Airlines - we’ll need a bailout

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Private Bahamian airlines will require financial assistance "to get back in the game" once the COVID-19 crisis has passed, an industry operator warned yesterday.

Anthony K Hamilton, president of the Bahamas Association of Air Transport Operators, told Tribune Business that most operators will shutdown as of midday today until March 31 after the Government's emergency powers yesterday expanded to include the domestic aviation sector.

Disclosing that temporary lay-offs had already begun, Mr Hamilton said the industry's attention was also focused on ensuring any remaining international visitors - especially those on the Family Islands - were located and brought to Nassau so they could return to the US and other nations while they still have the opportunity.

Describing the coronavirus fall-out as "unprecedented", he added that the Bahamian aviation industry was still pushing for a proper assessment of its economic worth so that policymakers can better understand its "overall contribution to the economic well-being of the country" and thus be open to providing it with financial assistance.

While the Prime Minister's Monday night address, and latest COVID-19 emergency order, did not specifically refer to domestic aviation, Mr Hamilton told this newspaper that "some adjustments" have been made to its flight schedule.

"Tomorrow, as of midday, there are some operators closing down until March 31," he revealed. "This is unprecedented. I haven't seen anything like this. This is unprecedented, not only for our sector but several other sectors."

And the Association chief warned that some Bahamian carriers will "struggle" to restart operations once the pandemic is over, and may need financial help from the Government or other parties to revive.

"I was just having a conversation," Mr Hamilton told Tribune Business. "To be specific about that, there's been a cry from some operators that they're going to need financial assistance to get back in the game.

"The likelihood is that the Government will be expected to chime into that to some degree. Furloughs have begun, and to maintain operations some consideration will be necessary."

Mr Hamilton said his carrier, Southern Air, will make two flights this morning and then close until March 31, which is when the Government's first COVID-19 emergency Order is set to expire. However, Carl Bethel QC, the attorney general, yesterday said the Government's medical officials were recommending this be extended for a further 30 days, although a 14-day period is also an option.

The Association chief, though, said the sector's efforts were also focused on locating The Bahamas' few remaining international guests - chiefly those staying in Family Island boutique hotels and vacation rental accommodation - and ensuring they returned home before the US and other nations completely closed their borders.

"The emphasis right now is simply meeting then obligation to assist those international guests to get out of the country," Mr Hamilton said. "We've been making phone calls trying to rally them as they are on vacation and haven't heeded the call of their president [Donald Trump] to return home.

"We're still scrambling trying to get them out of the country, particularly in the Family Islands, and get them to Nassau and move them on from there." Prior to the Government's latest emergency measures, Mr Hamilton revealed that the domestic aviation industry had faced "rapid fire" cancellations - especially from international travellers - the likes of which it had never seen before.

"Successive adjustments have been made as a means of keeping on top of this," he added. "Operational adjustments specifically. It's a matter of weathering right now. With the rate of cancellations we're feeling the impact."

Mr Hamilton had warned that some routes to the less populated Family Islands were in danger of being suspended before the Government announced its further shut down, adding: "That's a real possibility. We're hoping the impact will not be as severe, but traffic drives demand."

Suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic had again highlighted the domestic aviation sector's worth, Mr Hamilton added: "We've been advocating for a valuation exercise to be done to determine the contribution the sector makes to GDP and the contribution it makes to tourism.

"We've posed the question and not got a substantial answer. We thought the data would be there with the Central Bank but we came up short. That exercise would help to inform the policymakers as to the contribution aviation makes to the country, and it has the potential to make an even greater contribution.

"Having appreciation for the sector would help policymakers so that we can get better yields from the domestic sector. We recognise how critical the aviation sector is to the overall well-being of the country."