The name “Air Jamaica” is not for sale even though the carrier has merged with Caribbean Airlines. Jamaica’s tourism minister Edmund Bartlett made that quite clear at a farewell function for laid-off staff at the Jamaican consulate last week.
As part of the change-over, Caribbean Airlines assumed full financial responsibility for Air Jamaica and the Jamaican government transferred the airline routes for a 16 per cent ownership.
“The good news is that we are not letting go of the name,” said Bartlett. “We are not selling the name and we’re not passing the name to anyone. Perhaps we will allow the use of it for a period because we still have hope that, one day, that little piece of Jamaica will fly again.
“In saying goodbye to this asset, it is not a permanent position. It was a strategic move that had to be made in the context of our global situation and the reality of our economic position. And as we get better and as we expand more, we are going to have to go back to where we were because an airline for a destination is central to its sustainability.”
Bartlett said the surge in the country’s tourism arrivals in the past few years contributed to Air Jamaica’s downfall.
“There was a time when 60 per cent of all the people who came to Jamaica flew Air Jamaica,” he said. “But then of course at the time we had little under one million arrivals. The unfortunate thing is that as we grew in our arrivals, the percentage of Air Jamaica’s share of those arrivals dwindled. I think, when you look back, that is an important reason for the demise.
“What Air Jamaica has enabled us to do is to truly establish Jamaica as an outstanding destination in the Caribbean and the leading destination in the region. Air Jamaica provided us with that firm footing and a secure connectivity to the destination.”
Prior to the transition, Air Jamaica operated with a 20-member staff in Toronto. Air Jamaica Ltd. has retained area manager Herman Wedemire and engineers Wayne Rose and Joe Hernandez while Caribbean Airlines has offered employment to airport manager Shelly Goulbourne and a customer service representative.
The Jamaican consulate in Toronto organized the farewell event.
“Many workers have been displaced because of the termination,” Consul General George Ramocan said. “These are people with great expertise. However, many airlines have closed and merged, resulting in countless job losses. That is the reality of life. I want you to look back on your experience with Air Jamaica as a positive one and know that you have marketable skills you acquired that you can use as you move forward.”
Air Jamaica suffered substantial financial losses in the past few years. The airline lost US$150 million in 2008 and $75 million last year. The shortfall this year is projected to be nearly $20 million.
“This is a sad occasion because Air Jamaica was born out of our country’s ambition to demonstrate its place as an independent nation,” said Ramocan. “That was kind of very daring of us as such a small nation, but we dared to do it and we did. That airline served us all well as evidenced by the many awards it won and the exceptional quality of service it offered that included an unblemished safety record.
“There are very few airlines that offer a fashion show in-flight. Customers received service in style and with a smile. These are some of the things that one tends to reflect on.”
Ramocan also thanked Jamaican nationals for embracing Air Jamaica and encouraged them to support Caribbean Airlines.
“I am happy that it’s a Caribbean carrier that’s a partner because Air Jamaica remains part of the region,” he said. “We understand the culture of the Caribbean, so it’s a good choice.”
Norma Sale, who joined Air Jamaica in Toronto in 1983 as a ticket agent, said she thoroughly enjoyed the journey.
“What was most gratifying was that I was able to work with a Jamaican company in a foreign country,” she said. “It’s devastating to see the airline go, especially as the Toronto route was very viable. But I understand the nature of the business and I will cherish the fond memories.”
Air Jamaica started flying to Toronto in 1972. Service was discontinued in 1990 because of extremely high fuel prices and inadequate equipment. Air Canada filled the breach, serving the route through a code share agreement with Air Jamaica until service resumed with daily flights in 2004.
During the 13-year absence, Sales and Wedemire were Air Jamaica’s only employees in Toronto. Sales was the sales manager and Wedemire, who joined the airline in Jamaica in 1979 as a flight dispatcher, was the account executive assistant.