caribbean single domestic space and common visa arrangement during the period of Cricket World Cup in 2007.

Then the eight countries involved — Barbados, Jamaica, St Lucia, Trinidad, Guyana, Antigua, Grenada and St Kitts plus Dominica — created a common customs and migratory zone with a common Cricket World Cup visitor visa issued by CARICOM.

At the very least, it is hard to see why the introduction of such an approach within the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and Barbados cannot be agreed, even on a one year trial basis. Not only would it revolutionise inter-island travel and help enable multi-destination tourism, but it could become a test bed for its extension across the whole CARIFORUM region.

Unfortunately what may seem common sense and a measure likely to stimulate growth requires Caribbean Heads of Government and their immigration, home affairs and security ministers and officials to overcome the present self-protective, bureaucratic approach and accept that if tourism is to flourish, decisive action to ease inter-regional travel and unnecessary security and requirements is now required.