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Commentary: COPA Airlines may shake up Guyana's aviation sector
Published on February 15, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Ray Chickrie

In 2011, I penned a letter to the media urging the government of Guyana to enter negotiation with COPA airlines of Panama, a member of the global giant, Star Alliance, to fly to Guyana. This will soon become a reality. COPA will add Guyana to its vast international network on July 11, which may shake up the Guyana aviation sector.

Born in Guyana, Raymond Chickrie was a teacher in the New York City public school system and has also taught in the Middle East
This is a significant achievement for Guyana’s foreign minister, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett who played a pivotal role behind the scenes in getting COPA to enter the Guyana market.

COPA has 90 planes in its fleet, and 46 Boeing 737-NG on order, and has the support of the government of Panama and Tocumen Airport. It is one of the fastest growing and profitable airlines in the world. In addition, with a hub like Panama City connecting Guyanese to 60 cities worldwide, and without having to travel to the United States to connect to Latin America, Europe, and Asia, COPA’s announcement of entering the Guyana market is welcome news for Guyanese travelers since KLM, British Airways, Air France and Pan Am left Guyana.

Tocumen Airport in Panama City has comfortable lounges, many restaurants and superb duty-free shops. Guyanese travelers who are accustomed to Piarco Airport in Trinidad will be impressed. Connections will be fast and convenient because COPA offers 300 flights daily to 60 cities in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and North America. As well, this service will link Guyana to Europe more conveniently. Panama offers a hub outside of the United States that can connect travelers to and from Guyana easily to Asia, Europe and South America without the hassle and difficulty of securing a US transit visa.

This development is most frightening to Caribbean Airlines (CAL), which has dominated the skies of Guyana for the past 50 years. CAL generates a lot of revenue from the Guyana market. The waiting time to connect in Panama City to Toronto, New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Miami will be less. COPA offers 2 suitcases free and free in-flight meals like CAL. But unlike CAL, COPA stands out for excellent customer service and on time departures. COPA may eventually increase its frequency from two to four weekly flights. The load factor is there, but COPA will have to market its product well and offer competitive fares. Finally, I think this will put pressure on CAL to do something better for Guyanese travelers.

Suriname, like Guyana is not connected to a global network of cities by air. Surinamese must travel to Aruba, Brazil, Curacao, and Trinidad to get to Miami, New York, Toronto, and South and Central America. Thus, I foresee Surinamese travelling by land to Guyana’s Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA) to use the service of COPA. Further, once the bridge linking Guyana with Suriname is completed, expect more travelers from Suriname. All this depends on Guyana providing safe transportation and friendly services to travelers who are willing to tap this market.

With only five airlines serving Guyana and none such as Delta or American Airlines, COPA will face little or no competition. Further to its advantage, transiting through one of Latin America’s top hub (Panama City), aviation consultants and analysts, CAPA Center of Aviation, sees Georgetown as a profitable route for COPA.

CAPA referred to Guyana as a “typical small and unknown market” that COPA is interested in. “Georgetown is a typical new destination for COPA as it is a small market off the radar screen of Latin America’s other airline groups but with potential to support a low frequency highly profitable service if connected to the right hub. COPA is often the only viable option for such markets, giving it a huge competitive advantage as Georgetown is a market unlikely to see significant competition and any service from low-cost carriers.”

CAPA predicts that there will be competition on the Guyana North America markets. “COPA will provide new competition in Guyana’s largest markets of New York, Toronto and Miami while also opening up a large range of new one-stop destinations, as all the existing carriers in the market have relatively small international networks. Small markets such as Guyana are key to COPA’s overall strategy of offering hundreds of unique one-stop city pairs that have only a handful of passengers per day but when added together provide sufficient traffic to support a less than daily service.”

I am not convinced that Guyana will soon be a tourist destination or that CJIA will become a transportation hub in the region as the government claims. It’s an ethnic market and most likely will remain that way for some time. Only a handful of “real tourists,” people of non-Guyanese origin, will visit Guyana. Guyana is still obscure in the region. It has little tourist infrastructure. Hotels are few and expensive in Guyana. Also, choices of food and reliable transportation are still hard to find. The interior of the country is not easily accessible and is expensive by air. Above all, tourists are frequently robbed. Guyanese going home knows this too well. Many are often robbed at gunpoint. Crime has to be curtailed and the streets of Georgetown cleaned up. There are hardly any more sidewalks left for pedestrians since an invasion of cars and blocks of concrete are popping up all over Georgetown. Guyana is very far away from being a tourism and transportation hub.

CAPA predicts that Guyana may never have the market to support a daily service by COPA. “While COPA focuses most of its additional capacity each year on thickening routes there will always be exclusive markets like Georgetown which will likely never be able to support a daily service but are profitable and important components to the network.”

The government claims that the modernization and expansion of CJIA and the projected opening of a Marriot hotel in Guyana will transform Guyana into a transportation hub in the region. The Marriott hotel they assert will attract tourists to Guyana. CAPA does not even see this as game changer in the aviation and tourism sectors of Guyana because they haven’t even looked at these factors in their analysis of the Guyana market.

Without a national airline, no tourism industry, no commitment yet from any airline to station aircraft at CJIA, it’s all talk. A solid investment from a foreign partner willing to invest in the aviation sector may increase the prospect of Guyana becoming a transportation hub. Both Guyana and Suriname are in the process of negotiating air agreements with Turkey. Does this mean that Turkish Airlines, one of the top global carriers, may fly to the Guyanas?

The Guyanas may see an economic take off after the recent discovery of a large oil well in French Guiana, and major expansion of the gold and other mineral sectors across the Guyanas. Oil exploration in the Guyanas recently increased and if oil in commercial quantities is discovered Suriname and Guyana’s aviation sector may expand.

CAPA doesn’t foresee the “tourists” that the government of Guyana is predicting to arrive. However, there is no doubt that COPA coming to Guyana is good news for Guyanese travelers, the business community and diplomats.

Guyana is known as a drug hub and frequently traffickers try to get drugs on board planes out of Guyana. This makes news often. Panama City will definitely have to do its job to eliminate drugs leaving Guyana on board its planes to the United States, Canada and Europe in order to avert huge fines that could easily bring an end to the Guyana route. This will leave Guyanese back at the status quo.
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